Meet our members: Graeme Holdsworth

Vicars on bikes: Cycling UK member Graeme Holdsworth is a familiar sight cycling around his parishes in West Yorkshire
The Reverend Graeme Holdsworth is the interim vicar of Marsden and Slaithwaite. As a Cycling UK member, he’s also on a mission to get more people cycling. He talked to Cycling UK's digital officer Rebecca Armstrong about bikes and more

Graeme Holdsworth has been spreading the message about the joys of cycling in the parishes of Marsden and Slaithwaite in West Yorkshire for just over three years now. He took up the post of interim vicar in February 2020.

He is also a Cycling UK member. “When I lived in Teesside there was a local CTC group that regularly had group rides to explore North Yorkshire,” he comments. “I joined Cycling UK back then because I wanted to be part of that group and explore the local countryside. I felt welcomed by their friendliness.”

Graeme’s cycling journey reflects that of many of us. He says: “I had a BMX at the height of the craze back in the early 1980s, and loved to be out all day with friends: building jumps in the local woodland and learning to bunny hop.” But then other interests took over. “By the time I was at university, music and beer had overtaken my social life.”

This lifestyle took its toll. “In my early 30s, I was 110kg and struggled to walk uphill without getting out of breath.” It was at this point that Graeme’s wife suggested they both get a couple of bikes to improve their fitness, and they rediscovered a love of cycling.

“For £100 we bought a couple of full suspension mountain bikes. Although riding 5 miles was exhausting, we loved the return to the childhood joy of cycling. It was that shared joy which kept us riding whenever we had some free time. Our fitness grew and eventually we bought higher-quality bicycles and started cycle camping and touring together.”

If some of the thousands of miles of travel done in the name of God could be travelled with a lighter footprint, we feel that God’s good creation may breathe a little more easily

Rev Graeme Holdsworth, vicar of Marsden and Slaithwaite

Ride for the world

Graeme remains passionate about the benefits of cycling, and has organised a special ride for World Bicycle Day (3 June). “I feel that people within our churches are unaware of the financial, physical and environmental benefits of cycling,” he says about his reasons for organising the ride.

“I was at a church meeting about growth when someone asked, ‘Yes, but if we grow, where will everyone park?’ That people might walk or cycle to church hadn’t occurred to them. By being a positive role model, I hope to sow seeds that may lead to others discovering the liberation that cycling can bring.”

But he says that advocating for active travel can get lonely at times, especially when he gets referred to as ‘the cycling vicar’. “I know I’m not the only vicar who cycles, take the Reverend Grace Thomas for example. She has a significant following on social media and frequently talks about her love of cycling.

“Grace and I thought that we could try to raise the profile of clergy who cycle by meeting up on World Bicycle Day. We’ve issued an invitation through The Church Times and on social media, and we’re hopeful that others will join us. We’re excited that Dave Walker, the cartoonist, will be there.”

Graeme is encouraging anyone who can to join the ride. “We will be meeting at Manchester Cathedral at 11am on Saturday 3 June, then taking a 6-mile ride on Manchester’s cycle paths to a café for refreshments and cake, then cycling back. Twelve miles in total, an achievable distance for most people who cycle. We would love to meet anyone wanting to share the journey with us.”

But you don’t have to be local, Graeme adds. “For those who can’t make Manchester, it would be wonderful if they could post something on social media using the hashtag #ClergyWhoCycle – to feel part of a virtual get-together.” You can also follow Graeme on Twitter for updates.

“Our hope is that those who travel for church business might be encouraged to consider active travel as a genuine option. If some of the thousands of miles of travel done in the name of God could be travelled with a lighter footprint, we feel that God’s good creation may breathe a little more easily.”

Cycling and the church

Graeme hasn’t always been a vicar. He only came to faith in his 30s, having previously worked for 20 years in chemistry and IT. Back then he had a company car and travelled extensively, “only cycling for fun when I got a chance”.

However, when he answered the Christian vocation, he left behind many of the privileges of the commercial life, and discovered some benefits along the way. “With the loss of income and company car, we decided to live car free and see how we got on. Being car free was financially liberating and made easier because where we lived had good public transport.

“However, my wife has myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome) and eventually it progressed to the point where she could no longer cycle. We have had to get a small car to help with her disability.”

Cycling around the parish does attract some comments. “At first people think it is a novelty that I cycle,” Graeme says. “But eventually they begin to see the benefits. The first is financial: many vicars can claim for their expenses, including travel. As a cyclist, I only claim 20p per mile, but I do the same job as if I was driving. The treasurers of our churches absolutely love that my expenses are less than half what they would be if I used a car.

“The second is that I have a visible presence: everyone can see me, day or night, cycling around the parishes. This also brings the freedom to stop and chat to people as well. I think people find me more accessible because I cycle.

“The third is really important to me: cars are polluting and we’re facing an environmental crisis that will hurt those who are most vulnerable. By cycling as much as possible, I feel like I’m moving with a lighter footprint in God’s good creation. I still drive occasionally because my wife’s health is now so poor, and I recognise that the car is useful, but I feel blessed by the strength to ride and choose to do it as often as I can.”

Long-distance challenge

While cycling for work is important to Graeme, his love for the activity has taken him a lot further – literally. He has participated in the legendary long-distance LEL, or London Edinburgh London.

“I have ridden LEL once and volunteered once: it is a surreal experience either way. It has been called ‘a week on planet audax’. In 2017, when I took part, 1,500 randonneurs from 52 countries left London on a Sunday morning in August and rode with minimal sleep to Edinburgh and back. I remember getting to Edinburgh in less than 48 hours, having a coffee and some cake, then turning round and heading back.

“Sleep deprivation was hard, the hills of northern England were hard, but the hardest thing was the headwind of the Fens. I laughed and cried, shared the road with friends and strangers, and eventually arrived back in London at 2am to a grumpy ‘well done’ from an exhausted volunteer at a desk in a school hall. I then had to cycle 6 miles to my hotel. I loved it.

In 2022 I volunteered and made it my mission to be the happiest, bubbliest, most enthusiastic volunteer I could be. More sleep deprivation – but surrounded by a huge team of lovely people all with the same goal of helping riders succeed.”

Graeme isn’t planning on slowing down soon. He has plenty more challenges to look forward to. “I hope to qualify for PBP (Paris Brest Paris) this year. I like cycle camping and I’m keen to join the Cape Wrath Fellowship. I continue to play the VeloViewer Explorer Tile Game, which is basically a map of all the places I haven’t cycled yet.”

But there’s always the one that got away, he says: “I would have liked to ride the Dunwich Dynamo, but I think that living in the north makes the logistics complicated, and it always seems to clash with something else.”

I ask Graeme about his bikes. He has four. “A Spa Cycles tourer: carries heavy loads, gets up any hill and goes camping with me. It has a Shimano dynamo hub connected to front and rear lights. I use it for work and it has to be practical whatever the weather. We’ve done more than enough distance to lap the world together.

“A Condor steel frame bike with SON dynamo and lights and a Carradice barley on the back of the Brooks saddle. This is my audax bike. It’s the compromise I have found between robustness, weight, reliability and covering long distances in comfort.

 “A 29er hardtail, for local bridleways and visiting parishioners in the remote parts of the Colne Valley.”

And in the grand tradition of ‘n+1’: “I’ve also inherited my wife’s aluminium Dahon folding bicycle – which is an absolute delight for trips by train on church business.”

Finally, what does he love the most about cycling? “I feel completely free when cycling. I can go anywhere and stop whenever I want. A good friend once said, ‘People in cars are trying to get somewhere, but people on bikes are already where they want to be.’”

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