This article originally appeared in Radish Magazine.
When you get on a bicycle and move yourself through any landscape, it changes the way you relate to that place. When you discuss a piece of writing with a group of people, it changes the way you relate to that text. And when you combine the two, they reinforce each other in surprising ways.
Enter Velosophie, a sort of humanities seminar for adults. Led by the Illinois Humanities Council, Velosophie accompanies the League of Illinois Bicyclists’ (LIB) annual Great Illinois Trails and Parks Ride (GITAP), being held this month. The ride itself is rigorous enough: 160 cyclists cover as many as 465 miles on a six-day journey exploring Illinois’ many parks, reserves and natural trails. But after each long day of physical toil, a small subset of riders gathers for another, very different kind of exercise. Sitting on picnic benches or the hard ground, they delve deep into discussion of novels, essays, poetry, philosophical tracts and short stories.
Each year’s readings are centered on a theme that relates to the cyclists experience during GITAP — “Pleasure and Pain,” “The Journey,” “Revolutions,” “Nature and The Wild” — and have ranged from well-known nature writers like Thoreau, John Muir and Annie Dillard to less expected names, such as Flannery O’Connor, Dave Eggers and Karl Marx.
“We’re not trying to impart a specific body of information,” said Adam Davis, whose Velosophie title would be something akin to “co-founder and lead scholar.” Davis leads discussion and plays a large role in selecting and introducing each year’s readings.
“Our goal is to create a space within which people will go to surprising places. We wanted to help open up the activity they had chosen to engage in: to think through what (cycling) means and why they are doing it.”
One reading that organizers and participants singled out as particularly resonant with the group was James Salter’s short novel “Solo Faces.” It depicts a man who’s isolated himself from society by devoting his entire life to mountain climbing.
“It’s Salter’s critique on the sometimes mythologized idea of the heroic, savage man,” said Velosophie co-founder Ryan Lewis. “Yet he’s no stranger to the kind of deep, emotional, psychic trauma that goes with living a life. He’s as messed up as the rest of us.”
Chuck Oestreich of RockIsland, an LIB board member and retired English teacher, took the novel in a different direction.
“It’s about the same kind of psychology that so many people have — that is, striving, striving, striving until it becomes an obsession, to the point that they endanger their lives,” he said. That kind of obsession can fuel everything from extreme cycling to war, Oestreich added.
That diverse reaction to “Solo Faces” illustrates the open-ended (non-)agenda of Velosophie’s planners. The richness of conversations comes not necessarily from the texts, said Davis, but from the people.
“Because they are geographically, educationally and professionally diverse, they’re bound to see things differently, which makes for a very productive discussion,” said Davis. “I’m perpetually impressed by these folks. They ride long days in tough weather, and then they have the great degree of energy to engage in these conversations, every evening. These are all people who want to learn more.”
Oestreich is very much that sort of person, and as a seasoned cyclist, he particularly enjoys the stimulating environment that Velosophie helps create. “Much of the talk in the evenings on a bike ride has to do with gears, pounds per square inch, and things like that,” he explained. “I don’t really care too much about the technical aspect of bikes. I like to expand my mind with other ideas, so it’s wonderful to walk back to your campsite and instead be talking about Thoreau.”
And since the reading selections are often relevant to the motion and challenge the cyclists face by day, those readings carry over, offering both perspective and relief during the next day’s ride.
Oestreich recalled facing a 10-mile stretch riding head-on into piercing prairie winds when he found himself next to another Velosopher. They got to talking and didn’t even notice the wind, he recalls.
The relationship between moving and thinking is a foundation of Velosophie, even by name. It comes from the Latin velo meaning “swift” and the Greek sophia meaning “wisdom.” It’d be easy to cast the dichotomy of pedal-by-day, think-by-night as a way to balance these two very different types of personal work and create a well-rounded whole. But Velosophers don’t see the project’s mind/body divide in that way. If anything, it’s about connecting the two, not balancing them.
“You want to dig a little deeper into reading, and you want to dig deeper into the bicycling. You’re trying to find more meaning in both, and you do that by actively engaging,” said Sue Jones, an avid biker, LIB board member and regular Velosophie participant.
“It’s not an event so much as an approach: to be active in what you’re reading, and to be thinking in a humanities way when you’re out cranking the pedals,” she said. “We should be integrating this kind of thinking into what we’re doing every day.”
Registration for this year’s GITAP is full, but for more information on the League of Illinois Bicyclists and next year’s ride, visit bikelib.org. For more on the Illinois Humanities Council and the Velosophie program, visit prairie.org/velosophie.