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Cycling as life
In the days before heading out to Elkhart for the start of Biking Across Kansas, I wrote that it’s sometimes easy to forget what life is supposed to be. And that Providence isn’t found in the usual places.
In the days after Biking Across Kansas, I am more certain than before.
I imagine for those watching BAK from the outside, the annual event seems like a nice escape from life. A summer camp of sorts, where grown ups can get away from the demands of work, family, schedules, meetings, and so on.
That’s true. Yet, during those eight days and 500-plus miles, some moments are far less about escaping life and more about engaging it properly. On these eight days, perhaps more than any others, I see clearly how life is meant to be lived.
Take the one rough day this year - Satanta to Spearville. Nearly 80 miles of pedaling against a stiff headwind. There’s not a moment when you aren’t pedaling, when you’re not straining and working. These are the sort of days that drain a person’s spirit, and leave riders sore, tired, and ready to quit.
Throughout the day’s ride, however, something sort of magical happens.
There is encouragement and support - unqualified or restricted by affiliation, ideas, allegiances, brand of bike, or any other artificial means of separation. The encouragement is offered because you are here, trying, just like everyone.
Impromptu pacelines began develop - bringing groups of riders together to create a unified force against the wind. The front rider expends the most energy cutting through the headwind. The other riders enjoy a period of reprieve, until they rotate toward the front to take their turn.
(Here’s a decent video about pacelines, if you want to know more.)
Usually, pacelines are reserved for more serious riders concerned with making the most of their effort on a bike. Against a headwind, however, everyone is looking for help.
In our group, each took turns at the front, while the rest enjoyed a break. We helped each other along the way, all taking turns with the hard parts, and the easy parts. That seems to me, how we should do it. Not just on the bike, but all the time.
I often see life in cycling, but I don’t really say it aloud. Yet, I find a great deal of comfort in seeing cycling as life and watching those spiritual revelations borne out on a ride.
If I boil this cycling philosophy down, what I most often see is this:
No one else can pedal your bike for you.
Going uphill is going to take more time and effort.
Headwinds are hard. But you don’t need to do it all by yourself.
If someone is stuck, stranded, or broken down, see if they need help.
Downhills and tailwinds are moments to savor - and we all should take we most need from them.
Take care of yourself. Rest, water, food, and shelter from the heat are all necessary if you’re going to get where you want to go.
The ride is better with friends.
The ride is the goal, not the end.
I don’t know if I can say that I’m seeing much of the above in the real world. And I think that’s why BAK is such an important part of my life. It’s a time for me to remember, and to live correctly.
It seems we’ve largely forgotten some very fundamental parts of how to operate in a functioning and thriving society. We seem to largely live in our own worlds. The atmosphere is polluted with aggrievement and anger. It seems we’re focused on the accessories of life, rather than the substance. We seem to be scared of anything that is different, or new, or outside of our scope of experience. If we can’t control it, keep it where we want it, or manage the soul out of it, we find a way to hate it.
But we don’t have that luxury on a bike.
The wind blows. The sun beats down. The roads are rough sometimes. We are surrounded by other riders (and motorists) - all of whom can help us or send us crashing down. We have to find a way to work together and share the road well. And we have to help each other in all the ways we can, when ever we can.
As this year’s ride wrapped up, a friend referenced something I had written in 2015, at the end of my first BAK. I had to go back and find it, because I had forgotten what I said after my first experience.
I started with this…..
“We crossed the line into Missouri, held our bicycles triumphantly, snapped some photos and pedaled back toward Louisburg for lunch. We grabbed our bags, said goodbye to our friends and headed back to the real world. And the photographs will show that we crossed from one state line in the west to another in east, traveling more than 500 miles by the power of our legs and the will of our minds.
But those photos don’t tell the story of what happened in this spread of land called Kansas.
Those obligatory photos don’t reveal that flying down a hill at more than 40 miles per hour, knowing that one wrong move will send you flying over the handlebars, feels an awful lot like living.
They don’t show that struggling up another hill, and another, and another, with your heart pounding out of your chest, your breath catching short and your legs burning with strain, feels an awful lot like doing the impossible. Nor do they show the feeling of doing what you thought you couldn’t do, then doing even more by riding 103 miles in a single day – on some of the hilliest terrain in Kansas.
…I traveled across the state on a bicycle. That is true. But it is more.
I spent my first night in Johnson City, scared and nervous. The only person I really knew was Harlen Depew, and he helped ease my mind that first night. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it across the state. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to complete the longer rides on the way. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to conquer the hills of Eastern Kansas, or deal with the rain and the wind, or the heat of the afternoon. I felt alone, with only my doubt as company.”
And I ended with this…
“There are many more stories to tell, and I plan to tell them.
For today, the story I want to tell is one of a soul that has been restored because it conquered fear, accomplished its goal, found kindness and warmth in strangers, strength in pain, struggle, vulnerability and uncertainty, and peace with nature and its elements.
I traveled across the state on a bicycle. That is true.
But also more.”
The irony of life, unsurprising as it should be, is that the key to conquering fear, the antidote to the unknown, the remedy for what terrifies us is not to shield ourselves from it. It is not to disengage and build a world of our design in which nothing foreign or uncomfortable can enter. It is not to compel the rest of the world to meet our expectations, or to comply with the expectations others might set for us.
Providence gives us courage to shed our worry and fear, to dive in to life, to do the things that scare us, to work to understand what we don’t comprehend, and to live life as it meets us. Especially when it seems scary.
If I had let my fear govern me in 2015, I wouldn’t have signed up for BAK.
I wouldn’t have returned every year since.
I wouldn’t have made the friends - the family - that I’ve made.
I wouldn’t have fully seen the beauty of Kansas.
And I wouldn’t have felt the kindness of strangers who understood our shared goal.
Biking might not be for everyone. It might not be for you. Biking across the entire state might not be for you. And that’s OK. (Though I’d encourage you to consider it).
But please, find the thing that is. Find the thing that stretches you. That makes you see the world differently. That makes you step out of what you know, what you think, and what feels comfortable.
Because when we can do that, we shed our fear. We shed the expectations of others. We lose the lies that bind us.
And we find the Providence we’ve been searching for.
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