On cycling as a religion

In the book Religion for Atheists, author Alain de Botton looks at the ‘secular uses’ of religions, eschewing the supernatural claims but looking at the good ideas that religion has for running our societies and our lives. Under a series of headings, he then goes on to explore how this might be done. He assumes that we have a choice in doing so and ignores the idea of the religious impulse, what Freud said were “calls for consolation”, to explain and find comfort in the complex world around us. As such, our secular institutions may indeed already be drawing on many of the functions of consolation that religion provides.

The purpose of this post is to suggest that cycling has already done as de Botton suggests and, as such, may actually be a ‘religion’. This will be done using a number of the subject headings used by de Botton as well as several quotes from his book. The context is primarily the history of pro cycling as its starting point and road cycling as its conclusion (this is a blog for roadies by a roadie, after all). I’m sure you will appreciate, dear reader, that this is a somewhat lighthearted approach to the issue – and certainly not an exhaustive discussion. We might be able to define ‘cycling’ but ‘religion’ is certainly more complex. Still, iff you do not have religion in your life, you may see cycling in a new way. If you already have religion, perhaps you may agree that cycling also brings people together as faith does.

Community

Community is to bring people together for support as well as moral instruction – how to get along together. Religion understands that the world can be a bewildering and lonely place most of the time and that strength and support can be achieved through solidarity, and that the lessons for coping with the world can be more efficiently taught to a group. As such, while the solo ride is perfect for contemplation and to articulate one’s own devotion, cycling is best done as part of a community – the group ride. This is because, as part of a group, an individual can ride farther and faster compared to riding alone. Cycling is perfectly designed to be done more efficiently as part of a group.

Like religion, barriers to participation are low. In a typical Christian church, for example, there is no hierarchy among the attendant devotees. There are, however, ceremonial routines to learn and until these are learned then a new attendee might find it difficult to keep up with the service. Cycling is the same; there are the rhythms of the particular group to learn. But this should not be a barrier. And while there may be others in the group whose particular devotion to their religion extends to ‘putting on their Sunday best’ of carbon wheels and electronic gruppos, a functional road bike in all cases will be sufficient to attend the worship.

Moral instruction (see more below) can also best be achieved on the group ride. Been tearing it up on Strava on your solo rides to clock new PBs? A group ride is a necessary corrective learn about the value of community, and to hone one’s skills in a group, riding a paceline, and demonstrating to non-believers (other road users) that cyclists are valid and trusted road users as well. Plus, you can learn new tricks, meet new training partners, find new routes (and cafes), score deals on new gear, and get carpool contacts for races.

We often complain that the modern world of hyper-capitalism is an isolating and atomizing place where we spend too much time glued to our screens and ignoring those around us. The group ride is the perfect opportunity to leave this behind and a simple way to find others with the same interests – bikes and biking. And like, say, a Sunday service, there will likely be a fixed time to meet planned in advance, a set duration, and a general theme (long and slow, hills, tempo). There may well be a ‘road captain’ to lead the service, sorry, ride, who will make sure that everyone can keep up and knows where to go. Many will, as noted, attend in their Saturday or Sunday best. And so long as you can ride, you will be welcome.

Kindness (and morality)

Religions are highly prescriptive about how members should behave towards each other. As de Botton writes: “Christianity never minded creating a moral atmosphere in which people could point out there flaws to one another and acknowledge that there was room for improvement in their behaviour.” At its heart, one might argue, religion is rules for living the good life – or the right life – here on earth before whatever comes after. Different religions are very particular about the conduct expected from their members.

Cycling is no different. While we might not always agree on the minute details of conduct, there is still a robust debate going on to refine those details into a code of etiquette. Think of the strictures against half-wheeling, or blowing through stop lights, or coming up behind another rider unannounced and sitting on their wheel, or shouldering into imaginary gaps in the cat.4 race. There are also the hand signals when riding in a group or paceline (stopping, turning, obstacles). Many of the rules are for safety – riding on the road can be hazardous after all – but they are also about building community (see above) along the way. They are also rules that get pointed out to new riders by more experienced ones, and any roadie should expect to have such advice proffered to them or be expected to do the same to others when etiquette is breached.

This does not even begin to scratch the surface of proper attire in road cycling, the sorts of rules more appropriate to Mennonites than a sporting pastime. The fundamentalist cycling sect Velominati has no less than 91 rules – the last one being “no food on training rides under 4 hours” – that covers kit coordination, bike colours and accessories, and various other strictures (appropriately, there doesn’t appear to be any room for women in this all-male sect). Like any good religion, these rules create a model of behaviour that is unobtainable by mortal riders, hence the necessary guilt that must be engendered. There’s always room for improvement.

Florentine artist Giotto painted the chapel walls in Florence with depictions of the cardinal virtues (prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice) and the Christian values (faith, charity, hope). These virtues and values were naturally aspirational – how often do we fall short – but we might find some complementary ideas in cycling. There is the prudence we undertake when riding, so as not to overly endanger ourselves and others; the fortitude we show in the face of long climbs and indignant weather; the temperance of effort, ensuring that we can make it home; the notion of justice that all effort will have its reward. We have our faith in cycling, we show charity by giving others a wheel to follow, and we hope – in the words of Bob Roll, we ‘pray’ – that we don’t get dropped.

Catholics have role models in the forms of saints that embody particular virtues. Cycling, too, has its ‘saints’ that epitomize particular traits – transcendence, hardness, resilience, otherworldliness. Indeed, some riders from the pro peloton of history have taken on saint-like qualities – Coppi, Pantani – and are revered almost as beyond mere mortals. And saints can fall in and out of favour as their ‘miracles’ are revealed to be frauds and shams (think Armstrong) so perhaps there is a cautionary tale of expecting too much divine intervention when embracing a particular saint.

Education

Christianity, according to de Botton, “has no patience with theories that dwell on our independence or our maturity. It instead believes us to be at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable, always on the very of anxiety, tortured by our relationships, terrified of death – and most of all in need of God.”

It is undoubtedly a conceit in road cycling to think, after a decent number of years on the road, that there is nothing left to learn. While we may mature as riders, this is an ongoing and life-long process. We are less wise than we think and we must commit ourselves to the bike on a regular basis to cement its gains. Muscle memory is resilient but it grows dull and loses its lustre over time without constant attention. Why else would we become so anxious when we spend too much time away from riding.

“Ideas also have to be repeated to us constantly… our inner lives must be lent a structure and our best thoughts reinforced to counter the continuous pull of distraction and disintegration,” says de Botton. Rituals help to train our minds through a spiritual process, much as we would train our bodies. Cycling is a repetition of a relatively limited number of movements but, as we know, it is only through repetition that we progress and that requires us to put in the miles. We might also see our modern existence as full of distractions and cycling is a spiritual process where we can achieve clarity of thought even as we concentrate on the road unfurling in front of us.

Pessimism

A long tradition of Christian pessimists, like Blaise Pascal, remind us of our “sinful and pitiful state.” For the vast majority of us, we are decidedly average as cyclists; we fall into that great chunky part of the bell curve of ability. We can ride and train hard, and make gains, but there will always be a number of riders much larger than zero who are better than us.

Like any good religion, cycling helps to keeping our achievements in perspective. We can become better riders than we were before, more skilled, faster, and better road companions but this process of growth is ultimately a personal one. Indeed, it may one of the most satisfying aspects of progressing in cycling that our own development can deliver tangible benefits greater than competitive racing where the thrill of success must be tempered by the sting of disappointment.

Within the humbleness of our own mediocrity, however, there is still room for self expression. We might characterize this as the difference between  Catholic versus Protestant views on the conduct of the sport. Perhaps it is a ‘flashy’ Catholic approach that attracts us to cycling, with its elaborate trappings of worship (think Campag Record and Colnago frames) and its gregarious adherents (most Italian racers); the style of riding is the reckless attack, preferably in the mountains, with a showy bravado (think Pantani). Winter is spent on the indoor trainer watching Giro re-runs and dreaming of the Dolomites.

Or perhaps we are more in tune with a ‘dour’ Protestantism with its spare style of worship and emphasis on function over form, where its heroes are grim-faced northern hard men (Brits and Flemish) pushing big gears over the cobbles through the crosswinds. Winter is spent on the bike in the cold and the dark dreaming of Flanders. Whatever our disposition, we remain at heart penitent before the talents in the pro peloton that are much more outsize than our own.

Perspective

“Religion is above all a symbol of what exceeds us and an education in the advantages of recognizing our paltriness,” says de Botton. “Being put in our place by something larger, older and greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives.”

As Greg LeMond said, it never gets any easier, you just go faster. Suffering is a constant in cycling if we want to push ourselves farther and faster. It keeps our goals in perspective. The bicycle is a hugely efficient way of translating our own energy into movement, but it pales in comparison to other forms of locomotion. We chip tiny increments of time off our personal bests, but these are minute achievements in the greater scheme of things. Action may give us consolation, a reprieve from idleness, but it has no larger meaning – our achievements are illusions.

As for perspective, we are continually humbled by the hills and the mountains. Our main adversaries in achievement are gravity and the rising road. Against the backdrop of nature we are insignificant. We never conquer climbs, we survive them. They will endure when we have gone home and put our bikes away for good. But we can take solace from this; with relatively limited effort (and fuel) we can traverse great distances in a day and summit impressive peaks. For this, the bicycle is truly and wondrous machine. But we are not all-conquering: there are always more climbs and more miles and we cannot hope to climb or cover all of them.

Art

“Christian art understands that images are important partly because they can generate compassion, the fragile quality which enables to boundaries of our egos to dissolve, helps us to recognize ourselves in the experience of strangers and can make their pain matter to us as much as our own,” according to de Botton.

Iconography is important in cycling. With the race action stretching out over miles and miles, it is not encapsulated into a restricted area like other sports. Without ‘goals’ and ‘scoring’ it is difficult to capture meaningful and exciting action during the race, until the finish. Still images, photographs – the art of cycling – fills this gap and is a powerful pull on our emotions. Pain and suffering is a common theme, and the racers’ battles against each other and their environment draws us in. We, too, suffer pain while riding – perhaps not to the same extent – and in that way we can empathize with what they are going through. The pictures stir our emotions and we feel compassion for the efforts of strangers.

De Botton goes on to argue that, “As if to reinforce the idea that to be human is, above all else, to partake in a common vulnerability to misfortune, disease and violence, Christian art returns us relentlessly to the flesh…” The visage of pain, the tortured limbs, is what cycling art is all about – it is all about the flesh, and it is fragile. We may or may not see glory, depending on our perspective, but we certainly see the suffering. We, too, are fragile. And this is why cycling photography is a more powerful medium than pictures of other sports; it captures action, emotion, suffering, and fragility, making it evocative of what is means to be human, to be striving for something larger. Cycle racing is mere spectacle – one might argue – but its depiction in art is always more dramatic; it has a moral quality that strives for greater meaning.

Institutions

The French philosopher Auguste Comte did not support the doctrinal aspects of Christianity but saw value in religion. He thought that “a secular society devoted solely to the accumulation of wealth, scientific discovery, popular entertainment and romantic love – a society lacking any sources of ethical instruction, consolation, transcendent awe or solidarity – would fall prey to untenable social maladies.”

We may disagree with Comte, for where would we be without wealth, science, entertainment and love. But his warning was over excess. We might see the corollary in cycling. If we construct a sport that gives undue emphasis to flashy and expensive equipment, that fetishizes speed and wattage, that is about grandiose events and self-satisfying ‘personal bests’ then this excessive individualism undermines the communal aspect of cycling. If we are simply glued to our GPS computers and Strava KOMs then we are throwing off community, kindness, education, pessimism and perspective, ultimately to our detriment as we shrink cycling to a narrow view of its potential.

The metaphysical core

Philosopher Ronald Dworkin has argued that a religious attitude encompasses two central judgments about value: firstly, that life has objective meaning and that each person has a duty for living well – “accepting ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others”, and; secondly, that nature “is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime”, something of intrinsic value and wonder.

As the above has suggested, in a metaphorical sense, cycling as a pastime might be considered as having a religious attitude for all the parallels that can be drawn. There is a morality at the core of cycling, and partaking in it is an educative process. There is also a wonder at the magnificence of nature and that we are humbled by it whenever we go for a (serious) ride.

If we throw off this attitude in cycling then we risk falling into Comte’s trap and maladies can only follow. One might not wish to overstate the case – this is a lighthearted blog after all – but if we let these values slide, then we are left only with the values of commercialism or self-satisfaction. It would seem a shame to lose the community building and transformative aspects of cycling. Plus, we’d surely miss our days of worship, in the group on the early-morning weekend roads, shoulder to shoulder or wheel to wheel, pondering the ethical implications of the latest professional doping scandal, trading the stresses and strains of the working week for stresses and strains on the legs, planning an epic ride that will affirm our humbleness.

Community revisited

Cycling lacks doctrine like religions have and faith is not at its core. It does have its rituals, however, and commonalities that have been hinted at above (although certainly not exhaustively and for your entertainment only). It incites passions and it can be the basis of a shared language between strangers. The journalist Janine di Giovanni said the following about the Catholic mass: “[It] reassured me in some way that wherever I went in the world I could find a common community bound by religion.” Anyone who has travelled to see the big pro races might share this sentiment – a common community bound by cycling. And not one that is divided along nationalistic lines with a hostile crowd depending on where you’re from and who you support. But a community that celebrates shared membership of the cult of suffering that is cycling – in a joyous, rapturous way, standing on the side of the road, the mountains sublime as a backdrop to the spectacle, the carnival, the camaraderie.IMG_0611

One thought on “On cycling as a religion

  1. Thanks Guy. I enjoy reading your posts a lot. I wonder if you couldn’t push the analogy more. I feel that the current ‘reformation’ of cycling is due in some part to the arrival of the English-speakers in the 80s peloton. We signed up in good faith to the mythology and romance without question whereas the traditional cycling cultures were always aware of (and largely accepted) the ritual as a spectacle. I think you could argue that a puritan attitude is challenging a carnival one.

Comments are closed.