The Spirituality of Riding

I can see why bikes work for me. As a child, any socialisation meant walking the two miles to my cousins' farm. A couple of times, I persuaded a parent to deliver me to the town swimming pool, and I walked the six hot miles home at the end of the afternoon. The Christmas present of Cousin Bill's old Colton Palmer and Preston bicycle was freedom on two wheels! The boy whose life was developing around the metaphor of journeying, was all set.

Transport was a problem in Adelaide as a student; I lived some 10 kilometres from where I studied, and the buses were less than helpful. A bike was a tenth the price of a Mini Moke. The new machine had gears, and I discovered that it was a fine way to explore the Adelaide Hills.

At the end of my first year, I went fruit picking; Ag. Science students had to do on-farm experience each holidays, and this seemed a good beginning. My Dad delivered me, and the bike, to a fruit block near Moorook. It was brutal work, and as we got faster, we were paid less per bucket of peaches! At the end of the first week or two, it began to rain, and we were laid off, and told to come back when it stopped raining.  I decided to quit. How hard could it be to ride back to Adelaide?

It turns out that even on a warm day, light drizzle makes a body very cold. A few miles down the road, I hit the wall badly, and have never felt so ill. The kindly woman at the Lowbanks service station made me a huge plate of bacon and eggs, and well restored, I bought food at Waikerie, and rode the hundred miles back to the Prior Family Base at Nanna and Grandpop's.

I was hooked, and spent every free weekend and holidays for the remaining three years of university, riding all over South Australia, and well into NSW and Victoria.

Initially, some of this was about young male bravado. I used to leave college early, ride up Greenhill Road each morning, and over Mount Lofty, and then race the rush hour traffic down the freeway.  My record, in free flowing traffic, stood at 24 overtakes between Eagle on the Hill and the Toll Gate. One damp morning I entered the Devil's Elbow at my usual 30kph, careless of the damp surface, and accidentally executed a perfect two wheel slide through the corner, riding on as though it was all part of the plan! And a few months later, I had a narrow escape from dehydration as I rode the Hay Plain on far too hot a summer's day. Along with the sheer physical joy of life, I was discovering my absolute frailty, and that I was a very contingent being.

I was also finding that the contemplative zone I had known as a runner, and while bushwalking, and which follows a tractor for the hours, and even days, around a big paddock, was somehow magnified on a bike.

Leaving the green machine behind when I went up to the sandy desert, was the hardest thing I had done.

Thirty-one years later, it occurred to me that I was working in a job where no one cared much about what time I arrived, or what I wore, as long as I did the work. As my daughter said of this place, noone would mind if you worked with a cat on your head.  So I bought a bike.

My weight dropped. I began to write the best material of my life. My preachng improved. I was healthier, and easier to get along with— as long as you didn't mind full details on the local bike short cuts in whatever part of the country you meet me.

We are all different. You might find cycling destructive, or boring, but for me there is a discipline here which not only enables me to survive city life. There is something which enables me to flourish. It fertilises and magnifies who I find I am meant to be.

I am physical. It is not merely that I get sore (age and injury) without constant movement. Movement and travel are part of me. Keep moving, keep seeking, and keep learning. I don't travel to get somewhere, for me, the journey is the thing. It is on the journey that I am made.

I practise what I call "smooth riding." I have a heap of routes into the city, across which I seek to ride with fluidity; speed is not the thing so much as "sweet spot" gear changes, the perfect line through corners, the well timed negotiation of intersections. All this is outside. It is light, and hot, or cold. I am not made for the indoors.

City commuting— my shortest commute of the week is 60km for the day— is not a matter of a suicidal dash down the main highway. There is an art to finding back streets, creeks, and bike paths, which add only a kilometre or two to the journey. And in this much quieter environment there is time and safety to think. Driving numbs my mind; I am a danger to other drivers, and I can never give proper attention to what is on my mind. Riding is freedom. And free gym.

And for the sake of an extra fifteen or twenty minutes, I can leave the city and ride the Torrens to the hills' face and race home along the scarp, burning out work frustration, or processing new ideas or pastoral challenges. If Wendy has a late meeting, or is away, I can take a longer trip home through the hills. There is something about thinking through an issue as I struggle up a fire track, which preserves me from being a theoretician. The heat, or the mud, and the prospect that if you fall over the edge, no one may find your body for months, adds a grounded praticality to one's thinking. It's like doing the theology of pain while working in Intensive Care; you stay real!

All of this is magnified in long distance country cycling. There is something healing and restorative in long hours which have the simple goal of arriving at a place, and then getting home. The focus and concentration is respite from not only the complexity of life, but from the sheer pointlessness of many of its distractions. It clarifies what is really important.

These trips are also a daring of death.

My job is to help people discover that death is the way to life, rather than the end of us.  It's a hard lesson for us to learn as biologically based personalities. The deep brain has evolved to stay alive at all costs— it is designed to fear death as a survival mechanism.  And we live in a death denying culture— much more than our grandparents did. Houses once had a front parlour, now they have a living room. The dead are removed immediately to the funeral parlour, and we prefer them to die in hospital, not at home. But to be human is to overcome the biology, and to learn to die.

Clergy are a part of this. We are no less immune to the fear of death and the denial of death than any other person is.  We teach that compassion is the Jesus' way to practise for death; that compassion is the way into the little deaths that come from giving up the privilege of safety, and from beginning to live alongside the vulnerable. Compassion is not charity; compassion is to suffer with, and to risk the dangerous life of those without power. Like everyone else, we clergy struggle to do this.

We are what we do, rather than what we say. And endurance cycling looks squarely at pain and death, and rides a little closer to them than the average days of our lives. We take all the sensible precautions, but there is always that one semi driver who begins a long horn blast a kilometre back, and shows off his knobbled engine governor by passing six inches away at 120kmh. Or the other one, who slows down like all the others as he comes up behind with his B-Triple— these guys are the gentlemen of the road, and then slowly slifes in from the side, deliberately trying to force you off into the gravel.  Not to mention the motorists barely in control of a speeding sedan, or the drivers who obviously were sending a text, or were off with the fairies, and didn't even see you. (They are the real danger.)

And old bloke's hearts occasionally decide they've had enough, for no particular reason. It's not like going into a battle and being shot at. It's about not being safe and controlled. And about practising a certain powerlessness. About letting life be life, and owning up about our vulnerability. And, mostly, these rides are about learning the humility of persistence through hours of driving rain, or frost, or 45 degree heat, or simply pedalling because there are still hundreds of kilometres to go today. The contemplation of all that, and the doing of it, foster a certain imperturbability and stability in my life, which comes with me to your house, or even your hospital bed. 

Andrew Prior (2018)

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