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Cycling: the revolutions start here

by
02 July 2021

Jay Colwill reflects on the spiritual, physical, and environmental benefits of cycling

Gordon Giles

Canon Jay Colwill (centre) with (left) Shaun Cutler, convener of the Cathedral Cycle Champions Group and the inspiration behind the Cathedrals Cycle Route Baton Relay, en route from Southwark to Rochester, this month

Canon Jay Colwill (centre) with (left) Shaun Cutler, convener of the Cathedral Cycle Champions Group and the inspiration behind the Cathedrals Cycle R...

SOMETIMES, I wonder why I do it. The “doorstep mile” is the hardest: the moment when you decide that you are going to go for a bike ride, despite reasons to the contrary. These may be inclement weather, busy roads, little cycle infrastructure, or a myriad other discouragements — yet it is almost always worth it.

This morning, it was cold, but, as I made my way out of the city, I turned on to a country lane that I had never ridden before. As I crested the hill, I could see the towers of the Dartford Crossing and the North Downs stretching across the horizon. “I’m going there,” I thought, and smiled.

I’ve cycled throughout my life. At university, cycling was cheap transport; in parish ministry, it was a good way to get around the area. When I worked in Bracknell Forest, the woods were a wonderful place to enjoy. A bicycle allows you to travel slowly enough to see things but quickly enough to make progress. Whether on- or off-road, the rhythm of pedalling can enable a kind of “slowing”.

Gordon GilesRelay baton especially created for the Cathedrals Cycle Route relay by Hannah Cutler

As the pedals turn, so my mind can turn with them. As I climb or descend hills, I can reflect on the ascents and descents of my week. What went well? What went badly? What do I think about that? What does God think? Most of all, when we all need to develop a little more “patient endurance” in the ongoing battle against Covid-19, how can I sustain a life of faith during the ups and downs? Cycling helps me to do this.

I often use times on the bike as “sabbath rest” in the rhythm of my week. Getting out of the house and on to the bike means that I properly detach from my mobile phone, emails, and social media. I often ride alone (although I enjoy riding with others). Time on the bike — when I’m on longer rides — is time with God.

The motif of journeying is a rich theme in the Bible. One passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians has always stayed with me, and I remember it when the ride is getting hard: “But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3.13,14).

Gordon GilesGordon Giles

At other times, I reflect on critical conversations, or consider some forward planning. In this active prayer time, God is my conversation partner. Of course, I don’t always hear God speak in the ways I prefer, or hear God say what I want. Nevertheless, these are rich and important times of learning for me.

Covid-19 and the prevailing climate crisis have led many people to reassess their mode of transport and their physical activity. I feel very fortunate that, during this time, I’ve been allowed to continue to ride locally.

Two years ago, I joined a local cycling club. During the period of stringent lockdowns, the club members were able to offer their services to a foodbank to deliver produce to those who were not able to come out themselves. My friendship with members of the club and sense of connectedness with our community grew, in spite of the many challenges that people were facing.

 

WHEN cycling alone or with others, it’s important always to be prepared. A basic knowledge of bike maintenance — and the tools to help — is useful. There is a culture amongst cyclists, however, always to ask someone stranded on the side of the road if they need any help, or if they have what they need. On a ride to Worcester Cathedral, I called out to two older women who were struggling with a bike, and stopped to help them put a chain back on and pump up tyres.

People have offered me assistance when I have been stuck, too. These unwritten rules build a camaraderie among cyclists old and new. As with worship and prayer (whether in church or at home), so with cycling: it is good to prepare, but also to expect the unexpected.

Gordon GilesGordon Giles

On a 320-mile ride from Southwark to Rouen Cathedral, I had to make sure that I had foreseen as much as possible, while still needing to travel light. One litre of water weighs one kilogramme. Water may be essential, but many of the things that we think we need are luxuries. The monastic traditions emphasise simplicity, and cycle touring calls for this, too.

It is also good for the environment. Recent research by the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford, which followed nearly 2000 urban dwellers over time, found that “those who switch just one trip per day from car driving to cycling reduce their carbon footprint by about 0.5 tonnes over a year, representing a substantial share of average per capita CO2 emissions. . . If just 10% of the population were to change travel behaviour, the emissions savings would be around 4% of lifecycle CO2 emissions from all car travel.”

Body, mind, spirit, and world — I believe that cycling can be good for all. Of course, physical disability or health challenges preclude some people from participating. For those who can, however, may I encourage them to take a pedal stroke on the “doorstep mile”? They might be surprised what they discover about themselves, and about God’s world.

 

The Revd Jay Colwill is Director of Mission and a Residentiary Canon of Southwark Cathedral. He is cycling around the 42 cathedrals of England (just under 2000 miles) to celebrate the place of cathedrals in our communities and raise money to alleviate food insecurity in south London and east Surrey. To make a donation, visit:

justgiving.com/fundraising/jay-colwill1

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