DES MOINES — Organizers of a world-famous bicycle ride across Iowa have cut ties with its longtime sponsor, the Des Moines Register, to start a competing ride.
The four staff members who work full-time running the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa resigned Tuesday, citing the newspaper’s handling of the Carson King story.
The group immediately launched a competing event, called Iowa’s Ride, which will be held next July during the same week the Register’s ride had been scheduled.
Chrissy Terrell, a spokeswoman for Gannett, the Register’s parent company, said the ride — known as RAGBRAI — would continue. The weeklong event draws thousands of cyclists from around the country and was founded by Register employees in the 1970s.
“We’ll continue RAGBRAI’s longstanding tradition in 2020 with another great bicycle ride and strong partnerships with Iowa communities to raise money for good causes,” Terrell said in response to an email from The Associated Press.
The ride’s longtime director, T.J. Juskiewicz, said in a statement organizers were upset with the Register and Gannett’s handling of criticism following a story involving fundraiser Carson King.
RAGBRAI was facing “hundreds of questions” and threats of people planning to skip the annual ride, and he felt he needed to reinforce the autonomy of RAGBRAI or the ride would “wither and die,” he said.
“This was one incident, but it was a major one,” Juskiewicz said. “My principles were called into question. If I bent over for this, what would be the next one? Where would this end?”
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King became a social media sensation when he held up a sign outside the Iowa-Iowa State football game asking for money to buy more Busch Light beer. When he started receiving donations, he decided to give the money to the Iowa Children’s Hospital. The fundraiser became wildly popular and ultimately raised $3 million.
The newspaper faced criticism for discovering and asking King about racially insensitive tweets he sent when he was a teenager. Anheuser Busch cut ties with King even before the Register reported on the tweets, and King held a news conference to apologize. Readers were angry the Register felt it was relevant to dig up the tweets. They reacted with fury toward Iowa’s largest newspaper, especially after the reporter was found to have sent his own offensive tweets years ago. The reporter, Aaron Calvin, was fired, even as Register editor Carol Hunter largely defended its reporting methods.
The backlash created a public relations problem for RAG-BRAI, which faced some calls for a boycott. The ride publicly praised King and pledged $50,000 to the children’s hospital last month.
Juskiewicz said in a statement he was directed in recent weeks by Gannett leaders to stay quiet or stick to talking points when addressing criticism about the King story.
“In these past few weeks, my efforts to communicate with our loyal riders has been consistently blocked as it did not mesh with the company’s PR narrative to spin the Carson King embarrassment,” he wrote in an online statement. “There are hundreds of questions that have been left unanswered in an attempt to save face for the Register, without regard to how it affects RAGBRAI.”
A new, polished website for his rival ride went online Tuesday. Called Iowa’s Ride, it appears to be taken directly from the RAGBRAI playbook: It’s a week-long, west-to-east ride across Iowa, held at the end of July — July 19-25, 2020, the site says — and will follow a “northern route” to be announced in November, two months before RAGBRAI’s route for the year is announced.
The site already contains registration details, pricing and even branded merchandise, and notes proceeds — it’s $150 to register for adults, or $25 per day, both slightly less than RAGBRAI — will benefit the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital and “charities in each of our host communities.”