Bicycle Diaries: Gentle bikers

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Gentle bikers

I've never been much of Tour de France fan. It's not that I don't appreciate the bikers' skills and endurance; it's that in general I'm a terrible spectator. I easily get bored watching others work or play. I didn't take much notice back in July when Floyd Landis tested positive for elevated levels of synthetic testosterone. I did realize that the scandal was as humilating for Landis as it was terrible for competitive cycling. Nevertheless, I dismissed it as business as usual for a sport largely currupted by money. Besides, weren't there other, more dreadful things going on in the world?

Unfortunately, last week something very dreadful indeed did happen in Lancaster County, PA just a few miles from where Landis grew up. As the world now knows, Charles Carl Roberts IV, a milk-truck driver, stormed the Nickel Mine Amish School, a one-room Amish schoolhouse, carrying three guns. He sent the boys and adults outside, barricaded the doors with two-by-fours, and opened fire on a dozen girls, killing three before committing suicide. At least seven more were critically wounded.

I wasn't aware of the deep connection between the schoolhouse shootings and Landis until I read his blog. It announced that he is donating and raising money to support the survivors. Everyone wishing to donate money is encouraged to contact the Coatesville Savings Bank. The connection, however, isn't merely georaphic. Floyd Landis comes from an Old Order Mennonite family. In fact, he is known locally as the Fastest Mennonite in World.

All this got me thinking about the gentle bikers of the large Mennonite and Amish communities in Ohio and Illinois. You see, I spent my higer education years quite near them: first at the College of Wooster on the edge of Holmes County in Ohio then at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign a bit north of Arthur and Arcola. These regions are also incredibly popular distinations for bike tours. More on that in a bit...

Many Engländer, what the Amish and Mennonites call outsiders, don't know that much about either community ... beyond the buggies and somber clothing. This isn't too surprising. There's a lot of honest confusion over the distinctions between the two communities.

Both share the same origins, holding many of the same beliefs. William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania colony, invited their German protestant ancestors to settle the region. They were being persecuted for their pacifism and refusal to uncritically embrace the modernizing world. Soon after arriving in 1720 disagreements over what exactly modern meant split them into three religious groups: the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Lutherans.

The Mennonites tend to be less conservative than their Amish neighbors. Many have relaxed dress codes and have gotten away from farm-related occupations. They can choose to use cars and electricity. The car bodies and trim are often painted black. However, there are Old Order Mennonites who drive the same all-black carriages as the Amish.

The Amish don't ride bikes. They consider them too modern even though most Engländer would think otherwise. They banned them in the early 20th Century when bikes were considered modern status symbols. It remains in effect today because bikes with a gear system that allows the rider to speed along at 20-30 MPH is faster than a buggy. It is common, however, to see boys and girls, dressed in their traditionally dark clothing and straw hats, racing joyously down the streets on scooters.

In contrast, bikes are the primary mode of transportation for many of the Mennonites. Even for some of the more conservative Old Order Mennonites, life would be unimaginable without bikes. Dozens of young folks as well as adults regularly roll to religious services. Young girls smartly maneuver their tandem bikes despite ankle-length dresses and white bonnets. Older men somehow keep their short-rimmed black hats from blowing off in the wind. In the barnyards near their churches, the parked fat-tired cruisers (no locks!) create a colorful jumble among the black buggies and horses.

Neither the Mennonites nor the Amish seem all that disturbed by the lycra hordes that regularly descend on their communities. Though half-naked by local standards (it's the bare legs and arms mostly), bikers are more likely to get a cheerful wave than the cagers who shoot by.

Last week's catastrophe hasn't shattered such gentle, tolerant forbearance. Despite the killing of five young girls, their families and neighbors have forgiven the Roberts. His family has been invited to a number of the funerals. The Amish and Mennonites are part of the modern world ... but on their own terms. What the rest of us, bikers and cagers alike, can learn from all this is that while life goes on we too can choose our own terms.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great post. I've linked it to my collection of Landis news at


9/10/06 16:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just one minor correction to your information. Floyd's parents are not Old Order Mennonites. Old Order Mennonites don't drive cars but travel in horse and buggies. Floyd's parents drive cars.

10/10/06 04:23  
Blogger Da' Square Wheelman, said...

Thanks for the correction. This from Beliefnet at

"Floyd's congregation is part of [the Mennonite Church USA], but his particular congregation [the Martindale Mennonite Congregation] is one of the most conservative ones in that group.

So, his congregation where he grew up straddles the fence between the plain/conservative and the assimilated cluster. For example, his mother wears a prayer covering and fairly plain dress, but she and Floyd’s father would be on the most conservative end of the assimilated group . In some ways, they would look similar to the plain/conservative Mennonites but, technically their congregation is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA.

10/10/06 09:32  

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