Ride to End Alzheimer’s Aims for a Cure

When is an organized bike ride more than just an energetic day outdoors? When the event raises money for a cause that hits people’s hearts and speaks to their experience.

The Ride to End ALZ came to Minnesota on a sunny, chilly Saturday in October, the first time the nationwide event has been held here since its inception in 1976. Sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association, the ride aims to raise enough money “to discover methods of treatment and prevention.” It’s a day of exercise and camaraderie on behalf of the 6 million people in the United States who live with the progressive disease — a type of dementia — and the 11 million people who care for them.

Anyone who has watched a loved one disappear from Alzheimer’s disease — whose seven stages progress eventually to an inability to recognize loved ones and, later, to feed oneself or move — knows of its particular cruelty.

A rider stands near their bike amid Alzheimer's Association tents.
Dubbed as “More Than a Bike Ride,” the Ride to End ALZ drew many participants who have a personal connection to Alzheimer’s Disease.

More than just a bike ride, as the Ride to End ALZ’s tagline declares, the event has a mission to spread awareness and raise money for Alzheimer’s research. With this in mind, 280 riders in Minnesota raised nearly $270,000 — as individuals or as company teams and club teams — that will go toward slowing or eradicating this disease.

As both an organizer and a rider in Minnesota, I have a personal relationship to the cause, with a grandfather, great-grandfather, aunt and mother-in-law who died from or showed signs of the disease. My father passed away from Alzheimer’s and COVID-19 in January 2021, about a year after going into memory care. I retired the following May; my plan for retirement had been to have the freedom to spend more time with my dad to give him a little bit of peace.

Every Rider Welcome

As in a lot of fundraising rides, many ages and all skill levels were represented. But the accomplishment of doing this ride involved not only how many miles people rode on a chilly autumn day but how much money they raised and how deeply they connected with someone else experiencing the same struggles with a family member or friend.

A weekend warrior crossing the finish line after 10 miles could feel the same sense of victory as a seasoned long-haul cyclist logging 65 miles. 

The ride took place at Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove. Typical of a Minnesota fall morning, the send-off for the first wave of riders was cool and brisk (nothing that a seasoned Midwestern rider is not accustomed to or equipped for). Riders had a choice of four routes, ranging from 10 to 65 miles.

The shorter rides took advantage of fall colors in Elm Creek Park Reserve, while the longer rides leveraged the scenery of the Mississippi and Rum rivers and Lake Itasca Trail before heading north to the town of Elk River and then back toward Elm Creek Park Reserve.

The evening before the ride began with the Champions Dinner, saluting all riders who raised $1,000 or more in donations. Held at Mississippi Crossings in Champlin, the event featured keynote speaker Christopher Weber, Ph.D., director of Global Science Initiatives for the Alzheimer’s Association; his work includes convening leaders to develop diagnostic tools and drugs, and he has participated in many Ride to End ALZ events himself.

Not wanting to short riders on food or entertainment, we included a day-of breakfast, post-ride lunch and after-party at Omni Brewery & Taproom. The host of volunteers at every stage provided a friendly, concierge-type feel. 

Hope Lies Ahead

Co-chair Kelly Branch, who led the organizing in Minnesota along with her husband Jeff, participated in her first Ride to End ALZ in Texas in 2021. In a word, she says, she was overwhelmed.

“For us, the Ride to End ALZ is not about the bike. It is about coming together on a day where you are celebrating and honoring loved ones who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, reminding others who may have similar experiences with this hideous disease that they are not alone in this fight, and seeing a glimmer of light that we have a chance of finding a cure, with 100% of the fundraising monies going toward research.”

We are in an era of treatment. For the first time, two FDA-approved drugs are available to treat the underlying biology of the disease. These drugs are effective only in early-stage patients and are not a cure, but they slow down the pace of cognitive decline — providing patients with more quality days with loved ones.

In addition:

  • The Alzheimer’s Association has invested more than $325 million in over 1,000 projects on six continents around the globe. 
  • Groundbreaking studies like U.S. POINTER, designed to evaluate the effect of diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes on dementia, are currently underway.

Looking Toward 2024

This was the first year for the Ride to End ALZ in Minnesota, but it will not be the last. “We are so excited to watch it flourish and grow,” Kelly Branch says.

My role as a volunteer organizer, recruited by Kelly, was to help get the word out by delivering printed materials to bike shops, tabling at the Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour and similar events, and placing trail signs promoting the event along bike paths and trails in the community.

We are all grateful for the volunteers, for the riders who got us close to our $300,000 goal and for the sponsors, including UCare, Experience Maple Grove and Trailhead Cycling.

Kelly and Jeff Branch.
Minnesota ride organizing leaders Kelly and Jeff Branch.

For more information about the #Ride2EndALZ, including details about next year’s ride, visit www.alz.org/ride. If you need help in dealing with Alzheimer’s disease or any other dementia, contact the Alzheimer’s Association’s free 24/7 helpline at 800-272-3900.

Photos provided by the Ride to End ALZ. Brian Tatum, senior director of the Ride to End ALZ in Denver, Colorado, contributed to this piece.