Faith and Cycling?
Updated: Dec 9, 2019
Religion is experiencing a strange phenomenon throughout the western world. Since the mid-1990s, the number of people unaffiliated with any faith tradition, often referred to as “the nones,” has been rising. The possible reasons for this are numerous and ill-defined, but the results are clear, the cultural Christianity that has defined the western hemisphere for so long can no longer be assumed. This shift can be felt across all parts of life including cycling’s pro peloton where cyclists are typically Millennials or members of Generation Z, groups that are some of the most likely to identify as a “none.” As these groups become less religious, cycling’s historically strong relationship with faith is becoming shaky. Europe’s numerous churches and chapels dedicated to honoring and praying for cyclists have begun to be viewed as icons of the past rather than signs of a vibrant faith. In North America, the growing divide between faith and cycling is even more pronounced. Since America lacks the historic cycling culture of Europe, even the societal trimmings connecting the sport with Christianity is lacking.
But as the number of “nones” increase, the believers who remain are more likely to take their faith seriously and stand out for their committed stance. Three-time world Champion Peter Sagan met Pope Francis at a general audience last year which emphasized that a stream of faith still runs through portions of the pro peloton. Among North America’s pro cyclists, there is a small, but growing, group of riders actively sharing their faith. When scrolling through the social media streams, two of the most vocal about their faith are two-time world champion Amber Neben (Cogeas-Mettler) and time trial and general classification rider Allie Legg (Sho-Air TWENTY20).
Neben’s Instagram and Twitter accounts are filled with deep reflections about her faith walk juxtaposed with pictures of her racing against the best in the world. According to the time trial specialist, sharing her faith over social media isn’t about shocking or offending fans, it’s about sharing her true self with the world. “I speak of my own testimony, because it’s what I know. I’m bold with it at this point because if I had the cure for cancer, I’d share it. Cycling has very much been the vessel that God has worked through me and in me. I enjoy sharing it because I’ve seen God work in my life and I’ve seen His faithfulness and His power expressed. We have a God that loves us and He has a plan and a purpose for us.”
Legg echoes these sentiments adding, “When I’m racing, I can be a good team player and get my own results, but the ultimate goal is connecting with other people in the sport at a deeper level outside of just cycling. That’s what I feel is important as a Christian, as a believer and follower of Jesus. Everything isn’t going to go your way, but that’s not the end of your life either. Things are going to happen in races and a key to helping me keep chugging along is believing that I’m here for a purpose that’s greater than getting first place. My purpose is for community, my purpose is for connection, my purpose is to learn and share about Jesus.”
Both Neben and Legg frequently share their faith over social media which has been received with interest and appreciation – with almost no negative feedback – from the cycling community. Neben theorizes that it’s because, “We live in a hurting world.” Many of Neben’s and Legg’s messages can be countercultural since they dive deeper than most into topics of human dignity, reasonable faith, and truth. Their followers seem to appreciate their willingness to share their genuine selves with the world. Many also seem to enjoy the search for a deeper meaning in life. Legg adds, “I look at some cyclists and I wonder what they’re going to do when the sport is taken away from them and their careers end, it’s all they’ve lived for, all they know. What happens when they stop racing, will their identity be gone? I especially pray for them.”
In fact, as pro cyclists think about life beyond cycling, many turn to Legg and Neben since they are open about their faith while not falling into the stereotype of the heavy-handed proselytizer. “Our teammates and competitors know that they can come talk to us, we’re safe people,” Legg says. “People come to us and ask questions saying, ‘I don’t believe, but I’d like to learn. I want to know why you believe this.’” Perhaps in a sport so focused on athletes suffering while pushing their bodies to their limits, a faith like Christianity – which looks for greater meaning in suffering rather than escape – is a perfect complement.
A key source of support and spiritual nourishment for these two Christian cyclists come from their faith communities at home. For Neben, that means being an active member of the famous Harvest Orange County church and their Virtue Women’s group led by Cathe Laurie, wife of pastor Greg Laurie. Legg too is an active churchgoer and works closely with a mentor for guidance and spiritual direction. But even though their local faith communities are an anchor on Sunday mornings, Neben emphasizes that “It’s very important to be in the Word with people beyond your weekly worship.” For pro cyclists traveling around North America and the world to train and race, Athletes in Action’s growing cycling ministry has become their spiritual home away from home. Led by former pro Todd Henriksen, Athletes in Action’s cycling ministry hosts online meetings every Wednesday and in-person meetings during race weekends. Through this robust community, Athletes in Action has become a magnet for both cyclists looking for others who share in their faith and for people looking to learn more about Christianity. With its core group of men and women cyclists from Europe and North America and a growing mentorship program, Athletes in Action is slowly becoming an agent of change in the cycling community.
In the spirit of John 13:35, the growing group of vocal Christian cyclists are identifying themselves by their community, openness, and love. They may not be, or at least do not seem to be, the majority in the pro peloton, but they do present the peloton with a beautiful face for what it means to actively live out the Christian faith. So, while many Millennials and members of Generation Z seem to be drifting from their spiritual roots, it certainly seems like Amber Neben, Allie Legg, and many others are ready to show a welcoming path back for those who are interested in learning more.