Not being lost is an important element to cycling a long distance, especially in a race. In events like the TransContinental – a multi-day self-sufficient cycle race across Europe, spending hours cycling in the wrong direction could be a racing disaster. Race winner Emily Chappell, in Where there’s a Will, eloquently documents the racer’s experience of being ‘watched over’. She tells of ‘dot-watchers’ following a rider’s GPS tracks across a map of Europe. These are remote fans and supporters constructing narratives to explain rider’s movement, or lack of it. Yet the rules of self-sufficiency mean you are alone, no one can set you back on the right path.
Being alone with your thoughts is a common theme to long distance cycling. While our bodies silently convert glucose into energy through glycolysis, and our muscle memory converts this into kilometres covered, our minds are set free to process our past and present experiences.
During my time at theological college, I wanted to explore the idea of physical exercise being an expression of prayer. I tried to grapple with the wordless way our bodies do what bodies were created to do. Can our bodies worship without words? Is there a physical language of lactic acid, originally written by a creator who celebrates when creation is true to itself? There’s a poetic language in the Bible that hints at this, that
‘the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands’.
Pro-cyclist Jens Voigt famously told his legs to shut up… maybe he should have let them sing.
Audaxing, long distance cycling, racing across continents; these are extraordinary journeys in which we might travel from light to darkness and back again. Simultaneously, there is a physical descent from adventurous confidence to uncertain determination, where the will to go on is no longer found in the legs, but in a dogmatic determination to see this through. Then, with the dawning of the day, there is a fresh hope: a hope of warmth and a return to strength. With the dawning of the day, the opening of the first coffee shop and this long-distance cyclist’s prayer is answered.
“O Lord, open my lips,
and I shall drink this coffee.”