The road to RAGBRAI, which begins Sunday in Rock Valley, lasted years for Joe Gantner and Debra Tapp.
They are among the many riders who each year look forward to the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa as an opportunity to demonstrate victory over obstacles in their lives. Gantner, of Cedar Rapids, and Tapp, of Woodville, Wis., suffered major physical setbacks while riding bicycles.
Over seven days and 418 miles across Iowa, they plan to show that they’re back.
Two weeks before RAGBRAI in 2011, Gantner was training on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail to prepare for that year’s ride from Glenwood to Davenport.
Just four miles into his 100-mile training ride, Gantner suffered a heart attack while riding up a hill. He doesn’t remember his accident.
All he remembers is that when he woke up, his body was in pain.
“For 48 hours I kept asking, ‘Why am I here?’ ” said Gantner, now 61.
When Tapp woke up at a hospital in Wisconsin in summer 2012, she had no idea how she got there. Tapp, now 47, knew she had been riding her bicycle in a residential area in her hometown in Woodville, Wis., but after that, everything was a blur.
Later, she learned she had been hit by a car. She was placed in a medically induced coma because of a traumatic brain injury and an injury to her knee.
“I was coming pretty fast and it was a perfect storm for the person who pulled right in front of me, and I had nowhere to go and nowhere to stop,” Tapp said.
The driver of the vehicle was a victim of a crime and was upset. Tapp happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
She wasn’t wearing a helmet, she said, because she didn’t expect to get into an accident in a quiet neighborhood.
For two weeks she was in an Eau Claire, Wis., hospital. One week she spent in the coma. The next week, she was out of bed and in a wheelchair. Quickly, she was able to start walking again.
Just a few months later, she was craving to get back out and ride the hills again.
The cardiology nurse was crying when she read Gantner’s report. She said he shouldn’t have been alive.
But when Gantner had his heart attack, Steve Etten of Covington and Emily Robins of Robins immediately started performing CPR, working on him for 12 minutes until medics arrived on scene.
“If it would have happened anywhere other than it did, I’m dead,” Gantner said.
In 2012, Gantner again prepared to ride RAGBRAI. But his calves and hamstrings started cramping two weeks before the ride.
He sought care and learned that his pancreas had stopped working and that he had Type 2 diabetes. Once again, his RAGBRAI plans were thwarted.
“I was all set, paid my registration fee and had people to go with, and then all of a sudden, the rug gets pulled out from under me,” Gantner said.
People often ask Tapp if she’s afraid to ride a bicycle, especially after the accident, and especially since she plans to ride RAGBRAI.
Her simple answer is, “No.”
“I absolutely have no memory of the accident,” Tapp said. “It’s almost like at times telling someone else’s story because I have no memory at all.”
For years, her family has ridden RAGBRAI. Her grandfather, whom she plans to visit during her trip to Iowa, rode into his 80s.
This year will be Tapp’s first time, but she feels like the week will be the perfect way to celebrate her recovery.
“I’m so excited for everything,” Tapp said. “I’m excited to do what I feel like is a family tradition, a little bit.”
Not quite two months ago, Gantner almost had another traumatic fall. He was riding 25 mph and fell so hard his helmet broke.
Gantner said he has recovered and is ready to be drenched in sweat and rub some rubber into concrete.
“I’m anticipating it with eagerness to get back in the saddle and get back into it again,” Gantner said.
Today on RAGBRAI: How to prepare
Bicyclists and support crews will be rolling into Rock Valley in northwest Iowa before the ride shoves off toward Okoboji on Sunday. The RAGBRAI Expo begins at noon at Rock Valley High School.
GET UPDATES: Look for videos, photos and blog updates this afternoon and evening at RAGBRAI.com and DesMoinesRegister.com on your smartphone, tablet or desktop computer.
FIRST TO KNOW: Make sure you have the Register’s mobile app and the RAGBRAI iPhone app downloaded so you can receive push alerts as soon as need-to-know forecasts and route information are published, when our daily streaming-video show from the RAGBRAI route is about to begin, and when new photos are available.
LANCE ARMSTRONG: The seven-time Tour de France champion who was stripped of those titles because of doping is scheduled to work tonight as a guest bartender in Rock Valley, where residents were displaced by flooding. He will also ride RAGBRAI through Wednesday. It’s his sixth time on the ride.
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