CEDAR RAPIDS — Rick Paulos, a Cedar Rapids man who has ridden every RAGBRAI since its spontaneous inception in 1973, said despite the surprise resignation this week of its four-person marketing staff and plans for a rival ride, the annual statewide bike ride and tourism juggernaut has survived other threats, and will again.
Others have organized large-scale bike 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 success, And RAGBRAI has forged ahead after losing other figureheads over the years.
“RAGBRAI has never been about the organizers,” said Paulos, 63. “The current people that quit have self-inflated their own importance. They are really just organizers. I think the Register will hire whoever they hire — they will have to jump in full speed and they will have their hands full. But they will put the ride together.”
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 institution 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.
“Well, I don’t know how there can be,” he told the TV station. “I don’t see how the competition’s going to work.”
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RAGBRAI staff resigned in protest Tuesday and launched “Iowa’s Ride” for the same week as RAGBRAI 2020, July 19-25, which would be the 48th installment of the Register’s ride.
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 led 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 eight years earlier as a teenager.
Readers were incensed the Register reported on the old tweets, but Register Executive Editor Carol Hunter said the decision was “rooted in what we perceive as the public good.”
Juskiewicz and representatives of the Register did not return messages Wednesday seeking additional comment.
Gov. Kim Reynolds, who had declared a Carson King Day to honor his fundraising, declined to comment Wednesday whether the turmoil has statewide implications.
“I’m not going to get into the middle of that,” she said. “I’m going to continue to focus on what Carson King did and he raised $3 million for the University of Iowa’s Children’s Hospital and has made it a tremendous impact for a lot of kids.”
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. So I think it checks all of the boxes.”
Iowa’s biking community — particularly those with long-standing 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 and wondering if one will emerge as more viable.
“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 start 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. For example, several University of Iowa programs tap into the RAGBRAI hoards as a marketing opportunity. The university did not respond as to whether the institution would continue to participate.
Harper’s Cycling & Fitness has been supporting RAGBRAI for 25 years as an official bike shop along the route. It 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 of which ride they’d support. “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.”
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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 is concerned as a rider and a community leader.
“Two competing rides the same week is very difficult for either to be successful,” he said. “Efforts would be diminished. It is hard enough finding pass-through towns and overnight towns to begin with, and then to say we are going to double that.”
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 play RAGBRAI host 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 about RAGBRAI.
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Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.