Biking for a Purpose

A year ago, none of them owned a bike. Now, a group of five students and recent alumni from South Dakota State University completed a nearly 10,000-mile bike trip through all 48 continental U.S. states in order to raise funds for a school in Honduras’s City of Refuge.

It began with an idea. Michael Amen ’14 approached some of his Delta Chi fraternity brothers last New Year’s Eve and proposed they join him for a cross-country bike trip the coming summer. After more conversations and a little convincing, Amen eventually sat down with Brett Citrowske, Christian Gould, Shaheed Shihan and Benjamin Ruggeberg to begin working out the logistics. The five planned to embark only days after Amen, Citrowske and Ruggeberg would graduate in the spring.

“We got together and started learning how to plan a bike trip—the equipment, the roads,” said Gould, a senior graphic design major from Rochester, Minnesota. “Once we split up the responsibilities, it got much easier.”

The five met in a study room in Briggs Library every Wednesday for at least two hours. Gould took over marketing, including the project’s name, The Great 48. Ruggeberg, a computer science major from Rochester, built the website where Shihan, a mathematics major from Bangladesh, wrote many of the posts and blogs. Citrowske and Amen developed the bike route.

“We had our training wheels off by March,” joked Amen. “Honestly, we just sat down and did it. We always listened to people who told us we couldn’t. We’d ask them why they thought so, they’d explain, and then we’d have to find a way to counter their point and make sure we were prepared.”

The group also sought advice from John Ball, a horticulture professor at SDSU with experience in biking. It was Ball’s idea to use two tandem bikes and a single bike on the trip rather than each biker having his own. The tandem bikes could carry heavier trailers for supplies along the route.

The City of Refuge

The bikers knew they wanted to use the trip to support the education of those less fortunate and looked into several projects before finding one that they connected to and trusted. They were able to meet with Tom Stamman, the founder of Impact Ministries International, an organization that supports charitable projects in more than 50 countries worldwide.

Stamman told the bikers about the City of Refuge, an enclosed, self-sustaining community in the mountains of Honduras. Home to approximately 50 orphans, the City of Refuge had a bilingual elementary school but no higher education available to its citizens. The closest high school was expensive, and the 40-mile journey to it would be dangerous for young people. When Stamman, who promised to match any funds raised by the bikers, mentioned that his wife would be traveling to the city only a few weeks later, Amen and Gould decided to spend their spring break getting to know the place their biking would benefit.

The most exciting thing that the City of Refuge has to offer is its potential,” said Gould. “It’s a place of hope in an area that doesn’t normally have any. It provides a way for children who are in the worst scenarios to escape that life.”

The pair returned from Honduras with a new sense of purpose and set the departure date for May 13, hoping to beat the snow back to Brookings in the fall.

The ride

The Great 48 bikers left Brookings that morning after a sleepless night spent ensuring everything was packed and ready and a farewell breakfast with friends and family. They biked 34 miles to Amen’s parents’ lake cabin where they all promptly fell asleep at the dinner table.

“That first day was rough, but I think we knew it would get better. It definitely did,” said Citrowske. The five knew they would have to average between 60 and 80 miles per day to finish their trek before the snow hit. It was not long before they were accomplishing that with relative ease.

“Having a partner on the bike helped, someone to talk to,” said Ruggeburg. “That way we could coach each other a little.”

The Great 48 biked through pouring rain, twisting mountain roads and toward Nevada desert towns that didn’t seem to get any closer even after hours of pedaling. They spent the Fourth of July on a California beach in a makeshift tent village. On their best day, they biked 126.4 miles; on their worst, 12 miles.

From the start, The Great 48 bikers resolved not to spend any money on lodging. In South Dakota, they were able to stay with friends and relatives, but soon had to rely on their own tents and the kindness of strangers. Other times, the bikers would pedal into an unfamiliar town and hope to find somewhere to camp for the night.

Their fundraising came primarily from presentations in communities along the way. The bikers did not pedal on Sundays, reserving that day for speaking at churches and other gatherings. On the road, the big blue tandem bikes attracted plenty of attention, and they often received small donations from people who stopped them at gas stations and grocery stores to ask what they were doing. The City of Refuge received a check at the end of each month, so they could begin construction on the school before the ride was finished.

The return

After 171 days, nearly 10,000 miles, and more than $30,000 in donations, the bikers returned to Brookings Oct. 31.

“When we saw the Campanile for the first time and realized that we were back, that we did it, that was a fantastic moment,” said Amen.

Several members of the group traveled to Honduras in January to see firsthand the impact their work has made on the City of Refuge. The five bikers have also pledged to get together and do something travel-related every May 13—Alaska and Hawaii, maybe?

Madelin Mack

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