AIM HIGH: Airman turned cyclist trains for success on Valley's trails

Published: Jul. 12, 2017 at 9:56 PM EDT
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Eau Claire, Wisconsin is more than 800 miles from the mountains that surround the Valley. It's the birthplace of David Flaten.

But these days, when Flaten is not serving his country, he returns to the place that calls his heart -- the bike trails of the Shenandoah Valley.

"The trails out here are unlike any place else in the world," Flaten said. "I've been to several different countries racing my bike, over 20 states. There is something about the Valley here. The camaraderie. The trail systems, the local riders. It's unrivaled. So, I love it out here."

There's a trail on the western slope of Massanutten called 2000 Hours. It's one of the many that helped Harrisonburg earn the distinction of being one of the top ten mountain bike towns in the United States.

Flaten knows its curves like the back of his hand.

In 2014, he was one of 20 airmen accepted into the Air Force's World Class Athlete program, which provided an opportunity for him to train as a cyclist full time.

"That was a dream come true where I got to test my training legs, and really push everything to the limit racing," Flaten said.

Temporarily released from his military duty, he could choose anywhere to train. And Flaten chose Harrisonburg.

"I came out here for the first time and I just couldn't hang," Flaten said. "I had no idea how to ride the rocks. They were horrifying. I initially chose here because it's what I was bad at."

He spent up to 20 hours a week on a bike. Once going six days without even speaking to another person. At the time, Flaten was focused on his ultimate goal -- making the 2016 Olympics in Rio. It was a goal he failed to reach.

"That was a far shot, but we made some pretty serious headway," Flaten said. "Maybe Tokyo, or maybe 2024 at this point."

These days, he's back on base at Dover Air Forece Base in Delaware as a staff sergeant, serving as military police. It's forced him to set full-time training aside.

But each weekend he can, Flaten travels back to the Valley, feeding the passion that's burned since he was a teen.

"When I was 13, my buddy took me out on some trails," Flaten recalls. "I just had this $100 Mongoose from Walmart. I was in jeans and a t-shirt. My buddy was all decked out and I thought he had the coolest bike. He probably spent $400 dollars on that. He took me out and totally kicked the living snot out of me on the trails and I just loved the challenge."

Flaten began competing at 14. Each year, the races got longer and tougher while the stakes got larger. In 2015, he raced in the World Cup circuit.

But a return to the international stage hangs on his World Class Athlete Program status. He currently awaits approval.

"Making it one time was a dream come true, to be considered a second time is mind blowing to me," Flaten said. "You can imagine letting an airmen released from his career field to go and ride a bike full-time, they've got to move mountains to make something like that happen."

For now, Flaten will just keep moving on the mountains while he waits, hoping to return to his second home.

The Air Force's motto is "Aim High. Fly. Fight. Win".

Flaten looks to do more than that with his bike.