Thursday, 10 February 2011

Losing my Religion

A dear friend gave me a very beautiful book for my birthday recently. It is by the guys at BikeSnob NYC, who are always worth a read, and it is chunky, funny and kind of wonderful. One of the best things about it is the plethora of great quotes, like "Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia" (H.G.Wells).

However, it is also provocative. I've realised over the last six months or so of writing this blog that one theme emerges time and time again- that cycling is life-enhancing. Not in the way that useful things (i.e. iphones) are life-enhancing, or in the way that pleasurable things (i.e. art) are, but somehow, in being both, cycling becomes more than the sum of its parts. It almost feels, dare I say it, spiritual. this perturbs me. Because, much as I love him and have happily anthropomorphised Trusty to a potentially unhealthy extent, I know, really, that he is a machine. He is a collection of metal tubes with rubber accessories who gets me from A to B.

BikeSnob knows this too, but does not seem to think this is a hindrance to cycling having significant metaphysical powers. He (she? they?) rewrite the famous christian poem 'Footprints' so it is not God's footprints on the beach, but bike tracks. And then there is this quote:

"As human beings we're trapped. We're trapped by our physical limitations, and our responsibilities...and the looming inevitability of death. Because of this we all seek respite from the pain of existence [through entertainment, sport, hobbies]. It is a rare movie or story or picture or song that can actually pass the time and be enjoyable and fulfill a spiritual need and teach you about life.Cyclists escape the pain and drudgery of being alive by doing something we love to do, but we can also integrate that thing into out everyday lives... Cyclists aren't just hobbyists or lifestyle athletes; in many ways we're a different type of being. We're people with wheels" (p48-50).

That's a pretty big claim isn't it? A different type of being? Really? As I was reading it, I was nodding along, because this is persuasive stuff, and a lot of it I recognise.I honestly believe most people's lives would be made better if they owned, and rode, a bicycle. I think our society would be that bit healthier, happier, cleaner, richer and quieter. 

What I don't think is that cycling can do anything, anything at all about the "looming inevitability of death", or "fulfill a spiritual need". I have fallen into this language at points, and I want to take it back. Because I sincerely believe that all spirituality is about relationship. Foundationally, relationship with God, a loving, self-giving, creator. Not just because I think this is true (which I, controversially,do-feel free to converse with me in the comments) but because this relationships aligns all our others. It puts us in our correct place and helps us see others as just as flawed and fragile as ourselves. It teaches, beseeches us, to love people, to commit ourselves to them, not solely because they can meet needs in us but because we belong in relationship. We are entirely co-dependent creatures.

You may not (probably don't) believe in God, but I hope you believe in people. I hope you believe that everything good in life, everything hard, important, valuable and true involves people. And Trusty, though I love him, is not people. He maybe helps me love people better because the endorphins I get out of riding him might make me nicer to be around, but he is not my people. If I am going to have any religion (and I am profoundly uncomfortable with a word that has such connotations of rules and pointless ritual)then it is about God and about people, not about bicycles.

And I just had to get that off my chest.


  1. "...trapped by our physical limitations..."
    I think there's a lot of truth in your BikeSnob quote. Why is it we all dream of being able to fly? Surely we see our physical body as a clumsy encumbrance that prevents us doing all the life-enhancing things we can imagine in our mind? Cycling (or hang-gliding, motorbiking, etc.) allows us to escape some of those limitations, and in that sense I think perhaps it can "fulfill a spiritual need". (Though "spiritual" is probably not quite the right word)

  2. Whilst not being religious, I agree that cycling does seem to bring a wonderful sense of serenity. As you've written previously, no matter what the day's like, as soon as you get on the bike the days problems melt away.

    I think that also feeds through to the people around you. On a tube or a bus, if someone starts talking to me, I automatically become quite defensive Whilst on a bike, I often seem to get into brief conversations with people at the lights. (this is possibly a London thing, as back in Nottingham strangers would often talk to each other on buses).

  3. @JdeP, @davidnottingham thanks for the feedback- always interested to hear what people think.