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Opinion >  Column

Faith and Values: Cycling as a spiritual exercise

An illustration by Elizabeth Lloyd.  (Spokane FāVS)
An illustration by Elizabeth Lloyd. (Spokane FāVS)

About 80 miles into a 100-mile bike race earlier this month, in the wind and rain, my legs started cursing at me. My stiffened neck did too.

It reminded me why I ride.

Cycling isn’t just about physical fitness, it’s also a mental game.

A few days a week I jump on my Trek and see where the pavement takes me. I usually find myself on a scarped, country Palouse road miles from anyone I know.

That means the only one I have to talk to is myself.

Sometimes I’m a cheerleader, oftentimes I’m a critic.

I fantasize, I worry. I ponder about work, my friends, my past, my future. I analyze my failures and think about how to approach things differently the next time.

This is why cycling, for me, has become a spiritual exercise.

On a bike the demons have nowhere to hide. I have to face them, ride with them – just like I have to pedal through the burning in my legs.

Without a bike, I would likely just run from them.

Cycling has saved me from growing into an angry, shallow and bitter woman.

For as long as I can remember, bicycles have been my outlet.

When I was about 7 years old I met my dad for the first time, and he taught me to ride the hot pink bike my mom bought me from a garage sale. When he left again a few weeks later, I rode that bike around our apartment complex parking lot over and over again. Maybe he’d come back if he heard how good I’d become at steering and braking.

He never did come back, but the bike gave me hope, and that wishful thinking held off anger for as long as it could.

By the time I was a high schooler I had saved enough money to buy two bikes – a BMX with pegs and a dual suspension Giant mountain bike. They came to me at just the right time.

I was angry by then, partly because I was a teenager, but also because my mom had remarried, and I didn’t like her husband much. It was sinking in that my dad wasn’t returning. A friend died. Our “house church” was suffocating me.

Anger had turned to fury, and it showed itself in aimless outbursts.

So I rode.

I found myself pedaling up and down dusty Albuquerque roads and exploring cactus-lined trails in the Sandia Mountains.

My anger started to change, because it had somewhere to go. It pumped out of me, through my quads and down my calves. Each ride was a cleanse.

Years later, when I was working as a full-time reporter, I sported a single speed SE Draft. My then-girlfriend gave it to me. She was my first love.

She was also my first heartbreak.

After she left, my legs were fueled not by anger, but by anguish.

Over time, any ire and sadness I had, I shed with the stroke of a pedal.

I still have that bike. It reminds me that through mental fortitude, I can overcome hills, affliction, leg cramps. Mind over matter.

Buddhism teaches that we can train our mind by refining and purifying our motivations and attitudes. This is done through meditation and building inner strength.

We all approach this practice our own way. Some sit on zafus. I sit on a bike (I’m a roadie now), strap on a helmet, clip in and go.

Tracy Simmons, a longtime religion reporter, is a Washington State University scholarly assistant professor and the editor of SpokaneFāVS, a website dedicated to covering faith, ethics and values in the Spokane region.

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