By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, July 24, 2023 – There were a lot of younger people scrambling around the courthouse square here on Monday – lining up outdoor toilets, erecting traffic barriers, putting up large canvass shade canopies, hoisting huge promotional signs, helping local groups start setting up their food stands, and more.
RAGBRAI L – that’s the 50th edition of the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa – is coming through town Tuesday morning, and more than 30,000 cycling visitors are expected.
Matt Wetrich, executive director of Jefferson Matters, says we’re ready to welcome RAGBRAI on Tuesday, July 25.
As I watched the preparations happening in the building heat, it suddenly occurred to me that my role in the long history of RAGBRAI has evolved in a wonderful new way.
Let’s see, I was co-host of the ride for 16 years when I was writing the “Iowa Boy” column for the Des Moines Register. I’ve ridden full or partial RAGBRAIs in more than 30 years. I was a co-chair of RAGBRAI organizational committees while living in Storm Lake as well as in Jefferson. I served on the RAGBRAI advisory committee the last time it was here in Jefferson.
But this will be the first time RAGBRAI has come through a town where I am living when I haven’t been asked to do a damned thing!
“I’m glad to hear you realize that,” said my pal Matt Wetrich, executive director of Jefferson Matters, which is our Chamber of Commerce and Main Street program rolled into one organization, when I saw him on the square late this afternoon. “I purposely didn’t ask you to do a damned thing! Every time your name came up, I’d think, ‘No, I’m not calling him’ You just get to enjoy this one.”
All I have to do Tuesday is wake up at our apartment, a block and a half off the RAGBRAI route, put on my riding togs, and pedal up to the square for some breakfast. My wife Mary Riche’s cousin Ellen Roberts, a RAGBRAI veteran from Kansas City, is going to ride with me. Mary is going to be our support driver. The three of us will cheer on cyclists as they’re visiting here, then Ellen and I will get on our bikes and ride about 40 miles to the next overnight stop in Ames.
Mary will pick us up there, bringing us back to Jefferson for another good night’s sleep at our apartment, then – if all goes well – take Ellen and me back to Ames Wednesday morning. We’ll spend the day riding 50 meandering miles to Des Moines.
Ellen and I plan to eat with Mr. Pork Chop and with all the other traditional vendors along RAGBRAI’s way – plus try some new ones. If I haven’t eaten six pieces of pie by the end of Wednesday, I’ll be ashamed of myself.
We plan to be in the big crowd when the good ol’ rock band “Lynyrd Skynyrd” entertains RAGBRAI Wednesday night at the Lauridsen Amphitheater at Water Works Park.
Thursday morning, the three of us will wave at the cyclists as they pedal out of Des Moines – and we’ll go to breakfast and figure out when we’re going to take naps.
No column deadlines for me to meet. No speech to give. No time schedule for being here or there at appointed times.
This is how RAGBRAI is really supposed to be, isn’t it.
The truth is this grand event, over its 50 years, has been one of the best things that happens every year in Iowa. It almost always draws participants from all 50 states and a dozen or more other nations. They spend millions of dollars here in a week’s time.
RAGBRAI has inspired the start-up of more than a dozen bicycle shops around the state. It is one of the reasons we have one of the nation’s best networks of paved recreational trails.
It has improved public health. It has saved many lives – including my own, in an indirect way. RAGBRAI and bicycling are why I’ve stayed in decent physical condition the second half of my life. It was because I seemed to have a reasonably good life expectancy that I qualified for a stem cells transplant in 2010 when I was 63 years old and cancer came after me. That was 13 years ago.
All of the above is why I’ve always been willing to do whatever has been asked of me to help RAGBRAI.
But it really is nice to have reached a stage of life and cycling that now, when RAGBRAI comes by, I’m not being asked to do anything but ride my bike!
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