Registration is open for RAGBRAI L!

Why do RAGBRAI cyclists ride across Iowa? For some it's a memory while for others, an adventure

  • 26 July, 2022
  • Philip Joens

It can be as simple as burritos or as meaningful as a father’s memory.

Every cyclist who pulls on bike shoes has a different reason for joining the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. This year, more than 15,500 people from around the country and across the globe are signed up to ride.

They are excited for a new challenge, to push their bodies, to become healthier, to spend time with loved ones and honor those who have passed.

Here’s what some of them told the Des Moines Register about their reasons for biking across Iowa in a weeklong journey beginning Sunday.

Texan rides in memory of his father

Terry Swets felt fate drawing him to ride in this year’s RAGBRAI.

Swets, of the Austin, Texas, suburb of Georgetown, had heard a lot about RAGBRAI — his dad rode the route a few times and brought back his stories. They had planned on riding together, but various circumstances always intervened.

Then on Nov. 10 last year, Swets’ father passed away. He was 79.

Before his father’s death, Swets had been reading stories on the RAGBRAI Facebook page to see what the ride was like. After his father passed, he messaged the page’s moderators to share his Dad’s memories and tell them how wonderful the experience had been for his father.

Someone responded, he said, and thanked him for sharing — and told him that the ride’s co-founder, John Karras, had died the same day. The person also told him registration was opening in just a few days without the usual lottery system.

Swets signed up as soon as registration opened to ride in his father’s honor.

“Everything keeps telling me, ‘Man, this is meant to be.’ I just got to do this and we got to do it in his memory,” he said. “All the signs are pointing to it being the right thing to do.”

He was stunned by another coincidence when the route was announced in January and he found out Pocahontas would be a first-time overnight town. His father’s sister owns a car dealership there.

Swets will be riding with a longtime friend who reached out to him after Swets posted  on Facebook about his intention to ride. Swets’ daughter and wife will come along as support drivers.

“It’s really helped keep my Dad in everybody’s memory,” he said.

— Sarah Leblanc

New York teachers on adventure

Darien Dey and her boyfriend Julian Topete once hopped on a last-minute flight to Peru.

Sergeant Bluff won’t be quite as exotic, but they’re just as excited about the prospect of taking in the sights, sounds and tastes of RAGBRAI XLIX. Dey, 26, and Topete, 24, met in grad school at the University of Chicago. Now they live in New York, where Dey teaches first grade in Harlem and Topete teaches sixth grade in the Bronx.

“It’s going to be spontaneous, like everything else we do in our life,” Dey said.

“Our relationship has really formed and we created something very beautiful off both of our adventurousness and our willingness to be spontaneous and open to new things,” Topete said.

When Dey and Topete started dating two years ago they did outdoorsy things like fishing and biking. This year they’re excited to see how their relationship will be strengthened while riding a tandem bike across Iowa.

Topete’s father Juan Alfaro and his mother Patti Topetewill travel from the San Francisco area to join them. Alfaro will ride while Topete’s Mom will drive their support vehicle. Kilo, a puppy Dey and Julian Topete got about two months ago, also will ride in the vehicle and play in the fresh Iowa air.  

After finishing their first year living and teaching in New York, Dey and Topete want go an adventure and unwind.

“I’ve been really looking forward to RAGBRAI because it’s like something I’m going to do for myself,” Dey said. “Teaching takes a lot out of you. It’s going to be cool to devote this time to something for myself.”

Topete grew up riding his bike on the hills of San Francisco and Oakland and is excited to see the Iowa countryside.

“I think the biggest difference between RAGBRAI and my own cycling experiences is going to be the city versus agricultural, Midwest riding,” Topete said. “I did a lot of inclined, decline windy cycling. Very different from Iowa cycling.”

Dey grew up in Guyana before moving to the U.S. alone at age 14 and has never been to Iowa. Topete once spent the night in Muscatine at a relative’s house during a road trip.

During their eight days in Iowa the couple want to embrace and try everything. Dey may even try rhubarb pie.

“There’s no hiding it really. I think we’re most excited for the food and the drinks,” Topete said.

“Just thinking about the pies we’re going to eat on this trip,” Dey said with a laugh. “We’ve been on a lot of adventures together.”

—Philip Joens

A once-in-a-lifetime experience

Six months after she turned 40, Melissa Landry was diagnosed with Stage 3B colon cancer.

After 12 rounds of chemo, she beat the cancer. Now 51, the Pennsylvania mother and grandmother is more active than ever.

Having faced adversity, Landry knows there is rarely enough time in life to do everything. That hasn’t stopped her from trying.

She isn’t sure how she first heard about RAGBRAI, but she remembers reading about the ride. She’s always been more of a runner, having competed in a few half and full marathons and triathlons.

The idea of biking across the state, though, piqued her interest.

“Reading about like how RAGBRAI is just kind of like a moving circus is very appealing to me,” she said.

This year will be her first RAGBRAI, and she will be riding solo. She’s a little scared to do it by herself, she said, but she looks forward to meeting other riders along the route and celebrating being together.

She’s also excited to see Iowa by bike and the towns she might miss if she just drove through them.

“I think it’s so cool how every town is like welcoming and they have something to get the riders excited,” she said. “It just seems that everyone is so proud of their towns.”

— Sarah Leblanc

Dream turned reality

After Dan Lewis had a stroke in 2013, he knew he wanted to make some changes in his life.

Doctors aren’t sure what caused the stroke, but Lewis wants to keep any risk factors down. He started exercising in earnest and putting his body to the test in some extreme races.

He started with a 10K, then a half-marathon followed by a full marathon. Eager for more, he has since competed in a 50K race and a 50-mile race.

Still, the idea of RAGBRAI seemed like a pipe dream, he said.

“Like, people do that, that’s really cool,” he said. “I don’t know if I can do that.”

But one of his friends, who has ridden with the Air Force team, convinced him he could. This will be Lewis’s first RAGBRAI.

He’s been training since last fall, and said he’s excited to ride with thousands of other bikers working toward a common goal: 454.1 miles. The Ohioan looks forward to seeing what “Iowa nice” is all about.

“I think it’s a great example of small-town America,” he said.

— Sarah Leblanc

From the trail to the bike path

In his lifetime, Brent Borgemeister, 37, estimates he’s hiked over 6,000 miles across America. Now, he’s determined to continue his travels on his bike.

His fiancée, Kelley Reynolds, first brought up the idea of signing up for RAGBRAI in December last year. An avid adventurer herself, Reynolds had heard about the storied ride through her father, James, who said he dreamed of doing it when he was younger.

The week-long bike trip will mark Borgemeister’s first time in Iowa, and his first time embarking on a cross-state bike tour. He said he’s excited to get a full, in-depth tour of the Hawkeye state.

“There’s no better way to see a land and its people than on foot or on bike” he said.

Reynolds and Borgemeister met in 2015 while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Borgemeister, a Florida native who attended high school in north Georgia, said he set his sights on completing the nearly 2,190-mile journey at a young age. After making it only 1,300 miles to upstate New York on his first try, Borgemeister set out again in 2016, determined to make it to the end.

This time, joined by new hiking partner Reynolds, Borgemeister reached the top of Mt. Katahdin, the final summit of the trail. With Reynolds by his side, Borgemeister said, “the journey became much more magical.”

In 2018, Borgemeister moved to Chicago to be with Reynolds. Since then, the couple have settled into a routine, working full-time jobs — Borgemeister as a bike mechanic and Reynolds as a barber — and taking care of family nearby. But they are always eager to find new adventures.

“Life has changed from the days in the Appalachian wilderness,” he said. “She’s always trying to do things to help us reconnect with that experience, which is where we forged our bond. RAGBRAI seemed like the perfect opportunity for that.”

Borgemeister strictly followed USA Cycling coach David Ertl’s training regimen to prepare him for the over 450-mile ride. While he’s looking forward to the physical challenge, he said he’s most excited to be a part of the RAGBRAI community.

“To be able to share such a wonderful experience with such a large mass of moving energy that are the people that are here is really something special,” he said.

— Francesca Block

Iowans lose 215 pounds apiece, say biking took weight off

Aaron Conley, left, raises his bike after completing RAGBRAI XLVIII in Clinton on July 31, 2021. Conley and his brother Dennis Conley, right, rode RAGBRAI with their uncle Dan Hunt, center, after losing 215 pounds each.

When brothers Aaron and Dennis Conley dipped their tires in the Mississippi River in Clinton after RAGBRAI XLVIII last year, it marked the high point in a three-year journey for each to go from 430 pounds to 215 pounds.

Aaron Conley, 34, and Dennis Conley Jr., 40, both of Albia, rode their first RAGBRAI last year. This year Aaron Conley’s fiancé will ride her first with him.

Conley rode 1,500 miles on his bicycle last year. Three years ago when he weighed 430 pounds, the idea of riding RAGBRAI felt like a dream.

“I don’t know if I had a bigger accomplishment in my life,” he said. “To set a goal and achieved it, it was overwhelming at the finish line.”

Conley, who owns spray foam insulation and distribution companies, got big by eating too much and drinking too much.

“I was not active at all,” he said. “Other than work I fished. I didn’t do any other activity.”

Dennis Conley Jr. had weight loss surgery in 2019 and his brother followed suit in 2020. Each lost 140 pounds as a result. Exercise and a new diet took off the other 75 pounds, Aaron Conley said. He got down to 215 pounds at one point, and is now at 225 pounds.

“Sixty-five, 75 pounds it took that off me,” he said. “I just watched the scale going back down. It becomes and addiction and you fall in love with it.”

In 2020 he wanted to ride RAGBRAI with friends and his uncle. Because COVID-19 torpedoed the ride, the brothers set the goal to ride RAGBRAI in 2021.

Aaron Conley found serenity in the small towns of Iowa. Smoothies and grilled cheese sandwiches on the bike bring him to Heaven, he said.

He enjoyed talking with strangers, sometimes for half an hour or longer. Last year he rode too fast, he said. This year he wants to slow down and enjoy the conversations.

He lost his left arm to cancer, but isn’t self-conscious about it.

“It’s a good conversation topic,” he said with a laugh. “People talk about it. You can meet some of the most genuinely good people out on the road going 12 mph.”

After he conquered RAGBRAI last year, his fiancé, Ashley Huyser, is ready for the challenge before they get married Nov. 12. 

“Aaron and I’ve been kind of competitive,” Huyser said. “Just getting him pushing me to get through the ride and looking forward to marriage and the challenges we’ll face as a new married couple I think this is something that will not only challenge us, but strengthen our relationship,” Huyser said.

— Philip Joens

Inline skaters make RAGBRAI their own

Arnav “Sonic” Shah, 44, has fond memories of inline skating across Iowa with either a Thelma’s ice cream sandwich or a deliciously greasy grilled cheese sandwich in hand.

A native of Queens, New York, Shah said many bikers on the RAGBRAI route might view him and his group of fellow skaters as a novelty, but they are always jealous when skaters glide past them with their hands free.

“We’re just out there with a good attitude,” Shah said.

This year’s RAGBRAI will be Shah’s third and his partner, Jen Shyu’s, second. They take on the over 450-mile journey with a group of other inline skaters and a few cyclist friends — though Shah jokingly noted that the bikers are “usually the odd person out.”

While Shyu and Shah are now experienced skaters — they completed over 200 and 300 miles, respectively, at the recent Le Mans 24-hour inline skating event in France — they’re not immune to the many challenges riders face during RAGBRAI.

Last year for her first RAGBRAI, Shyu tried out a brand new pair of skates and said she suffered from blisters and back pain on the first day. By Day 4, she said, the pain was too much to bear. With just 15 miles to go, she tearfully boarded a SAG wagon to complete the Wednesday journey..

“I’ll never forget that day,” she said.

Members of the medical support staff recommended Shyu take the next day off, but she said she refused to miss out on the famous Century Day, a 100-mile trek.

With the help of a heat gun to stretch out the skates and some friendly locals offering up their air conditioning, Shyu set out with her fellow skaters the next day at 4:50 a.m.

Enduring the summer heat and the surprisingly hilly landscape, all six members of the inline skating team rolled to the end to receive their Century Day patches. Shyu said she remembers all of the cyclists cheering for them upon their arrival.

“I’ve never had that much encouragement in a week in my life,” she said.

It is that sense of camaraderie that brings Shah, Shyu, and the rest of their inline skating team back to RAGBRAI this year — this time with more broken-in skates.

— Francesca Block

Sarah LeBlanc covers the western suburbs for the Register. Reach her at 515-284-8161 or sleblanc@registermedia.com. Follower her on Twitter at @sarahkayleblanc

Philip Joens is on his 17th RAGBRAI. He has completed the river-to-river trek five times. He covers breaking news, city government and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register and can be reached at 515-443-3347 at pjoens@registermedia.com or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.

Francesca Block is a breaking news reporter for the Des Moines Register. Reach her at FBlock@registermedia.com or on Twitter @FrancescaBlock3. 

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