The spirituality of cycling

They had spent all summer on overloaded bikes, cycling 4,600 miles across the country, with strong head winds and 100 degree temperatures in Kansas and steep grades over 11,000-foot mountain passes in Colorado. Even the high country in central Oregon had challenged the capabilities of this pair of self-contained retired men with long beards.

Yet their conversation on the day I joined them in their ride through Oregon’s Willamette Valley had none of the “it was so hard and I was so out of shape” blather that often appears in bicycle travel writing.

Instead, Guy the forester and Joe the preacher kept using the word “spiritual” to describe this intensely physical journey they would complete a few days later.

When I asked Guy to explain what he meant, his initial comment was “I’m not very good with words,” but then he emailed me this summary of what the trip had meant:

I am not sure how much I can add except to say I really feel God’s presence when I am on the bike.  I see him at work in the loving kindness of strangers and the beauty and wonder of creation.  It seems that a lot of my riding time is spent singing hymns in my mind or out loud, especially on the hard climbs.  Sometimes I pray as I ride.  Mostly, I just enjoy a peace that I find on the bike that is sometimes hard to come by elsewhere.  

Joe , who has made his living as a wordsmith, posted electronic reports as they traveled across the country. Back home in Illinois, he wrote his summary of the spirit of the trip (from which the rest of this column has been quoted). All across the country, Joe writes, both of them experienced a strong emotional response to what was happening.

Guy said early on that sometimes he is so moved, especially by a beautiful place in nature, that he can’t keep the tears from flowing. ‘That’s just the way I’m wired’… I tend to hold my emotions in reserve & don’t show them so readily, but I, too, felt the tears welling up at powerful moments including when we camped by the beautiful Current River in MO, as we reached the top of Hoosier Pass at 11.539 ft. elevation, & when we rode down from Lolo Pass along the Lochsa River.

“This was not just an athletic undertaking focused on bicycling,” Joe continues, “or a travel experience exploring the natural & historical wonders of our good land. It was a spiritual pilgrimage, a journey that opened our spirits to a deeper experience of God & to the spiritual dimension of the world around us & of life itself. Cycling, nature, historical discoveries, & the people we encountered were channels for discovering God’s spirit.”

As we cycled we were moved by amazing experiences of God’s creation, not just emotionally welling up with tears, but inspired to give thanks to God. These “Doxology moments” caused us to break out in song, or spontaneous exclamations of joy & praise. Several times we said, “How could anyone see this and not be inspired? How could anyone experience this and not feel a larger & deeper spiritual reality?”

Whether we call it God or something else, those moments put us profoundly in touch with the holy, the sacred, the “mysterium tremendum” at the heart of creation.

We experienced the spiritual dimension in the cycling itself, the rhythmic pedaling & steady breathing. Pedaling became a prayer at times, & it merged with song as we would often sing, whistle, or hum to ourselves when we didn’t have the breath to sing out loud…On especially difficult sections, climbing a hard grade or struggling through high heat or strong wind, I used hymns & scripture as a mantra to enter a sort of meditative state, which would pull my thoughts away from the discomfort & tune me into God’s strengthening spirit. I used the Lord’s Prayer (singing the Calypso version was my favorite).

Perhaps most deeply we experienced holiness in the people we met. We felt it in the acts of hospitality & caring from folk along the way, hosts, friends & family, & so many others who offered help or an encouraging word. We experienced it deeply in “friendships of the road” with fellow cyclists we met & cycled with for a few days, especially those we met, then parted ways, then met again weeks later, sometimes leap frogging & reconnecting time after time, sometimes after incredibly divergent paths & long periods of time. Who could not feel God’s spirit in those relationships, this traveling community of cyclists, & in those almost unbelievable reconnections?

After 4,700 miles of cycling Guy and Joe are the experts. All I can say is Amen.



9 Responses to The spirituality of cycling

  1. genehill says:

    Thanks so much, Keith, for this blog on the “spirituality of cycling.” I know there are a lot of topics you could comment on, but today the news is Lance Armstrong (August 24, 2012). I would be interested in you writing, as a cyclist, and as a theologian, what today means to you. I guess, as a non-cyclist, I want to believe Lance Armstrong is completely innocent and that he has never taken any drugs. Just an idea to throw out to you. Thanks. Gene Hill

  2. Dave says:

    Presenting Guy and Joe’s comments as you do is wonderful. Cycling, as you (and Guy and Joe) present is a spiritual practice I believe is important for others to grasp. Not that folk need to cycle, but the need to find some way to be in—to experience—creation where through ones peddling or walking or wheelchairing they notice spirit through their steady breath enriches life—theirs and ours. Your words call me to get up and take a walk around the farm!

    • Dave, I agree that cycling is but one of the ways of entering into the experience. As I was working on the blog, I was thinking of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom were walkers.The activity has to be one that allows the mind to free wheel, to use a cycling term, which is one reason why non-competitive cycling works well for recognizing the depth dimension of what is happening. Keith

  3. Rod Reeves says:

    This blog entry is providing additional motivation/inspiration to engage in some more extensive cycling trips than I’ve thus far experienced. Sounds like an opportunity to engage not only in physical nurture, but also exposure to an ambience offering mental and spiritual nurture.

  4. Thanks Keith! Guy told me he had a good conversation with you. He may not feel that he articulates it very well, but he spoke often on our journey about how spiritual cycling is for him, & it was certainly obvious as we cycled together. Maybe that’s one reason we were such compatible bike companions!

  5. A great piece that is inspiring me not only as I ride but I begin focusing on writing my own ten page reflection paper on the spirituality of cycling.

    • jacbikes says:

      Thanks for your comments. (& thanks again to Keith for writing about our ride!) I would like to encourage you in writing your paper, & to keep you own journal, either in hard copy or online, as you ride. For me at least, keeping a journal & blogging help me process my rides, reflect on them, & see the spiritual dimensions more fully. If you are interested in my full daily blog for the TransAmerica ride, or for several others I have taken, go to Happy cycling!
      Joe Culpepper

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