As the sun casts its orange hue over miles of ripening cornfields, a cool Midwest breeze carries the smell of the morning dew throughout southern Illinois.
Nothing but the sound of crickets are heard until slowly, a soft rattling of bike chains hum in the distance. With each passing second the sounds grows louder as seven Air Force cyclists round the bend.
This was the scene during a training ride this past summer in preparation for July’s grueling seven-day Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI.
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RAGBRAI takes about 1,000 cyclists all the way through Iowa, starting in the Missouri River and ending with front tires dipped in the Mississippi River. But, the ride is more than just about cycling, it’s a way to bring the Air Force closer to local communities.
Stationed out of Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, this team of riders became part of the Air Force Cycling Team. They rode together each week, which gave them opportunities to not only build endurance on a bike, but to learn how to ride in a formation as a team.
“It’s kind of a unique feeling in the sense that you are part of something bigger than you,” said retired Lt. Col. Thomas Black. “While you may go out, and you may train by yourself and ride roads around the country, as we get together as a team and go out there, it’s always a different sense, a buzz if you will … the feeling of togetherness, a sense of unity and purpose.
“It doesn’t matter if you are in communications or operations, you can fly or you can be in service. It’s the common bond of the enjoyment of riding, I think that’s what brings everyone together.”
He explained that team members not only need to know how to change a flat tire, they need to be able to ride 100 miles in a day, and still be committed to helping others out there on the road.
On the back of every Air Force jersey are the words “Guardian Angels of the Road.”
During RAGBRAI, if at any point the riders come across a medical injury, a car that has run out of gas, or just someone in need, the riders stop to help, upholding their Air Force core values every step of the way, he said.
As they camped in host towns along the way, they shared what the Air Force is all about.
“Most people know about what we do out on the course every day, providing mechanical assistance and sometimes basic first aid, so there's usually a great deal of appreciation when we interact with everyone,” said Tech. Sgt. James Wagner, 375th Medical Operations Squadron. “Then when you actually start talking with people about where you're from, what you do, who you are, they’re genuinely interested and incredibly supportive. And, I was always just as interested in hearing their stories.”
RAGBRAI for the team wasn’t just about participating in a sport, it was about connecting as a team.
Black said, “Regardless of how many miles you ride before, you really won’t ever string together 500 miles in seven days, so it does take a little bit of heart, a little bit of effort to do that. And we can do it at a leisurely pace, because we are not being pushed to ride a stage. But there is definitely a level of commitment to do that. It’s pretty awesome when you can see us go from a riding team of seven, to the full Air Force cycling team of 120 … that’s when you can truly see the unity and the impact we have.”
Accompanying Black and Wagner on the ride were Col. Greg Young, Lt. Col. Vincent Zabala, Capt. Kyle Smathers, Capt. Sara McDowell, Airman 1st Class Ruben Tala and Kim Smathers.