Bicycling history of Greene County, and of RAGBRAI, too

Program Sunday afternoon April 15 at museum in Jefferson

~by Chuck Offenburger for the Greene County Historical Society

If it seems to you like there’s been a whole lot of bicycling happening around Greene County in recent years, you’re right.

That will be especially so this summer when RAGBRAI®  (that’s the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) pedals through the county on July 23-24. It will visit Scranton on July 23, overnight in Jefferson, and then go on to Grand Junction and Dana the next day en route to an overnight in Ames.

So this seems like a good time to review the history of bicycling in Greene County – and let’s add the history of RAGBRAI, too.

The Greene County Historical Society and Jefferson Matters: Main Street are going to do just that this coming Sunday, April 15. They are co-sponsoring a special free program at 2 pm at the museum in Jefferson, looking at cycling’s past, present and maybe even future here.

John and Ces Brunow

And the program will also explore how RAGBRAI became the international phenomenon that it is – the oldest, longest and largest bicycle touring event in the world. It should be a good primer for Greene Countians getting ready for RAGBRAI’s visit.

Presenting will be John and Ces Brunow, of Jefferson, co-owners of All Ability Cycles, and special guest T.J. Juskiewicz, the director of RAGBRAI.

This is one of a series of sports-related programs this year that are preliminaries to the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling “Hometown Teams” exhibit, which the historical museum in Jefferson will house Aug. 11 thru Sept. 23. That exhibit is being hosted here by the local Main Street and historical groups.

Bicycling had a big start in Greene County as early as the 1890s, when there was a large men’s cycling club based in Jefferson and a “women’s auxiliary” cycling group, too. There were races, exhibitions and jaunty group rides to neighboring towns. Through the decades, there have been “Bicycle Days” promotions and parades in our towns.
We’ve seen much more of the sport in more recent decades.

For 41 years, Rippey has been a host town and turn-around point on “BRR” — that’s the “Bike Ride to Rippey” from Perry and back in early February, no matter the weather. And since 1997, Greene County has had the northern 12 miles of one of the best-known and busiest recreational trails in the nation, the Raccoon River Valley Trail, with trailheads in Cooper, at Winkleman Switch and in Jefferson.

T. J. Juskiewicz

And now here comes RAGBRAI in its 46th year, delivering visitors to us from all 50 states and a dozen or more other nations.

All of the above is part of bicycling now having such a major economic impact in Iowa. According to a recent study by the University of Northern Iowa, bike-related expenditures in the state now total about $350 million annually.

At the program this Sunday, the Brunows and Juskiewicz will speak, and there will be displays of cycling memorabilia. There will also be time for questions and free refreshments.

John and Ces Brunow have lived in Jefferson since 2010 and based their inspiring bicycle business here, although Ces grew up here as a Melson. John is a native of Centerville in southern Iowa, and he and Ces met as students at the University of Iowa.

They returned to the Centerville area after college, and in 1972 John was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives, where Ces served as his clerk until they started their family. They also bought and operated two weekly newspapers, the Moravia Union and Moulton Tribune. After three terms in the Iowa House, John ran for state auditor and was defeated, but then was elected Appanoose County auditor.

He served until landing a good insurance job with a company in New Hampshire. The Brunows spent eight years there, then John got a transfer to the Washington, D.C. area where they lived for nearly 20 years. They’ve been bicycle riders, even commuters, most of their adult lives.

John stayed in insurance until Ces , who had teaching experience in pre-schools, accepted a position at the Smithsonian Institution’s “Early Enrichment Center.” She became part of an innovative educational program that used the museum’s resources in a daycare program for employees’ children as well as some children from the public.

When she took that job, she said “it let John fulfill his dream of opening his own bicycle shop” in suburban Vienna, VA. He ran that shop, “Bikes@Vienna,” until they moved back to Iowa to be closer to his parents in their later years. They picked Ces’ hometown of Jefferson as their new home, and opened All Ability Cycles with the motto of “We believe that all can ride.” They sell a variety of bicycles, and repair them, but they specialize in adapting bicycles so people with all kinds of challenges can ride them. It’s a heart-warming story that has been shared nationally.

T.J. Juskiewicz is a native of Sunrise, FL, who has been with RAGBRAI since 2003, director of it for 15 years. Before that, he was director of Florida’s cross-state ride Bike Florida and also directed the Florida’s Sunshine State Games.

He’d met former RAGBRAI director Jim Green through their membership in the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association. Green “kept wanting me to come to Iowa and ride RAGBRAI, so I did that in 2002 – with no intention that I’d ever move here,” said Juskiewicz, who lives with his family in Ankeny. “But I fell in love with RAGBRAI and with Iowa. In 2003, I accepted the job and worked with Green on the ride that summer, then he retired and I took over.”

Juskiewicz said he thinks RAGBRAI’s growth and success over nearly a half-century “has changed the way bicycling is looked at in this state. It’s not just a sport, it’s really a whole industry here. Because of RAGBRAI, many other biking events have started up in Iowa, and I think it’s also at least part of the reason we’ve had such a great trails system develop here.”

When you consider all that, he concluded, “I think we can put Iowa up against any other state, and – pound for pound – we’ve got the best bicycle state in the nation.”

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