• Joseph Dits
  • Sun August 04 2013
  • Posted Aug 4, 2013

This is for anyone who's eaten pork and pancakes together on a stick, or watched their tent wiggle among hundreds of others in a thunderstorm, or danced on a parking lot in a tiny farming town, or worn a costume while riding a bike across Iowa with thousands of bicyclists.

Or for those who've dreamed of it.

And others who've tagged along for the rolling carnival known as RAGBRAI, the (Des Moines) Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.

It's a new museum exhibit at the State Historical Museum of Iowa in Des Moines about this 40-year-old, weeklong bike tour, which has become one of the events with the biggest economic impacts on the state of Iowa.That's thanks to more than 10,000 riders who partake each year, always held on the last full week of July, when they hungrily buy food and drink from churches, charities, families and businesses.

Numbers swelled this year to more than 24,000 riders and possibly close to 30,000 riders on the days that the route drew near and passed through Des Moines, picking up loads of big-city folks who hopped on for a day or two, according to the Des Moines Register. Roads are shut down to allow the bike traffic.

I returned a week ago from RAGBRAI with a string of adventurous ideas, which I'll share here and in future columns. RAGBRAI follows a new route each year, and this time it cruised through undulating green hills that proved breathtaking, even for riders from the east and west coasts and for someone like me, who's done RAGBRAI many times. Really. But you have to get off of Interstate 80 to see it.

For cyclists, RAGBRAI is a Mecca if you can stand the crowds. For those who keep returning, it's a family reunion. For native Iowans, like State Historical Museum curator Leo Landis, RAGBRAI turns the eyes moist since it expresses love for a state that they hold so dear. It explains why he was so proud to show off the 3,000-square-foot exhibit called "Riding Through History," which opened in July and will stay open for the next two years.

Just a few things you'll see:

  • A bicycle ridden on more than 30 RAGBRAIs by John Karras, who was working as a feature writer and copy editor for the Register when he and columnist Don Kaul casually invited readers to join them on a cross-state journey by bike in 1973. About 300 people showed up for the ride's start, a couple hundred joined in later, and 114 finished the whole thing. It then turned into an annual event.

  • The ladies' Schwinn bike and silver pith helmet that 83-year-old Clarence Pickard rode on that first ride, including a 100-degree day covering 114 miles. Landis told us how Pickard, clad in long sleeves, wandered off the route one day and how Karras tutored him on using his gears (Pickard was switching between only the very highest and lowest of 10 gears).

  • A bike from 1869 believed to be among the first ridden in the state.

  • A T-shirt from a company named KYBO, which has become RAGBRAI slang for the omnipresent porta-potties on the tour. That debunks the oft-told theory for what KYBO stands for, refering to business done in the potty (sorry, not in a family newspaper).

  • Bike jerseys, paraphernalia and photos from "teams," or groups with fun names like Whiners, my group, that band together to do the ride.

The museum is in downtown Des Moines at 600 E. Locust St. Details are at

Big trail system

If you go to Des Moines, do bring your bike. The Des Moines area boasts an extensive system of paved trails that's well worth checking out as they link trail users to the city's extremities. On the RAGBRAI route, we didn't use the trails but passed the gorgeous statehouse and state fairgrounds. For trail maps, go to

I did sample a few miles of a concrete path west of the city that just added on and completed 33 miles this past May, making for a total of 89 miles. Known as the Raccoon River Valley Trail, it includes a 72-mile circular loop that threads itself through several little towns.

Organizers claim it's one of longest paved trails in the United States. I rode it south of the town of Perry, enjoying flatness, occasional tree shade and places to pick and munch on mulberries.

A map and details are at

The Raccoon River trail links to the Des Moines trails via the Clive Greenbelt Trail, extending west of the city through the town of Clive.

Des Moines trail maps are at

And, while RAGBRAI didn't go over it, I heard people rave about the High Trestle Bridge. A half-mile long and 13 stories high over the Des Moines River, it takes the High Trestle Trail through a series of steel arches that mimic a coal mine shaft and that, as a real treat, glow with blue lights at night.

That trail starts in Ankeny, a town just north of Des Moines, and extends north, then forms a T where you have to head west to reach the bridge between the towns of Madrid and Wood-ward. The High Trestle Trail doesn't connect directly with Des Moines trails, but you can link to it via a couple of roads. Details are at

Famous locals

Just south of the town of Perry, a short spur off of the Raccoon River Valley Trail takes you to the Forest Park Museum where curator Pete Malmberg touts memorabilia from Dallas County native sons Warren Allen Smith, a gay rights activist (now 91) who'd also run a recording studio in New York City, and the late restoration architect William J. Wagner, with lots of his drawings and one of his acquisitions: President Gerald Ford's tie. You'll find a dynamo and the arthritis machine, doling out doses of electric shock, that inventor Henry Nelson had developed in the late 1800s; he'd lived in the county. Malmberg says he hopes to get some things from noted decathlon runner Rex Harvey, yet another native of the county, by winter.

The museum is free to the public and open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Central time Monday through Friday. It also opens from 1 to 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and holidays from May 1 to Oct. 1. It's on a 17-acre campus with an arboretum with more than 100 kinds of trees and shrubs and a one-room schoolhouse.

Sidenote: Perry has lots of Hispanic eateries, including one with Salvadoran cuisine.

Crazy Taco Ride

Oh, that's a good segue. If you're ever in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on a Thursday night, you could jump in on the legendary Taco Ride. If you dare. It's a weekly 10-mile ride on the Wabash Trace Nature Trail to Mineola, Iowa, where riders consume tacos and margaritas at Tobey Jack's Mineola Steakhouse and then ride back.

From what I heard, it doesn't seem to be something for families or for the serious-minded cyclist. It's so popular that the trail fills with hoards of riders. A trail bike and a tire repair kit are recommended since you ride on a crushed limestone trail that's a bit chunky. And a headlamp is a must since the return trip is in the dark. The start time is flexible, but it departs from the Wabash Trace trailhead in Council Bluffs, a town that's just across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb. Details are at

Reach Joseph Dits at 574-235-6158, or

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