CEDAR RAPIDS — RAGBRAI has changed since the first time Rick Paulos made the weeklong bike ride across Iowa, 40 years ago.
“It was filthy,” said Paulos, 56, of Cedar Rapids. “I wore the same clothes all week without showering.”
Paulos, a University of Iowa medical researcher, was one of several riders honored Thursday for making all 40 trips, as RAGBRAI celebrated its anniversary on the overnight stop in Cedar Rapids.
In 1973, when Des Moines Register feature writer/copy editor John Karras, an avid bicyclist, and columnist Don Kaul hatched the idea, about 300 people showed up for the start of the ride in Sioux City. Just 114 riders made the entire distance that first year.
This year, the ride brought at least 15,000 cyclists on an overnight stop to the city, Jennifer Pickar, one of the organizers of the Cedar Rapids event, estimated.
Pickar said the stop was running smoothly, as riders camped overnight at three sites or stayed with family and friends or in hotels.
She expected thousands of riders and others to attend Thursday night’s Counting Crows concert.
As of Thursday evening, 83 patients had sought help at first aid tents in Cedar Rapids, with two riders taken to hospitals with dehydration symptoms.
During his 40 years on RAGBRAI, Paulos said he missed a few days due to injuries, including one year when he hit a pothole and sprained his neck, but overall, the rides have kept him healthy.
“If I weren’t going on RAGBRAI, I’d probably be dead,” said Paulos, who even rode six weeks after suffering a heart attack in 2010.
The goal of riding helps him get back in shape after cold Iowa winters, he noted.
Thursday’s stop was welcomed by many businesses, including those still recovering from the Floods of 2008 in the city’s core.
The Flamingo, 1211 Ellis Boulevard NW, attracted riders to an outdoor venue, just across the street from the still flood-damaged and closed A&W Restaurant.
Many other restaurants and bars hung welcome banners to attract cyclists, while yard sales, ice cream trucks, church dinners and roadside stands also attempted to sway the crowds.
Purvish Patel, owner of the Cenex station, 502 E Ave. NW, sold hot dogs and “any drink you can name” at a stand outside the convenience store, near the cyclists’ major entrance to the city from Ellis Boulevard.
“It’s been busy all day,” he said.
Neil Gormley, 25, of Seal Beach, Calif., found the small towns along the route especially welcoming.
“Everyone is so inviting and so helpful and very friendly,” said Gormley, making his first RAGBRAI ride with “Team Mayham,” whose logo was a pig.
The weather and terrain, though, weren’t what he expected.
“It’s very hilly,” said Gormley, who trained for the ride on flat beaches. “And it’s really hot. If it were 100 degrees at home, I wouldn’t be doing this, but it’s RAGBRAI.”
Brian Morris, 62, of Adel, paused to calculate the number of times he has been on the ride.
“I think this is 22,” he said, while setting up his tent at a campsite at Cleveland Park on 15th Street SW, near Kingston Stadium.
Longtime riders cited 1999 as one of the hottest years, with temperatures above 100 degrees and high humidity.
Dan DeBakey woke up at 3:45 a.m. Thursday in Marshalltown to make it to Cedar Rapids before 10:30 a.m.
Even he wasn’t among the first RAGBRAI riders to roll into town.
“A few people were in front of us,” said DeBakey, an Iowa native living in Medicine Bow, Wyo. “Some people leave at 3 a.m.”
He and his cousin, Edward Ford of La Crosse, Wis., who are both in their 50s, said many of the towns they passed through were not yet ready for cyclists, but the weather was perfect for the ride.
That contrasts with Wednesday night’s thunderstorms that canceled the Little River Band concert and other events in Marshalltown, and the triple-digit-temperatures that riders endured at the start of the week.
Ford, a Cedar Rapids native, said the two were headed to Czech Village to meet another cousin for kolaches.
The Czech Village/New Bohemia district will be the site of Friday’s Breakfast on the Bridge as cyclists leave Cedar Rapids on their way to Anamosa.
One couple, who started riding RAGBRAI in 2005, chose Cedar Rapids as the site of their wedding Thursday.
Geana Allen, 59, and Carl Werve, 65, of The Villages, Fla., said family and friends were on a conference call to hear their nuptials at Cedar Hills Community Church.
“I can’t say enough wonderful things about this place,” the new Mrs. Werve said after hundreds toasted the couple during the Party on the Island in downtown Cedar Rapids. “It’s just been great. Iowa rocks.”