TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- Interacting with the American public at cycling events across the U.S. may not sound like something many people think of members of the Air Force doing.
However, that's the mission of the Air Force Cycling Team, a group of Airmen who call themselves the "Guardians of the Road." According to the team's mission statement, it's dedicated to promoting the Air Force in the most positive way possible.
The team consists of more than 400 Airmen in regional chapters from California to Massachusetts. Every year, members participate in numerous cycling events, often serving as course marshals where they help cyclists fix flat or punctured tires, replace broken chains and even provide water to those in need.
"We are a group of riders who like to help people," said Senior Airman Jacob Pinkney, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron C-17 Globemaster III crew chief and AFCT member since 2015. "Some people may have been riding for years, but others may not know how to change tires or fix parts on their bikes. We enjoy donating our time to something we love while helping others and representing the Air Force."
Pinkey is a member of the California chapter of the AFCT, based out of Travis Air Force Base. He said the greatest experience he's had as part of the team was helping riders during the 2017 Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa in July, a 500-mile trek starting along the state's western border with the Missouri River and ending at Iowa's eastern border along the Mississippi River. The RAGBRAI is the oldest, largest and longest recreational bicycle touring event in the world.
At RAGBRAI, Pinkney was one of 150 AFCT members serving as course sentries. The event closes the team's riding season every year and often draws more than 20,000 people.
Tech. Sgt. Samuel Kennedy, Air Force Band of the Golden West regional bandsman and member of the AFCT, shares Pinkney's sentiments.
"We want to show people the highest levels of excellence that exist across the Air Force," he said. "Our team consists of men and women, active-duty Airmen, Reservists, Air Force civilians and retired service members. We care about all we do, whether we're riding 100 miles or serving on the flight-line."
During RAGBRAI, Kennedy helped several people, including an older gentleman he said he will always remember.
"I saw an old man who was struggling on the second day. He must have been 93 years old and he looked dazed, so I stopped to help him," said Kennedy. "I got him some water and we sat down in the shade for an hour talking. I shared my story about how I served at five different duty stations and I learned he was a World War II veteran who served in the Navy. After that, we got on our bikes and continued the ride, but it was neat to meet him and swap stories. I also enjoyed knowing I was able to help him finish that day's ride, which was the longest single-day ride of the event, more than 80 miles."
Throughout the seven-day event, members of the AFCT assisted an average of five cyclists every day, amounting to more than 5,000 total assists and people noticed.
Having an opportunity to be a positive force for the Air Force means a lot, said Kennedy.
"I like wearing the Air Force jersey and showing my pride to as many people as possible," he said. "At RAGBRAI, we're riding with 20,000 riders every day so we're bringing the Air Force to people who may have never interacted with the Air Force before. We're also helping people in a myriad of ways all while representing the Air Force. We may come across someone who may not be a military supporter. And maybe, we stop to help that person with their bike or give (him or her) some water, and maybe, that changes their perspective."
The AFCT hopes to recruit more riders and have an even greater impact with their 2018 season, which runs from February to August, said David C. Bell, the team's California regional leader.
Bell has been an Air Force civilian employee for nine years and works as a regulatory media expert for the Regulatory and Legislative Engagement Division for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center. He has been a member of the AFCT for three years.
"I would like to see our regional teams grow," said Bell. "I want to build a larger team so we can provide a greater service for charity rides we support. Often, we only send four or five riders to those events, but it would be nice if we could send more riders to showcase the Air Force."
Bell stressed anyone who has a love of cycling and a desire to represent the Air Force can join the team.
"The AFCT isn't a competitive racing team," he said. "All are welcome regardless of their fitness level. We ride for the enjoyment of the sport, to be active in an activity we enjoy while serving as ambassadors for the greatest Air Force in the world."
For more information about the AFCT, visit the team's website at http://afcycling.com/.