Church Of The Big Ring

Years ago, I called a friend about going for a Sunday ride. He still lived with his parents. His dad answered. When I revealed the nature of my call, his father told me I should be going to church.

But I was, and that was the plan all along. Put on my Sunday best and go for a ride. I went for that ride and have continued to do so. It’s a communion I never tire of.

Many of us ride religiously. It’s more than a turn of phrase. Cycling might well be a rock, the rock, upon which our lives are built. Many ride with a fervor, a passion that doesn’t merely border on the religious, it sprints past that boundary entirely. Some might say this passion for cycling is proof that society is degrading, but all religion is about finding something that gives meaning, and all religions evolve and reflect their times. Some might suggest that the focus on riding is selfish, but people attend worship services for selfish reasons. They feel good for going; cyclists feel good for riding.

It isn’t necessarily that traditional religion isn’t fulfilling needs, but that people respond to things that move them. Bikes move people both literally and figuratively. And it’s a good thing.

The bike world is one that already existed before we came along. Despite this, few are born into it; most come upon it from afar and create their own bike world within the larger one. We’re all converts. We immerse ourselves because it’s fresh, exciting, gives us a reason to get up in the morning, and go to bed at night.

There’s pleasure in cycling, but most religions place value on pleasure. Many religions have a time for celebrating, often with drink. And if they ban alcohol, there is also a time for feasting. By suggesting what activities and mores are good or will be rewarded in another life, they are giving adherents reason for doing things they otherwise wouldn’t do—and suggesting that such activities should elicit pleasure. Not too dissimilar from a coach telling an acolyte when to feel pain and why it should be taken as a good sign.

Pain itself is a form of ritualized suffering for cyclists. We often plan ahead, trying to figure out when the hurt will do the most good. We look forward to it, and then cherish it after it’s over. Most crashes cause unplanned pain, but the resulting scar is proof of survival and fortitude. Organized religion also goes for certain forms of ritualized suffering. Fasting is a common form. So to is denial. Some faiths have ritualized physical pain that comes at certain times in life. History has recorded many examples of people who find suffering to be the proof of faith.

Finding a book that argues cycling is religion proved difficult. There are so many religious ideas and traditions that it seemed best to seek out experts who could answer questions in regards to exercise, cycling, and how it might tie into already established belief.

The first person I turned to find greater shape to this idea was someone I met on the bike. It was one of those just riding along moments. I caught up with some guy one day—maybe he caught up with me—and after a mile or three, a conversation started. Turned out he was a divinity student at Union Theological Seminary and a long-time cyclist who didn’t have many people to ride with. That was years ago. Amazingly, I was able to track him down. Marc Mullinax is now teaching religion at Mars Hill College in North Carolina.

Not surprisingly, he believes cycling can have religious dimensions. He says, “All religions will form around something that gives them meaning and the story of origin will revolve around that.” He also believes that cycling can fulfill a spiritual component, “because of the community it gives, the sense of inner purpose it expresses. People may say ‘yeah, right, how is cycling going to make you a better ethical person?’ It’s a great question.”

It’s a question many can answer. We’ll address some of the answers later.

Still, he can make a case for cycling as religion. Here are some of his points:

  • “It has to do with feeling. It goes back to Schleiermacher, a German theologian, said that religion is feeling.”
  • “Religions also give us ecstasy…When you descend a mountain, you feel the rush, it’s an ecstatic experience.   You can’t go home and communicate what you’ve done. There is going to be an ineffable component that you alone can treasure.”
  • “You have artifacts…there’s almost something hold about an early pair of Campy brakes. They were really a part of an artistic work.”
  • “You have congregations. Each with its own character. They’ll have their leaders, their masters…They perform very ritualistic actions. They give community.”
  • “There is an evangelical side to bicycling. You want other people to join you…You even have fundamentalists.”
  • “Rituals. Every religion recreates the story of its origin in rituals…We have our little rituals. Maybe you’re trying to re-find something that you had at one point.”
  • “I believe that people without passion lead meaningless lives. If religion is about the search and expression of meaning, then bicycling helps us find meaning because it expresses passion.”
  • “Phenomenologically, we put our deities on our walls. A deity is whatever matters most. We put whatever is most important on our walls.”

There is something nice about one of our own offering proof that the things we do are important and should be accepted as such. Many of us felt it all along, but were afraid to say so.

Reading thoughts like this often sets off a tiny alarm in the brain, signaling that the good news is bound to be disputed. One can feel it coming. Not everyone sees the bike light; most cyclists probably feel like their family, friends, co-workers don’t understand. It might be hard to explain and it probably elicits eye rolls, shaking heads, and a snort of disbelief. Strangers often give tangible signs of disapproval, and cyclists are known to experience this disapproval when someone drives by.

One person unwilling to see the bike light is Kathleen Flake of the University of Virginia. She teaches religious history and is an expert on fanaticism. “You could just as easily classify those who feel intently about a subject as artists,” she states. “I think to apply religion to cycling takes the definition too far, especially because religion addresses questions that plague human experience.” Flake sees cycling beginning and ending in the human sphere, “Ultimately, the end of cycling is for the self.” But, she does see some room for an analogy to religion, “If someone says, ‘I cycle because God tells me to’ is getting towards it, but you may think them a little strange.”

It’s a little unfair of Flake to make this last point. Many contend that true belief is when people are willing to do things that go against the grain. Part of the Kosher laws is that people are choosing to do without certain things as proof of their belief. Others choose not to drink alcohol or work on a particular day of the week. There is also the context issue.   Mullinax asks, “Two planks together making a cross?” Strange is almost the point. Those willing to do strange, possibly crazy things offer a kind of proof of their devotion and a signal for us to take them seriously.

Taking the cross idea and turning it into art has been done. Brandon Martin has an image he calls “Bicycle Worshipper.” The image is of a backlit cyclist hanging from his bike in a manner that evokes Jesus on the cross.

Is cycling a cross to bear? For many, it is both the thing that drives and the thing that torments: beauty, passion, and pain. Martin does see a tie to religion. “The idea behind the Bicycle Worshipper image is the passion and dedication cyclist(s) commit to riding. It never surprises me how serious or religious we do our routine ride.”

Some cyclists experience life as two pulls, one that is full of religion and cycling. Mark Izhak, a trainer and former bike racer in Brooklyn, NY experiences both on a daily basis as his family lives within an Orthodox Jewish community. He believes, “Riding and religion is the same in that when a person is committed and loves either one, it engulfs their whole lives. Every decision is made with riding or religion in mind. Also, a committed person will always try to better themselves in both riding and religion. There is no endpoint, only further development.” Izhak sees parallels in acts of devotion and community, where shared values make many things possible.

The difficulty Izhak experiences in straddling both worlds is when the pursuit of one gets in the way of the pursuit of the other. “I feel that a serious bike racer can be equally committed, but only in mind. At one point or another, they are forced to make a choice. I don’t like having to race on Saturdays, but I do because I want to develop into a great bike racer and I feel that I need to race to do that. Although, every Saturday morning I look for every excuse to stay home, before ultimately going to the race. The feel of guilt that comes upon me as I leave is huge. It alleviates once I get to the race, but is still there.” He says his heart rate is consistently higher Saturdays.

Rabbi Steven Engel doesn’t ride on Saturdays. The senior rabbi of Orlando, Florida’s Congregation of Liberal Judaism works on his congregation’s sabbath; such is the life of a spiritual leader. He sees cycling in greater spiritual dimensions, both for him and others.

Only two years of riding and on his third bike, he has found long rides, 60 miles plus which he does three times a week, are the key for him.   “My spiritual refreshment is getting on a bike. In some ways, it’s reflective of prayer. When you first pray, it feels awkward, it feels artificial. When I first got on a bike I felt uncomfortable. I now find a prayerful rhythm I find enjoyable as well.” Like many cyclists, he rides both with a local club and with his own chain gang. And, like many, he enjoys how he loses himself in the activity.

Engel points to three religious concepts in particular that he sees expressed in cycling.

  • Shmirat Guf: “Literally guarding the body. There is a sense that you have to take care of your body. Your body is on loan and you have to give it back in good condition.”
  • Davening: “In Judaism, there’s a cadence to prayer…I feel a sense of that while riding.”
  • Chevruta: “It literally means group. It means that when you experience something in a group, there’s another dimension to it. I find that important part of the experience.”

The community thing is something that keeps many people coming back, whether it’s to a house of worship or to a cycling club or even the race scene. The shared experience is a bond that keeps people tied together. This is easily seen when going on well-established rides or visiting long-running races. The Tour of Somerville has been running on Memorial Day for over 70 years. It brings all manner of cyclists out. Many have stopped riding, but renew acquaintances and dip a toe in the water of racing this one day a year. Part of the reason people go is they expect to see cycling friends whom they wouldn’t be able to otherwise find.

Community is the starting point for International Christian Cycling Club (ICCC). Though most of these cyclists get their religion outside of their club, they still want to bring their feeling of mission to the cycling world. While there’s a passion for both riding and religion, they try to keep to their priorities. Religion first, riding second. Despite the heavy emphasis on religion, they try to take a low-key approach. Much of their mission is to be publicly Christian, demonstrating the benefits of their lifestyle through presence and good works, and if they’re asked, testimony. And, like many club sponsors, ICCC wants their members to ride in the club’s duds—a passive form of advertising that many clubs hope work.

Tim Lagerborg, founder of ICCC’s Team Ironclad (a reference to Proverbs 7:17), a racing team within the club, sees strong parallels. “You have to be very disciplined (to race), but you have to be very aware of where you are physically…If you don’t really know the parameters, you’re not going to be in optimal shape. Same thing spiritually. If you’re out of balance, and you’re not looking at the big picture, you’re going to over-train in certain areas.” Lagerborg often rides after church, but many people on the team race Sundays. Riding is neither religious nor an extension of religious concepts for Lagerborg or Cody Newcome, the director of ICCC.

Some ride because they feel it makes them a better person. It isn’t so much that riding itself is virtuous, but that riding can be a part of a more ethical life, and there is virtue in that. The Amish are opposed to cars for religious reasons, and there’s no reason that others can’t see a similar value in choosing bicycles over other modes of transport. Paul Anderson, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (aka Quakers), who teaches at George Fox University in Oregon sees Quakers riding bikes as part of their religious commitment. “Some Quakers I know feel something of an ethical commitment to cycling as a form of transportation because it is more environmentally friendly, and it makes it possible to live more simply at times.” And he sees where there could be an intersection between one’s hobbies and religious precepts. “Sometimes God’s working in our lives can be connected to our passionate interests, but these are not always concentric realities. When passion is connected to furthering God’s work in the world, that is what distinguishes a passionate vocation, or calling, from the sort of passion that is more related to self-fulfillment.”

The ICCC folks believe that by being good Christians, they’ll make Christians out of cyclists. The converse could just as easily be true, because they are good Quakers, they ride bikes, and because cycling furthers God’s work, they’ll make more cyclists.

Transportation advocates believe that every time someone chooses a bike over a car for transportation, they’re making the world a better place. Good works, even small ones, are something that many religions support and encourage. It’s a way to find grace, have communion, and maybe get into heaven.

None of this makes one a better cyclist or person. Nor does it suggest that cyclists are necessarily on the accelerated road or any path to a good life.   Hopefully, I’ve given a framework for considering the place cycling occupies in life.

Think about it. Think about riding.

Go for a ride.


The above article, Church of the Big Ring, appeared, edited, in Asphalt Magazine.  Volume One, Issue Four.  2004.

Read Part 2: Buddha and the Bicycle.

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