Josh Stelter says that psoriasis saved his life. He was diagnosed in 2012, and, because of that diagnosis, his doctor found a stage 1 melanoma. Stelter, who is 39 and lives in Chicago, has been cancer-free ever since. “But that doesn’t mean that I don’t live with the constant itching, redness and flaky skin, or the self-conscious dilemma of walking out the door and facing the world.”
In July 2018, to help raise awareness of psoriasis and money to support research into a cure, Stelter spent a week riding the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI, along with thousands of other cyclists. It was his first ride that lasted beyond a day. The cyclists rode 513 miles and climbed 12,000 feet from Onawa on the Missouri River to Davenport on the Mississippi.
Stelter set up a Team NPF donation page for his ride. He hoped to raise $1,000 and more than doubled his goal. He sent his supporters a daily email with running commentary and many photos. “Make a goal,” Stelter wrote to his followers on his last day. “Aim high. Go for it. It can be so damn rewarding.”
Here are some excerpts from Stelter’s epic ride. The first two days were spent transporting people, bikes and gear, so we join Stelter on his quest on day 3. (Emails have been edited for brevity.)
Day 3, July 22: Onawa to Denison
Started the day by dipping my tire in the Missouri River. Our journey to the river added a few extra miles to the scheduled ride (14) and maybe some elevation. All told, we traveled just over 62 miles today and had about 2,000 feet in elevation gains. The reward for going up is coming back down. I was able to hit 35 to 36 mph for long runs on a downhill. Pro cyclists can hit in excess of those speeds on flat land.
Stelter dips his bike's back tire in the Missouri.
Had a little accident this morning. Tore up my pinky toe on a tent stake. Oh well. As they say, it’s just one more hill, get over it.
Day 4, July 23: Denison to Jefferson
Today was intense. We left early to beat the rain. We didn’t. Gets a bit slick when you’re flying down rolling hills. We saw a few people go down but they kept riding. Luckily we had great weather the rest of the day. Then we got to camp. Tents up and boom, rains again. Oh well. Felt good. In total we hit 75 miles and climbed 3,000 feet. I also had my leg tagged with “virgin” for rookie riders.
We passed through some interesting towns today, including Templeton, which is home to the famous Templeton Rye Whiskey. I may have sampled some. Another town, Dedham, has the oldest jail in Iowa. I’m not sure that’s the claim to fame I’d shoot for.
A wonderful party was waiting for us at the last stop, Jefferson. They had a pretty impressive hair metal band with pyrotechnics and all. Hairball is their name. Good times.
Day 5, July 24: Jefferson to Ames
We had a great ride today. Sun all day, decent wind at our back at times. All in all, no complaints. You really have to give it to the fine folks of Iowa, blocking roads and extending that Midwestern hospitality. Cold water from a hose or some indoor plumbing always treats a person nice.
I met up with some more friends from my college days at Iowa State, Ben and Molly. They’re letting me camp with them and use their own SAG (support and gear) service to get from town to town. It’ll make life a lot easier. I’m so incredibly thankful. I used the RAGBRAI SAG service for the first few days. It was fine, but I got a warm shower and a little more room to stretch my legs teaming up with Ben and Molly.
Day 6, July 25: Ames to Newton
Lots of hot hot sun and more wind than should be allowed. Oh, and the hills. Sixty-eight miles with 2,700 feet of climb. Yesterday, for those keeping track, was 63 miles with only a little over 1,300 feet.
Today started with a hot shower and a shave. These necessities are in short supply here. Plus, my new mates had a cup of coffee waiting for me when I got back. Hog heaven. Kinda like Iowa. We passed through Nevada (Nuh-VEY-da to the locals). And I met the mayor. He liked my bike jersey, which says “Please don’t run me over.” I liked his beard. Bet he likes craft beer or home brewing. Stereotypes, I know.
Nevada mayor Brent Barker welcomes Team NPF cyclist Josh Stelter.
We played some pinball while in town, too. We also hit State Center, which I hope is the dead center of the state. It’s also the rose capital of Iowa. Tonight we’re in Newton, which was home to the world’s longest slip-n-slide into a mud pit I’ve ever seen. There are some nasty storms out tonight. Quite the light show. I’m hunkered down. Rain fly, don’t fail me now.
I haven’t really talked about what people ride out here. Mostly road bikes. Lots of commuter bikes, too. But there’s recumbents, tandems (two-, three- and four-rider varieties), fat-tire bikes, tricycles and unicycles. Yep, there are people who ride unicycles nearly 70 miles up and down all these hills.
Day 7, July 26: Newton to Sigourney
So, I survived last night’s storms. They evacuated several campgrounds just a few miles from us. Today was the nicest day of the week. Cooler northwest winds help blow us across the state. Wow. The hills were intense. I scheduled 67 miles. I rode 106. That’s an epic day for me. The longest I’ve ever gone is 74.5 miles. When I started training for this, 30 miles was difficult. It’s been a long several months. But today was the culmination of all that work. #humblebrag.
We rode south of Newton to Reasnor, where I remembered to check my tire pressure. Of course the one track pump in town was broken. I hand-pumped back to about 75 to 80 psi. Rode 10 miles holding on tight. Found a new pump. All was good.
I then took the ride south through New Sharon. I had a breakfast burrito and a blueberry hand pie. I’m fairly certain that powered me through today. On the extra loop, we were graced with a metal fabrication facility that housed super clean, no-line bathrooms and a machine that served water and shaved ice at the same time. Amazing humans come up with cool stuff.
I’m in Sigourney (Sig-ER-knee). Population is maybe 1,500. As proud as I am about riding the distance today, a guy rode the big wheel bike 106 miles. And it was crazy hilly. He’s kinda my hero. Thanks, whoever you are!
Day 8, July 27: Sigourney to Iowa City
We’re in Iowa City. Today was nice and extra easy. I also took it slow. After yesterday I didn’t want to break anything. About 60 miles and 1,500 feet of climb today. I lost my crew in the morning. I’ll have to burn it to Davenport and the RAGBRAI SAG service, so I have to kick these tired dogs up before the bus ride to Chicago.
Cool breezes again today. Maybe it hit 80 degrees. I’ve been super lucky this week, weather-wise. We did have a lot of riding into a stiff northern wind though. My favorite towns were Keota and Riverside. Keota’s population, like most towns this week, really shot up when the cyclists came through. Riverside had this unreal hospitality. You can’t beat genuine people – and farming folk are just that. We might not all agree on everything, but we can on most things.
Tomorrow is the end. Wish me luck. I’ve been complimented on my “road rash” several times this week. That’s what you deal with when you have psoriasis.
Day 9, July 28: Iowa City to Davenport
I MADE IT! FIVE HUNDRED AND THIRTEEN MILES! Thank you so much for your texts, emails and calls. When I had cell service, the extra encouragement was awesome. When I arrived at the river, I called my wife, Rebecca. I nearly started crying. Alright, maybe I did. This has just been so surreal.
Make a goal. Aim high. Go for it. It can be so damn rewarding.
Without any riding “pals” today, I set the pace high and flew into Davenport. I only stopped for a breakfast burrito and some water. We rolled south out of Iowa City and then set east towards Big Muddy. Lots of rolling hills today. We climbed over 2,000 feet. Riding into Wilton, they had tons of signs up with beaver facts. Did you know beavers are monogamous? And that they secrete castoreum to protect their coat? Castoreum comes out near their tails and is the consistency of molasses. It’s also FDA-approved as vanilla flavoring. Say what?!
Thanks to Wild Cat Den State Park, I experienced cycling under the shade for the first time all week. Davenport rolled the red carpet out for us. What an amazing finish. We got to ride on highways.
I did the front tire dip in the Mississippi, but my bike needs a real bath. So do I.
Thanks again for your support of the National Psoriasis Foundation. It really means a lot to me. I’m glad you were along for the ride this week. I hope you enjoyed the journey. I know I did. Time to pedal to the next place: home. I cannot wait to see my wife and son and my bed. A real bed.
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