Usually at this time of year, the Rev. Bill Ritter says, he has his bags packed and is ready to hit the road for the Nebraska United Methodist Bike Ride for Hunger, better known as NUMB.
But this year, his wife noticed, his luggage was empty.
“I said if I don’t start packing, it doesn’t happen,” Ritter, who co-founded NUMB 25 years ago, told her.
Ritter and co-founder Greg Bakewell announced after the 2019 ride that the next NUMB would be the last. That final ride was delayed from 2020 because of the pandemic and will begin and end at Elkhorn Hills from Saturday through Wednesday, June 26-30.
“I know it’s coming. It’s the right time for it to come,” Ritter said of the ride’s conclusion.
The number of bicyclists — 135 registered this year — is as strong as ever, he said, but “the riders are getting much older than they used to be.”
Ritter retired in 2019 after 42 years of ministry, the last five as superintendent of the Blue River District.
Although a couple of people have shown interest in keeping it going, Ritter said he and Bakewell want to be the ones who decide when it ends. They came up with the idea after being part of a lengthy bike ride themselves, huddling for warmth in a hog barn during 30-degree sleet and thinking there had to be a better way.
The ride started with about 30 bicyclists and what Ritter admits now was a strenuous itinerary.
“I thought everybody liked to have 100-mile days like I did,” he said with a laugh. “I had five, 100-mile days back-to-back in the winds of Nebraska.”
“It’s amazing they were willing to come back for another one” after the first, he added.
Rather than the 450-mile one-way ride, NUMB developed a more circular route, beginning and ending in the same spot and lasting closer to 200 miles.
NUMB has taken different routes every year, riding through all 93 counties in Nebraska, as well as parts of all of its neighboring states. When the Nebraska Conference merged with Kansas East and Kansas West to form the Great Plains Conference, the ride was half in Kansas and half in Nebraska, with commemorative jerseys that were half-red and half-blue.
Less than a handful of riders have been on all 25 rides, he said.
This year’s route goes from Elkhorn Hills to Syracuse to Ashland to Fremont and back to Elkhorn Hills. Some of the roads are the same traveled on the first NUMB, Ritter said.
The nighttime schedule at the rides is for fellowship and fun, said Nina Clark, dubbed as the social director of NUMB.
Talent shows take place at the areas where the riders camp for the night.
“We joke that talent is very broadly defined,” she said, with riders encouraged to tell jokes, sing songs or juggle. “We’re a willing audience, and we like to have fun with it.”
Clark said knowing this weekend would be the final ride brings a combination of sadness and satisfaction.
“We’re going to miss all of our friends and everything we do every year,” she said. “But knowing we’ve done so much good for so many years is the overriding positive feeling that comes out of this all.
While NUMB has forged friendships and promoted healthy living, its most important legacy is the $1 million-plus that it has raised and distribute to hunger charities, including Africa University and food banks in Omaha and Lincoln. When Ritter addresses the riders, he said, he always references Matthew 25:31-46, and tells the riders that when their time comes they can say they did help the least of their neighbors.
“We rode bikes for NUMB,” Ritter said. “We changed the world.”
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