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3:37 am
Mon May 5, 2014

Blessed Be Thy Bicycle: New York Riders Roll Into Church

Originally published on Mon May 5, 2014 11:18 am

It looked like some kind of bizarre wedding procession: Instead of flowers, participants held bicycles. Music played as they walked solemnly down the aisle toward the altar in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City on Saturday.

There were fancy bikes tricked out with neon-colored tires, folding bikes, bikes laden with saddle bags. One woman brought a bike-share bicycle.

The event took place a day ahead of the Five Boro Bike Tour, which is sort of like the New York Marathon on wheels. For the past 16 years, cyclists have been coming to the church to get blessed for the big ride, and for the rest of the year.

New York City has become much more bike-friendly in the past few years. But between the pot holes and the traffic, these riders could use some help.

Dana Albon, who wore a cardigan covered in tiny pink bicycles, came to the ceremony from Albany.

"Bicyclists are always in danger on the roads, so a little extra mojo going our way couldn't possibly hurt us," she said.

The Rev. Canon Julia Whitworth led the ritual in a long, golden robe. She said it doesn't matter whether you're a regular churchgoer, or if biking is your true religion. And that's why she has the service, she said: "To pray — for those of us who are people of prayer — pray for safety and joy and fun and appreciation for being in God's creation."

The service was short but serious (even if the bell-ringing didn't come from the church tower). Whitworth read a few passages from the Old Testament, including a part of the Book of Ezekiel that talks about wheels. Then she walked up and down the aisle, sprinkling the bikes and their riders with holy water. Two people read names of cyclists who had died riding in the city this year.

Then the organ started up, and everybody marched around the cathedral with their bikes. They went up the steps toward the altar, past elaborately carved wooden seats, and back down again.

More and more people are riding bikes in New York. The city says that between 2007 and 2011, the number of people commuting by bicycle doubled. And it's getting safer, too. Some people credit the improved traffic infrastructure, like new bike lanes, and the city's bike-share program. Because there are more bikes on the roads, drivers are getting used to them.

But others wonder whether their safety is due to something else: "I don't know if the blessings are helping, but they might," said Debbie Friedman, who said she'd never been hit by a car.

Friedman grew up on Staten Island and has been riding in the city since she was a kid. The Blessing of the Bikes is the only time she comes to church.

But that's OK with the priest — and with Glen Goldstein, who came up with the idea for the ceremony. He said it's really about bringing the diverse community together: the racers, the commuters, the messengers.

"To me, it's the gathering of the family. I don't know all these folks personally, but I see them all the time," he said, "and so it's the one time when the whole family gets together, and it's kind of nice."

But some people come looking for more concrete help.

Clara Pellerin lives upstate, near Albany. She left home at 3 in the morning to make it to the church on time. It was her first time doing the Five Boro tour. And she's afraid of heights.

"I believe in God, and if I can get help from Him ... to get across the bridges, that'd be great," she said.

After the ceremony, the riders wheeled their bikes back out of the church, hopefully a little better prepared to face the mean city streets.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Years ago, when I was a freelancer, I often rode my bike to NPR's New York bureau. That ride involved a lot of dodging. Lately, New York has become more bike-friendly, adding bicycle lanes and starting a bike share program. Still, potholes and aggressive drivers mean bike riders can use a little extra help, which they got this weekend in Manhattan with the Blessing of the Bikes. Alisa Roth reports.

ALISA ROTH, BYLINE: This looks like some kind of bizarre wedding procession.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROTH: I'm standing inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It's an enormous Gothic Revival building with vaulted ceilings and stained glass. There's music, and people are walking solemnly down the aisle toward the altar. But there's no bride or flower girls. Instead, there are a couple of hundred people wheeling bicycles.

There are fancy bikes tricked out with neon-colored tires, folding bikes, bikes laden with saddlebags. I even saw one woman who brought a bike share bicycle. It's the day before the Five Boro Bike Tour, which is a sort of New York Marathon on wheels. For the last 16 years, cyclists have been coming here to get blessed for the big ride, and the rest of the year. Dana Albon is here from Albany. She's wearing a cardigan with tiny pink bicycles printed on it.

DANA ALBON: Bicyclists are always in danger on the road, so a little extra mojo going our way couldn't possibly hurt us.

ROTH: The Episcopal priest Julia Whitworth leading the ritual. She says it doesn't matter whether you're a regular churchgoer or if biking is your true religion. And that's why she has the service.

JULIA WHITWORTH: To pray, those of us who are people of prayer, pray for safety and joy and fun and appreciation for being in God's creation.

ROTH: Whitworth is wearing a long, golden robe over her clothes. She faces the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERVICE)

ALBON: In a moment, we'll begin.

ROTH: The service is short, but it's serious, even if the bell-ringing doesn't come from the church tower.

(SOUNDBITE OF BICYCLE BELLS)

ROTH: Whitworth reads a few passages from the Old Testament, including part of the Book of Ezekiel that talks about wheels. Then she walks up and down the aisle, sprinkling the bikes and their riders with holy water. Two people read names of cyclists who have died riding in the city this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERVICE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Janine Lupia(ph). Victor Lopez(ph).

ROTH: Then, the organ starts up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

ROTH: And everybody marches around the cathedral with their bikes. They go up the steps toward the altar, past these elaborately carved wooden seats, and they back down again. More and more people are riding bikes in New York. The city says that between 2007 and 2011, the number of people commuting by bicycle doubled.

It's getting safer, too. Some people say that's because the traffic infrastructure has gotten better. And because there are more bikes, other drivers are getting used to them. But others credit something else.

DEBBIE FRIEDMAN: I've never been hit by a car. I don't know if the blessings are helping, but they might.

ROTH: Debbie Friedman grew up on Staten Island, and she's been riding in the city since she was a kid. The Blessing of the Bikes is the only time she comes to church. But that's OK with the priest and with Glen Goldstein, the person who came up with the idea for the ceremony. He says it's really about bringing the diverse community together: the racers, the commuters, the messengers.

GLEN GOLDSTEIN: To me, it's the gathering of the family. I don't know all these folks personally, but I see them all the time, and so it's the one time when the whole family gets together, and it's kind of nice.

ROTH: But some people are here looking for more concrete help. Clara Pellerin lives upstate, near Albany. She left home at 3 o'clock in the morning to make it to the church on time. It's her first time doing the tour, and she's afraid of heights.

CLARA PELLERIN: I believe in God, and if I could get help from him to get across the bridges, that'd be great.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTH: After the ceremony, the riders wheel their bikes back out of the church, hopefully a little better prepared to face the mean city streets. For NPR News, I'm Alisa Roth, in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.