PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo --
After 1,200 miles and four months of preparation, Chief Master Sgt. Julio Flores, 544th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, superintendent, from Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., joined 140 other Airmen in completing the 2016 [Des Moines] Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, known as RAGBRAI.
Comprised of 10,000 to 15,000 riders, the RAGBRAI is the world’s largest bicycle touring event drawing riders from across the country and the globe.
This year’s route began at the Missouri river and ended in the Mississippi river. Riders traveled 475-miles along southern Iowa and endured20,784 feet of vertical climb, washing away any doubt that Iowa is flat.
“RAGBRAI is not a race, but a seven day journey,” said Flores. “The event draws thousands of riders from all over because of the ride, great food, evening entertainment and the people you meet along the way.”
The Air Force team is well known along the route because they are affectionately known as the ‘Guardian Angels of the road’. The team’s first charge is service, and this year Flores fixed three flats, six drivetrain malfunctions for riders, and provided encouragement to those struggling along the way.
With so many cyclists on the road, there are crashes and more times than not, those crashes result in emergency medical service involvement and members of the Air Force are often the first responders.
Completing his fifth RAGBRAI, as part of the Air Force team, Flores boosts that this year was his favorite.
On day three of the ride, Flores met 14-year-old Nik and his father Dan, members of the Iowa Adaptive Sports Iowa (ASI) Cycling Team, a team catering to the unique skill sets of athletes with physical challenges. Nik, who has a neurological trait that limits control of his lower extremities and balance, rode his third RAGBRAI.
Averaging 68-miles per day, Day four had Flores completing the optional century (100-miles) ride. The day’s route was 68-miles with an optional 32-mile loop to complete 100-miles. He stopped for breakfast at one of the many vendor tents along the route and was looking for some shade to enjoy his meal when he ran into Nik again.
With so many riders, running into the same person twice is rare. During breakfast, Flores asked Nik if he was going to complete the century. Nik smiled at him and said he didn’t believe he could complete it as he’d never ridden 100-miles in a day.
Flores kept encouraging Nik believing he could do it and was persistent that he should at least try. As they departed and said their goodbyes, Flores said good luck completing the century and Nik laughed saying he wasn’t going to do it.
Riders completing the optional loop received a patch indicating they had completed the century ride. As Flores got in line to receive his patch he was overcome with joy to see Nik in line ahead of him receiving his patch.
“I was extremely excited for Nik and was overcome with joy,” said Flores. “He overcame his fear and self-doubt to accomplish a feat he didn’t think he couldn’t do. That moment was the greatest moment for me on this year’s ride.”
That evening Flores was invited to the ASI camp to meet with Nik and also to meet other members of the team. During his visit, Flores was asked to speak during their team meeting. The Chief thanked the team for being an inspiration and proving that one can overcome challenges.
He spoke about the Air Force Core Values of Integrity, Service and Excellence and coined Nik with an Air Force Team coin and a 544th ISRG coin for his courage and resilience in completing the century. He also gave Nik a team hat and jersey that he could wear proudly.
“Coining Nik was the right thing to do. He reached down deep to overcome his challenges and meet his fears head on,” said Flores. “After I coined him, a member of Team ASI, a retired Army Sergeant Major who is also blind, explained to Nik the importance of the coin and what an honor it is to receive one.”
RAGBRAI first started in 1973 and the Air Force has fielded a team for the past 22 years. The team is made up of members from the Total Force; active duty, reserve, guard, retirees, civilians and family members. Members must be able to ride up to 100-miles in one day and have a current passing physical fitness test with no component exemptions.
Active duty members can receive up to 12 days permissive TDY, with commander’s approval, to participate in the RAGBRAI. First year members are often required to perform support crew duties of loading trucks, setting up camp, and driving trucks before they are allowed to ride for the team. The team also rides in America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride, a century ride around Lake Tahoe.
“For me, the best part of the event is meeting new people,” adds Flores. “I keep in touch with many of them via social media and we keep track of each other’s cycling accomplishments. The toughest part of the event is the often 100-degree days with high humidity that comes along with riding the final week of July in Iowa.”
“Next year I want to attract riders from across the 544th ISRG to participate in the ride,” said Flores.