Kate Rawles: Why I ride


Kate Rawles tells us why she’s cycling South America on a bamboo bike and why we should all be bolder sooner…

Tell us about your bamboo bike and your latest adventure...
It's a touring bike made from bamboo that was grown at the Eden Project in Cornwall. I built him myself with the help of The Bamboo Bicycle Club in London and we think he’s the UK’s first home-grown bicycle. He's called Woody.

I’m cycling from Colombia to Cape Horn to raise awareness about biodiversity – what it is, what’s happening to it, why it matters and what can be done to protect it. I’ll be cycling up to 6,000 miles and travelling through a variety of habitats, from deserts to rainforests – and all on Woody.

This isn’t your first rodeo. Tell us about ‘The Carbon Cycle’
The Carbon Cycle was a ride I did ten years ago now from Texas to Alaska, criss-crossing the Great Divide in the Rocky Mountains. It was at the height of the Bush Administration in one of the most oil-dependent, oil hungry countries on earth and was all about exploring attitudes to climate change. It was 4,553 miles in three months and was incredible. 

There were amazing landscapes, from deserts to glaciers and some stunning mountains in between. The wildlife was incredible, with black bear, moose, wolves and a single, astonishing lynx that walked right out in front of me on a road in Alaska. 

A bike is a magician, transforming even the most mundane journey into a mini adventure

There was constant friendliness and hospitality and, of course, a huge range of views on climate change, ranging from ‘I’ve never heard of it’, to full-on activism. I wrote about that journey in a book called The Carbon Cycle; Crossing the Great Divide that has just been republished as a second edition.

What was the biggest thing that you learnt on that ride?
I learnt that if you get the chance to take time out of ‘normal life’ and spend time on the bike on the road, you should seize it. Go for it. Do it! I also learnt that there are all sorts of people out there exploring ways to lead a quality life that contrast to the dominant idea that you need lots of stuff and money to be happy. Not only is that model utterly unsustainable (if everyone on earth enjoyed the standard of living of an average Western European we would need three planets), it’s not a great producer of human happiness.


What was the biggest thing that you learnt about yourself?
That when my body is telling me it’s about to die, it’s lying – I still have at least 20 miles left; that endurance cycling is more about head than legs; that being out there on the road and in the mountains brings me back to life and that as soon as I find ways of living in the present and am less concerned with the future, things fall into place – solutions turn up, chance encounters happen, opportunities arise.

What inspired you to take on these challenges?
Ever since my brother gave me a copy of Bicycles up Kilimanjaro back in 1986, I’ve loved the idea of trying to combine long hilly bike rides and personal adventure with a ‘bigger’ purpose. The Cranes used their amazingly nutty bike stunts to raise awareness and funds for the charity Intermediate Technology (now Practical Action), which brought small-scale, user-friendly clean water technology to people and places that didn’t have safe drinking water. I loved what they were doing and I also loved their sense of humour. They never took themselves too seriously, even though they were doing amazing stuff. 

Before then, I’d sort of assumed you had to be an Ernest Shackleton or an Edmund Hilary to have adventures. I was a weedy, totally unsporty kid – and what’s more, a girl. It made me realise that I could explore – however tentatively at first – by bike, and that I could combine it with something worthwhile. This really cracked it for me. 

A bike is a magician, transforming even the most mundane journey into a mini adventure and making adventure possible for even an athletically challenged person like me.

Why bamboo?
Bamboo is amazing. It is strong and versatile and when turned into a bike frame, results in a very smooth, shock-absorbing ride that’s ideal for long-distance touring off and on road. The carbon footprint of a bamboo bike is lower than that of a steel equivalent (though bikes have a pretty low carbon footprint anyway) and the bamboo is recyclable or even compostable at the end of the bike’s life. 

I love the idea of a biodiversity bike ride on a bike that used to be a plant

Plus, The Bamboo Bicycle Club (where I built Woody) is all about empowering people to build their own bikes. I was really attracted by that ethos and the opportunity to learn how to build a bike from scratch. I love the idea of a biodiversity bike ride on a bike that used to be a plant!

Your first biking memory?
Learning to ride a bike on a road in Aberdeenshire that our house was on. My dad was trotting alongside holding the bike up. Suddenly I realised he wasn’t there any more and I’d been cycling unaided! And then I fell off.

The smell of a bike shop is…
Welcoming. Familiar. Somewhere I can feel at home, even in a big, strange city.

When were you happiest on a bike?
I think it was probably on the first Crane-inspired ride I did from the mouth to the source of the Rhone in the Swiss Alps. It was then that I realised that I absolutely love cycling in mountains and that I 'could' cycle in mountains (however slowly!). It was a revelation and opened up a whole new world of cycling journeys for me, long and short.

Your bucket-list bike ride
Well, the one I’m about to try is top of the list! After that, I’d like to do a UK Life Cycle to explore UK biodiversity, and figure out the relevance of what I learn in South America to UK biodiversity. From there, I’d like to follow it with a European Life Cycle with a strong focus on mountain ecosystems. I’ve never cycled in the Tatra or the Dolomites, for example. There are loads of places I’d like to cycle. For me, it’s about finding a way of combining it with exploring an important environmental or social issue and using the journey to help raise awareness of that.

What is your most treasured possession?
Life and good health. In terms of more literal possessions, right now it’s Woody, of course. And back home, I’m pretty attached to my camper van. In both cases it’s about what they enable me to do; the people I can meet and the places I can get to and spend time in because of them.

Who or what is the greatest love of your life?
That would be a close call between Chris, my total rock of a partner, who makes a lot of what I do possible, and mountains! Coffee would also be high on the list…

What was the best ride of your life?
Descending the Furka Pass in the Rhone Alps (having ridden up it), because I was just realising this was something open to me, something I could do. That was so incredibly exhilarating. Life-changing, really.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Be bolder sooner. Always stand up for what you believe in. 

Don’t think that if you find a way of giving back to the world that also makes you happy that you are being self-indulgent. If you can find that sweet spot between doing what you love and doing something the world actually needs, you’ll not only be at your happiest, but also your most effective. 

And don’t take yourself too seriously.

What keeps you awake at night?
A mix of stupid, trivial stuff and very massive stuff. At one end of the scale it’s all those emails I haven’t answered and trying to remember whether I’ve packed any wire-cutters. At the other, the unbelievable impact humans have on earth’s ecosystems and other species; whether we will figure out ways of co-existing with nature while providing good lives for all of us before we wreck the place; whether what I’m doing is the most effective thing I could be doing in terms of trying to make a difference. 

Which living person do you most admire, and why?
It would be a close call between various fabulous environmental warrior-esses who have made huge differences to people and planet, like Jane Goodall, Vandana Shiva, Naomi Klein…

It’s your last day on Earth. Where do you ride and who with?
Assuming I’m still living in Cumbria and haven’t moved back to Scotland, then over Dunnerdale to the Duddon Valley and back via Wrynose Pass to my favourite café in Coniston for latte and toasted teacake. If Scotland, then really anywhere in the Cairngorms. It would be with Chris, my brother and a whole gang of girlfriends!

In five years you’ll be able to say…
That wasn’t such a bonkers idea after all!!

Get more from Kate and follow her SPOT tracker at: www.outdoorphilosophy.co.uk

And watch this space for regular updates on what Kate is up to

Images: Chris Loynes

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