By Capt. Jean Duggan, 50th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 30, 2006
CAÑON CITY, Colo. -- From June 18 to 23, 2,000 bicyclists from across the United States joined together in "Ride the Rockies," an annual cross-state bicycle tour that raises money for charities.
This year's tour took cyclists 419 miles through the Rocky Mountains' rich scenery from Cortez to Cañon City, Colo.
Since 1986, Ride the Rockies has become an annual event starting on Father's Day each year. 2006 marks the seventh consecutive year Air Force Space Command has put together an Air Force team to go on the tour, said Lt. Col. Stephen Mitchell, 50th Operations Group deputy commander and the team's captain.
What better way to lead the U.S. Air Force Space World Cycling team through the tour than by using the Global Positioning System?
"This year is the first time one of our members actually put together the GPS data for the ride," Colonel Mitchell said. "That's something that was available for everybody on the ride."
While using GPS is not a staple for all bicyclists, members of the team use it before, during and after each day's ride.
"Before the ride, we use it extensively for training purposes," he said. "Because we have mapped out routes, we know how long it should take us. We can improve ourselves using that kind of data.
"The other thing we use GPS for is to gauge how we're doing on the ride or our average speed—those are important things to bicyclists to see how well we're doing that day," he added.
Following the end-of-day checkpoint, riders often take to the hills on adventures that may not be traced out in the Ride the Rockies map book.
"There's no time frame except at the end; they sweep the course at 4 p.m. each day, from start to finish," said Colonel Mitchell. "In the meantime, you can actually go and do other things if you want. For example, sometimes there are optional loops and routes. They don't necessarily give you a map, so it's always nice to know where you are."
Throughout the trip across the state, Colonel Mitchell keeps four goals in mind.
"The first goal is always safety," he said. "We want to make sure that everybody's safe. We're pretty well connected because we all have some kind of communication device, usually a cell phone on us, and we have everybody's cell phone number on a card that we carry.
"We keep in touch like that because there's such a wide variance in people's capabilities in terms of riding," he added. "You don't necessarily stay together."
"Trying to keep up with the boss (Colonel Mitchell) is like a nightmare," said team member retired Chief Master Sgt. Robert Kodis, smiling. "I go at my own pace, and I'm normally the last one in, but that comes with age."
"There are 25 of us," Colonel Mitchell said. "It's really hard to ride in a group that big when we're also sharing the road with cars. You really have to be careful; it's single file."
Because the team's participation in Ride the Rockies is considered permissive temporary duty, Colonel Mitchell's second goal is to always be an Air Force recruiter.
"We put the Air Force out in front of the general public," he said. "You're a representative of the Air Force. Usually, it just means talking to people. People come up and ask ‘Are you in the Air Force? What do you do? Do you recommend my child join?' Although Space Command put the team together, we have people from across the Air Force."
Team member retired Lt. Col. Fernando Aguilar shares Colonel Mitchell's view.
"You are a recruiter in the We Are All Recruiters program, and you're spreading a good impression about the Air Force," he said.
Warfit and personal challenge are the final reasons Colonel Mitchell has signed up for his seventh Ride the Rockies tour.
"It's a great fitness tour, so it's great for warfit," he said. "It's a challenge to do the ride, and I'm always up for a challenge."
Chief Kodis has a different view on the health benefits.
"If this was exercise, I wouldn't be doing it. This is enjoyment," he said. "I normally take medication for anxiety, and I haven't taken anything this whole week because this is a high in itself. I think more people ought to get involved. We need to take time to enjoy life."
Each day of the tour is an opportunity for team members to learn more about each other and think about what their trip is accomplishing across the state.
"We camp out together, and we have some time to talk with each other," Colonel Mitchell said. "We've gained a lot of friends through the years and camaraderie across the Air Force."
Colonel Aguilar and his wife, Katherine, met on the ride in 2000 and were engaged on the same stretch of road in 2004.
"Ride the Rockies donates money to the Denver Post charity foundations, and they give back to each of the host towns," Mrs. Aguilar said. "That's rewarding to us. This ride is not about competition; it's about fun and camaraderie."
The funds that (the Denver Post) receives from each team member's entry fees are used for different charities in each of the towns, Colonel Mitchell said.
"I know most people don't think of it as a charity ride, but that's really what it is," he said.
Following Colonel Mitchell's seventh year as the team captain, the torch may be passed in year eight.
"This is lucky seven," he said. "Next year it will be lucky eight and that may be my last one for the team. I may do it again, but not as the team captain. I have to find a young guy to take the gauntlet."