THE ROYAL FAMILY OF RAGBRAI
By BRANDON HURLEY
Chuck Offenburger lacked the most vital piece off equipment when he was tasked with covering the state’s most popular spectacle 35 years ago – a bike.
The former Des Moines Register columnist, who eventually became one of the most notable riders and supporter, was the least prepared RAGBRAI-er during his first go-around.
Ten years had passed before Offenburger, who now lives seven miles south of Jefferson in the small town of Cooper, first got involved with the annual week-long tour of Iowa. But quickly, later flanked by his wife Carla, became one of the most instrumental figures in the ride’s history.
The former “Iowa Boy” columnist and his wife together have participated in more than 40 rides, each maintaining their own definitions of the ride. But one thing’s for sure, RAGBRAI will always reamain a significant piece of the sweeping Offenburger puzzle.
“RAGBRAI is a huge part of our lives. We know people all over the United States because of RAGBRAI,” Chuck said. “That’s our story.”
The pair has done anything you can imagine RAGBRAI related – shacking up in makeshift campgrounds, invading the welcoming homes of overnight hosts and even staying in the luxury of hotels throughout the week. These two are your one-stop shop for RAGBRAI knowledge.
It was a rocky start for Chuck. He needed a bike before his company stepped in, the Des Moines Register, and purchased him a bike of his own. After that, it was up to him to train for the 400-plus mile ride. The only issue was, he didn’t have much time back in ’83.
“Within two weeks, I got sort of ready,” Chuck remembers. “Basically, all I learned was how to shift gears and somehow I made it through that first one. After that, I got really enthusiastic. I had a ball on it.”
Chuck, who by then was a state-wide phenom known for his introspective columns on anything and everything Iowa, was enlisted to join RAGBRAI co-founder John Karras for the Register’s summer coverage. It was a natural fit for him, as Offenburger made a living touring the counties of Iowa looking for the diamond-in-the-rough story. His infatuation with biking quickly grew from that first year as he co-hosted with Karras for the next 16 years.
“I started riding more and more and the better shape I got in, it became really enjoyable,” Chuck said.
Carla, the director of community relations for the Greene County Medical Center in Jefferson, first took off on RAGBRAI in 1986.
Her introduction was birthed out of her love for fitness. She and a group of coworkers – the Nooners – ran over their lunch breaks every day. They decided to take it to the next level and try RAGBRAI, as they say, the rest is history.
For the next 12 years, Carla was a week-long mainstay. She’s done bits and pieces of each ride alongside her husband since then, and has loved every moment. She’s seen first hand the impact RAGBRAI has on everyone it comes in contact with.
Volunteerism is the lasting side effect, Carla said. The time and patience to prepare for an overnight stop is well worth it in the end.
“It’s a lot of work, for riders, for communities, but what you get from that is more community,” Carla said. “It builds your confidence as a community that things are possible. People come out of the woodwork to make it happen.”
The residuals sprinkle into the ride as well. With upwards of 20,000 yearly participants, something special is bound to occur. Life-long relationships are often formed, fueling continued creativity. There are very few rules on RAGBRAI.
“That community is also happening on the ride. We’ve always said there are as many different RAGBRAIs going on at the same time as you can believe,” Carla said. “People leave at different times, they train differently. They expect different things.
Some are well trained, some aren’t. Some will do everything there is to do in a community and some will just come in, put their tent up and go to bed.”
Chuck’s experience with RAGBRAI has followed him everywhere.
After his stint covering the Persian Gulf War in 1991, he came to a striking conclusion. A war and RAGBRAI are more closely aligned than one might imagine.
“It occurred to me, that the best training to cover a war was I had covered RAGBRAI a lot,” Chuck said. “They are alike in three ways: they are both very big, they’re both very confusing and everybody wants to talk.
It’s a good place for a reporter to be.”
After Offenburger gave up his role as a co-host in 1998, the Offenburgers remained staples in the RAGBRAI community, twice co-chairing overnight stops, Storm Lake in 2001 and Jefferson in 2008. The duo has a reduced role this time around, serving on the Jefferson advisory board.
“We’ve tried to pay our dues,” Chuck said. “Besides having a lot of fun on it, we’ve seen the good that it brings. It really is the leading tourism event in Iowa in terms of bringing people from other states here.”
The Offenburgers’ yearly summer involvment has lent itself to several other bicycle themed endeavors as well, including a 1995 ride that saw the couple trek across the United States on their bikes in addition to other state rides.
“We’ve become more trail riders over the years as we’ve gotten older, but we still recognize RAGBRAI as the root of it all,” Chuck said.
RAGBRAI is not only a great place to meet people, but it even provides life-long Iowa residents a chance to explore their state in a unique way.
“Just a couple of weeks ago, we pulled up at a corner somewhere (in the country) and I said ‘We’ve been on this corner before, we had pancakes right here,’” Carla said. “You know what towns are flat, you know what ones are hilly. You don’t want to bike in Dubuque unless you want to do some hills. You learn your state very well.”
It’s difficult for any rider, especially a seasoned vet like Carla, to point to any one moment or year as her favorite. There’s just so much going on that it becomes a wondrous blur.
“You cannot pinpoint what the best part of RAGRAI is because it is a collective memory,” Carla said. “It’s a hodgepodge of year after year of experiences.”
For Chuck, a man who’s always been a supporter of small business, even back to his middle school days when he interned for the local Shenandoah paper as a 13-year old, he marvels at the economic impact of RAGRAI. It’s not just riders and towns that thrive, it’s that food truck with the funky colors and strange dishes that grow as well.
“Because I was involved with some of the organization, I get to see some of the businesses grow up,” Chuck said. “Tender Tom’s Turkeys, started by a southeast Iowa man wanting a business his kids could work on for college money. Hell, I bet it’s put 25-30 kids through college.”
Chris Cakes, a world-famous pancake company, grew legs on RAGBRAI as a small outfit out of Pocahontas. They now have locations in Kansas City, St. Louis, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Oregon, Colorado and Washington. Bike World got its start on RAGBRAI as well. Forest Ridgeway was a mechanic on the first RAGBRAI as a high school student.
“To see all of those things happen, it’s been a big thrill,” Chuck said.
There’s something for everyone on RAGBRAI, but take it from the Offenburgers, it’s not a race, take your time and you’ll have a great time on the annual ride.
“If you just listen to your body and go slow and drink a lot of water, you’ll make it,” Chuck said. “You might spend long, long days on those first couple of rides, but boy, the confidence you get after you do that is a real shot in the arm.”
It’s bound to make its way through the throng of people July 23 in Jefferson, how RAGBRAI is a life-changer. Carla is first-hand proof. She’d had enough about a decade ago in Lake City, and turned to Chuck, telling him her time with RAGBRAI was over.
“This is the perfect way to end. It’s hot, it’s humid. I’ve done it since 1986,” Carla recalls. “It doesn’t really change.”
That sudden decision immediately sparked a new hobby.
“I said to her, what are you going to do with all your time?” Chuck recalls. “And she said, ‘look right over there, see that? It’s a quilt shop, I’m going to become a quilter.’”
“And I did,” Carla said.