Recently, 1st Lt. Kelly Ralston began her bike ride quite differently than most mornings by ceremoniously dipping her rear tire in the Missouri River. Afterward, she and 20,000 other cyclists began a more than 450-mile ride through heat, wind and expansive fields of corn from Sioux City to Clinton, Iowa, where they finished the ride by dipping their front tires in the Mississippi River.
This seven-day ride, in its 40th year, is known as the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, and joining her were nearly 90 other Airmen and family members who were part of the Air Force Cycling Team.
“A lot of my coworkers don’t understand why I want to ride 500 miles in a week,” said Ralston, an engineer from the A-10 System Program Office at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and one of the team captains. “I try to explain to them why it’s fun to come out and ride in the blistering heat, be on a bike for 13 hours a day and camp in 100 percent humidity. It’s impossible to put into words, but it’s about participating in something bigger.”
The Air Force riders weren’t participating in RAGBRAI just for the challenge or the traveling celebration but also for the fulfillment of being part of something bigger than themselves and spreading the Air Force message.
“The number one reason we’re here is to show others what we’re all about,” said Senior Master Sgt. Julio Flores, the Aerospace Data Facility superintendent at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo.
Each day, the riders stopped periodically to rest and reenergize in one of the many small towns along the route. The Air Force riders seized these opportunities to engage with the public and other cyclists.
They talked to anyone and everyone about the service. It’s not a sales pitch, but when asked about the service, Air Force Cycle Team members told personal stories and accounts of how the Air Force has affected their lives in a positive way.
“Every time we stop, it’s an opportunity to talk to someone new. I love standing in line and having somebody recognize our team jerseys and ask me, ‘Hey, are you in the Air Force?’ It’s an instant conversation starter,” Flores said.
Gayla Woods, a Clinton resident, watched riders cycle by and also saw the Air Force Cycle Team pass on the final day. “I love the diversity, old and young people. I don’t think I could do it,” she said. “It takes a lot of endurance, but I enjoy cheering them on and letting them know we’re proud of what they’ve accomplished.”
One major difference separating this ride from others is it resembles a traveling fair more than a cycling event.
Residents of Clinton sat on curbs and brought out their camp chairs to watch as the cyclists descended upon the town. Children ran out, like they heard the familiar ice cream truck tune, to get high fives and ask where the riders were from.
“Seeing a 10-year-old kid on the side of the road yelling out, ‘Where are you from, where are you from,’ and writing down what the riders yell is something you can’t have others tell you, you have to experience it,” said retired Master Sgt. Michael Shane, a four-time RAGBRAI participant and Range Environmental Specialist from the 388th Range Squadron at Hill AFB.
As tires broke the surface of the Mississippi River in Clinton signifying the end of the ride, the eyes of many riders welled up with tears from the week’s challenges and from the accomplishment of finishing.