The Church of the Big Ring

The Church of the Big Ring

I like to descend. Maybe I should rephrase that. I love to descend. I derive a soul-soothing happiness from rolling downhill that Disney Land can’t touch. It’s not that I’m a daredevil who wishes to tease fate like the kid who bangs on the bars of the bear enclosure; I’m the bear that got a taste of salmon and refuses to leave the river.

It wasn’t always this way. The first time I ever rode in the Smoky Mountains I hit 43 mph on a descent and began braking just because I though that was what you do if you have a cautious regard for your existence.

More than five years had passed by the time I traveled to the Alps for the first time, and in those intervening miles I bumped elbows and hips on descents, clipped pedals on downhill turns, experienced potholes, ejector-seat bumps and sprinted on wet, downhill, twisting, off-camber race finishes. I was, perhaps, one square meter of road rash shy of the respect a good descent deserves.

After spending a few days chasing a couple of Cat. 1 masters racers and one world-record-holding speed skier woman down strips of Alpine road, I decided to take a drop by myself. I gave some of the riders a head start as I munched wild strawberries with our tour guide. The road was super-model-waist narrow; had even a single car been on its way up, passing would have made Evel Knievel nervous.

Wind passed over my body with the speed of electrons clouding an atom, and while I’m sure that the freehub sang at my velocity, I have no memory of its tune. I have no memory of any sound at all. I braked with the tardy reluctance of a student arriving at high school. That I caught some riders in our group before the bottom of the descent isn’t what makes that drop memorable, though. What happened between my ears is.

On that day I reached a true flow state. At some point I ceased to be aware of me and my operation of the bike; instead I became acutely aware of how the bike passed through the environment. The twists, bumps and switchbacks wouldn’t allow me to go brain-dead; I continued to shift, to brake and pedal but in my experience they were less the cause of the experience than an arising effect.

I had gone faster on roads, but I’d never gone faster on roads that commanded such attention to handling. The only reason I didn’t go faster still was the pitch of the road itself; I’d wound out the 53×12. Surprisingly, I was never concerned about my speed. I’m not one to be reckless but in playing the descent back in my head afterward, I noted the confidence I felt; it was confidence of a nature I’m unaccustomed.

If there’s one thing in my life at which I can fail spectacularly, it’s confidence. What I tapped into that day and what I’ve experienced many times since was nothing short of divine.

In my life, my greatest ongoing quest is to achieve grace, whether in physical form on the bike or, on occasion, on the page. I believe grace is an expression of good, that it is an achievement meant to mark our lives so that we may serve as an example as much to ourselves as to others. And one needn’t have superlative form to reach it. Grace is a conduit to the mystical, a chance to achieve more than if we tried to think our way through. Hidden in countless lessons, thousands of hours of practice is a handshake with something greater than will.

My spirituality is an intensely internal and personal exploration for a connection with the divine; sitting in church and listening to some sermon never really did it for me. In my search, I’m no different than the early Gnostic Christians who believed that within each of us was the spark of the Godhead. Such experiences are beyond the objective and serve as the very basis for the meaning of the word esoteric.

Cyclists often kid about Sunday mornings spent on the bike being a trip to the church of the big ring. Even said as a joke, it’s an insult to both religion and cycling. The bicycle is a humble yet remarkable tool meant to convey the self. The miracle is that it has the ability to move us beyond the self and into something much greater than just another hard ride.

For me, the church of the big ring is a real place, a place worth seeking but one that can’t be found as simply as riding downhill. To find it, I must set my will aside and accept the asphalt before me; in doing so, I tame not gravity but myself.

I approach those highest roads and winding descents with reverence, not out of caution for what might go wrong, but in respect for what might go right. As my vision narrows, my wonder for the universe around me grows.


Image by Jorge “Koky” Flores, JustPedal

Originally published in Peloton Magazine.


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  1. David Arnold

    Church of the Big Ring….52×15 for Belgian JR Eddy Planckaert and Allen Peiper, 53×15 for PRO Walter Planckaert for 100kms on a rolling course everyday in the winter and spring in Flanders fueled by ham sandwiches and water. Walter did 60km more after snagging a bidon of warm soup handed up by his wife as he rolled past the front of the house.

  2. David Tollefson

    Ah, yes, flow. First time I found it was in Moab. I would never consider myself a “good” mtb rider. But on one particular day, on one particular descent (on the Poison Spider Mesa trail), I just entered a state where it felt like I could do nothing wrong. I breezed over the dropoffs, danced on the tops of the rocks, hit the perfect lines, all on something I’d never seen before. I was riding at an unconscious level — it just happened without thinking. And even though conscious thought was shut down, I was hyper-aware. I never really thought about how fast I was going until I had to wait several minutes at the bottom for my riding partners to catch up.

  3. DRB

    “I approach those highest roads and winding descents with reverence, not out of caution for what might go wrong, but in respect for what might go right. As my vision narrows, my wonder for the universe around me grows”

    Beautiful words that summary the experience perfectly.

  4. Laura

    Dang. Beautiful writing Padraig. Thank you for sharing your gift with us on a regular basis. The world is a better place because of it.

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