Three of the newest journalists to chronicle RAGBRAI are grizzled veterans of national politics who decided to share a week of vacation and experience Iowa outside of the bubble of campaigns and caucuses.
“No Pie Refused” is the banner beneath which National Public Radio’s Don Gonyea, Scott Horsley and Brian Naylor fork and pedal this week. Their returntoiowa.tumblr.com blog features such observations as a new definition of “Iowa nice”: Half a dozen fellow riders offering to help fix your flat tire.
“It’s a different pace,” Gonyea said of trailing bikes versus bluster. “We’re eating the same food, though.”
Gonyea made another good observation when I rolled up on the NPR trio earlier this week: They keep getting asked if many other journalists are on the ride; so they tend to remind folks that, well, RAGBRAI was started by a pair of journalists.
That brings up a little-known fact: Neither John Karras nor fellow co-founder Donald Kaul can claim the longest reporting streak on RAGBRAI.
That record belongs to another radio veteran, Steve Hexom of Burlington, who has reported on every day of RAGBRAI for nearly 34 years.
Hexom turns 60 this year and has clocked 45,000 miles on his 1981 Peugeot. His close-cropped hair verges on a classic flattop. He’s a Decorah native and Luther College alumnus who has been a fixture on the dial in Burlington for 37 years.
“Everything changes and I just keep pedaling along,” he quipped.
He has three daughters (ages 20 to 31) and two grandsons.
So I stood in a driveway in Kimballton at 7:20 a.m. Monday with Hexom as the Spandex streamed downhill. His voice automatically deepened into the resonant tones of a radio jock as he counted down for Savannah in the studio back in Burlington: “Three, two, one — Steve Hexom on the road …”
Hexom’s RAGBRAI adventures are heard on KBUR-AM 1490 and five other stations in the tri-state region around Burlington.
He aims to capture “impressions, moods, a little bit of history.”
To report on RAGBRAI is to miss the ride’s lackadaisical charm, we agreed. But in return you gain a heightened attentiveness to every gloriously goofy detail.
Hexom has ridden RAGBRAI since the days he schlepped two tape decks down the road and knocked on farmhouse doors so that he could transmit reports by attaching acoustic couplers to a rotary phone. (Or he would stand in line for the pay phone in a pass-through town.)
These days Hexom is meticulous about carrying a pair of cellphones on his bike to file five daily reports from the route.
Each phone is carefully wrapped in a sport sock and then sealed inside a plastic bag. (Shivering your way drenched through 1981’s infamous “Soggy Monday” will do that to you.)
He got hooked on RAGBRAI when the ride ended in Burlington in 1979 and he was an entertainment committee member and emcee.
“I camped the first 11 years every night,” he said. “I haven’t camped since.”
I call that wisdom. I gaze upon my fellow riders straining uphill on fixed-gear bikes with more understanding than those for whom round-the-clock punishment — hot pavement by day, sweltering tents by night — seems like a fun week.
Did I mention that Hexom rides as part of Team Stupid? That was founded in 1982 when he and his buddies thought they would get a head start on a 100-mile day by hitting the road in the middle of the night rather than going to bed. They set out with flashlights taped to their handlebars, lost their way on the moonless night and ended up meandering some 130 miles.
Hexom’s favorite RAGBRAI interview was in 1989 when NFL star Ben Davidson of the Oakland Raiders pedaled among the throng. Hexom walked into a small-town bar with the 6-foot, 8-inch tall defensive end and the room spontaneously erupted in the Miller Lite TV ad chant: “Tastes great! Less filling!”
Hexom reckons that the late Davidson captured the spirit of RAGBRAI with one of his favorite quotes, paraphrased here: We are all brothers and sisters riding across Iowa. It doesn’t matter if you’re a captain of industry, a doctor, a lawyer or an ex-con who’s homeless and unemployed. We are all equal under our bike shorts.
Even Hexom notched a first this year: He bicycled to the Missouri River in Council Bluffs to dip his tire, a starting ritual he never had experienced.
RAGBRAI at its best, sailing downhill on a bike, “feels exactly the same as it did when I was 27 years old,” Hexom said. “That, my friend, is the lure that brings all these old people back.”
But the secret to reporting every day of RAGBRAI for nearly 34 years, according to Hexom, is rather less poetic: “Being damn lucky.”
On or off RAGBRAI, luck is a fabulous asset in reporting.
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