WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. – How far is too far to push the human body? Runners face 26-mile stretches in a day, swimmers have swam all the way to islands, and cyclists can pedal for hours on end before they tire.
But how far is too far?
For the cyclists entered in the Registered Annual Bicycle Ride across Iowa, a 500-mile ride is a huge triumph.
Annually, the Air Force Cycling Team, made up of Airmen from across the country, gather in Iowa to face the challenge. Westover’s own Senior Master Sgt. Devon DeStefano, 439th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron electrical and environmental element chief and additional duty first sergeant, is one of the team members who faces the ultimate challenge of physical and mental fitness on this 500-mile journey.
Since Westover does not have its own cycling team, DeStefano rides with the National Capitol Region Team out of Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. He departs for Iowa July 20 to partake in RAGBRAI 2017. He expects the summer heat to exceed 100 degrees during his ride.
The self-proclaimed cycling enthusiast has taken part in the sport for three seasons, and this is his second year going to RAGBRAI with the Air Force cycling team.
“RAGBRAI starts in a different town in Iowa every year,” said DeStefano, “This year is in Clear Lakes, Iowa. The route changes every year and crosses the entire state.”
DeStefano said that many people assume the cyclists pedal for 500 miles straight, but that kind of work would be nearly impossible, even for the fittest of cyclists.
“We do the ride in seven days, not 500 miles straight,” said DeStefano. “We have one big day where we ride between 100 and 110 miles. The other days are broken up anywhere between 50 and 90 miles. We look at anywhere from 3 to 10 hours per day on the bike.”
Although this ride is almost daunting for the participants, DeStefano said, with a glimpse of pride in his eyes, that finishing the ride is one of the most rewarding things he has ever done.
“You get this sense of pride and joy from doing something not a lot of people get to do,” he said. “At the end of RAGBRAI, we typically dip our tires in the Mississippi river and everyone gets their photo taken. We lift our bikes up over our heads, and just that feeling you get from the fact that you did the 500 miles, it’s amazing.”
Beside the ensuing triumph of finishing the race, the Air Force Cycling Team plays a special part in RAGBRAI each year. They have been dubbed the guardian angels of the ride, helping each and every cyclist they come across who is stopped along the route. Their mission is simply to help everyone in need.
“I changed probably 25 tires last year, fixed broken chains, and even provided self-aid buddy care to heat stroke victims,” said DeStefano. “We are not allowed to ride by someone stopped at the side of the road. If someone is stopped, we are required to ask if they are OK and if they need help.”
The guardian angels of the route sustain this practice at every ride they go on, instead of focusing on finishing the journey themselves, they are committed to helping others.
When DeStefano isn’t cycling, he’s usually at Westover setting the standard for the junior enlisted Airmen.
“He is a top-notch senior noncommissioned office and always represents the squadron, the wing, and the Air Force in the most positive way,” said Senior Master Sgt. Jeffrey Roule, 439th AMXS flight chief.
DeStefano is even committed to helping fellow Airmen improve their physical fitness at Westover.
Recently, as part of his mission as unit physical fitness manager, he has encouraged more Westover Airmen to start pedaling their way to better physical fitness scores.
“I think cycling can do a lot for people who have trouble running, or for other people who have pain in their legs, knees, or back,” he explained. “I’m actually setting up monthly group rides on UTA weekends. I’m going to keep doing that every month to get people more involved, so hopefully they can take a little bit of what I get out of cycling away from it.”
DeStefano said he also hopes to spark in interest in cycling in more people around Westover so that he can start a base cycling team to go to Iowa. He said he would be happy to help people begin to train, even if they began training at between 10 or 20 miles.
“To get started, I’d like to just get people to come out and ride with us, and maybe in a year or even two years, we can set up a team on base to go out and represent the Air Force and Westover, and ride across Iowa.”
If any Airman is interested in cycling with DeStefano or would like to know more about the team, they should call him at 413-557-7154 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.