GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. ― Bob Wagner wastes little time when asked what could entice a 91-year-old to pedal his 35-pound Trek 2700 road bike 420 miles across Iowa in the dead of summer.
“Use it or lose it,” Wagner said last Thursday afternoon from his cluttered, cozy apartment. “I think that’s very important, both intellectually and physically.”
So the former high school educator, administrator and coach busies himself biking, jogging, volunteering and, in the winter, cross-country skiing. He looks it, too. Wagner is trim, nimble.
“He has five kids, and I’m sure he’s in the best shape of all of us,” his daughter, Beth (Wagner) Simmer, said by phone last week.
Wagner will need all the physical fitness he can muster as he embarks on the 44th RAGBRAI, an annual bike ride across the Hawkeye State that was hatched by a pair of Des Moines Register reporters in 1973. This year’s trek begins Sunday in Glenwood and concludes July 30 in Muscatine. The 420-mile route across southern Iowa’s rolling hills is the third-shortest in event history.
This will be Wagner’s fifth RAGBRAI. His last big tuneup was a seven-hour, 76-mile ride July 9. He felt strong, ready.
“The only challenge could be if it gets really hot,” Wagner, originally from Treynor, Iowa, said.
He and his late wife of 63 years, MaryAnne, who died in 2012, retired to Grand Rapids in the mid-2000s. Wagner, typically, kept working. He served as a substitute teacher there until a few years ago.
More than 10,000 will participate next week in the “oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event in the world,” according to the RAGBRAI website. Wagner will ride alongside his son-in-law, Frank Dahn. Both will rely on the support of the North Iowa Touring Club, which sets up camp nightly in host towns and offers assistance throughout.
The longest leg is 75.2 miles, on Monday.
“I’m a little worried about that one,” Wagner said.
But he’s put in the seat time, gradually increasing his mileage. This spring, 50 miles, to Pengilly and back, would leave Wagner “pooped.” Not anymore.
“He’s an amazing guy; he just keeps going,” the 70-year-old Dahn of Lake Mills, Iowa, said, admitting that Wagner is probably better prepared than he is. Told about his father-in-law’s recent 76-miler, Dahn’s response said it all.
“Oh, man,” he groaned.
Wagner strikes you as the kind of guy who, when he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it.
“He’s stubborn,” Simmer said.
A Navy man, he served in the Pacific Theater from 1942-45, but received a sole-survivorship discharge after his two brothers, Richard and Egbert, were killed during World War II. Wagner got out in July 1945, a month before the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He returned to civilian life to begin a career in education that lasted until 1985.
But Wagner wasn’t ready to while away his golden years quite yet. He instead sold annuities in the financial services industry until 2011, when he retired “a second time.”
Thursday, under a gray sky that spat a few sprinkles and helped to produce unseasonably cool temps in the Northland, Wagner took his bike for a spin that doubled as a brief photo shoot. He pedaled effortlessly, with little excess movement. Occasionally, he stood tall, driving down into the pedals, his lime-green windbreaker clinging to his chest. Wagner was wearing tan loafers that could have passed as slippers.
Back inside his apartment, he was asked if those were his riding shoes. Looking dubious, he retreated to his bedroom and retrieved his regulars. Another pair of loafers, only a darker brown and more weathered. Whatever works.
“He can wear whatever he wants to wear,” Dahn, prepping for what he believes will be his ninth cross-state bike trip, joked.
Wagner’s last RAGBRAI was a decade ago. That has been the normal period of time between participating for him. So why do it again? Why now?
“Well, I wanted to do it one more time,” he says, smiling. “In 10 years, I’ll be 101, and I don’t think so.”