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Ian Holt trades nukes for Olympic dream

The U.S. Military's cycling team's Capt. Ian Holt spent his last night in a missile control center last week and VeloNews was there.

Editor’s note: The September issue of VeloNews, out this week, includes a look at the full U.S. Military Cycling Team.

Captain Ian Holt is starting the Skyliners Time Trial Thursday morning at the Cascade Cycling Classic. Less than a week ago, the Air Force Missileer served his final alert with the 319th Missile Squadron at F.E. Warren Air Force Base – his 130th “Alpha Alert,” during which he was in charge of 50 of the country’s Minuteman III nuclear missiles. VeloNews accompanied Capt. Holt for his final assignment at the Global Strike Command facility in rural Wyoming before he joins the military’s World Class Athlete Program in August.

From afar, the facility appeared from above ground to be a non-descript government building with an outlying, three-bay garage. Up close, however, signs indicated that this was no snowplow sand shed. The most telling line read, “Use of deadly force authorized,” in red font.

Within the facility, Holt and Capt. David Peterson were hard at work transitioning between the previous day’s crew and themselves. With a checklist of changeover protocol and an elevator that descends the 65 feet below ground to the command capsule at a rate of about five feet per minute, moving in is a slow process.

Three identity checks and an uncomfortable exchange with a security officer holding an M-16 automatic weapon later, VeloNews staff joined Holt, Peterson and a crew of public relations and facility management below ground.

The capsule where teams of missileers co-habitate for 24 hours at a time is no larger than the 15-passenger van Holt rode in with Team Rio Grande from the Wells Fargo Twilight Criterium to Bend on Sunday. The crew, most often a newer airman or “deputy” and a senior airman or “captain,” are required to remain present in the capsule at all times during their shift. According to Holt, some missileers will extend and run consecutive 24-hour shifts in order to build up vacation time.

Teams, which stay together anywhere from a few weeks to upwards of seven months, not only sleep in tight quarters and use an airplane-style restroom in the command room, but they also spend a large chunk of time awaiting communiqué from other facilities or the president. Many missileers chase a Master’s degree during their time in what Holt calls, “the Matrix.” Others burn time on Facebook. Capt. Holt has spent his time chasing fitness.

World Class Athletes

Holt is a member of the U.S. Military Cycling Team, as well as Team Rio Grande, a regional elite team based in Colorado. In August, he will leave his post in the missile squadron for his second stint in the military’s World Class Athletes Program.

In the winter months, Holt brings his rollers into the capsule and rides up to two hours at at a time, less than a foot from his command console. He’s done it since earning enough courage to request access for his bike after about 20 alerts. For his partners, that means the wurring of the rollers and the musty tinge that roller air gets 45 minutes into a session. They don’t seem to mind it, though. Peterson, whom Holt hand-picked for his last alert – a choice given missileers for their final trip underground – has been supportive of his partner’s training.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Peterson of Holt’s inclusion in the WCAP. “It’s a good opportunity and it represents the Air Force well.” Too tall to fly jets, Peterson was a center for the Air Force Academy’s Division I men’s basketball team and gets what Holt and other elite athletes are doing in the military athletics programs. According to Peterson, Holt and others are showing that opportunities exist in the Air Force, whether athletic or otherwise

That being said, like many riders, it’s not always easy for Holt to climb onto the rollers. “It’s easy to become complacent down there,” he said. . “In winter, I don’t mind riding down here when it’s shitty up there; it’s summertime when it’s nice that it hurts.”

Holt came to cycling like many in the U.S. peloton – through collegiate racing. He was at the Air Force Academy in the early 2000’s when he picked up cycling and racing and began picking up wins. In 2004, he was riding in the front group of ten in the collegiate nationals road race when he flatted in the last lap and finished 10th. That same year his Air Force Falcons finished second in the team time trial, earning Holt a national championship and confirming his potential on the bike.

In 2007, Holt spent a year in the WCAP, splitting time between his home in Fort Collins, Colorado and the Johan Bruyneel Cycling Academy in Belgium. While that year abroad didn’t pan out exactly the way he’d hoped, Holt was hopeful that a second go around in the program will set him down the path toward his goals of participating in the 2011 Pan-American Games and the 2012 Summer Olympics and winning a gold medal at the next running of the Military World Championships.

While he knows that training full-time and avoiding two-to-four days per week spent below ground will help his cycling career, Holt said he’ll miss the missile operations detail. “There are no pros in the peloton that can say they provide preeminent combat capability across the spectrum of conflict,” said Holt. “Cycling is important, but I’m not going to change the world on my bike. This job is of greater import to the human race.

“What makes me special and unique as a cyclist is that I’m active duty military.”

He’s not the only one that finds the transition challenging. Holt’s commander in the 319th, Colonel Dave Martinson, said that he’s very proud of Captain Holt, but “it’s almost impossible” to lose an active duty airman to the WCAP.

While he’ll be leaving the squadron, Holt will retain his active duty status through the program, which is designed to provide athletes with the short-term opportunity to serve their country as a spokesperson, an alternative role model to the traditional warrior.

Before that happens, though, Holt had one final 24-hour alert and two weeks of missile duty to complete at Warren AFB, though he will spend one week of that at Cascade. Before he and Peterson left the base for the hour-long trip to their facility, “Alpha 1,” on Friday, Martinson reminded them in the mission planning session that “when you’re in there turning keys, you’re killing people and breaking things.” An understatement for the work these airmen do, the instruction was a very real reminder of the contrast Holt lives between his time as a missileer and bike racer.

When he is underground, Capt. Holt is a member of what some call the “shortest kill chain in the United States.” That is to say he is one of the few members of the military with the capacity to receive orders directly from the president. Peterson and he process dozens of messages each shift, most of them benign, but they are prepared in the instance that the next message they copy, decode, validate and authenticate will be an order to activate the weaponry they hope to never bring to life.

His final alert now in the books, Holt hopes the only things he’ll be activating this week are his legs in Thursday’s time trial.