What Community Looks Like: Lessons from Cycling

Cycling groups often model community. Take a look at the lessons in community to be gleaned from this popular activity.

cycling group

I have been cycling on the open roads for the past several years. This activity has taught me much about demonstrating perseverance, setting and achieving goals, and letting go of other issues in my life enough to experience joy.

But what’s been most meaningful to me is seeing community modeled in the lives of individual cyclists and cycling groups. I’ve realized that there are aspects of this model that are comparable to the early Christian community as recorded in the book of Acts and vice versa. Here are lessons from my time on the road to which I see parallels:

Leaders take responsibility

Before the ride, the leader develops or chooses a route. She communicates expectations in terms of speed (generally, miles per hour). She assembles the group or lets folks know about the ride so they can join if they’d like.

During the ride, the person in front leads or “pulls” the group, blocking the wind for those behind her and allowing them to travel faster at less effort than otherwise. She also has the responsibility of 1) scanning the road for hazards, which may include potholes, gravel, and dogs poised to chase and possibly cross paths with cyclists; and 2) warning others of hazards through shout-outs or hand signals. The person in front, along with others in the group, also advise on changes in movement, such as unexpected slowing or imminent turns.

The leader often drops off the front and moves to the back during the ride, and the next person in line takes over. This process can continue throughout the ride. Stronger cyclists may stay at the front longer whereas less strong ones may take shorter turns.

Lessons: I appreciate leaders who set the direction; advise on what is needed to be successful; point out problems; and drive forward movement at a steady but manageable pace. A healthy community respects and listens to those who serve as leaders. Leadership roles can be fluid and can involve taking turns to give each other needed rest.

Community members show accountability

Cyclists are expected to know whether they can handle a ride’s pace and distance. Determining whether a ride is doable, challenging, or impossible can be discussed with the ride leader to make sure one person’s lack of readiness doesn’t ruin the rest of the group’s experience.

Those participating in a ride typically bring their own water, food, and supplies, such as a tire tube, along with a functioning bike and helmet.

Even the most dedicated and responsible cyclist occasionally makes a mistake and, for example, forgets to carry extra nutrition. But someone who is accountable recognizes and acknowledges the problem as quickly as possible. As a result, group members provide assistance to deal with the issue, whether lending an extra tube to fix a flat or volunteering to accompany a flagging cyclist.

Lessons: If I want to be part of a healthy community, I should take the initiative to identify and meet expectations. My actions should benefit the entire group (not simply meet my own needs), positively influencing group cohesiveness.

Open, relevant communication is the norm

As I mentioned earlier, those who lead and ride in front communicate freely about expectations and potential dangers. Those in the group pass along information so that all are aware of potential hazards.

Those in back also communicate, mainly about traffic behind the group. They may shout “car back,” which may then prompt cyclists to move from riding double (side by side) to single file to allow cars to pass more easily. In addition, the person in front may signal to the car’s driver about any incoming traffic in the passing lane. And, the person in front may wait until the car passes before moving to the end of the line to take a break from pulling the group.

Flow of information needs to travel from the front to the back and from the back to the front to be effective. Open, direct, and frequent communications among cyclists are critical to everyone’s safety and enjoyment.

Lessons: Being watchful and pointing out potential problems is seen as a positive, not a drag on the fun of those involved. A healthy community encourages and supports me in sharing relevant information.

Community members gladly receive instruction to improve individual and group effectiveness

Being receptive to advice and instruction is a valuable attribute to a cycling newbie or even a seasoned cyclist new to an established group. More experienced cyclists mentor less experienced ones, modeling proper behavior, gently advising on group etiquette and safety issues, and coaching on ways to become stronger and more confident.

The person who wants to perform well will not only accept but actively pursue advice from those who are faster, have sharper technical skills, and seem to be able to handle any distance, terrain, or speed with little visible effort.

For example, friends have given me tips on on-the-bike nutrition and hydration; ways to improve endurance through spinning rather than brute force; and more. I test their tips plus notice what seems to work for others, and adopt what works for me.

Lessons: Being receptive to instruction doesn’t diminish me but has the capacity to strengthen my capabilities. After learning and mastering certain techniques, I can help others improve in an encouraging, supportive, and understanding way. If I’m truly interested in being part of a healthy community, I’m happy to give and receive constructive advice.

Community members challenge each other to set and achieve goals

Though there are many cyclists who are perfectly happy to ride leisurely all the time, many have the urge to tackle new challenges. The possibilities are almost endless: you can take on a longer distance, improve your average mph, sprint faster, climb hills faster, and participate in an epic event. You might even have the goal of helping others to improve their cycling capabilities.

You might intentionally set your goals based on a perceived area of weakness. Or you might be challenged and encouraged by other cyclists to ride faster or travel on more demanding routes based on their goals and invitations to accompany and mentor you.

Lessons: I can learn to be both contented with my present circumstances yet strive to improve. Those in a healthy community not only accept who I am right now but they also encourage and support me as I get better and pursue new goals.

Honesty is valued over bravado

A group ride goes well when its members are honest with each other.

Cyclists challenge themselves but they also don’t hesitate to admit when they can’t keep the group’s pace, feel unusually fatigued, experience muscle cramps, etc. This honesty allows the group or key individuals to provide extra support, such as offering nutrition, giving tips to prevent problems in the future, or simply accompanying the cyclist for the rest of the ride while the main group goes ahead.

Even those leading the group (and often exerting the most effort) tire and ask for help. Typically, they’ll drop off the front and head to the end of the line in a rotation, resting for a while and allowing others to lead. And, if for some reason, the leader doesn’t drop back, a more rested cyclist will often sprint to the front and provide relief. The times that I have been relieved of my leadership duties, I have been thankful; and just as often, I have been thanked for taking initiative to let others rest and recover.

Lessons: Being honest and admitting weakness are humbling but essential to the functioning of the group. Honesty can open the door to prompting compassion for those in need plus pinpoint and deal with problems quickly, rather than allowing them to worsen and drag down the entire group. Honesty allows leaders and others in the group to deal individual problems yet maintain group momentum.

People trust each other

Cyclists trust the group to keep a steady and predictable pace, communicate hazards, and provide support in the case of any problems. Each person also demonstrates trustworthiness with an understanding that individual actions and attitudes influence the group’s cohesiveness.

Admittedly, when I first ride with folks I don’t know well, I am often cautious. I may hang back initially to observe behaviors. In this way, I can better understand how the group interacts with each other and also how certain people behave in various situations so that I can ride as safely as possible.

Lessons: Trusting other people and being trusted are both scary and difficult but essential to a healthy community. Finding the capacity to trust often means seeing the best in other people, and, at the same time, noticing quirks and weaknesses without condemnation.

Shared experiences lead to tight bonds and a strong sense of community

Many of us have significant experiences that help create and strengthen bonds among friends. These may be a cross-country road trip, a multi-day hike in the wilderness, or an intense time of work on a group project. Cyclists tend to have these experiences frequently, often each time they participate in a group ride or an epic event.

Lessons: I can conduct my life in a way that allows me to share experiences with a trusted group of people. These experiences allow me to develop bonds of understanding, appreciation for others, and a sense of community.

The most meaningful aspect of my cycling adventures — beyond the development of my physical endurance, strength, and speed; the chance to see beautiful landscapes in the countryside near my town; and the opportunity to visit quirky stops such as out-of-the-way convenience stores, locally owned vineyards, an Amish bakery, and a country general store — has been the sense of community.

What I’ve learned is that wherever I find myself, I can model this sense of community. I can be open to new experiences, embrace friends like family and family like friends, focus on our strengths, admit my weaknesses, offer leadership and encouragement as needed.

I’ve recently launched Christian Community Bible Study that explores the concepts of honesty, trust, growth, and more – based on what I’ve learned through cycling.

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