The Early Lead: Late RAGBRAI co-founder pens lasting legacy
By BRANDON HURLEY
In a coincidental and touching twist to his final chapter, several hundred riders made a silent tribute to one of RAGBRAI’s most instrumental figures.
A mass of bikers congregated in the tiny town of Cooper the morning of Tuesday July 24 in the shadows of the freshly painted weigh station, dismounting their seats for an off-route break from the 46th running of the week-long event, nearly four decades after RAGBRAI co-founder and former Des Moines Register columnist Don Kaul penned an infamous column in the same southern Greene County town.
As the riders steered toward Jefferson Monday and news spread of Kaul’s passing a day prior, the memories came flooding in.
The man who created one of the more famous touring rides in all of the world, was fittingly called to his resting place during the summer week he loved most. The stars seemed to align for Kaul, who had spent the last year battling prostate cancer.
He’s well-known for two things - his passion for biking and his witty, eccentric and mind-bending columns.
As long-time colleague and friend, Chuck Offenburger was knee deep in local Jefferson RAGBRAI activities early this week, he caught wind of Kaul’s death, which didn’t devastate him as much as you’d think, merely for the fact that it came during the 46th edition of his brainchild, bringing thousands together in rolling, week-long funeral.
“This may sound strange, it was really kind of joyous,” he said. “I thought it was so cool that he passed during RAGBRAI. Many (riders) of today never met Kaul, but certainly, the older half of the group have fond, fond memories of him.
So this happens at a time when they are all together. Just a whole lot of storytelling about Donald this week and remembering the fun things he was all about. Some of the crazy stuff he wrote. It was kind of a grand celebration of the guy’s life.
“I think that would have pleased him more than anything.”
Kaul and then Des Moines Register copy editor, John Karras, were good friends in the early 1970s, riding all the metro in their spare time, even making trips to Ames and Iowa City – which was unheard then. RAGBRAI was birthed as a way for the duo to explore Iowa. Never once did they envision it becoming what it is today, a giant week-long festival that draws in more than 20,000 people.
Kaul and Karras merely wanted to have fun while getting a paycheck.
“They often laughed about it later, but they really intended to take a week’s vacation and figure out a way to have the paper pay for it,” Offenburger said. “Unwittingly, they created an event that absolutely captured the imagination of the state. It showcases the best parts of Iowa in a way that no one anticipated. You’re going to expect people to ride their bicycles 400 to 500 miles to show off your state and they are going to do it?
It brought people from all over the United States into small town Iowa. It really showed the hospitality, the spirit and the fun of rural life better than any event that’s happened before or afterward.”
The duo set out in August of 1973 on the very first bike ride across Iowa, which was originally called “The Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride.” They traveled from Sioux City to, fittingly enough, Davenport, this year’s finishing town, joined by 300 riders, of which only 114 made it the entire way. The next year, the ride was dubbed “SAGBRAI” the Second Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa. By year four, the festival had transformed officially into the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), transforming into a well-oiled chain-operated machine with tasty food and drink options along the way, with rural Iowa as the main stage. Though, if you read some of Kaul’s pieces over the following decades, you’d have a hard time differentiating between fun and pain.
“Kaul, in his chirpy way of doing his column, half the time he was bragging about RAGBRAI and how wonderful it was and how great the people of Iowa were, and the other half, he was bitching about it,” Offenburger said. “It was too hot, it was too hard, whatever ever possessed him to do it, how it hurt his knees. It was great reading.”
When the ride rolled through Cooper in 1980 between the overnight towns of Carroll and Perry, the rockstar Kaul, author of the long-running “Over the Coffee” column, made an appearance.
As legend has it, Kaul penned the following day’s column on a porch of a generous Cooper-ite, over-looking the vast cornfields of Iowa, where he’s vaguely quoted as saying:
“Cooper is a town with a population of 50, as they showed RAGBRAI here yesterday, 50 people in a town can be enough, if you’ve got the right 50 - and Cooper does.”
Festivities were joyous and over the top, residents came out and bikers enjoyed the comforts of southern Greene County. There were snacks, music and even a pre-mediated six-on-six basketball game - a sport which Kaul infamously berated in his columns.
“He made fun of six on six, he’d slap it around,” Offenburger said, a former Des Moines Register columnist himself. “He did that when he realized it was popular, he thought, ‘a ha this is a good way to introduce myself to Iowa.’”
Ironically enough, Kaul developed a strong, life-long relationship with E. Wayne Cooley, the legendary Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union director who helped shape six-on-six into the game it was.
Kaul was most-well known for his “Over the Coffee” column, which was syndicated for several decades. Offenburger, a decorated columnist in his own right, creating “Iowa Boy” pieces, nestled up to Kaul in the early 70s when he snagged a spot in the Register’s newsroom.
Kaul worked out of the Washington, D.C. branch, but the two still managed to cross paths, even if that meant mostly by phone.
Offenburger burst onto the RAGBRAI scene in 1983, when Kaul was crippled by knee and back pain, informing his editors he needed to step away for a bit. Offenburger took over as co-host for the next 15 years, developing a strong fondness for the event. Throughout that time, Kaul played an important role as a mentor, showing him the ropes as Offenburger grew his column. He paid keen attention to Kaul’s columns, in awe of his ability to pen four columns a week during his heyday.
“Once you thought you figured him out, he’d go in a different direction,” Offenburger said. “He really did own the state. Bottom line, he was the biggest media guy in Iowa in his time.”
Monday’s festivities in Jefferson, in the shadow of Kaul’s passing became sort an unofficial wake, as friends, colleagues and admirers verbally penned their ode to the greatness of Kaul, as a cyclist and a writer.
“I loved it. It was fun to recall it again,” Offenburger said. “Especially the old stuff.
Offenburger continued, “He had an interesting relationship with the people of Iowa, but he really related well. They loved reading what he wrote. I don’t think there was anybody that commanded the state (like he did). He was the gospel of Iowa.”
And as riders pushed out from the shade of the Cooper shelter Tuesday morning, they, too, honored a legend, whether they knew it or not.