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Ride across America

Women go coast to coast in the name of senior health

Peggy Rabe, of Motley, and her sister-in-law Jan Erickson, of Redwood Falls, started riding bicycles after they were already in their 50s. Their first long ride turned out to be 16 miles. Their most recent long ride was 3,000. And it won’t be their last.

You don’t just hop on a couple of bicycles and head across the country. Yet no amount of preparation can tell you if you’ll actually make it when you challenge yourself in that way, especially when the “you” means two women at the ages of 68 and 70. That’s why they didn’t tell many people what they were planning to do.

In the 13 years between the eight-mile ride from Peggy and Adolph Rabe’s cabin to the Dairy Queen in Motley and back (the 16 miles), and the ride that took them from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, their bicycle tires did a lot of spinning on Minnesota roads.

“On our ride back from the DQ that day,” remembers Jan, a nurse with REM Community Services, “I was telling Peg about the TRAM, a 300-mile ride across Minnesota.” TRAM (The Ride Across Minnesota) is an annual fundraiser for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. After talking more about it, the two registered to participate the next year. Then they got nervous about it and wondered if they could actually finish it.

“We went ahead,” said Jan.

”And didn’t walk a hill or ride the SAG wagon (the support vehicle),” finished Peggy.

Feeling bolstered by that first successful longer-than-to-the-DQ ride, they participated in the TRAM for nine years in a row. Each year, they stayed in motels along the way though many TRAM riders overnight in tents.

Then Peggy suggested riding the Ragbrai, the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Originated by two riders from the Des Moines Register newspaper, the Ragbrai, a noncompetitive recreational ride, averages 492 miles. The pace is fast and the number of riders swells to 25,000, though officially registered riders are limited to 8,500 week-long riders and 1,500 day riders. Peggy and Jan rode three days in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 rides.

Finding places to stay overnight during rides was always a bit of a job. Then the Rabes’ purchase of a vintage 1969 Airstream camper opened up a new realm of possibilities.

Again it was Peggy who proposed a new adventure: riding across America. Since they would have a home on the road in the form of the Airstream and a willing support person in Adolph, Jan readily agreed. It was also time for her to retire. Peggy had retired in 1999 from her job with a casualty insurance company. Jan retired on Feb. 15 of this year (though she continues to work two days a week) and with all the planning and packing already done, the threesome departed the day before her official retirement date.

The plan was for Peggy and Adolph to leave from Motley, pick up Jan in Redwood Falls and head for California. They got as far as Browerville when one of the Airstream windows broke. They stopped for repair but found it would take 2-3 weeks to get a replacement window so they stretched plastic across the opening and with duct tape holding it together, headed on to Redwood Falls. It didn’t prove an omen to coming difficulties. It just proved that a little ingenuity could save the day.

Jan and Peggy don’t ride their bicycles during the Minnesota winters so it took a little conditioning to feel comfortable in the saddle. But after 15 years of serious riding, their systems tuned up pretty quickly. They began their cross-country ride on Feb. 22. After the first 400 miles they knew they really could do this ride across America and called their extended friends and family to tell them about their adventure. Of course many thought they were crazy but offered their amazement and support, too. They were happy to learn they could follow the ride by logging into a blog Jan and Peggy dubbed Cycling America Supporting Senior Health.

They’d wanted their ride to have meaning and inspiration for others. It would show that life doesn’t end at 70. They also set three goals for their ride: 1) get across the country; 2) do it safely; 3) have fun.

They achieved all of their goals and found that America is truly beautiful. They were especially taken in by the ghost towns and emptiness of west Texas. But, more so, they found Americans to be incredibly friendly, helpful and just plain wonderful.

As to fear and misfortune along the ride, there was a little. Along the route of the southern tier states, they had a total of 15 flat tires, which Adolph fixed with the help of bike shops. Jan’s nursing skills came in handy when Peggy took a spill and scraped her leg. They stayed put during heavy rain and even some late-season snow and rode in the pick-up, with the bikes in the Airstream, in the overwhelming city traffic of San Antonio, El Paso, Mobile, and Tallahassee.

Peggy said the worst part of the trip was getting greased up with sunscreen every morning. “We lathered it on every bit of exposed skin,” she said. Except the time Jan forgot to do her feet. One heel got sunburned, and for several days, it reminded her to do a better job with sun protection.

Peggy and Jan didn’t eat that much considering the calories they expended. “We started each morning with a bagel with peanut butter and juice,” said Jan. “We’d each pack a snack bar, a banana and an orange.” They’d eat the bananas at mid-morning, the snack bars a couple hours later and the oranges late in the day. Adolph, who generally drove the support vehicle 10-15 miles ahead of the women to check on the road and any potential obstacles, also shopped for groceries and prepared the evening meal.

Between Feb. 22 and April 25, the duration of the ride, they each lost between 6 and 10 pounds. The women felt fit and strong and confident. They didn’t get sick. “We didn’t even ache,” said Peggy.

The scariest part of the ride for both of them was going through a quarter-mile, four-lane tunnel with fast cars and semis. They walked the bikes on the side with only a 6-inch ledge for their feet and their bikes in the traffic lane. Jan admitted bridges scared her, too.

As to wild animals, they were mostly either dead on the road or seen from a distance. Opossums and armadillos have a high mortality rate on southern roads. Snakes were sighted frequently enough but even more memorable were the hundreds of bungee cords, screws, nuts, bolts and thorns.

The two have plenty of stories from their Great Adventure. They’ve been asked to speak at a variety of events and gatherings and happily share their story to encourage and inspire others to make their own lives interesting.

When the two cyclists and their support man reached the Atlantic Ocean at St. Augustine, Fla., the women didn’t want the ride to end. In fact, they would have liked to have started over and done it again. Adolph wanted to get back to Minnesota for the golfing season. But Jan and Peggy are planning another long-distance ride, this time using the Mississippi Trail map and riding from above the Mississippi in Canada to the mouth of the river in Louisiana. That will be in the fall of 2014. After that, there’s hiking the Appalachian Trail….

“We don’t want to stop having adventures,” said Peggy.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Jan.

The blog can be found at

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