Yesterday morning, as I tried to gather myself from the haze of fatigue left in the wake of the Sea Otter Classic, I began to encounter stories about the burning of Notre Dame. My reaction echoed what I experienced in September of 2001. “This isn’t good, but can it really be all that bad? The thing is made of stone. Granite doesn’t burn. The media has to be blowing this out of proportion.”

But of course, they weren’t.

What I didn’t know at the time was that there is (was) an incredible amount of wood inside the cathedral. A forest’s worth. And for those of us who haven’t experienced it before, 800-year-old wood burns a lot like gasoline.

When I cried in 2001, it was for the lives lost. It was the same after Sandy Hook. All those people whose one shot at experiencing this world coming to a premature end. I began tuning out of the stories, out of social media, because I could sense that the fire was beginning to weigh on me, snapping my concentration with each new tongue of flame.

Mais oui—but yes—I tuned back in. How could I not. Like any sufficiently curious American tourist, some years back I boarded a plane and visited Paris. I spent an entire afternoon in Notre Dame—Our Lady—doing all I could to soak in the wonder of that monument.

When construction on  Notre Dame began in 1160, the world was hostile. Forget for a moment the threat of war. Any injury at all was likely to wind up infected. Diseases were almost uniformly fatal. Life expectancy at that time was 25, though if you managed to make it that far—in other words, if you survived childhood and puberty—you were likely to live to the over-ripe age of 53. It’s hard to make a mark in that much time. The human race must have clung desperately to anything, religion especially, to help make sense of a world so stacked against survival.

That Notre Dame could even be built in such a climate is itself a wonder. Granted we’d moved beyond hunter-gather culture, but rallying enough people to construct something that wasn’t going to provide more food or shelter for living speaks to the human spirit’s need for transcendence. Our need for something beyond ourselves.

When I look at the photos of the stained glass, the statuary, the flying buttresses, I feel mankind’s desire to rise above the twelfth century, to cry out to something greater for mercy. And for all the dazzling wonder of the art, the urge behind it was one of humility, to supplicate oneself in service to a larger truth.

In that I find the root of why I write about cycling. My life has been a nonstop quest for transcendence, a desire—a need—to experience the world in a way that rises beyond the transactional and seize upon something universal within the human spirit. My hunger for the profound rises out of my desire to justify the intensity of emotion native to my waking life. The roar of feeling that runs within my veins is often more than I want, more than I can articulate, more than I prefer to confess.

The bike is my church, the refuge in which I can find a holy place sharable with my fellow seekers. Were the bike taken from me, I’d stare up at the sky, out that open roof of Notre Dame and struggle to comprehend the loss as much as how to answer what’s next.


Images: Flickr Creative Commons: Martie Swart, Pedro Szekely, Ed Webster and David Merrett



  1. Chris B.

    Scrolling social media, I saw more than a few “religion has been a cancer on society, but . . .” in response to the fire. But I think what lots of people who’ve never studied religion, or who maybe discarded it at a young age don’t understand is that the plague on society is society. It’s an anthropological problem, not a theological one. So yes terrible things have been done in the name of religion. And yes “THE CHURCH” has maybe “wasted” a lot of money on seemingly ostentatious pursuits at the expense of more fundamental causes: hunger, poverty, injustice, etc But for me, it’s hard to argue against beauty, for beauty, like love is the transcendent at its most accessible.

    Cycling to me, has a similar effect. Endless scandals. Obscenely priced gear. Snobby Cat 3 racers. But just past that . . . very few things can compare to the experience of speeding down a country road, early in the morning past a steaming lake; past green fields of wandering sheep or cattle or horses;. or stopping to see the stations of the cross outside the monastery as a nun pushes a laundry cart across the road.

    I believe. Although I’m never quite able find the words to explain what that means..

  2. john Knowlton

    Great column, Patrick. I’m a very devout practicing Christian, for whom cycling is a spiritual discipline. I suspect my cycling coreligionists understand that more than my Christian ones. Notre Dame, and many other religious edifices help us stop perseversting about our future or our pasts but to be aware of the now. Just like a good bike ride.

  3. Austin J

    This was incredibly well written. This could have been the lead column for any major publication that day. Keep up the great work, it is appreciated.

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