By Kristian DePue, Staff Writer
Schriever Space Force BASE, Colo. — It’s a summer evening in Sac City, Iowa, and suddenly the population multiplies seven times. Sac City is the first overnight on the route of the 2021 Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, were over 15,000 cyclists are camping after an 84-mile day.
Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa is a noncompetitive cycling event held each July and organized by The Des Moines Register, the daily paper of Iowa’s capital. The first ride occurred in 1973 when Des Moines Register journalists John Karras and Donald Kaul decided to ride and write across Iowa. This inaugural trek was unofficially called “The Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride.” Three hundred riders began in Sioux City on the Missouri River, and 114 cyclists completed the event in Davenport on the Mississippi River. The following ’74 ride was called the Second Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. The third year included “Register,” and the designation remained.
Of the 15,000 RAGBRAI cyclists, 100 to 130 are with the Air Force Cycling Team; which was founded in ‘95 by Stuart “Stu” Carter with only 28 riders. Over time, the AFCT realized RAGBRAI was an opportunity for positive influence upon riders and residents. The team evolved from “riding fast to impress” to “slowing down to chat,” and started helping civilian cyclists with flat tires, mechanical issues, and race support. The AFCT has garnered a reputation throughout the RAGBRAI community as “the guardian angels of the road” — replacing chains, directing traffic, rendering first aid, and simply encouraging tired riders.
In this year’s 48th RAGBRAI — from Le Mars to Clinton, July 25th to 31st — two Guardians of the Peterson-Schriever Garrison rode as members of the Air Force Cycling Team: U.S. Space Force Tech. Sgt. Kristopher Rowell, Space Delta 9 – Orbital Warfare, 1st Space Operations Squadron future operations section chief, and U.S. Space Force Capt. Nicholas Ruiz, DEL 9, 1st SOPS director of assessments, exercises and analysis.
“Our main role is assisting riders broken down or injured,” said Rowell. “Anytime somebody is on the side of the road, you will see an Air Force Cycling Team rider with them or you will be that rider, because that is what we do.”
This was Ruiz’s first RAGBRAI, recruited by veteran-rider Rowell.
“I immediately recognized the magnitude,” said Ruiz. “The Air Force Cycling Team has laid a foundation of trust. During RAGBRAI, never leave an Airman behind rings true for all cyclists.”
In contrast, this was Rowell’s fifth RAGBRAI: “I gave it a shot and found my brotherhood,” Rowell said.
Ruiz was at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, for Squadron Officer School a week before meeting the AFCT.
“There was an instant family connection with the Air Force Cycling Team established by the veteran riders and support staff,” said Ruiz. “Everyone was helpful, patient and excited — any newcomer-nerves were washed away.”
Growing up in Arizona, Ruiz played baseball, football, soccer and wrestled. While in the Air Force, and now Space Force, he’s enjoyed physical training tests and challenges: 10Ks, tire flipping, push-ups and more. Since being at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado, Ruiz has run the Air Force Marathon three times, an event held annually at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, since ‘97.
“Captain Ruiz was a natural addition to the Air Force Cycling Team,” said Rowell. “He’s an exceptional athlete, but his positivity and drive to serve others are what make him great. Civilian riders gravitated to his positive attitude. You’d be amazed how perfect strangers open up when they recognize [someone is] approachable and genuine.”
Day five of the ride was 83.7 miles from Waterloo to Anamosa, but included a stop in Jesup, a town of 2,500.
“The town lined main street with U.S. flags,” said Ruiz. “I sat down to enjoy coffee and a home-cooked breakfast [when] an elderly lady approached my group to tell us she was happy to see us. Her husband, and numerous family members, had served — and seeing us invigorated her love for our country. I realized those who served before me did their part, carrying the torch and now it’s been passed. I will proudly serve and cherish my time in uniform before it’s time to pass it on.”
On the second-to-last day of RAGBRAI, during a team dinner in Dewitt, Rowell was recognized by AFCT’s director Larry Gallo as Rider of the Year. Awarding Rowell as Rider of the Year was one of Gallo’s last acts as executive director. After finishing the 48th RAGBRAI, he passed the director torch to Trey Munn, retired chief master sergeant with the 388th Maintenance Group at Hill AFB, Utah.
“Being selected as Rider of the Year is a great honor,” said Rowell. “Although, there were several who earned it just as much, if not more.”
“Kristopher Rowell is an incredible person and a selfless leader,” said Ruiz. “He was awarded the 2021 AFCT Rider of the Year because of his numerous positive attributes and how he represents the team.”
Rowell reflects on his years as a member of the AFCT and Rider of the Year.
“For many, this event may seem nothing more than recreational, and having fun is certainly part of it,” Rowell said. “However, the reality for [many] is deeper. People ride for several reasons: a personal challenge, to connect with others, to honor loved ones. Some don’t know what they are looking for but find it along the way. People learn about themselves. As members of the AFCT, we don’t just help cyclists across Iowa, we have the opportunity to get them from one thought, or memory, to another — that’s the true magic, and that’s the reason I’ve ridden five times and will many more.”
The two Guardians are back from Iowa having completed the AFCT mission and are serving again on Schriever SFB, supporting the DEL 9 mission to conduct protect and defend operations from space and provide response options to deter and defeat adversary threats in space.