LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
Near the end of every July, a group of Texas military cyclists join together to experience something special - a tour east across Iowa with thousands of other bike enthusiasts.
Along with 124 other Air Force Cycling Team members, the 11 Texas Airmen dipped their tires into the Missouri River and then again in the Mississippi as is traditional at the world's longest and largest bike tour.
But on the 442-mile course in between these rivers something unique yet hard to explain happened to these Air Force recruiters on wheels.
Just ask AFCT member and Texas team captain Larry Gallo.
"It's not something you are just going to talk about all the time," Gallo said about the experience of riding seven days straight, an event where each Air Force cyclist rode 100 miles on day 2.
Back from his fifth RAGBRAI, Gallo sits in his dark office at Lackland illuminated by a single monitor, trying to work through what the seven days on the road means to him.
Though he admits it may sound like a cliche, the experience - enduring the long trips in the saddle, lying at nights in humid tents, and being invited into the lives of the community members of each small town - has brought these Texans together.
"I've spent a whole week with these people, and some are away from families for the first time," Gallo said. "You become part of their family in a way."
His 2010 team was comprised of nearly all RAGBRAI newbies.
AFCT member Eric Merriam had been there before in 2007, while rookies Tammie Canada, Daniel Lunsford, and Shallynn Troutman joined Gallo and Merriam from Lackland. Erin Doss, April Nagle, Martin Huck and Rob Brown of Randolph; Michael Rothermel of Carswell Field in Fort Worth; and Ruan Brits of Goodfellow were also first-time RAGBRAI riders.
The tour is a chance to bond with fellow Airmen, build relationships with the people they serve and find out something new about themselves.
Though this year's route is considered the third easiest in RAGBRAI history in terms of its elevation and distance, it's still a grueling trip with seven days averaging roughly 63 miles on the bike and six nights camping out.
"When you are riding with six people, you see them get stronger each day," he said. "They're excited the first day, tired and sore the second. The third day is the catch."
Merriam said "no matter what the route is like, it requires fitness and training." After finishing the day 2 century ride, Gallo said "knowing you have five more consecutive days of long rides can be a mental challenge."
The riders leaned on one another.
Riding town to town in formation, they learned each other's strengths and weaknesses, and adjusted accordingly.
When faced with a strong headwind, the 6-foot-plus, 220-pound Gallo took the lead in the pace line, cutting a wide swath for the Airmen behind him.
"I look back and there's like 20 guys back there, like flies," he said.
When it comes to climbing hills, he knows to let someone else take the lead. Like cogs in "one big machine," Gallo said, the riders trade places in the lead while keeping less experienced riders in the middle of the pack.
The team leader said the sport of team cycling champions Air Force ideals in many ways.
"It pretty much displays the wingman concept," he said about riding as a team. "We're always taking care of the guy next to us."
And the Airmen got to know each other well enough by spending "every waking moment together, overcoming logistical obstacles in addition to getting through the physical challenge of the ride," Merriam said. Then, they also camped together at overnight stops at Sioux City, Storm Lake, Algona, Clear Lake Charles City, Waterloo, Manchester and Dubuque, too.
"We weren't far from each other during our sleeping moments," Merriam said. "The snoring from the surrounding tents can be intense."
The Airmen also learn about each other by interacting with the civilian riders and the members of the town. Gallo said, it's a dream event -"like Woodstock on bicycle.
It doesn't get much better: At least 12,500 daily riders to talk to, crowds of welcoming Iowans at each stop, and even a ceremony dedicated to Air Force riders to mark the end of the tour, all while centering on a sport that embraces a fit-to-fight mentality.
Merriam said it's also an opportunity to demonstrate that selflessness is part of an Airman's identity, and at the tour, that means helping with flat tires or just encouraging riders to keep cycling.
On day 5, riding the 82.2-mile stretch of road from Charles City to Waterloo, the team came upon a bike accident and a deputy sheriff struggling to keep the stream of RAGBRAI cyclists back from the wreck.
A critical care nurse at the 59th Medical Wing, AFCT member Canada provided medical care to the injured rider while the other Texas teammates helped control the thousands of cyclists into a tight line along the edge of the two-lane road. Later, they cleared room for an emergency helicopter landing.
Unfortunately, the rider, Stephen Briggs, did not survive.
When asked about their efforts, the team members do not have much to talk about. It was just something expected of the Airmen.
"At the time, laying down our bikes and jumping in to help seemed very natural," Merriam said. "We're in the Air Force. Leading and serving is what we do."
Back at Lackland, Gallo knows his experience created something between himself and the people who were there.
"It's not something you are going to bring up, but something you take away," he said.
For the people who were there, it's not an experience that has to be talked about.