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Dieter Drake, ride director, announces the towns that were to host RAGBRAI in summer 2020. Those same towns will now be hosts in 2021. Des Moines Register

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With 10,000 riders descending on small-town Iowa’s roads, businesses and town squares, social distancing is near impossible during the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, better known by its acronym, RAGBRAI.

Most years, the joy of being one in this merry mess of humanity on two wheels is reason enough for riders to risk saddle sores and sunburns for a weeklong adventure through Iowa’s cornfields and city centers.

But 2020 is not most years. Coronavirus has changed nearly every facet of life, forcing homes to become ad hoc offices, schools and businesses to close and beloved annual events to delay or cancel.

There will be no RAGBRAI this summer, its organizers announced Monday, marking the first year since its start in 1973 that bikers haven’t pedaled their way from the Missouri to the Mississippi in Iowa’s July heat to take part in what's believed to be the oldest, largest and longest recreational bicycle touring event in the world.

Organizers said the next scheduled RAGBRAI, set for July 25-31, 2021, will follow the route planned for this year.

The decision was made after “deep consideration” and conversations with key team members, organizers said.

"Based on the extreme disruption COVID-19 has had and will have on the planning, we didn’t feel it was responsible to move forward and put the safety of our riders, crew, communities, or residents of Iowa at risk," said a statement on RAGBRAI's Facebook page.

“The safety of our riders has always been the most important focus for our RAGBRAI team, and we feel the decision to postpone to 2021 is the right one,” Dieter Drake, RAGBRAI ride director, said in a news release. “We strongly feel that this is in everyone’s best interest.”

Effectively, all plans for the 2020 ride have been moved to next year, and it still will be considered the 48th edition of RAGBRAI. Drake said the same eight overnight towns announced in January will host the cyclists.

From January: The RAGBRAI route announcement

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Riders who signed up for RAGBRAI 2020 can transfer registration to next year, request a refund or donate their payment to the Iowa Bicycle Coalition.

While the end of July certainly will feel different in these parts, organizers are planning a weekend bike ride this fall that will “celebrate the spirit of RAGBRAI and all the communities that support it,” Drake said. Preparations for that ride are in the preliminary stages, he said, and more information will be released in upcoming months.

Town leaders voiced 'real concern'

The RAGBRAI team and overnight town executive committees began paying nearly daily attention to coronavirus updates in mid-February, Drake said. In March, towns along the route put key RAGBRAI planning and fundraising on hold as they dealt with the immediate health and safety needs of their communities.

The ride was to start in Le Mars, in far west Iowa, with overnight stays in Storm Lake, Fort Dodge, Iowa Falls, Waterloo, Anamosa and Maquoketa, before ending in Clinton, on the Mississippi River.

More: The latest on coronavirus in Iowa

As April planning meetings were canceled, too, towns expressed “real concern” about disease transmission if riders and spectators descended on their communities, as well as their ability to raise money in this difficult financial climate and on a crunched timeline, Drake said.

After a series of conference calls, representatives of the towns unanimously agreed that resources were too stretched to host RAGBRAI in about three months.

“Our conversations accelerated very quickly, as the pandemic did, and everything changed rapidly,” Drake said. “The further we got along with those discussions, the more obvious it became that we needed to make a change.”

Wendy McCartt, executive director of the Maquoketa Chamber of Commerce, said her town's resources have shifted to keeping residents safe and businesses afloat. She said in an email that she's glad organizers discussed the decision with the communities before the announcement.

"We are grateful that the RAGBRAI staff listened to the concerns all of our communities shared, and have made the difficult decision to cancel," she said.

Tavis Hall, executive director of Experience Waterloo, said that though his town was looking forward to hosting riders for the first time since 2010, it would have been difficult for the communities on the route to give riders the best possible experience.

"This allows all of the communities regardless of their size or their bandwidth to be able to focus where their focus should be at this moment, which is on bringing our communities back from this crisis," he said.

If there's a silver lining to be found, he said, the extra time to plan will be put to good use.

"We’re disappointed, but we’ll ultimately take this as a great opportunity to plan and execute an even better 2021," he said. "We were dreaming up some pretty good things with a six-month lead time — you give us a year and a half and it’s going to be a hell of a time."

Fundraising commitment still in place

The postponement puts a period on what has been a tumultuous six months for RAGBRAI, which was founded by two Register journalists, John Karras, now 90, and the late Donald Kaul.

In October, the team that had been in charge of the ride quit their jobs over what they said was a disagreement about the Des Moines Register’s news coverage. Led by former ride director TJ Juskiewicz, they announced plans for Iowa's Ride, a similar though smaller cross-state event in July. As of Monday, it was still on, said a posting on the group's Facebook page, adding, "it is still early to decide at this point."

The RAGBRAI organization in December introduced a new leadership team, Drake and Anne Lawrie, senior director of marketing. Earlier this month, former team member Andrea Parrott rejoined RAGBRAI.

After reviewing past practices, the new RAGBRAI leaders announced they would increase funding to the ride’s host communities. They also released new charitable giving goals, including a pledge to raise $1 million annually for local charities by 2025.

Those goals and promises will be extended a year, given Monday’s announcement, Drake said.

“The towns will receive everything that was promised to them,” Drake said. “And our commitment to give $1 million also remains, but the global pandemic may push that timeline out a year. That said, if we can achieve that in five years instead of six, we will.”

Silent spring: Coronavirus stifles Des Moines' post-winter celebrations​​​​​​​

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While some on social media have questioned whether April was too soon to call off a summer event, Drake said there were too many variables to continue forward. And with riders coming from all 50 states and a host of international locations, there was simply no way to ensure every place in the world would be clear of the virus before July.

“RAGBRAI draws a very significant number of its participants from outside the state, and some of those places are seeing higher rates of infection, and the curves are different,” he said. “There are so many unknowns at this point that there is too much risk.”

This year would have been Jeff Burchfield's 16th RAGBRAI and the first his town of Iowa Falls had hosted since 2004. He said he knows how upset some riders are at the announcement and that he hopes knowing the ride will continue in 2021 offers some consolation.

"It breaks my heart to say it but I do think it was the right decision, and I don’t think it was too early just based on the sheer numbers of people who are involved in the planning and participation of this event," he said.

It’s never a good time to disappoint people, Drake said, but continuing was “impossible” any way he looked at the situation.

“Despite our enthusiasm and our organization and team wanting to continue, it would have been a hardship,” he said.

“But the good thing about all of this is that we are going to make 2021 even better,” he said. “Next year’s ride will be even stronger and more fun and just, really, the best RAGBRAI it can be.”​​​​​​​

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Refund options

Riders who have registered and paid for 2020 have three options:

  1. Transfer 2020 registration to the 2021 ride. Riders who choose this option are not subject to the lottery and will receive their wristband and bike band in 2021. In addition, they will receive a $15 merchandise voucher good through Dec. 31.
  2. Request a full refund of their 2020 registration.
  3. Donate their registration to Iowa Bicycle Coalition.

Riders are required to fill out a request form by June 1 to be eligible for a full refund. Riders who do not fill out a form will automatically be transferred to the 2021 ride.

Registered riders can access the form and more information at Ragbrai.com/registration.

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Statues honoring RAGBRAI founders John Karras and Donald Kaul were unveiled at the Iowa Bike Expo Saturday morning. Des Moines Register

Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She now has a whole year to prepare to ride her first full RAGBRAI. Reach her at ccrowder@dmreg.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

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