By Tech. Sgt. Traci Howells, 131st Bomb Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 08, 2015
WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- In the middle of the heartland of America, with nothing to see for miles but cornfields and farmhouses, a 50 ft. flag hangs from a tractor, urging the cyclists on. Riders come from near and far to take on the seven-day, 506-mile Register's Annual Great Bike Race Across Iowa. Registration opens this month for the ride that starts in Sioux City, Iowa, July 24 and finishes in Davenport, Iowa July 30.
Last summer, the event drew 27,000 cyclists over the course of the week. Eleven riders in this group were Airmen from Whiteman. Embodying a Total Force mindset, members from the Air National Guard's 131st Bomb Wing and the active duty 509th Bomb Wing came together to represent the Air Force Cycling Team.
"It was the first time Team Whiteman participated in an event with their own team," said Capt. Amy Cottrell, administrative officer with the 131st Medical Group. She had participated in the event in 2013 and was interested in doing it again. When she realized Whiteman didn't have a base team, she began coordination to make one happen. Acting as the team leader, she recruited other riders to join the Air Force Cycling team.
The team is selective and Airmen must meet certain requirements to become a member, including passing fitness test scores and the ability to complete a 100-mile ride. As part of the event, members are on We Are All Recruiters permissive TDY status for the duration of the ride, where interaction between Airmen and the public increases awareness of the Air Force and generates leads for recruiters.
As part of the AFCT, Airmen are expected to break off and interact with other riders, promoting a positive image of the Air Force. Cottrell recalled one of the early morning rides; she overheard a high school senior say that she didn't know what she wanted to be when she grew up. The student knew she liked to cycle, but overall wasn't very prepared or confident for the broader world.
"I realized as I asked her more questions that she didn't know how to change lanes, she didn't know that she needed to be hydrated and she didn't have any equipment," Cottrell said. "I rode with her, taught her how to change a tube, as well as some basic skills. By the end of the day, she had learned how to do everything; she gained confidence and was thinking about taking the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery)."
Although there are no requirements to train together for RAGBRAI, the Team Whiteman cyclists met up at the base gym twice a week to take a spin class. Training as individuals and as a group allowed the team to capitalize on each of their strengths, with each person bringing unique characteristics to the team.
Senior Master Sgt. Corey Wells, systems flight chief with the 509th Munitions Squadron, said he did not have to overly train to feel prepared for the race. Still, 80 miles on the first day was quite an accomplishment, adjusting to the heat and elevation. He said he felt relieved at the end of the first day.
"Once you get through day one, you look forward to the rest," he said. "Day three is the day you really feel accomplished."
Wells also said he went into the event knowing it was going to be a lot of work, but hadn't realized it was going to be so much fun to help people and get to know their stories.
"What I learned while I was out there is that the Air Force uniform is a target. People want to talk to you. We had different experiences because we are in the (Air Force) uniform."
Senior Airman Andrew Walch, an avionics technician with the 509th Maintenance Squadron, said he had never ridden his bike for so many miles on consecutive days. His routine consisted of riding about 50 miles a week, divided over a few days.
During RAGBRAI, Walch was challenged by rides that averaged 72 miles each day, and noted one day the route was 100 miles. He said he enjoyed the challenge and the added dynamic of helping people that would break down right in front of him. His own skills were sharpened as he taught others how to put their bikes back together and to change and fix flat tires. Although they knew the basics of cycling going in, Walch said they all came out of the experience even more knowledgeable.
The 2015 team included: Capt. Amy Cottrell, 131st Medical Group; Capt. Corey Wiechmann, Medical Operations Squadron; 2nd Lt. Lauren Wiechmann, 509th Communication Squadron; Chief Master Sgt. Barbara Johnson, 131st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron; Senior Master Sgt. Corey Wells, 509th Munitions Squadron; Tech. Sgt. Mark Dillon, 131st Maintenance Operations Center; Tech. Sgt. Wade Meyer, 509th Maintenance Group; Tech. Sgt. Ben Richards, 131st Maintenance Operations Center; Senior Airman Andrew Walch, 509th Maintenance Squadron; Senior Airman Devin Wunschell, 509th Medical Operations Squadron; Todd Stewart, civilian.
The group is currently soliciting a team for the 2016 event. Cottrell advised that people should not be intimidated to sign up. Though they faced multiple challenges, from sunburns to aching muscles, she said that together they accomplished their team goals; they assisted each other as Wingmen and maintained the course they set out on, all while demonstrating a positive impression of the Air Force.
"We are so thankful to our leadership for allowing us to have this experience," Cottrell said. "Without their support, we wouldn't have been able to do this."
For more information on the 2016 RAGBRAI Whiteman Air Force Cycling Team, contact Tech. Sgt. Wade Meyer at 660-687-7706 or firstname.lastname@example.org.