Sustaining Sanity in Iraq: A Soldier’s Bicycle Journal

Editor's Note: We began corresponding with Major Jason A. Bryanduring the Giro d'Italia. Bryan, a dedicated cycling fan, is currentlystationed at a U.S. military compound, south of Mosul, in Iraq.Bryan's firstsubmission to generated an overwhelming response, as wellas offers of components, bikes and even socks (all of which have been forwarded).As a result we offered to make Major Bryan's Iraq diary a regular featureon this site... at least until he comes home, something we're all hopinghappens quite soon.Well, it’s official. Like Navin R. Johnson, I am

By Major Jason A. Bryan, 101st Sustainment Brigade

Editor’s Note: We began corresponding with Major Jason A. Bryanduring the Giro d’Italia. Bryan, a dedicated cycling fan, is currently stationed at a U.S. military compound, south of Mosul, in Iraq.Bryan’s first submission to generated an overwhelming response, as well as offers of components, bikes and even socks (all of which have been forwarded). As a result we offered to make Major Bryan’s Iraq diary a regular feature on this site… at least until he comes home, something we’re all hoping happens quite soon.

Well, it’s official. Like Navin R. Johnson, I am somebody, except it’s not my name in the phonebook… I can now Google myself.

My correspondence started with simple “newsletter” e-mails to family and friends about my life here, but no politics or war updates. To tell you the truth, I can’t address “the war” with any more accuracy than could the receptionist at the oncology ward talk about the fight against cancer. So, I won’t even try.

I will say that the deployed force receives tremendous support from the home front and I am honored to serve a grateful nation. I’ll spare you the Lee Greenwood solo, but thanks for your support.

I’ve been in Iraq for about 10 months now, and the best advice I can give anyone in my situation is to bring a bike! My bike has been so much more than just transportation throughout the tour; it is my single greatest connection with home. My 4-year-old tells me, “Dad, when you get home, I want to go for a bike ride and play baseball.”

He couldn’t go 10 feet without training wheels or me running behind him when I left last August.

When I ride here, I forget about all the things that would otherwise bring me down: I’m 6000 miles from home, deployed in a potentially very hostile environment, but I get to feel like a kid when I ride my bike! Because of the bike, I laugh more. Lance says, “It’s not about the bike.” I beg to differ.

I’ve sustained a pretty steady 100km per week routine all year, pretty much just traveling to chow, to the office, and to my CHU (I live in a 20-by-8-foot furnished shipping container — a Container Housing Unit). The only real exceptions were the two weeks I got to go home and the occasional “business trip” off the camp. I can assure you, I don’t look for reasons to leave the comforts of my peaceful little world. This spring, I did a few long rides on Sunday afternoons because it’s quiet around the office; my longest ride was just under 140km (seven laps around the perimeter).

I wrote home about another adventure from a Sunday afternoon ride back in March:

Sunday afternoons are for long rides and yesterday was perfect—quiet at the office and great weather. Well, about halfway through the first lap, I was only chased by two dogs and easily outran them without too much stress. These are some ugly dogs. Big and ugly and fast. The second lap, I had a chance to prepare. Trouble is, there were at least six of them the next time around and they were waiting for me like thugs on a street corner. I had a couple of empty Power Gels stashed in the leg of my shorts. Normally, I can’t muster the nerve to litter, even in Iraq.I figured that jettisoning a few empty packs would distract them. (Hey, when it comes to survival, screw the planet.) Nope. Action two was squirting water in their face. Undaunted, I managed to keep enough distance (“enough” defined as any measure of separation between their mouths and my legs) as I sped away throwing anything I could get my hands on. I decided I wasn’t going to take the chance of having one of them get an angle on me or cut me off as I approached (and who knew how many would be waiting for me next—two dozen?). So, I started taking another route.I did about 80km on the ride. I had to stop short of my 100km goal because of softball practice. The biggest threat for me here is boredom.I almost picked up my pistol and continued the same route, but decided I’d probably have to explain to someone why I shot five or six dogs (in the direction of an active airfield) while riding my bicycle. I found the thought a bit challenging. Could I shoot accurately enough to kill a dog while riding a bicycle? Hmmm. I’d like to give it a try. I don’t think I could do it, though, without yelling Yee-haw! like I was on a horse in an old western. After nailing them all, I’d blow on the smoking barrel and pop a wheelie.

I previously mentioned the dreadful condition of my bike and would like to elaborate. I’ve been writing the manufacturer for five months, so I could order the right parts to get my bike fixed. The only response was to direct me to the European office, which has not responded to a single e-mail.

I have no idea what components I need, and most importantly, I am no mechanic. What’s causing the wobble on my wheel can’t be fixed (at least not by me). I’m missing a spoke on the cassette side and I can’t figure out how to get the freakin’ thing off. I have the tools to remove the cassette but the best I can do is get the cassette to spin with the chain contraption in my hand. I end up just staring at the contraption with the wheel on the floor. One time, I almost cried when I pulled the wheel apart and ball bearings fell out. I thought I was out of service for good.

When you’re half the planet from Sam and his bike shop in Clarksville, Tennessee, you don’t jack around with your bike … especially if you’re a mechanical moron. So, now I constantly true my back wheel. I never said I was very bright.

As I said in the snake story, my goal for June is 1000km. That is a pretty lofty objective, considering the stifling heat, condition of my poor bike, and workload as we plan to get out of here. But, since you don’t have a goal until you tell somebody, I started with my family and friends and now I’m sharing it with the cycling world … I wish I’d kept my mouth shut.

Corresponding with the world through VeloNews is about as intimidating as it gets for me. I’ve read “the mailbag” and now I’m terrified of the critical review from a seasoned cycling audience. I heed your wisdom. For instance, I am now incensed when someone refers to “Ukraine” as “The Ukraine.” As a result, I’m trying to avoid definite articles altogether, just for Popo. Also, I will never, under any circumstances accept an invitation to the New York Marathon without qualifying through the lottery. And finally, my altitude tent is on order, compliments of Liberty Seguros.