Nothing prepared me for all the bikes. I knew that 15-20,000 people ride RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Ride Across Iowa) each year. I knew that we would mostly be on two-lane roads, closed down to car traffic.
To call it overwhelming is an understatement.
I occasionally bike with groups of friends or participate in a fun ride around town. I race triathlons, sometimes with thousands of participants, but the starts of those events are carefully paced so that cyclists have ample distance between them. In other words, I do most of my bike riding alone. I was completely unprepared for the claustrophobic feeling of being hemmed in by dozens of other bikes around you. I had no idea what it would be like to be climbing a hill, only to be greeted by a car on the left, forcing all the bikes to get into one lane. I had no idea where my place was in the traffic flow when bike line up from slowest riders on the right to fastest on the left, when what was fast and slow changed minute by minute. Most of the first day I felt pinned in on the right side of traffic, even if I was able to pedal faster.
Biking hills with that many people offered me yet another biking technique “learning opportunity.” Since I have a pretty fast bike and my share of extra weight, I could get some pretty high speeds on the downhills, requiring that I ride all the way over in the left lane. (Downhill is REALLY fun!) After the momentum of the downhill wore off, I’d need to maneuver over to the slower right lane because my extra weight was no longer an advantage when gravity was attempting to pull be back down the hill. (Skinny climbs a lot better. Just sayin’.)
On one notable occasion, I managed to gain a considerable amount of speed on the downhill that propelled me, without pedaling, about a quarter of the way up the hill. My speedy-ness met a road block of cyclist who were already grinding out the hill much more slowly on lower gears. Without a single space in which to pass them, I was forced to hit my brakes, going uphill, wasting that momentum I had built up. Curse words flew out of my mouth as a hit the brakes to avoid crashing into that wall of unsuspecting cyclists who were only doing their best to tackle a tough hill. I quickly moved to an easier gear and paced myself alongside them.
I found myself thinking throughout my three days on the RAGBRAI road, “This cycling would be great if it weren’t for all the people.” The reality is that the biking might have been easier at times, or at least less crowded. But, I would have also missed what is wonderful about this rolling ad hoc community: Seeing the ridiculous costumes and helmet accoutrements; laughing alongside strangers who were making fun of their own slowness; experiencing the people who stopped to help strangers who had accidents or mechanical issues; eating breakfast elbow-to-elbow at 8 a.m. (after already biking 20 miles) while sitting on lawns or sidewalks in small, friendly towns; talking with friends about issues that were clearly fixing all world’s problems.
Confession time: I’ve had this same thought about the church, “It would be great if it weren’t for all the people.” I wouldn’t have to slow down when I am trying to do a new thing so others can catch up or so that I can walk alongside them. I could just make the change happen. NOW. The way I want it. The reality is that there would be no point for the change if there weren’t other people. There would be no people to serve or serve with. There would be no shared meals; no joyful laughter at inside jokes; no growth or change that results from slowing down and experiencing the ride with different people at a different pace; or the delight of helping someone learn to do something new or do it better; or the humble experience of having someone else teach me something new.
This is the paradox of community: It slows you down sometimes, but the journey is a lot more fun.