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The cycle of giving: Perham man pedals for a cause

Marie Nitke/FOCUS Les Gunderson has participated in Habitat for Humanity's 500 Mile Bike Ride for the last eight years. This year's ride across Minnesota is coming up on July 15. Gunderson regularly takes part in a number of charity rides, biking thousands of miles every year and raising money for a variety of good causes.

When Les Gunderson originally volunteered to take part in Habitat for Humanity's 500 Mile Bike Ride, his intent was to do it just the one time.

After all, the Perham man said with a chuckle in an interview last week, "it's 500 miles in one week." No easy feat.

Yet now, nine years later, he's still pedaling for the cause - with no plans to hit the brakes any time soon.

Why? Because the ride, he said, "covers two things that I really understand and appreciate. One of them is riding a bicycle, which I've been doing all my life. The other is Habitat for Humanity - what the organization does and the people who are involved in it."

Not only does the ride provide a fun social outlet for Gunderson, who's made lifelong friends through his participation in the event, but it's also a way for him to raise funds for one of his favorite charities. 

In the past, Gunderson has ridden for the Leaf River Area Habitat for Humanity, which builds affordable homes for people throughout East Otter Tail, Wadena and Todd counties. Those homes are then sold, with no-interest mortgages, to low-income families in the area.

This year, for the first time, those who donate to Gunderson's 500 Mile Ride can choose where their funds will go - to the local Leaf River affiliate or to an affiliate in Cebu, Phillippines, or to both. Gunderson is friends with the people heading up the Cebu efforts, he said, and he knows the money will be put to good use at the Habitat for Humanity there.

Gunderson is the only person from Perham to take part in the ride, at least as far as he knows. In past years he's ridden with others from Ottertail, Wadena and Detroit Lakes, but riders from all over Minnesota take part, and some come from as far away as Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Illinois and even New York and California.

In all, the group consists of about 135 riders every year, ranging in age from teenagers to 80. They travel a route that varies from year to year, but usually stays within the boundaries of Minnesota.

Their routine is simple, but exhausting: They wake up every morning at 5 a.m., load all their gear onto a truck and grab a quick breakfast (usually provided by a church or civic group in whatever town they happen to be staying in). They ride for about 75 miles a day, stopping for water and food breaks every 20 or 30 miles, then they unpack at that night's stopover, shower and have dinner (again, usually provided by a community group). Then it's 'lights out' by 9 p.m., only to do it all over again the next day.

Another 30-40 volunteers - nurses, bike repairers, road markers and others - follow the riders in vehicles, watching for anyone who may need some sort of medical or other assistance.

"It kind of feels like the old-fashioned traveling circus," Gunderson said.

The communities the group stops at along the way are typically home to a local Habitat affiliate, which acts as 'host' for the group for a night, providing food and shelter. This way, the riders get to interact with Habitat leaders from around the state; and for one day during the ride, they have the option to take a break from biking to help build a Habitat home.

Riders raise an average of $2,500 to $2,800 each, every year. In the 500 Mile Ride's 20-year history, the event has raised more than $4.5 million for Habitat for Humanity.

Gunderson said he's gotten strong community support from the Perham area through the years, especially from local businesses and civic organizations, family and friends, and Calvary Lutheran Church.

Now retired, Gunderson taught science for years at Perham schools. A past member of the Lakes Area Bike Club, he rides "somewhere around 4,000 miles a year," he said. "I bike all the time."

In addition to Habitat's 500 Mile Ride, Gunderson often takes part in other day or weekend-long charity rides for a number of causes. His wife and other family members sometimes join him on these shorter trips.

"Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bicycle," Gunderson said, quoting John F. Kennedy. "Even Einstein said he thought of his Theory of Relativity while he was riding a bicycle. It's fast enough - and slow enough - to give you time to think and feel the air go by, and smell the smells."

This year's 500 Mile Ride will start in St. Louis Park on July 15, travel through Hastings, Hutchinson and other Minnesota communities, and end back in St. Louis Park on July 21. 

Gunderson can continue to collect donations for the ride until Dec. 1. For more information or to make a donation, contact Gunderson at 346-7663 or visit and search for Les Gunderson.

"It's very nice to think about the people back home that have supported the ride when you're about four days in," he said, "because your mind can start to do crazy things. But you just think about the people."

Not only the people who support the ride, but also those who benefit from it: "Once you've met the partner families and seen what having a home means to them, their families and children, having a place to be that's decent and safe and affordable... Most of us take it for granted that we have a home, but we're all basically one life event away from being homeless ourselves. The partner families are absolutely amazing people."