When people mention the “Donner Party”, for most, it conjures images of the first pilgrimage across North America with wagon trains and horses. Now imagine RAGBRAI, a weeklong bike ride across the state of Iowa. Bike riders of all ages and skill levels come together to pedal the country roads over hills, through cornfields, in the hot sun in late July, with no shade and riding in rain if necessary. Five members of the Donner Party, who live in Chattanooga, will be embarking on their next RAGBRAI adventure. RAGBRAI is done by cycling and tent camping along the route.
This year’s ride will be 428 miles with 12,576 feet of climbing, the 4th shortest ride in history. Today there are more than 15,000 people registered for RAGBRAI.
Joe Nivert, aka “Jittery Joe”, 72, is a retired engineer, who worked for Firestone and traveled the world, took up bike riding when he lived in Connecticut.
“I consider myself a RAGBRAI junkie. I’ve done this 13 times, my first in 2001,” said Nivert.
He has ridden 6,826 miles in Iowa and completed 15 century rides (100 miles each). He plans to do four more years of RAGBRAI, “through my 75th year, God willing. That will be RAGBRAI 50.”
Bob Haag, aka “RAGBRAI Bob”, will be riding his 29th RAGBRAI this year. He began riding in 1988 when he was an accountant in his mid 40’s, for exercise. After riding for three years he lost more than forty pounds and was taken off blood pressure medicine, which he had been on for 30 years.
“I began riding seriously with my neighbor, Dr. Don Shields, (now 81), a veterinarian. Don was my inspiration for getting into longer and faster rides. I often tell Don that he may not have saved my life but he certainly added many years to my life.”
Dr. Don introduced Bob to Rich Bradley (now 78) and the three of them have been riding together since 1990. Bob rode his first RAGBRAI in 1990, (RAGBRAI #18). Haag relocated to Chattanooga in 2004, but is reunited with his friends every year at their annual cycling adventure.
Robert Powderly, 71, retired accountant, has finished four RAGBRAIs, his 1st in 1993, and the other three rides the last three years.
“My favorite part of the ride is the party atmosphere and the men and women I meet along the way and ride with. We see each other every year here,” said Powderly. “I wouldn’t do it without my Donner Party group. The Air Force always has a contingency there and their sole purpose is to stop and offer aid to riders along the way, if they need a tire fixed or have a broken chain.”
Jon Bell, 53, Chattanooga, first ride was in 2010, thanks to Joe. He was supposed to go in 2009, but he broke his right leg one month prior. And this year, 2018, Jon broke his left leg three months out and had to have surgery. He’s hoping to attend and complete his 8th year on RAGBRAI, dipping his tire in the Mississippi River at the end, as is tradition.
“I was introduced to RAGBRAI by Joe, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here. I started riding after my stroke about 12 years ago,” said Bell.
“There are so many different people; some are hyper competitive, some in shorts working away on huffy bike or others riding on tandems.”
This will be Loretta Lynn Leda’s 3rd RAGBRAI. “The people along the way are awesome. All the towns come out to celebrate, you feel like a cyclist on the Tour de France when riding through. It’s fun to meet people from all over the country and from other countries, as well as hear their stories. There are many teams who ride together and have fun,” says Leda.
“It’s also very challenging due to the terrain, you wouldn’t think Iowa is hilly but it is. It’s inspiring seeing kids ride and parents and people riding in honor or in memory of someone with either cancer or Alzheimer’s. This year I will be riding in memory of my mom who passed away to cancer 12 years ago and I remember riding with her when I was a kid.”
NIvert, Bell and Leda ride RAGBRAI on recumbent bikes, which can be more challenging going up hills. You can find all types of bikes while on RAGBRAI, from unicycles to stand ups.
RAGBRAI started in 1973 when the Des Moines Register feature writer/copy editor John Karris, an avid cyclist and Don Kaul, author of the Des Moines Register’s “Over the Coffee” column, suggested to Kaul that he ride his bicycle across the state of Iowa and write columns about it. An estimated 300 people showed up for the start of the ride in Sioux City. 114 riders made the entire distance the first year. It’s the largest and oldest state bike ride in the country.
Along came the Donner party, 16 years ago. Founder, Steve Urie, having a house on Donner Lake, CA, came up with our team (party) name and the design for our team apparel. The Donner Party is very popular on RAGBRAI, everyone recognizes them and wants an orange jersey. These are earned. Coveted almost.
Donner Party members come back year after year to participate in RAGBRAI because of their special bond, the friendships continue throughout the year, the food and of course, the rolling party. There are more than 30 Donner Party members countrywide.
“Every cyclist should experience RAGBRAI at least once in their life…it’s like no other ride…it’s the best,” says Nivert.
Riders get up before the sun, pack up their gear, put it on a truck and pedal out to find breakfast and conquer the quest.