Chance meetings with strangers pepper our days. Most remain fleeting interactions, quickly forgotten. Then there are those that change us, alter our course in ways we never anticipated.
Ray Youngberg knows this type of encounter well. There was the 1948 Olympic cyclist who spotted Youngberg’s bike parked on a car lot in Salt Lake City. And the carful of women eight years later who pulled up near his friend’s convertible as they cruised downtown Portland. And the dentist he met soon after who happened to know some of his cousins back in Utah.
The tangibles Youngberg eventually derived from these chance meetings — bicycles and racing trophies, photos of his wife of 55 years who recently passed away, an antique dentistry cabinet — fill his South Salem home.
He says it’s all “just stuff” and calls himself a packrat. But really, like many of us, he’s simply holding tight to his best memories — the results of moments and decisions that make up the life of a 79-year-old man who wants to remember his impact on the world.
Entering the Cycling Scene
Several years ago, a cyclist in Utah who was conducting research for a book on the state’s history with the sport dubbed Youngberg “The Father of Utah Modern Bicycle Racing.”
It’s not a title Youngberg would have given himself, but he’s proud to have it. When the cyclist first contacted Youngberg for research help, he asked him to compile all his bicycling accomplishments and related life history into one book. Youngberg spent a month pulling together articles, photos and information he had saved through the years to create a several-inch-thick binder he titled “Ray Youngberg Bicycle Memories.”
Among other things, it details Youngberg’s multiple cycling state championships in Utah and his forays into national racing. The binder has turned into one of his most treasured possessions.
“What he accomplished was really impressive, and it was at a time when there weren’t that many people participating in the sport,” says Eric Vickers, head mechanic at the Bike Peddler in downtown Salem and a friend of Youngberg’s.
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Youngberg first encountered a racing bike at age 14. He was helping his brother with a job hauling sand and gravel to people’s houses when he spotted two skinny-tired bikes in a customer’s garage.
What he accomplished was really impressive, and it was at a time when there weren’t that many people participating in the sport.
He asked the man whether he’d be willing to sell one, a Schwinn Superior, and he worked odd jobs to earn the $40 to purchase it. That summer, he worked for another brother who ran a used car lot. He rode his new bike to work and parked it outside.
Chance encounter #1: Wendell Rollins, 1948 Summer Olympian, stopped by the car lot one day and asked Youngberg’s brother, “Who owns that bicycle?”
“It turned out that he was the only member in Utah who had ever been on a bicycle Olympic team,” Youngberg recalls. “He’d recently come back from the Olympics in London. … He said, ‘Where do you live?’ and I told him, and he said, ‘You only live about a mile from me. Do you want to go for a ride?’”
Before long, Rollins became Youngberg’s coach. Youngberg trained hard, and that same year, he took second place in the Utah state junior championships. He finished second the next two years as well, and at age 16, he won a 112-mile qualifying road race to compete in the national Olympic trials, although he didn’t make the team.
The following year, he moved into the senior rider category and took third in the state, then second, and finally first place in 1954.
“It took me a lot of years to make my way up, but I had a lot of fun,” he says. “Around Utah, there was a lot of mountains. My best races were the long-distance races and hill-climbing races. I could go up hills pretty good.”
The Ride — and the Woman — of a Lifetime
In 1954, Youngberg enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Portland Air Base in Oregon. He put aside his racing until 1956, when he learned about a special services program that allowed military athletes to train on the bases where they were stationed.
He wrote a letter to the president of the Amateur Bicycle League of America — the forerunner to today’s USA Cycling — asking to join the program, and soon he had orders to go to Oakland, Calif., where he trained with cyclists from all the military branches.
He decided to try out for the Olympic cycling team a second time, and he even bought a special bike for the occasion: an Italian Cinelli road-racer. Again, he narrowly missed making the team.
Shortly after returning to Portland from the Olympic trials, he got an idea for a different type of challenge: riding his Cinelli bike 785 miles to his home in Salt Lake City.
“I wasn’t publicizing what I was doing, but a couple of the guys got wind of it down in the communications department at the base, so they called up the shop where I was working and they said, ‘Why don’t you come down for an interview?’” Youngberg recalls.
The military conducted a photo shoot of the trim, built 22-year-old posed on his Cinelli. Youngberg keeps that photo posted around his house — he even has a painting derived from the image.
The same day as the photo shoot, Youngberg had chance encounter #2. He and several of his Air Force buddies decided to head to downtown Portland in a convertible. His friends had girls with them; Youngberg was the odd man out.
As they were heading down Broadway in the right lane, a car with three women inside pulled up in the far left lane. “I was kind of animated and a loudmouth in those days,” Youngberg says. “I hollered across, ‘Hey, how about me coming with you guys? I don’t have anybody to talk to.’ And they said, ‘Sure, come on over.’”
Youngberg hopped out of the convertible, stopped traffic and ran across Broadway to get into the ladies’ car. He offered to buy them Cokes and fries at the Tik Tok, a popular drive-in at the time. They told him they were nursing students at Good Samaritan Hospital; he shared his plans to ride his bike to Utah. At the end of their time together, he asked for their phone numbers and promised to call them when he returned from the trip.
Soon after, he took off on his ride — east from Portland out to Pendleton, then on through Idaho, down into Utah and finally into Salt Lake City. He traveled nearly 800 miles in just four and a quarter days, garnering coverage on Portland television stations, on the radio and in several major state newspapers.
When he returned to Portland, he dug out the three ladies’ phone numbers, but he only called one. Pat was the prettiest, he thought, so he asked her out on a date. Their romance developed quickly, and they soon married. Pat dropped out of nursing school — at the time, students there were not allowed to be married.
Pat took another risk in 1958, when Ray was honorably discharged from the Air Force and asked her to move with him to Salt Lake City. She’d never been far from Portland, but she made the move. “She always supported me,” Youngberg says. “She was a good woman.”
From Mr. to Dr. Youngberg
Back in Utah, Youngberg returned to racing, winning the state championship four years in a row. The Amateur Bicycle League of America appointed him its Utah state representative, and he organized cycling programs for people of all ages. He later joined the ABLA’s national board.
But as he considered what career to pursue in his post-military life, chance meeting #3 stuck in his mind.
“I met a dentist while I was in the Air Force that was from Salt Lake, and he knew a lot of my cousins,” Youngberg says. “He said, ‘What’re you gonna do when you get out?’ I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I was just a dumb kid in the service. He said, ‘Well, what do you think about dentistry?’”
None of Youngberg’s six siblings had studied beyond high school. But he took a chance and enrolled at the University of Utah. For a while, he juggled bicycle promoting, racing and competing with his studies, a full-time job and his life with Pat — which at that point included a baby boy.
I met a dentist while I was in the Air Force that was from Salt Lake. … He said, ‘Well, what do you think about dentistry?’
When he finished his bachelor’s degree and decided to enroll in dental school back in Portland, he knew he had to drop something.
“Towards the end, I recognized what my priorities were,” he says. “There was no sense in blowing everything up because I was bull-headed enough to want to do everything. So I decided to retire from competing.”
Before moving back to the West Coast, Youngberg sold most of his cycling gear, with the exception of his Cinelli. As he continued his schooling and developed his new career — he eventually became certified as a dental specialist in periodontics — the family went from Oregon up to Alaska and down to southern California before settling in Salem in 1972. They’d fallen in love with Salem’s beauty while visiting friends in town.
Youngberg opened an office, Liberty Dental, on Liberty Street near Bush’s Pasture Park. He led his practice for more than 25 years, then sold it in 1998 and went to work for a friend in another office. He continues working several days a month, and also has contracts with Marion and Linn counties to do emergency dental work for jail inmates.
A Return Trip
As his dental business started to pick up, Youngberg looked for ways to continue with his cycling passion. At age 40, he entered the competitive scene again in the veterans age group. He took third in the Oregon state championship one year, second the next, and first place the following year.
He enjoyed racing, but decided he couldn’t devote as much time to it as he’d like, so he quit the competitive scene.
He also “got the bug,” as he describes it, to ride from Portland to Salt Lake City again. He made the trip three more times: in 1976, 1985 and 1987. The last time, at age 52, he decided to see how fast he could do it, so he joined the UltraMarathon Cycling Association to help him train.
He started out from Portland City Hall at midnight with a small caravan of vehicles following him. He rode night and day, taking half-hour breaks for sleep every so often. He pulled in to the city hall in Salt Lake City just 64 hours and 40 minutes after he started the route — an official city-to-city record that still stands.
Back in Salem, Youngberg became one of the early members and supporters of the Salem Bicycle Club. He’s not involved with the club today, but he’s caught the eye of some of Salem’s younger riders for another reason: his bicycle collection. It comprises 23 bikes, including his Cinelli, a 1910 women’s bicycle, and an array of bikes from the 1950s through the 1970s.
About six years ago, he met Vickers while shopping at the Bike Peddler and offered to show him the collection. He later asked Vickers to restore the Cinelli and several other bicycles using modern-day components.
“You don’t get to see those bikes hardly anymore in the world of carbon fiber and mass production that they do now,” Vickers says. “There’s a lot of artisanship that’s missed in the bikes of today.”
Youngberg has one bike he got for Pat, but she never rode much — she preferred racquetball. In September, she passed away after failing to recover from thoracic surgery. Youngberg’s 6-year-old miniature schnauzer, Greta, keeps him company between visits with his four children. He’s had his own health issues in the past, including a near-fatal aneurysm.
It’d be easy to assume that his riding days are over. But then you see the weights and cycling trainer he uses daily in his basement to keep in shape during the winter. And he mentions that he might have another Portland to Salt Lake ride in him.
“I’ve still got a thought in my mind that I could do it one more time,” he says. “That’s kind of my Walter Mitty pipe dream for the future.”
But while Mitty loses himself in unrealized daydreams, you take a look at Youngberg and another thought emerges. He just might do it.
Salem Is editor Sarah Evans often rides her bike around town on sunny days, but can’t imagine matching Youngberg’s trip to Salt Lake City — her longest ride was a mere 14 miles.
Photographer Sarah Fishler Rice has lived a number of places on this planet, but now calls Salem home. She enjoys riding her bike to Roth’s for doughnuts.