"Lord, I don't ask that I should win, but please, please don't let me finish behind Akabusi."
Freewheeling to heaven? A theology of cyclingIs there a Christian view on cycling? I was prompted to ask by reading the Times article on Britain's only cycling club for Muslim ladies, which contained a statement by a leading Muslim on the Koranic view of bicycling.
A quick googlesearch on the topic turned up 788,000 pages! As well as the International Christian Cycling Club, I unearthed the Christian Cycling Club of South Africa, the Romanian Christian Cycling Club, and the Wheel Power Christian Cyclists who are "dedicated to reaching the lost for Christ, affirming the Gospel by demonstrating God's love in action..." They explain: "The use of the bicycles is key to the unique WPCC platform on the road".
For the truly committed bicycle-lover, there are even Christian Cycling holidays - as recommended by the UK Christian Dating Agency. And the internet heaves with Christian cyclist bloggers: "Mad ravings of a lunatic cyclist" to name but one, is written by "Big Dave" of Texas, "a 37 year-old, father of three awesome kids, husband to one beautiful wife, Christian cyclist". Across the border in Canada,
Canadian blogger Robert Kleot outlines his plans to cycle coast to coast "to experience what it means to be a Christian cyclist." He explains: "I ride all the time, but I think this trip is going to be a spiritual journey and I feel called to get involved (even if only for two weeks) to raise funds and awareness to end the cycle of poverty and to experience God's greatness and marvel at his magnificent creation". To judge by this, and similar entries, Christians would seem to have espoused the bicycle with enthusiasm but it was not always so.
Indeed, little less than a hundred years ago, the bicycle attracted condemnation in some elevated Christian circles.
In 1902, for instance, the Bishop of Manchester blamed the decline in Sunday observance on "carelessness and athleticism, and particularly on the invention of the bicycle". The Lord's Day Observance Society agreed wholeheartedly, noting that on 20 June 1904, "1797 men and 125 women had been involved in Sunday cycling", incurring in the words of the society "this double blame in the eyes of God". The "double blame" was that they not only did what was wrong on Sunday but also left themselves tired and unfit for the rest of the week!
However, not all agreed. The vicar of Giggleswick, North Yorkshire was altogether more positive, placing a notice in church inviting cyclists to worship even in their cycling gear, which stated "You do not sin cycling on Sunday, but you do most certainly sin against God and wrong your neighbour if you neglect your clear duty, which is to publicly adore your Saviour, Jesus the Christ". The vicar of Ripley, an adaptable chap, even provided Sunday afternoon cyclists' services in his church.
Meanwhile in Sheffield, in 1893 a conference of the Young Men's Christian Association hymned the bicycle as "one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century, and, rightly used may be turned into one of the greatest blessings" and also expressing a hope that cycling might work a great change in the drinking habits of young men. The YM did not neglect the detail, commenting on cycling technique: "We must teach our young men always to be upright even on a bicycle, and never allow them to be bent, except on doing good".
Even when viewed with suspiscion, the bicycle could be used to promote virtue, as John Lowerson explains in Sport and the Victorian Sunday: The beginnings of Middle-class apostasy : "Some more adventurous churches took the Devil on at his own game" by cycling to for Epping Forest to hold open-air Sunday meetings. An identical phenomenon was recorded in the Northamptonshire Nonconformist magazine in 1897 as teams of cyclists swelled the congregations in village churches or preached on village greens.
If humanity's ability to invent the bicycle and to ride it and to enjoy riding it are gifts from God, then there seems no reason why the bicycle should not be enjoyed like anything else.
This article first appeared in The Times online on 1 December 2008.