Cycling fans fear future of RAGBRAI tradition

Cycling fans fear future of RAGBRAI tradition

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RAGBRAI

Cyclists cruise along Hamilton Boulevard as RAGBRAI riders leave Sioux City, Iowa, during the statewide ride in 2010. 

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Rick Paulos, a Cedar Rapids man who has ridden every RAGBRAI since its spontaneous inception in 1973, said despite the surprise resignation last week of its four-person marketing staff and plans for a rival ride, Iowa's annual statewide bike ride and tourism juggernaut has survived other threats, and will again.

Others have organized large-scale rides — albeit not competing head-to-head with The Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — and they’ve fizzled after limited succes. And RAGBRAI has forged ahead after losing other figureheads over the years.

“RAGBRAI has never been about the organizers,” said Paulos, 63.

On some days, more than 20,000 riders cover the route.

Hundreds of people help pull off RAGBRAI — a border-to-border, seven-day summer bike ride — each year, and the vast majority are still around, he said.

Despite assurances by the Register that RAGBRAI will continue in 2020, many are skeptical the newspaper can pull it off without the institutional knowledge and connections of the resigned staff. Others fear neither of the competing rides will survive.

John Karras, a former Register columnist and co-founder of RAGBRAI, cast doubt on the rides’ future, according to a KCCI-TV report.

“I don’t see how the competition’s going to work,” he said.

RAGBRAI staff resigned in protest Oct. 15 and launched “Iowa’s Ride” for the same week as RAGBRAI 2020, July 19-25.

Now-former RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz cited the Register’s attempts to muzzle him about the newspaper’s controversial handling of a September news story on Carson King, who turned his brief appearance holding a sign on ESPN "College GameDay" into an impromptu fundraiser for the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital generating more than $3 million.

The Register’s profile of King and his instant rise to fame surfaced two racist tweets the 24-year-old had made as a teenager.

Readers were incensed the Register reported on the old tweets, but Executive Editor Carol Hunter said the decision was “rooted in what we perceive as the public good.”

Debi Durham, director of the state’s Economic Development Authority, said RAGBRAI has helped tourism, as have all biking opportunities.

“But it sounds to me like there’s still going to be one. There may be two,” she said. “The more that we can elevate bike-riding across the state, it checks all the boxes, doesn’t it? Not only do you get to showcase this great state and the warmth and hospitality of our communities, but it’s also great when you’re looking to be a healthy state.”

Iowa’s biking community — particularly those with longstanding ties to RAGBRAI — are conflicted and many bike clubs aren’t committing to either ride, waiting for details about how the new ride will work.

“I think of this as tectonic plates shifting in the biking world,” said Lynn Rose, 52, of Solon, who is the RAGBRAI coordinator for Bicyclists of Iowa City. “RAGBRAI has existed a long time, but the staff had built relationships over a long time that make RAGBRAI what it is, and you can’t just invent those overnight. Even if our club chooses to ride RAGBRAI in 2020, this is not going to be the same.”

She plans to reach out to members to get their opinions after she does her own research.

The Hawkeye Bicycle Association, based in Cedar Rapids, is postponing its usual RAGBRAI registration blitz in November to see how the situation plays out.

“The RAGBRAI name is famous, that is for sure,” said Dave Benderson, 65, club vice president. “It is a tradition in Iowa and a tradition for our bike club, but the people who make it happen are the people who left. They are the people that make RAGBRAI. They have the connections. So, we will wait and see.”

Aside from riders, numerous vendors, communities and organizations that capitalize on RAGBRAI could be affected.

Harper’s Cycling & Fitness has been supporting RAGBRAI for 25 years as an official bike shop along the route. The business makes more money in that week than in some entire months, said owner Charlie Harper, 83.

“At this point, we are watching to see how this develops,” Harper said. “We’ve worked well with all the people who resigned and we’ve been comfortable with where we’ve been. If we stick with the Register, we would have to break in a whole new crew. But there’s no firm decision made at this point.”

Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth is a regular RAGBRAI participant and has played a key role in his community serving as an overnight host five times, which brings in ”valuable exposure” and an economic boost for local businesses. He said RAGBRAI is among the state’s most significant events next to the Iowa caucuses, the Iowa State Fair and college football.

He said he will be watching how major sponsors and large agencies that support the ride, such as the Iowa State Patrol, line up.

Josh Schamberger, president of Think Iowa City, the local tourism bureau, also is a rider and has helped Coralville, Iowa City and North Liberty host RAGBRAI over the years. Larger communities, such as the ones in Johnson County, put together budgets of about $150,000 to host riders, included hiring bands, setting up festival grounds and more. RAGBRAI chips in about $10,000 he said.

The Register will have a difficult path putting on a ride next year given the relationships with community leaders around the state, bike clubs, vendors, sponsors and an “army of volunteers” cultivated by Juskiewicz and his staff, said Schamberger.

“I don’t know how they move forward; maybe we buy it,” he said with a laugh.

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