Here in Iowa, TJ Juskiewicz is giving a masters class in destroying a community. The former director of RAGBRAI is leaving that position. But he isn't just taking his bicycle and going home, no sirree, he's starting a rival ride with the same format and during the same time as RAGBRAI, one of Iowa's few unique traditions, that has happened every year since 1973.
What started with a guy asking for Busch Light money (seriously!), is now culminating in the fight for one of Iowa's 4 state-wide pillars -- The Caucuses, The State Fair, The Cy-Hawk Game, and RAGBRAI.
Wow. Where to start?
Maybe I should start by saying that I don't know Carson King personally. But I saw that when the Register reported on racist Tweets he'd made years ago, he didn't diminish them, or deny them. Instead, he seemed genuinely apologetic, noting that he didn't hold a grudge against the Register, and even thanked the Register for allowing him to address them.
Iowa could use more of that kind of magnanimous self-introspection. That is the kind of selfless action that strengthen's communities, and brings sides together.
Strangely, TJ's way of honoring Carson King's "Iowa Nice" is to grab a wedge issue (distrust and rage towards the Register for reporting the tweets), take the power he wields as director of RAGBRAI, and use them to divide the community in half:
1) You're Either With TJ's Iowa Ride,
2) Or You're Not.
Literally! The bike rides are scheduled for the exact same week, so there is no way you could support both.
The calculous is almost diabolical.
Now, TJ didn't start RAGBRAI. Hell, there have been almost twice as many RAGBRAIs without TJ as with him. TJ was a caretaker of an Iowa tradition -- passed down from year to year. There is great power in that. And with great power comes great responsibility. (insert Spiderman meme)
TJ could have used his departure to actually expand biking in Iowa:
1) He could have done another ride across the state on another week, say early June;
2) He could have focused his ride on the bike trails, using a route that would encourage local communities to connect trails together, building a long term network that would outlive the ride;
3) He could have focused on education and youth ridership (RAYGUN volunteers with local police on similar programs for youth cycling).
TJ told KXNO's Morning Rush that they had to be the same week, because so many people take off that week in advance and so many people were already planning to ride that week. But TJ also said he was worried that ridership would be so low this year that it may be the beginning of a slow death for RAGBRAI. So what is it? Were so many people already committed to that week that it had to be then, or were so many people not coming that he needed to save RAGBRAI by destroying it?
TJ goes on to say that TJ's Iowa Ride is "for all Iowans." Really?
In recent years, members of NPR's news team have travelled to Iowa to ride, and have participated in a pie-eating contest with Register journalists. You're telling me that a bike ride born out of a controversy that led to death and bomb threats against the Register's journalists will make THEM feel welcome?
Much of Iowa's non-white community was disheartened by the way racist Tweets can be so casually dismissed by some as "shit happens," will THEY feel welcome on Iowa's ride?
To people who ride on RAGBRAI because it is an innocuous, all-Iowa bike ride that was, really, nothing more than fun, will THEY feel comfortable on a new bike ride that is born out of spite? Whichever ride they choose will now have to be seen as standing with or against something. Every business that has worked with RAGBRAI in the past is now strained. Larger companies could swing both, but for smaller companies that have to pick one? That is a tremendous risk. For those who say, "This is nothing political," you only have to look at the internet comments to see the 2 sides lining up:
TJ was invited to talk with Iowa's local-Sean-Hannity, Simon Conway, and Simon told TJ he has never ridden RAGBRAI -- doesn't even own a bike! But now, he's all turned around on state-wide bike rides. He going to ride TJ's ride! Boom! Another "biking enthusiast" for Team TJ!
I have never been on RAGBRAI. Not even part of it. I don't even own a bicycle. Holy S: Simon Conway and I have something in common!
While we're being honest: I've never been to the Cy-Hawk game either (not even to tailgate). And I've never drank Busch Light (god invented craft beer so I wouldn't have to).
My headspace is taken up by 3 things I don't personally have much vested in! Why? I guess the fact that I'm Iowan. I live here, I raise my kids here, I run my business here, I grew up here, my grandparents grew up here, THEIR parents grew up here. RAYGUN's headquarters is only 6 blocks from the hospital I was born in.
Back then, in 1982, a parking lot stood on the east side where RAYGUN is now. It had been a parking lot for 60 years before we worked with a local developer to put a building here in 2015.
My proudest accomplishment in life (by a mile!) is to have taken an empty piece of the community that raised me, and fill it with something that gives back -- as a place for people to work, as a place for people to visit, as a place for people to enjoy themselves.
Now I, as a loud-mouth asshole who has nearly weekly axes to grind, have had plenty of confrontations with other local entities over the years (hospitals, universities, the city of Des Moines, the city of Windsor Heights, Bacon Fest ... hell, I even had a dust up with RAGBRAI!). So I am not a rah-rah cheerleader who sees every aspect of community and tradition as infallible.
Community and tradition take work. Work can lead to confrontation, sure. Confrontation can lead communities and traditions to get stronger if the goal is to improve. In my heart, I respect community and tradition and work to improve them, not throw them away. If TJ really wanted to do his part, he would have gone to bat for community and tradition. He could have used this to improve RAGBRAI.
It will take a while to put this genie back in the bottle. If TJ ever wonders what weakens communities over time, he has to look no further than the mirror.
Sadly, I, like everyone in Iowa, either has to sit this out or pick a side.
Since forced, I'm standing with community. I'm standing with tradition. I'm standing with the opportunity to improve both of those things through RAGBRAI.