As you may or may not be aware, I was once employed by the Air Force to fix aircraft weapons systems and load bullets, bombs, and other fun stuff onto fighter jets. This job comes with lots of travel opportunities to exotic places such as [UNDISCLOSED LOCATION], [UNDISCLOSED LOCATION], and at the time, the Republic of Iraq. Now, I’m not even going to attempt to summarize eight years of a messy, complicated war—no matter what your political leanings are, I think everyone can agree that war is hell. I will, however, share a bit about my bicycling experience in Iraq: a harrowing tale of commuting through dust storms, around taxiing aircraft, and the occasional mortar shelling.
Let me preface this by saying that one deployment experience is not necessarily like any other; the Mrs. and I were fortunate enough to be deployed to Joint Base Balad-- which, with it’s Taco Bell and movie theater, was more akin to a town in west Texas than a war zone. There were many others who did not get to experience such niceties during their stints in the Middle East, and my hat goes off to them for enduring the real action that happens “outside the wire”.
Inside Balad, there were several housing areas, a Base Exchange, a couple different dining facilities, and many other amenities. One of those amenities was the Iraqi Bazaar, or Hadji Shop in G.I. vernacular. There, local Iraqi vendors sold miscellaneous appliances, bootleg DVDs, souvenirs, and heavily refurbished bicycles. It was into the second week of the deployment that I went ahead and purchased my first “deployment bike”: a Specialized Hard Rock:
Note the masking tape grips and the mismatched tires- these bikes were beat-up, broken, put back together, and resold many times over.
The commute to work everyday consisted of riding on gravel (this is before it was a thing) to an Entry Control Point, or what you might refer to as a locked gate. From there is was a road, much like any other road, except the traffic was almost exclusively trucks and utility vehicles. So again, pretty much west Texas. I would take the road to another Entry Control Point, show the guard my credentials, and ride along the flightline to the hardened aircraft shelter we were working out of. Altogether, it was only about 20 minutes each way, depending on the headwind or occasional dust storm.
Eventually, a couple more guys got bikes and we made the commute together. Oh, and they gave us M-16s for some reason, so we had to bring those along, too:
There were a few days that the dust storms made commuting difficult. Thankfully, we were issued sun/sand goggles and those definitely helped visibility, though there wasn’t much to be done about the 40-50 knot winds. I remember yelling very loudly at the wind as I struggled to maintain enough momentum to keep the bike moving forward.
We were supposed to be wearing our IBA (Individual Body Armor) or have it within reach at all times, but having tried to pedal with a chest plate constantly pushing into my thighs, I will admit I did not do this for very long. One of the other riders who was very crafty had fabricated a trailer out of some spare bike parts and scrap wood just to tow his IBA (it was that heavy). The trailer also came in handy for getting boxes to the post office.
By the end of the deployment, there were around ten of us who rode bikes to and from work at any given time. The Specialized lasted me for about 5 months until the bearings in the bottom bracket and hubs finally succumbed to the ubiquitous grit and dust that made its way into everything. It was then that I swapped it for a “Fischer” brand aluminum bike (not to be confused with Gary Fisher, the MTB pioneer), which had a neat spring-loaded rack on the back and complete rubber grips, but was otherwise unremarkable. Both bikes are probably still in use there, as no component goes to waste.
I had submitted a short piece to the bike blog EcoVelo, who at the time was running a contest entitled “Why I Ride” that showcased various bike commuters and their thoughts on what it is about riding a bicycle that appeals to them. Since I was in Iraq at the time, my submission was about freedom—the freedom we were trying to bring to the Iraqi people, the freedom we enjoy every day as Americans, and the freedom that comes from riding a bicycle. Having experienced all three of those at the same time was something I’ll never forget.
- Bicyclist Abroad