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Hear from RAGBRAI Director Dieter Drake after meeting with a group of bicycle clubs in Iowa, July 21, 2020. Iowa City Press-Citizen

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CORALVILLE — As Team Spare Tire pedaled through a hazy drizzle, carving a path from Coralville to Solon, RAGBRAI Director Dieter Drake was about 200 miles east of where he had hoped to be this humid Iowa morning.

Tuesday should have been Day 3 of RAGBRAI XLVIII, and Drake should have been among 10,000 beaming bicyclists caravanning from Fort Dodge to Iowa Falls, stopping along the way to enjoy small-town Main Streets, roadside pork chops and church-lady pie.

“We would be in Fort Dodge, be in this car, probably, driving around,” Drake said around 7 a.m. as he drove a RAGBRAI-emblazoned car to meet the Spare Tire crew in eastern Iowa.

But, like so many beloved events, the coronavirus pandemic knocked RAGBRAI’s bike chains from its wheels. Organizers postponed the 48th edition of the annual ride in April, making 2020 the first time since 1973 that riders are not pedaling river-to-river during the last full week of July.

Instead, organizers are offering cyclists a “virtual ride,” which they hope will harness the carefree spirit of the world’s oldest, largest and longest recreational bike ride through online events and daily challenges that push bikers to recreate RAGBRAI’s planned mileage in their own backyards.

To mark his first RAGBRAI — which he knows isn’t really a RAGBRAI — Drake is spending the week riding with bike groups across Iowa and keeping excitement up for the ride’s scheduled return next year.

A lifelong cyclist, Drake began organizing bike races in 2004 in his native upstate New York. As an event planner, he always had contingency plans for bad weather and, though rarely used, major medical emergencies or terrorist attacks.  

But a highly contagious pandemic? Planning for that hadn’t ever crossed his mind, he said.

"Never on anybody's radar," he said. "Anybody that I talk to in the bicycling industry, nobody thought anything about this at all."

In early 2020, as the virus spread overseas, Drake still held out hope that RAGBRAI could go on as normal in Iowa. RAGBRAI announced this year’s overnight towns in January like usual, while organizers kept close watch on what other events did throughout the waning days of winter.

“It was a little crazy for a few months,” Drake said. 

In hindsight, he said, canceling was “an even better decision than we thought.”

“I can't imagine any scenario where it would've been OK to have RAGBRAI this year,” he said.

Longtime rider Doug Weihe, who’s been on Team Spare Tire since 1999 and joined the Route Inspection Ride several times, agreed. He was sad to miss this year’s RAGBRAI — his friends' annual boys’ week out — but he was grateful to have the chance to ride with Drake on Tuesday.

"It'd be impossible to social distance on RAGBRAI,” he said, “so I think it was a good call.”

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Becoming an Iowan

Winding through Johnson County's countryside, Tuesday’s ride took the group over the Mehaffey Bridge to the Big Grove Brewery where owner Doug Goettsch was eager to show Drake the restaurant's new bike jerseys.

When RAGBRAI came through Solon in 2016, the brewery was so packed that servers could barely shuttle food from the kitchen to hungry riders.  

"It was bonkers," Goettsch said.

In the seven months since he grabbed RAGBRAI’s handlebars, Drake has been planning for the now-canceled ride in equal measure to meeting with bike clubs and learning the culture of Iowa cycling. The new Hawkeye quickly became a familiar and calming voice in Iowa's bike community, riders said Tuesday. 

Drake’s background in competitive cycling and his passion for the industry was immediately impressive, said Joshua Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. 

"He's not from Iowa and he's not an Iowan, but he's certainly worked hard to understand the importance of this ride," Schamberger said. "He'll be the next caretaker."

Currently living in Colorado, Drake has been commuting to Iowa since starting in December. He, his wife and his seven children — ranging in age from 4 to 23 years old — plan to move east as soon as the pandemic slows.

Over 16 years in the industry, cycling has taken Drake all over the world and he's always heard stories about the famous Iowa ride. Last year, well before he was hired, a friend from Iceland even mentioned RAGBRAI on a bike tour through the Canary Islands.

"It's way beyond what I think folks in Iowa know," Drake said. "In the bicycling industry RAGBRAI is the standard for multi-day bike rides across the planet."

Moving forward with a ‘silver lining’

Taking off again, the troop rode Sugar Bottom Road through picturesque rolling hills, forests and grasslands. By about 4 p.m., the morning rain had cleared and bright white clouds hung in the sky like plump marshmallows.

Drinking a Tailwind Golden Ale, huffing up surprisingly steep inclines and basking in a beautiful Iowa summer, Tuesday’s ride felt much like a typical day on RAGBRAI — minus the crowds and vendors.

Drake laughed as his bicycle compatriots regaled him with story after story of RAGBRAI memories. Before the ride was canceled, he had planned to sneak off from his director duties and join the cycling masses for a bit, he admitted.

Despite his disappointment that his first year wasn’t the real thing, Drake said the extra time gained this year gives the new RAGBRAI team more opportunity to prepare for next year.

"There's a kind of a silver lining to that," Drake said. 

For RAGBRAI to happen in 2021, the infection rate will have to decrease and a vaccine will likely need to be developed, Drake said. If the pandemic is not totally over, the spread will need to be controlled to a point where communities feel comfortable bringing thousands of outsiders into their area, he said. 

As of now, RAGBRAI is full-steam ahead for next year, though they are re-thinking sag vans, sanitation, merchandise sales and countless other aspects of the ride in case social distancing is still necessary. 

With people stuck at home, bicycle sales have accelerated to their highest level since the oil crisis of the 1970s, according to Marketwatch. Drake and others on the ride Tuesday hoped that curiosity in cycling will translate into increased interest in RAGBRAI when it returns. 

"They all want it," Drake said. "We definitely need to plan for 2021, but it's going to take some planning and a comfort level beyond what any other RAGBRAI has had in the past."

As someone who relishes bringing people into Iowa City but also wants to keep his community safe, Schamberger is staying confident RAGBRAI will happen next year.

"At some point, the brightest minds in the world will figure out either a vaccine or some sort of therapy which mitigates the impact of COVID,” said Schamberger.

“I just got to hope that happens far before the last week of July next year."

Philip Joens, a breaking news reporter, has ridden parts of 15 RAGBRAIs and completed the river-to-river trek four times. He can be reached at 515-284-8184 at pjoens@registermedia.com or on Twitter @Philip_Joens

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