How Biking Across Iowa With Airmen Redefined an Army Veteran’s Idea of Community

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I’m an Army infantry veteran and I have a confession. Last month, members of the U.S. Air Force taught me a valuable lesson. No, it didn’t involve how to get air conditioning on a FOB (forward operating base) or getting your 50-inch television into your CONEX box. Instead, the Air Force redefined for me what it means to be a community while I rode my bicycle with 10,000 strangers and Team Red, White & Blue across Iowa. 

I signed up for RAGBRAI as a total newbie. RAGBRAI is a bike ride across the state of Iowa. Most people haven’t heard of RAGBRAI, so if you thought my spellcheck went on the fritz for a moment you’re likely not alone. RAGBRAI stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. It’s also the world’s oldest, largest, and longest recreational bike touring event.

Before RAGBRAI, my longest ever ride was about 130 miles. I was also fairly new to Team RWB. I just joined the staff three months prior and each experience was still new to me. Still, I figured I knew a few things going in: 

  • I’d be riding for somewhere between 40 and 90 miles each day, for seven days
  • Odds were, my backside would get sore on day one 
  • I planned to eat my weight in pork and corn products 
  • I was likely to get a decent tan by week’s end   
  • I also knew that my team would carry the American flag, on a bike, for the entire ride across Iowa  

Back to expectations. Here’s how that played out and what I know now:  

  • When you decide to do the “memorial century loop,” that really means you’re signing up for more like 120 miles in a day, not just 100 
  • BBQ pork nachos and whiskey for breakfast makes a lot of sense when you’ve been riding since 6 a.m. 
  • Your standard nylon American flag can generate a lot of drag  

So how did a group of Airman teach me about community? If you’re riding at RAGBRAI, you’re going to see the Air Force team. Their matching jerseys are hard to miss and they’re always stopping. 

They’re always stopping because each of them is required to stop and render aid whenever they see a rider in need. Flat tire? They’ll help you patch it. Out of water? They’ll pass you a spare bottle. Just don’t think you can get up that next hill and you need a minute? They’ll stay with you until you’re ready. If that doesn’t fall in line with our Eagle Ethos, I don’t know what does.  

Whether it’s an Air Force rider, a spectator, or an Eagle, if you’re at RAGBRAI and have a problem, someone will stop to help you. No exceptions. That’s because it’s a true community. Community doesn’t get more real than when you stop at some random church 63 miles into what’s going to be a 120-mile July day and people are greeting you, offering water, ice cream, and inviting you inside to enjoy air conditioning and use the bathroom. 

What if you could go through every day of your life knowing that if something goes bad, even if you’re miles away from your friends and family, someone is going to stop and help you? Someone who is a stranger but is also a part of your community. What would that feel like?   

Well, if you’re ever in Iowa in July, you should come out to RAGBRAI and experience it. Or, for something a little more local, look for the red shirt. Look for the flag. Find a Team RWB Eagle. We’ll help you out, because that’s community. That’s what we do.