Posted 6/7/2022By Susan Thompson Lake Panorama Times
In the mid-1980s, a 21-room guesthouse motel was built on Karen Drive just south of the Lake Panorama National Resort conference center. It has hosted many people, usually wedding parties or groups taking advantage of one of LPN’s special golf packages.
Sometimes, a person with a truly interesting story books a room for a night. Gregory Maassen, who stayed in the guesthouse the night of May 14, is one of those people.
Maassen, a native of the Netherlands, is riding an e-bike across the United States from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. There is some irony to his mode of transportation.
“In the Netherlands, we use bikes, but we don’t love them,” he said, in an interview at a picnic table on the guesthouse deck. “I grew up cycling, until I got my driver’s license, which I thought put an end to my cycling forever.”
He is making the trip to raise awareness and support for the treatment of peripheral neuropathy.
“Peripheral neuropathy is a little-known or understood debilitating disease that attacks the nervous system and affects 30 million Americans,” he said. “The money I raise goes directly to the Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy, a nonprofit that provides research and education.”
Maassen, who is 54 years of age, has personal experience with the disease. He spent many years working with the World Bank and as a partner of the United States Agency for International Development. His jobs sent him to Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Macedonia, Jordan, Armenia, Mongolia and southern Africa.
“I like to get out into the bush and see the wildlife,” he said. “I was hiking in southern Africa when I stepped into a nest of ticks. There were about 80 tiny larvae, small as grains of sand, and it was impossible to quickly find and remove them all.”
Later, his entire body started to burn, like a severe sunburn, and doctors couldn’t find a cause. His symptoms worsened until he couldn’t walk or talk, and he slipped into depression and had anxiety attacks.
In 2019, he came to the United States on an emergency medical green card and went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. The doctor said he believed he had peripheral neuropathy, and a skin biopsy test confirmed the diagnosis. There are many types of this disease; Maassen has post infectious small fiber neuropathy, caused by the tick encounter.
His journey to recovery is a powerful story. Through medication and therapy, Maassen went from being bedridden to walking again. His doctor said to continue his progress, he should find a form of exercise he enjoyed, and he decided to e-bike. An e-bike has a small electric motor between the pedals powered by battery packs stored in the support bars of the bike frame.
Maassen originally needed help when he started to e-bike but now pedals under his own power most of the time. He is now off all medications, including antidepressants, because biking has made him physically stronger and more mindful of things around him.
Maassen, who lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Janet, founded E-Bike Lovers, a social group of 550 e-bikers in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland.
“This is a very active community organization,” he said. “We promote e-biking, and the group website includes lots of good information to help others learn about the technology.”
As he travels, he hands out small flyers with his website address, which has a wealth of information about both his cross-country e-bike tour and peripheral neuropathy. The flyer encourages donors to give one cent per mile for each mile he rides and includes this tag line: “You can add your two cents, too.” Learn more at www.ebiketour.org
“As I talk about this cause, about 90% of the people I meet either have it or know someone who does,” Maassen said. “I still have symptoms sometimes, when I get a burning sensation and get discouraged. But I’m one of the lucky ones who has been able to generally control the symptoms with exercise and focusing on the good things in life.”
Maassen began his trip April 2. He is following the historic Lincoln Highway and a new transcontinental cycling route designed for this trip. It follows the route of a military convoy in 1919 that included a young President Eisenhower.
“Eisenhower oversaw the liberation of the Netherlands during WWII, something the Dutch will never forget,” Maassen said. “This ride is a tribute to the long-lasting Dutch-American friendship. The United States’ longest unbroken, peaceful relationship with any foreign country is with the Netherlands.”
For many years, only three transcontinental cycling routes existed in the United States — the Northern Tier, the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail and the Southern Tier. The routes were developed by the Adventure Cycling Association in the 1970s before e-bikes were common.
The new transcontinental route Maassen is using was designed with e-biking in mind, with plenty of accommodations and stops to charge batteries. It took a year of planning to design the route, using virtual reality tools and state-of-the-art routing software. The route connects local communities and follows country roads and cycling routes whenever possible. A final version of the route will be published after Maassen has e-biked the entire route.
Maassen arrived in Panora by taking the Raccoon River Valley Trail. He had never been to Iowa but said he is impressed by the “magnificent network of trails here. A big shoutout to all the planners who have put together this amazing infrastructure that provides the opportunity for low-stress cycling. Riding the Iowa trails has been an outstanding experience.”
Maassen can average 11 mph and usually covers at least 55 miles each day. He knows when he gets further west, to Utah and Nevada, there will be stretches where he will need to ride up to 100 miles in a day to reach a place where he can charge his bike’s batteries.
He, the bike and a trailer he pulls, altogether weigh 416 pounds. He is carrying film and camera equipment to document his journey, a drone for overhead filming, spare batteries, food, tools, camping equipment and a GPS device.
Originally planned as a 3,400-mile journey, Maassen said he probably will be closer to 4,000 miles because of some backtracking, detours and extra miles needed for various reasons.
Maassen encourages people who have peripheral neuropathy to educate themselves about treatment options.
“There are medications that can help some people,” he said. “And exercise is critical. Whether you e-bike or swim or walk, do something. Try to put your mind somewhere else than with your condition. You can flex the brain a little, and you can make it feel happy.”
There’s one more chapter to this story about Gregory Maassen. Months before he began his cross-county journey, he applied for U.S. citizenship. When he was near Chicago, his wife called to say he had been notified of the date to take the naturalization test in Washington, D.C. He flew home, took and passed the test, then flew back to continue his journey. When he reached Omaha, he flew home again, this time to take the citizenship oath. So, he started his trip as a Dutch cyclist and will finish it as an American citizen.