MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. - For most people, the thought of biking hundreds of miles through unfamiliar rugged territory is not only daunting, it's exhausting. For four McConnell Airmen, this is how they will spend their Saturday mornings for the next four weeks.
The Airmen are participating in the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. For the Air Force, the RAGBRAI gives Airmen a chance to showcase the service's fitness culture and recruit for enlisted and civilian positions in the Reserve, guard and active duty. When the McConnell Team crosses the starting line July 21, 2013, it will mark the 19th year the Air Force has participated in the event, which originated in 1973.
For Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Salomon, 931st Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight chief and RAGBRAI participant, the race is a labor of love. Salomon has been cycling for 12 years, and this is his second time participating as part of the Air Force cycling team for McConnell.
"[I began when] I was active duty in the Army in the late 1980s, and it continued when I joined the Reserve program [in San Antonio]. In 2003 I met up with some guys who were cycling," he said. "I was out riding one day and the team captain from there mentioned the Air Force Cycling team to me. "
During his first year on the cycling team, Salomon provided team support, which gave him exposure to the RAGBRAI. The following year, he rode with the team as a member. Despite a couple of medical setbacks in the years following, Salomon later rode later with the Scott Air Force Base, Ill., team, eventually ending up at McConnell, where he again established a cycling team. Like his previous teams, the McConnell team began through a mutual love of cycling.
"I met Tech. Sgt. Noel Heyer at a Christmas party when I got here in 2003," said Salomon. "He was excited and talked about getting a McConnell team started."
Heyer, a support section technician assigned to the 931st, said his love of cycling predates his military career.
"I got a bike when I was 4 or 5 years old, and before I even went outside, I took the training wheels off," he said. "I think my parents were surprised, but I rode it that very first day and I've pretty much been riding ever since."
Over the years, Heyer's hobby has led him all over the country. This is his first time to participate in the RAGBRAI.
In addition to individual cycling, the team, which also includes Tech. Sgts. Paul Shattuck, 931st MXS Hydraulics Section Chief and Christopher Peterson, 22nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron KC-135 Instrument and Flight Control Systems specialist, the team performs a long distance training ride each Saturday leading up to the event in July.
"We average 30 miles per day for a daily ride," said Salomon. "You have to average 100 to 175 miles per week so when you get to the RAGBRAI and you're doing 500 miles across Iowa over seven continuous days, it won't be an issue because your body will be conditioned."
The mileage and challenge of finishing the race is part of what drew in Shattuck, who has been cycling since the early 1980s.
"The biggest challenge for me will be the 100-mile day," he said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge."
The logistics of the actual event are also important to consider, said Salomon.
"A lot of people think, 'Oh, we'll stay in a hotel.' That's not how it is," he said. "You are going to break down your own camp and set it up, while also prepping for your daily ride."
The team is also 100% responsible for providing their uniforms, entry fees, food, equipment, and transportation.
Despite the physical demands and the fees associated with the competition, the team is more focused on the actual experience.
"I'm excited," said Heyer. "I'm proud to wear the uniform as it is, but to be able to wear the AF bicycling kit, I'm very excited and just very proud to do it."
The chance to showcase the Air Force's wingman culture also motivates the team.
"That's what we are all about when we are out there; helping people and showing people that the Air Force is really a bunch of great people," said Salomon. "I look forward to the camaraderie and being around the AF cycling team members from other bases, as well as interacting with all the people out there."
The RAGBRAI begins July 21, 2013, in Des Moines, Iowa. Since its inception in 1973, more than 275,650 cyclists have participated in the event.
For more information about the RAGBRAI, visit the official website at http://ragbrai.com/tag/ragbrai-2013/.