One-on-one with John Karras, co-founder of RAGBRAI

Alex Halsted

John Karras is a former feature writer for the Des Moines Register, and along with former columnist Don Kaul, he started a bike ride across Iowa that debuted on the road of the state in 1973. At the time, they did not intend for the ride to be more than that one year, but on Sunday, July 22, the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa will hit the road for its 40th year.

Karras, who has missed just four of the years of the event, has not been part of the ride’s planning since 2000 but will be back from his home in Colorado this year.

What do you remember about how RAGBRAI got started 40 years ago?

[Don Kaul] and I were very good friends. We both worked at the Register, and in the late ’60s, we acquired 10-speed bikes, and we started biking. And in 1972 we had done some pretty extensive rides — our big ride was from Des Moines to Iowa City. In ’72, we read about the first cross-state bike ride in Idaho, and there was one in Michigan. We thought what a cool idea it’d be if we could ride across Iowa, and we talked to management, and management agreed to pay our expenses. The managing editor at the time, Ed Hines, said, “Why don’t you guys invite the readers to come along?” I thought, “What a stupid idea,” but we put a little story in the paper.

The first year we rode from Sioux City to Davenport and amazingly something like 250 people showed up in Sioux City, and that was the start in 1973. It just grew from there; we never intended for it to be more than that one ride. Of course [this year] is the 40th.

In that first year you did the ride, what did you learn most about the state?

I started on the Register in 1959, and I drove around back and forth — I had family in Cleveland and we had family in Cape Cod. You drive through Iowa, [and] it’s not particularly impressive — you don’t see any mountains or oceans or beaches. But my god, you get out on a bike, and you can’t believe how pretty it is; it’s just astonishing — it’s like two different worlds.

The bike ride over those years has touched at least every county in Iowa. The terrain, while it is very similar in many ways, it’s also very different in many ways. Until you get out on a bike, you don’t realize how hilly it is, the only truly flat areas are in the northwestern corner of the state. I’ve had people from Colorado complain to me about the hills.

What does it mean to you that the ride has grown to what it is today?

It’s been good for the state. It’s been good for Kaul. It’s been good for me. It’s a very primarily benign event. There’s a lot of beer drinking that goes on, but that’s really over-emphasized, and it’s also very obvious. It’s a primarily happy event — it’s really nice.

Where do you see RAGBRAI going in the future?

I don’t know. I have no idea. Eventually it will end I assume — almost everything does. But it could conceivably continue on. For the first 19 years the director was a guy named Don Benson, and he worked in what was then called the Register’s promotion department; they now call it human services or something like that. He and I spent — oh my goodness — I can’t count the miles we spent back and forth in the state looking for routes and planning routes. After the thing got going, it took four or fives years to figure out what we had and how to organize it. We tried to run bus charters out of the Register’s promotion office, and it was just a disaster. The lesson we took from that was no more are we going to micromanage.

Also, Benson primarily got the communities really involved, and that’s where all of the organization is really done. He’d go back after the committees were set up — and he’d go back every week to one-half of the state and the other half of the state the next week — and talk to all of the committee members, and if they had a problem, he’d try to help them solve them. 

What’s it like to see the small communities in Iowa come together for the ride?

It’s a great community organizing thing. Some of those little towns… Just about everybody in the town gets involved in the planning for that day.

You’ve mentioned that RAGBRAI isn’t a race or a sport. Could you talk about how you envision it?

Well, Benson and I early on… Our object was to get this thing as organized as much as we could to the last detail but at the same time try to preserve the the illusion that it’s all spontaneous. That spirit has been very successfully passed on to all of the directors. I think that’s still part of its appeal. You don’t have motorcycle cops going along yelling and telling people to stay in line. It’s pretty chaotic on the road, but it just seems to work.

It’s unbelievable to have that many people on bicycles. The first year we had this 83-year-old guy who wore a helmet covered in duct tape with long sleeves and long pants, and I think he must have weighed maybe 80 pounds, maybe 100. He was about 5’2″ and had a crummy old bike — a second-hand bike. We figured he wouldn’t even get out of Sioux City, and he did every mile of it all the way across the state.

What are you up to now living in Colorado?

[My wife and I are] both in our 80s, and our outdoor activities have been pretty much curtailed. We came out here, and we took up downhill skiing in our middle-60s and did a lot of skiing. We don’t do as much biking as we did back in Iowa, but we still bike. We are still relatively active and are still enjoying a lot of things.

You’ve got to be excited to get back to Iowa for next week’s ride.

Yeah, it is exciting — it’s a very satisfying experience.