Conquered: What cyclists defeated to finish RAGBRAI

I was happy to help Brett and Brittany of Team Spawn — they pedaled a tandem Saturday as I trudged up the second gigantic hill out of Garber on RAGBRAI XLII’s roller-coaster day, topographically speaking.

“This guy walking is passing us!” Brittany shouted from the back of the bike.

So in my own humble (and exhausted) way I spurred them on to the summit.

You’re welcome! As a bicyclist I specialize in downhills and tailwinds.

Maybe I’ve written that before. This was only my fourth time on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, and yet I struggle to conjure an appropriate description of this bizarre, beloved pilgrimage that doesn’t lean on such words as “circus,” “Mardi Gras” or “odyssey.”

“There’s no way to capture it,” a guy from Tucson, Ariz., mused while slumped in the grass outside Guttenberg.

That took the pressure off me as I sat and pondered a final column to sum up a week that careened from a sweltering heat index to chilly, torrential rain.

A ride in which you see both “Breaking Bad” team jerseys (as in Heisenberg) and “Braking Bad” jerseys (as in get out of the way).

A ride in which you can compete in a toilet toss or marvel at the time-capsule farms of the dozens of Amish families that were sprinkled along the final two days of the route.

A woman from Ankeny sitting next to the guy from Tucson compared RAGBRAI to childbirth: Not long after you coast into the last town and dip your tire in the Mississippi River (a ritual that dates back to the second RAGBRAI in 1974), you forget the pain and gradually convince yourself to get back on the bike.

“I was looking for the sag wagon for the first time in 10 years,” admitted Casey Simpson, who rides with Team Impact out of Des Moines, affiliated with First Assembly of God Church.

He was referring to Friday morning’s slog out of Waverly, which began with a downpour before giving way to a warm and sunny afternoon. Yet Simpson forced himself down the road. He’s unsure why.

“It’s the nature of RAGBRAI,” he said Saturday along the route. “You have a lot of good days, and you may have some bad days. But just keep pedaling.”

Just keep pedaling.

This is personal for Simpson, 37, who “felt like I was almost dead every day” when he rode his first RAGBRAI a decade ago. He had shed 70 pounds before the ride.

He had tipped the scales at 300 and “couldn’t even get on the jungle gym with my daughter.”

So Simpson returns to RAGBRAI each year, with an ear bud popped in so an app can recite his pace at every mile, pushing him ahead.

On my first morning tucked in among the RAGBRAI herd four years ago, I was struck by the mechanical, rhythmic symphony of it all.

Gears clicking and buzzing. Riders shouting warnings to each other. Stereos blaring. The collective hum of hundreds of tires on pavement.

But now I find that I’m more curious about the silent soundtrack that plays out inside the mind of each RAGBRAI rider.

Charlie Cutler, who returns to the Mayo Clinic this week for cancer diagnosis and treatment, celebrates RAGBRAI’s end in Guttenberg. “My philosophy the last year and a half is to look one week ahead and keep chugging forward,” Cutler said. (Kyle Munson/The Register)

Charlie Cutler, who returns to the Mayo Clinic this week for cancer diagnosis and treatment, celebrates RAGBRAI’s end in Guttenberg. “My philosophy the last year and a half is to look one week ahead and keep chugging forward,” Cutler said. (Kyle Munson/The Register)

Last week I sat in the shade of a stairwell in downtown Greene where Charlie Cutler shared his own interior RAGBRAI monologue.

Cutler, 24, had set the ride as his goal earlier this year to mark his official comeback.

In December 2012 he was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and endured aggressive chemotherapy.

He spent his last semester at Iowa State University, in spring 2013, more cloistered than the average college senior, compensating for his weakened immune system.

After college and recovery, he got a job as an intern architect in Des Moines.

But then he suffered a recurrence of the cancer in his brain, a tumor perhaps the size of an acorn or two. Loss of function in his right foot and leg was the symptom that tipped him off. That required a stem cell transplant Feb. 10 at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Even as he barely had the energy for a trip to the movies and slept a dozen hours every night, Cutler plotted RAGBRAI as the symbolic finish line for his recovery.

Last week he looked trim, tanned, ready to ride.

But Wednesday he returns to Mayo. A couple weeks ago Cutler discovered strange lumps in his left groin. His doctors agreed that it was OK to ride RAGBRAI, but Cutler could be facing another transplant with donor stem cells for his third round of treatment.

Life after RAGBRAI is “a little bit up in the air at this point,” he said.

Instead of looking at RAGBRAI as a celebration with his brother, Pete, and all his buddies in Team Hot Sauce, the ride became a final, blissful moment in limbo.

When I ask for a RAGBRAI highlight, he mentions immersing himself in a DJ dance party in the middle of Graettinger on RAGBRAI’s second day.

“My philosophy the last year and a half is to look one week ahead and keep chugging forward,” Cutler said.

Just keep pedaling, on or off RAGBRAI.

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