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A century of support for bicycling Des Moines streets
From a big bike parade in 1923 to a modern culture that just keeps rolling
I knew bicycling culture ran deep in Des Moines, but I didn’t appreciate the local history of overt public support for bicycle traffic on shared roads—at least a century strong.
First, let’s revisit a familiar bicycling timeline from the last half century.
Many of us this summer are fixated on the 50th RAGBRAI—the golden anniversary of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. This ride may be rivalled only by Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” as a work of lasting cultural impact from 1973.
(Breathe, breathe in the air. Don’t be afraid to let your lungs heave and legs strain to pedal up the next steep hill.)
RAGBRAI, the brainstorm of journalists John Karras and Donald Kaul, at once reflected and amplified the 1970s bicycle boom. Americans that decade flocked to the streets and byways astride what for the time were lean and sophisticated 10-speed steel and aluminum machines. Tending to prefer cigarettes to bike helmets, those hardy rebels reestablished a bicycling trend that endures.
Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, RAGBRAI matured into a revered institution. An Iowa homecoming. The world’s oldest, largest, and longest bicycle touring ride. The bizarro Tour de France. It’s the default centerpiece for the vast majority of the world’s bicyclists burdened with more than an ounce of body fat (pass another slice of homemade pie).
I gradually got pulled into the RAGBRAI vortex. It was nearly 30 years ago that I first set foot in the Register newsroom. I covered my first RAGBRAI 20 years ago. And I’ve ridden every RAGBRAI since 2011—remaining a faithful rider after I left the newsroom in 2018.
So today as I meander the 68 miles of paved trails of the Des Moines metro—among 550 glorious miles of central Iowa trails—I never forget that this scene in large part is the legacy of Karras and Kaul and all their disciples. We owe a debt to that RAGBRAI-Woodstock-boomer generation for ensuring communities nationwide stay welcome to two-wheeled, carbon-neutral traffic. (Not that road-sharing today is ideal among all the roaring SUVs and pickup trucks. Please support the advocacy of our friends in the Iowa Bicycle Coalition.)
Appropriately enough, this year’s RAGBRAI—held the last full week of July—generally retraces the original '1973 route from Sioux City to Davenport. It includes a stop at Waterworks Park in Des Moines where a Karras-Kaul statue stands to remind modern citizens of our wiry, influential founders.
But now let’s double this historical bicycling timeline and see if I can make good on burying the lead this deep in the story.
Despite my decades of reporting and writing about bicycling, I never had heard of a “Safety First Day” held June 23, 1923, that featured a big bicycle parade through the streets of Des Moines. I stumbled on accounts of the event this week while browsing old newspapers on a different topic.
To be clear, I knew that bicycling in general began as a 19th-century craze. I’ve bicycled alongside some of those old-fashioned big-wheel bicycles (also called “boneshakers” or “penny-farthings”). I just didn’t appreciate how early a civic centerpiece bicycling had been in Des Moines.
The Des Moines Evening Tribune (Des Moines’ sister publication to the morning Register) sponsored this bicycle parade “to show the youth of today the benefits of cycling.”
“Anybody with any kind of a wheel is welcome,” proclaimed the ads.
Everybody was instructed to meet by 10 a.m. on the east steps of the Capitol. The parade departed at 10:30 sharp, rolling down Walnut Street to 11th, turning to head up Locust Street to end at the Capitol’s west steps.
This was among numerous “bicycle pageants” nationwide that sprang up to promote safe streets as car traffic began to dominate. Des Moines in 1923 had passed a new traffic ordinance—including a “boulevard stop law” requiring drivers to come to a complete stop behind the white lines (and eventually stop signs) installed along the Grand and Forest thorofares.
This apparently was a difficult—if not unpopular—concept of restraint for 1920s motorists. A festive parade complete with prizes, speeches, and other hoopla must have seemed like a good idea to help sell the new traffic ordinance. And who better to inspire annoyed drivers to hit the brakes once in a while than cute kids on decorated bikes?
The city that day was intended to be a cacophony to drive home (no pun intended) the lesson of safe streets: “Every whistle and every automobile horn is to ring in the new year’s safety first day.”
Here we are a century later with not only 50 years of RAGBRAI and a growing trail network but also National Bike Month in May, a surge in e-bikes, and other endless spokes from the hub of our thriving bicycle culture.
I like to think it’s truer than ever: Anybody with any kind of a wheel is welcome.
Not that new rules or road-sharing ever will be easy thanks to unchanging human nature.
Not long after that 1923 bike parade, the front page of the July 2nd Tribune carried a headline in all caps: “POLICE STATION LITERALLY PACKED WITH VIOLATORS OF NEW TRAFFIC ORDINANCES.”
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Laura Belin: Iowa Politics with Laura Belin, Windsor Heights
Doug Burns: The Iowa Mercury, Carroll
Dave Busiek: Dave Busiek on Media, Des Moines
Stephanie Copley: It Was Never a Dress, Johnston
Art Cullen: Art Cullen’s Notebook, Storm Lake
Suzanna de Baca Dispatches from the Heartland, Huxley
Debra Engle: A Whole New World, Madison County
Julie Gammack: Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck, Des Moines and Okoboji
Joe Geha: Fern and Joe, Ames
Jody Gifford: Benign Inspiration, West Des Moines
Nik Heftman, The Seven Times, Los Angeles and Iowa
Beth Hoffman: In the Dirt, Lovilla
Dana James: New Black Iowa, Des Moines
Pat Kinney: View from Cedar Valley, Waterloo
Fern Kupfer: Fern and Joe, Ames
Robert Leonard: Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture, Bussey
Tar Macias: Hola Iowa, Iowa
Darcy Maulsby: Keepin’ It Rural, Lake City
Kurt Meyer, Showing Up, St. Ansgar
Wini Moranville, Wini’s Food Stories, Des Moines
Kyle Munson, Kyle Munson’s Main Street, Des Moines
Jane Nguyen, The Asian Iowan, West Des Moines
John Naughton: My Life, in Color, Des Moines
Chuck Offenburger: Iowa Boy Chuck Offenburger, Jefferson and Des Moines
Barry Piatt: Piatt on Politics: Behind the Curtains, Washington, D.C.
Dave Price: Dave Price’s Perspective, Urbandale
Macey Spensley, The Midwest Creative, Davenport and Des Moines
Larry Stone, Listening to the Land, Elkader
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Buggy Land, Kalona
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Emerging Voices, Kalona
Cheryl Tevis: Unfinished Business, Boone County
Ed Tibbetts: Along the Mississippi, Davenport
Teresa Zilk: Talking Good, Des Moines
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