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RAGBRAI Dream Team youths overtake uphill lives

  • 25 July, 2010

This post is by Des Moines Register reporter Reid Forgrave,

Not everything went easily during Desiree Reed’s first attempt at bicycling across Iowa.

Desiree Reed (Andrea Melendez/The Register)

The shy girl from Indianola was 14. Before her first Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, she was never too into sports. Desiree hadn’t grown up with bicycles. Her single mother, who bounced around in jobs at Walmart and in housekeeping, simply couldn’t afford life’s extras.

On that first ride, Reed got sun poisoning. She got shin splints because she was pedaling more with her toes than the flats of her feet. Mentors for the Dream Team, the group of 30 or so at-risk central Iowa youth who bike RAGBRAI yearly, wanted her to quit.

She wouldn’t. After all, her older brother had teased her for weeks, telling Reed she’d never finish the 478-mile ride. But she did.

“She was one hurtin’ unit,” her mother, Donna Reed, said of her daughter’s post-RAGBRAI condition. “Biking that far is brutal, but life is brutal too. I was very proud of her. She accomplished something. She set her mind to it, and she finished it.”

Members of the team and their adult mentors agree that their version of RAGBRAI isn’t about beer-sliding or pie-eating or partying until the wee hours. The Dream Team’s version of RAGBRAI is about helping this group of teenagers achieve a difficult goal through hard work and determination — and in the process, gain confidence, leadership skills and a new perspective on life.

“What this is designed for is, No. 1, to help them grow,” said Jim Green, the former director of RAGBRAI, who helped found the Dream Team program 15 years ago.

“Some of these youngsters have never set goals in their life. We sit down with them and their parents in January, tell them this is a six-month commitment. It’s just like a job,” he said. “They can only miss three days a month.

“And you can’t believe the difference in these youngsters from January until now. It’s such a joy to see how these kids change.”

Training starts in winter.

The Des Moines Register's Dream Team began workouts last winter at the downtown YMCA for RAGBRAI From left, mentor John Washburn, with team members Levi Tolenaar, Hunter Hansen, Desiree Reed and Zach Hunsley. (Andrea Melendez/The Register)

Twice a week for six weeks, the Dream Team members go to the downtown Des Moines YMCA for spinning classes, jogging and band-resistance training. They get used to pedaling for 30 minutes without stopping. They learn how to bike up a training hill for four minutes at a time.

When winter relents, they move outside. Every Monday and Thursday, they pedal from 5 p.m. until sunset. They do a longer ride on Saturday mornings, working up to a hilly, 85-mile ride to Green’s house at Sun Valley Lake. If they can do that ride, the mentors tell them, they can do RAGBRAI.

If they finish RAGBRAI, they get a free bicycle, free bike helmet and free biking shirt.

But is it a free ride? Not quite. Add the nearly 500 miles of RAGBRAI to the more than 1,000 miles of training these teenagers have put in since winter: They’ve earned it.

“When we started training outside my first year, and they told us we’d have to ride through rain and stuff or on the days it got super hot, I thought there was no way could I do this,” said Hunter Hansen, 16, a Roosevelt High School junior who is riding on his fourth RAGBRAI.

“That first year was hard,” he said. “We had to do all those hills, and I wasn’t used to riding big hills. But after that, it steadily got easier.”

Hansen grew up the middle of three kids who never really knew his dad. For Hansen, who is a junior mentor this year, being part of the Dream Team has built his commitment and his leadership.

“You start talking to kids, and if they’re struggling to get up the hill, you’re right beside them encouraging them,” said Hansen, who wants to be a doctor. “And it’s about more than just biking. If younger kids don’t want to go straight to the adults, they can come to us.”

There are plenty of difficult life situations these kids bond over. Some are foster kids. Some grew up in single-parent households. Some have parents who are alcoholics.

“Over time, you see kids really bloom,” said John Washburn of Des Moines, a Dream Team mentor for 10 years. “Some are so shy they hardly talk at the beginning, but after time, as adults talk to them like adults, not kids, they get the feeling they’re worthwhile.”

Take Levi Tolenaar. Tolenaar hadn’t ridden his bike farther than just down the block before he signed up for the Dream Team a few years back. He was a student at Merrill Middle School, and he wanted to meet new people and do something he’d never done.

The first year was tough, hilly and hot, and Tolenaar kept wondering when each day’s ride was going to be over.

But on the toughest days, Tolenaar said he thought of his father, who once rode RAGBRAI. His father had died the year before, in 2007, from bone-marrow cancer.

One of the sayings his father passed on to his son: “If you’re going to do the job, do it right or don’t do it at all.”

Tolenaar did it right that first year. He finished the ride, and it was so exhilarating that he threw a party for himself back home.

Now in his third year on the Dream Team, Tolenaar is 17 and a rising junior at Roosevelt High School. He said the Dream Team is like family, calling one of the mentors, “Mom.” He hopes to head to college to become an architect, and he wants to be a Dream Team mentor for other kids in difficult situations.

“I’ll just let everyone know I’m open to talk about anything, and I’ve been through some of this stuff, too,” Tolenaar said.

Training for the team has helped open up first-time riders like Zach Hunsley.

Dream Team 2010

Hunsley, 16, a junior at Hoover High School, wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he started on the Dream Team this year. He liked to bike around his neighborhood near Drake University. He already was a strong cyclist. RAGBRAI would be easy, just like biking with his friends.

“It’s just biking all the time,” he said. “Some of the times, we talk about our beliefs, stuff that’s happened in our lives.”

Like most of the teenagers on the Dream Team, Hunsley has had some difficult moments in life. He’s been in foster care for three years.

Before that, he’d lived with his biological mother and two sisters. His mother ran into financial problems, and the family moved into an emergency shelter on the south side of Des Moines. He moved into foster care, bounced around a bit, and finally settled in with a foster mom and established permanency six months ago.

Shortly after that, he signed up for the Dream Team. Hanging with teenagers from similar situations has been cathartic.

“When I first went to foster care, I didn’t want anyone knowing my life’s history,” Hunsley said. “But now I’m all open about everything.”

Desiree Reed is about to ride in her third RAGBRAI, a big accomplishment for someone who doesn’t pride herself in athletic prowess.

A bigger accomplishment would be her next goal: After graduating from high school next year, Reed hopes to go to college, attend veterinary school and open her own veterinary clinic.

She knows it’ll be a long road: eight years of schooling before she can become a veterinarian.

If she hits a rut, though, Reed can think back to biking up the Sleepy Hollow hill, the toughest hill on the RAGBRAI training rides, and remember what she would tell herself:

“If you can go up the Sleepy Hollow hill, you can do any hill. No problem.”


  1. Sharon

    I hope the DM Register, RAGBRAI and all groups/volunteers involved can expand this important program. What a terrific way to help young folks who need caring adults and positive goals in their lives — plus it’s an activity promoting lifelong fitness!

  2. Tina

    I hope other Iowa cities will step up & start a program like this. As a former public school teacher, there are so many young people who would benefit from a mentor, especially a teenage mentor. I am a native Dubuquer who rode RAGBRAI 1980-84 & have many wonderful memories of those years.

  3. Kevin Fitzgerald

    Great article about a great program! Thanks for writing the article!
    I ride as a mentor with the Bike Ride Across Georgia’s Dream Team. As our cross-state ride went through Ft. Benning Army base this past June, a soldier driving a pickup truck stopped after seeing our jerseys, wondering if we were from RAGBRAI’s Dream Team! It turns out that this soldier was a Dream Team rider and Junior mentor several years ago, and now he’s serving his country in the Army. He spoke well of his time with the RAGBRAI Dream Team. We were very happy to meet him!
    I’m thankful “Greenie” and the other mentors have kept the Dream Team going strong. I’ll be wearing my RAGBRAI Dream Team wrist band all week at work, as a reminder of my wonderful time on the three RAGBRAI rides I’ve done, including 2001, when 3 adults (including myself) and 7 of our BRAG Dream Team riders were guests of the RAGBRAI Dream Team. And I’ll be following the ride on the Register’s website every day. We Ride With Pride! Go Dream Team!

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