The Grail Code 
A two-wheeled Grail quest

I’m going to talk about bicycles now, and you’re going to wonder what ever happened to the Holy Grail. But only for a few paragraphs. Then I’m going to bring on the moral with my usual dull thud.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bicycles lately, because my son is just getting to the age where he can go out riding with us. He’s developed an obsession with bikes, quickly picking up technical terms I don’t know myself. Why doesn’t your bike have a derailleur, Daddy? Why do you like North Road handlebars? Why does your Sturmey-Archer AW three-speed hub use planetary gears?

I think people ride silly bicycles these days. But they’re not as silly as the ones they rode back when I was a teenager.

Back in the seventies and eighties, everybody had to have a ten-speed racing bike. Of course, for riding on city streets or suburban drives, you want to be able to sit up and see where you’re going. And those ram’s-horn handlebars, admirably adapted to the racing posture, were precisely wrong for sitting up, as many of my friends discovered. They ended up turning their handlebars upside-down, which didn’t work very well, either.

Then, somewhere around 1990, everyone suddenly decided to get a mountain bike. Of course, a mountain bike is specially adapted for bumpy dirt trails, and once again its special adaptations make it less than ideal for ordinary city riding. But everybody has a mountain bike now.

So everyone always seems to be riding the wrong bicycle. Not that there’s anything wrong with racing bikes or mountain bikes—quite the reverse. They’re precisely specialized machines, and when a master of the sport is riding one, they’re beautiful things to see in action. But they’re not what ordinary riders need in ordinary conditions.

It’s a peculiarly American thing: we think we’re serious about our bikes, but we’re not. In countries like Holland or China, where millions of people depend on bicycles for commuting, they use the right bicycles: indestructible roadsters with fenders and chain guards to protect their clothes, racks to carry their belongings, and good old North Road handlebars to keep them upright and alert in traffic. Bicycles like mine, in other words. Well, of course I use the right bicycle—did you expect anything less?

Why are we riding the wrong bicycles? Well, I think I know the answer. We’re trying to be what those bikes say we are. Deep inside, we feel a gnawing fear that whatever we are, it’s not good enough.

That’s actually a good thing, because the fact is that we aren’t good enough. Only God’s grace, and our faith in it, can make us good enough. The sooner we realize that, the better.

The problem is that we’re not really ready to trust in God’s grace. You can’t see grace the way you can see a fancy racing bike.

So when we go to buy a bike (or a car or a pair of shoes or practically anything else), we don’t ask which one will be the best for what we are now. We ask which one will make us what we want to be. If you buy that spiffy racing bike, you’ll be Lance Armstrong, winning the adulation of countless millions. Actually, of course, you’ll still be the same wonderful, unique, irreplaceable person you always were, but now on top of an uncomfortable bicycle.

Sir Thomas Malory (See? I told you we’d get there eventually) told us that King Arthur’s knights expected “much earthly worship” from the Grail quest. Instead, almost all of them ended up finding humiliation and shame, a good bit worse than just looking a bit awkward on a bicycle. All the outward trappings of chivalry—the gleaming armor, the charging stallions, the fluttering banners, the swooning maidens—couldn’t make those knights anything they weren’t already. In the Grail quest, the state of the soul was what mattered, and no amount of polish on the outside could clean up the person inside. Only sincere confession and repentance could do that.

Once again, what we think we want is actually leading us toward what we really want. We want real improvement. We want to be better people. Where we go wrong is the same place Simon Magus went wrong: we think we can buy that improvement somehow. But we can’t.

Eventually, like Lancelot in the romances, we have to admit it to ourselves: we can’t buy our way to the Holy Grail. Admitting that may be the hardest work we’ll ever do. But it can also be a great joy. We can’t buy our way into heaven, because the price has already been paid! We just have to accept the unbelievable gift we’re being offered. We just have to admit that we’ve been on the wrong track and accept the help we need to get on the right one.

And so what if the kids all point and laugh when we ride by on our old three-speed roadster?

8 Responses to “A two-wheeled Grail quest”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Beautiful!

  2. Dr. Platypus » Blog Archive » Getting the Right Bike Says:

    [...] Wisdom from Christopher Bailey at The Grail Code: So when we go to buy a bike (or a car or a pair of shoes or practically anything else), we don’t ask which one will be the best for what we are now. We ask which one will make us what we want to be. If you buy that spiffy racing bike, you’ll be Lance Armstrong, winning the adulation of countless millions. Actually, of course, you’ll still be the same wonderful, unique, irreplaceable person you always were, but now on top of an uncomfortable bicycle. [...]

  3. Pauli Says:

    Really good! In my late teens I had a really great $200 Huffy bike that I rode 20 miles per day one summer riding to work. It was so heavy it probably would have survived a crash better than a Yugo. I probably weighed 135 pounds soaking wet at the time. Knew a kind of chubby guy who bought a magnesium/aluminum alloy Italian racing bike for upwards of $800. The thing was feather light, but I know I could of smoked him like a joint in a real race.

  4. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » One year Says:

    [...] Sturmey-Archer AW three-speed hub [...]

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  6. Specialized Mountain Bikes Says:

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  7. m Bolde Says:

    Hi there, i am considering getting another bike for my hubby. He though is very concerned about what type of risks could occur from biking accidents. See his passion is athletics so if he was disabled, he would likely kill himself, no jokes. Does biking injuries usually occur, or is it usually only death!

  8. photo frame laser Says:

    Great article. I am dealing with some of these issues as well..

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