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Viewpoints: Sense of spirituality permeates Slow Roll

By Jud Weiksnar

On Sept. 22, 2016, the Public Religion Research Institute released a comprehensive study titled, “Exodus: Why Americans Are Leaving Religion – and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back.” It explains with charts, graphs and statistics the rapid growth of a group it calls the Unaffiliated, and cites several factors behind that trend. The exodus has certainly taken place in Buffalo, at least in Christian circles.

While Americans may be checking out of institutional religion, there has been a huge surge in the number of people bicycling. On Aug. 1, 2014, the Slow Roll bike ride was introduced to Buffalo. Since that first ride, thousands of people have participated, many of them returning consistently on a weekly basis. While Slow Roll is certainly a wonderful form of physical exercise, and a good excuse for an after party, there is an underlying spirituality to bicycling that may be just as significant in attracting riders as getting a good workout or enjoying a beer with friends.

Though I’ve been riding a bike since I was a kid (the same bike since ninth grade!) and have continued to ride for recreation and as a mode of transportation, until recently I never thought of there being a spiritual dimension to bicycling. This reflection attempts to explore that spirituality, drawing mostly from my experience with Slow Roll Buffalo.

Many articles and books have been written about the spirituality of bicycling. These accounts usually treat cycling as an individual exercise. When bicycling by myself in nonresidential, noncommercial settings such as the Outer Harbor, I can experience a feeling of transcendence. Call it the ET phenomenon. Fresh air, wind in your face, freedom! There is a letting go, a connectedness with nature and a sense – flat tires excluded – that all is right in the world.

Recently, urban bicyclists have weighed in on their experiences. The dynamics of city cycling are different in that awareness of traffic and road hazards is a must. The sense of freedom is more of a liberation, the realization that you are passing cars stuck in traffic, and are freed from the grid.

Whether cycling on country roads, bike trails or city streets, whether for exercise, training, errands or commuting, the endorphins released while biking produce a “spiritual” feeling similar to runner’s high. Even the exercise of “spinning” on a stationary bike releases endorphins.

Yet the inner stirrings from Slow Roll seem to go beyond what is produced by the physical exercise. This reflection is an attempt to articulate the spiritual dimension of group riding.

Now one of America’s most famous group rides, the Slow Roll originated in Detroit as a way for friends to gather on a regular basis, ride through that city’s wide boulevards, explore new neighborhoods and enjoy a cold beverage afterward. As Slow Roll grew in popularity, it spread to other cities, including Buffalo, where depending on the weather between a few hundred and a few thousand bicyclists ride each Monday between May and October, and even on a few winter Snow Rolls.

Slow Roll Buffalo is well organized, with over 100 volunteer squad members engaging in various tasks during the off season, as well as the week before the ride, and before, during and after the ride itself. Buffalo Police provide traffic assistance, and the ride includes two stops along the route and an after party.

Shortly after my return to the region in the summer of 2014, I saw an advertisement for Buffalo’s first Slow Roll. Though I knew of nobody else going, I joined in both the inaugural ride and the next. Then I chose to ride in the third and final ride of the year, despite the fact that it fell on the same night as an annual Franciscan religious feast I usually attend. Being an active and deeply committed member of a religious community, I wondered what prompted me to make that decision. It became evident that although it had no formal connection to any specific faith tradition, there was a deeply important, even spiritual, dimension of Slow Roll emerging for me.

What are the spiritual aspects? First, there is a sense of inclusiveness. As the bicyclists gather before the ride, it reminds me of a song found in most Catholic hymnals, “All Are Welcome.” Unlike the group rides of some riding clubs, where all the riders are in spandex on expensive racing bikes, Slow Roll embodies diversity. You see people, and bikes, of all ages, shapes and sizes. The only exclusionary rules are behavior-based: don’t show off, don’t litter and play music respectfully. Slow Roll Buffalo includes blind riders and their guides, deaf riders and the very young, though for safety reasons riders must be able to complete the ride without training wheels. Riders vary in age from 4 to 93, with toddlers, infants and dogs included in special carriers or trailers. Riders represent different races, nationalities and ethnicities.

However, unlike events that attract a diverse crowd such as a Bills game or outdoor concert, another aspect of Slow Roll is full and active participation. While top-level bicycle racing qualifies as a spectator sport, Slow Roll is anything but. Unless you’re an infant (or pet) being pulled in a bike trailer or carried in a basket, you’re pedaling. A similar phenomenon can be felt running in a road race, but in Slow Roll the goal is not the finish line, but the ride itself. The slow pace encourages conversation.

The spirituality of Slow Roll extends beyond Mondays through community involvement. What began as Slow Roll’s preride sweeping up glass along the route on Monday afternoons has evolved into a Neighborhood and Streets Committee, with monthly cleanups of the most distressed neighborhoods. On practice rides the week before, Slow Rollers take an even slower pace through the community, advising neighbors what time the ride will come down their street, and inviting them to join in. Many people along the routes have asked if we’re riding to support a charity, but while Slow Roll has sponsored clothing drives for refugee resettlement agencies, and pop-up libraries, we’re really riding to support a community.

A few critics on social media have complained that Slow Roll is a bunch of privileged riders gawking as they go through distressed neighborhoods. My experience is that the ride encourages people to explore parts of the city that they may have never seen, or not been to in years or even decades. At the two rest stops, known as mass-ups, ride organizers give a megaphone – literally and figuratively – to block club leaders, neighborhood activists or anyone else with an important story to tell. Slow Rollers thus learn about the neighborhoods they are bicycling through, and the social and environmental issues affecting them.

An important aspect of Slow Roll is hard to capture in a single word, but could be described as a combination of solidarity, camaraderie and support. The dynamics of Slow Roll, especially for the more involved squad members, has brought about a sense of brother-and-sisterhood. It encourages “social capital,” the networks of relationships among people that enable a society to function effectively. On a personal level, Slow Roll has helped individuals deal with weight issues, depression, personal loss, injury and illness. On a societal level, while a simple ride through a neighborhood will not heal racial, economic or environmental woes, Slow Roll brings a street-level diversity and hopefulness that is in stark contrast to the vision that many people still carry of the City of Buffalo. The African Heritage Food Co-op now partners with Slow Roll and has youth sell healthy snacks at the two rest stops.

The ride itself is a counter-cultural statement, doing its part to reverse trends that encouraged people to flee the city, and that prioritized automobile traffic at the expense of neighborhoods, pedestrians and bicyclists. The best example of this was Slow Roll’s first ride of the 2016 season, which included parts of the Scajaquada and Kensington Expressways, highways that ripped through the heart of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Delaware Park and Humboldt Parkway, and devastated neighborhoods in the process. Many riders were overcome with emotion as they bicycled for the first time on a path that they had likely traveled hundreds of times by automobile.

Joy is also a key part of the spirituality of Slow Roll. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and the smiles on the faces of Slow Rollers, and neighbors who cheer along the route, are displayed on social media immediately after the ride. Squad members and other Slow Rollers post that they can’t wait for Monday’s ride.

However, the most profound dimension of riding with Slow Roll is the sense of being part of a mystical body, a concept central to Christian spirituality, though certainly present in other faith traditions. To feel oneself part of the mystical body of Christ is perhaps the most powerful spiritual experience a Christian can have. Whether through an adult being baptized at the Easter vigil, an act of solidarity or celebration of the Eucharist, a Christian knows he or she is part of something greater than oneself.

Slow Roll is not a religion. In fact, a great number of Slow Rollers are among those inactive, disengaged or disinterested in organized religion. Yet during a Slow Roll you cannot ignore the sense that you are part of a body that moves as one, that has a purpose, that strives for the common good, and that knows how to celebrate.

While Slow Roll is not for everyone – it’s too slow, it’s too crowded, it’s too long – for many riders, myself included, it serves a deep spiritual purpose, which can serve as a substitute for, or in my case a complement to, an institutional religious experience.

The Rev. Jud Weiksnar, ofm, is a Franciscan friar and chaplain at Hilbert College. In September, he will become pastor at Ss. Columba-Brigid Church in Buffalo.

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