One-on-one with Jim Howe


Photo: Brian Achenbach/Iowa State Daily

The 2013 RAGBRAI will be Jim Howe’s 35th time participating in the event. He participated in his first RAGBRAI in 1974.

Beau Berkley

Jim Howe, owner of Howe’s Welding and Metal Fabrication, will be riding in his 35th RAGBRAI on Sunday, June 21. From his first ride in 1974 until now, Howe has had the unique opportunity to watch the ride evolve into an event that brings in cyclists from around the country and the world.

When did you start biking?

I’ve never really biked. I just do it seven days a year. I pulled the bike out of the bus the other night and I had a flat tire, so I’ve gotta fix that so I can start training for Sunday. I’m either here at the shop in cover-alls and the only time I’m not is when I’m playing handball, so I’ll be in shorts and a t-shirt for the first time come Sunday morning.

How many people do you have in your camp?

I haven’t heard, but I’ve got some people coming out of Spokane, Wash., but we’re not sure if it’s going to be three or five and we’ve got some people coming out of Colorado and Wisconsin, the Cheese Head Chicks, so somewhere between 28 and 35. I can sit 33 plus the driver, I can fit 48 bikes on the roof and 21 inside.

We used to have it inside always, but then it just got out of control, so we decided we needed to figure out some different racks because we were getting into tandems, quads, recumbents and so that’s when you got to start jamming. Bike racks are good for conventional, 24-inch standard bicycle with 27- inch rims, but when you start getting into weird sizes it just goes out the window.

And do you drive everyone in your bus?

The bus stays here because it’s in Ames and Kenny, the guy from Colorado, we’ve been doing it forever.

What was your first time like?

Our first time across, I just went. The route clipped Ames, it was going to Boone, but I started in Ames.

I kind of forgot to tell my parents, note to one’s self, always tell your parents if you’re going to be gone for a few days. We didn’t have Amber Alerts or anything like that back then, so I had every police officer looking for me. They kind of had an idea of where I might be because there were about 380 people on RAGBRAI at that time. There was free food, the churches were great and the boy scouts, sleeping under trees. But, I was grounded for the next year.

How has it changed from then to now?

If you’re a registered rider, they’ll [RAGBRAI] haul your gear. If you’ve got a 53-foot semi and you’ve got two ramps, and one up and one down, and you put your stuff as far forward and as high as you can and then you leave. So, the first day, we always find out where the sunrise part is because it’s funnier than hell, because you just know the newbies. They’re getting up and thinking ‘Oh, we gotta get out of here! We’re gonna be the last one’s out of here!’ They are jamming their stuff in there and can’t remember if it was in A,B or C semi because there are three.”

People also have cell phones now. There is another thing, there used to be a line three miles long just to use a phone at night. Well, now everyone has a cell phone. We went through Kelly, Iowa, about five years ago and there were people in a line taking pictures of a phone booth. These people had never seen a phone booth before except for in a Superman movie. When is the last time you have seen a phone booth? There is no phone booth in Ames, Iowa. The closest phone booth to Ames is the Kelly phone booth. So, it’s a whole new world. I’ve seen the whole shebang.

What about RAGBRAI has allowed it to evolve into what it is now?

Well, it’s the oldest, largest and longest bicycle ride in the world right now. More than anything, I think it’s the people. Two things about it: Iowa is about the only place you can do it if you look at logistics wise, I mean if you go to Nebraska, I’m not biking across Nebraska. There’s three towns in Nebraska, I’m not doing it. You also meet people from all over the world.

The reason I still go, I’m 51, you’ll be riding along next to a doctor or a lawyer and then you’ll be riding next to a mechanic. I rode next to the armed forces chair out of the Pentagon once. You’ll meet people from all over the world: I’ve met people from Germany, I’ve met people from Japan, I can’t understand a lick of what they’re saying, but they’re there.

I’ve also never seen another RAGBRAI-er hit another RAGBRAI-er, I’ve never seen anybody ditched. I would take a 10 year old on it tomorrow in a heart beat and not worry about it. I’d take a 95 year old with me. You can’t hardly get off the side of the road without four people stopping and asking if you need a hand. It’s just incredible. Where else can you go in the world and have that?