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What we know now about the RAGBRAI fallout and the future of the ride(s)

Cyclists move check out the square in Bloomfield during RAGBRAI on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Riders trekked 66 miles from Centerville to Fairfield on day five of the annual ride. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Cyclists move check out the square in Bloomfield during RAGBRAI on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Riders trekked 66 miles from Centerville to Fairfield on day five of the annual ride. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

The future of Iowa’s iconic statewide bike ride, the (Des Moines) Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or better known as RAGBRAI, has been threatened by the surprise resignation of its staff and formation of a rival ride at the same time.

The story still is developing, but here is what we know so far.

What happened?

The RAGBRAI staff of four, who were Des Moines Register employees, resigned in protest of their inability to speak freely about the way the newsroom reported a profile of impromptu fundraiser Carson King and be seen as autonomous from the newspaper, which was receiving public scorn over its reporting that was spilling over to RAGBRAI.

Now-former longtime RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz simultaneously announced a statewide event called Iowa’s Ride for the same dates as RAGBRAI next year.

Is RAGBRAI over?

RAGBRAI is on and will continue in 2020, according to the Des Moines Register, which started and runs RAGBRAI through a small in-house team. However, the newspaper’s ability to pull off the event has come into question by several people including one of the RAGBRAI co-founders John Karras, a former Register staff member who helped start the ride in 1973 with late columnist Donald Kaul.

Karras cast doubt on the ride’s future and whether either of two large-scale rides offered the same dates could survive.

Other notable RAGBRAI supporters, including Chuck Offenburger, the Register’s former “Iowa Boy” columnist and a longtime RAGBRAI co-host, called the attempt to duplicate RAGBRAI “just nuts.”

“I’ve told him directly that I think he’s made a huge mistake in resigning,” Offenburger wrote on Facebook. “And, that I hope he will reconsider, approach the Register bosses, and at least try to work out their differences. If he won’t do that, or they can’t reconcile, well, there are many excellent, experienced bicycle tour directors all across this nation who, I’m sure, are already lining up, wanting to become the next director of one of the premier bicycling & tourism events.”

When is RAGBRAI?

RAGBRAI annually occurs the last full week of July and is scheduled for July 19-25, 2020. Registration, which costs $175 for the week, typically begins in November and, according to the RAGBRAI.com website, that still is the plan, but the timeline still is to be assessed.

Who is running RAGBRAI now?

At this point, a staff still is being assembled.

“The Register is moving quickly to put people in place,” according to the RAGBRAI website. “We’ll update you as soon as we’re ready to make an announcement.”

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Anne Lawrie is identified on the site as the RAGBRAI senior marketing manager and appears to be the only identified staff member at this time.

Why do people care so much about a bike ride?

RAGBRAI has grown into a cultural phenomenon and tourism juggernaut for Iowa. It is one of Iowa’s most iconic and nationally recognizable brands from its humble beginnings with a few hundred people in 1973 to something akin to a seven-day state fair that moves throughout the state and attracts thousands of riders and spectators from around the state, nation and world.

Friends and families have planned vacations around the ride for years, and many of Iowa’s smallest, struggling rural communities have felt the spotlight and financial boost when the route passes through.

Charities build fundraising drives tied to the ride, and organizations tap into the hordes as a marketing bonanza. Presidential candidates, celebrities and others have participated.

What is Iowa’s Ride?

Iowa’s Ride was launched at the same time as the staff resignations as a head-to-head comparable alternative to RAGBRAI. The ride, described at IowasRide.com, is scheduled to occur in northern Iowa, July 19-25, 2020, with proceeds supporting the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

A formal route announcement is planned for November, which would be two months before the RAGBRAI route announcement.

Iowa’s Ride promises many of the same features as RAGBRAI, including access to campgrounds, showers and bathrooms; entertainment throughout the day and night; medical teams on route; traffic controls; charter service and more. Weeklong registration is $150 and increases by $25 at the end of the year.

What caused the split?

This ultimately ties back to a sign seeking beer money held up by Iowa State Cyclone fan Carson King during an ESPN broadcast from Ames on Sept. 14. King had gained national attention when money came pouring in response to his sign, and he turned it into a fundraiser that generated more than $3 million for the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

As his fame grew, the Register confronted King about two tweets from eight years earlier as a 16-year-old called racist by some, which the paper said it discovered during its routine reporting process for a profile about King. King held a news conference apologizing for the tweets — even defending the Register — but public opinion reached a fever pitch calling for people to cancel subscriptions and otherwise condemning the Register as tarnishing the name of a man trying to do a good deed.

Because the Register owns RAGBRAI, Juskiewicz said backlash was spilling over and he was facing questions about RAGBRAI’s position and whether proceeds would go to the Register. He wanted to respond and establish RAGBRAI’s autonomy from the Register — which he viewed as essential to the viability of the ride — but was blocked from speaking directly about it. Instead, he was supposed to work with a public relations team on talking points or refer to a Des Moines Register statement, which he indicated he did not agree with.

While the King controversy was the catalyst, Juskiewicz said the resignation was specifically because preventing him to speak openly and honestly violated his core beliefs.

Why did Juskiewicz schedule Iowa’s Ride for the exact same time as RAGBRAI?

Many have suggested scheduling the ride at the same time would seriously damage RAGBRAI and could ultimately lead to the failure of both rides. Juskiewicz said he chose those dates because the RAGBRAI faithful can plan years ahead knowing the ride will take place the last full week of July, even if the location and route is unknown until months before the event.

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He said he was hearing from people who did not want to participate in RAGBRAI due to the King fallout, and he wanted to provide an alternative at a time around which people have come to build their schedules.

DID THE REGISTER DONATE $50,000 to the University of Iowa stead family Children’s hospital?

Not exactly. On Sept. 27, RAGBRAI had promised a $50,000 donation in support of King’s efforts. In the wake of the resignation, Gannett, the parent company of the Register, released a statement affirming its commitment to the donation. However, the donation is a pledge based on proceeds from future RAGBRAI events.

Will this lead to a lawsuit?

It could. A Gannett executive, Andrew Yost, said all legal options are being explored, according to a Register article.

However, Gazette reporting found the legal options are limited.

Juskiewicz said he never signed a noncompete agreement. And, he appears clear of trademark violations, according to University of Iowa law professor Robert T. Miller, who stressed “concepts are not protectable.”

“They’re not trademarkable,” he said. “It’s a bike ride through Iowa. You can’t protect that. You don’t have a legal right to protect that. That’s like saying, ‘I want to be the only guy in town who does landscaping services.’ No, you don’t get to do that.”

Have people taken sides?

Many RAGBRAI participants, including vendors and RAGBRAI bike clubs, are taking a wait-and-see approach. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Economic Development Authority director Debi Durham have remained neutral.

Iowa Bicycle Coalition, a statewide bicycle advocacy group and longtime partner with RAGBRAI, is the only major organization that has spoken up publicly, endorsing Juskiewicz and Iowa’s Ride.

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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