Kate Rawles is a long-time, long-distance tourer, whose adventures span four decades and several continents, from her first trip, cycling the Rhone valley fresh out of uni in 1986, to more recently pedalling her way from Texas to Alaska along the Rockies. What sets many of Rawles’ trips apart, though, is that she uses them to raise awareness of environmental issues.
Earlier this month, 53-year-old Rawles, a member of all-women cycling super group, the Adventure Syndicate, set off on her latest trip, the Life cycle. After travelling to Colombia by freight ship, she’ll set off in January to ride from Costa Rica to Cape Horn, raising awareness of biodiversity en route. TWC caught up with her in the final flurry of preparation to talk about her biodiversity mission, cycle touring as an older woman, and inspiring other women to do the same.
Rawles, who describes herself as ‘really not an athlete’, believes if she can cross continents and mountain ranges by bike, at times with little physical preparation, anyone can do it.
The months it’s taken to organise the trip, to travel to speaking engagements and wind down her life for the next 12 months, including quitting her lecturing job, have left little time for training, and it’s been ten years since her last big cycling trip.
“I just decided not to worry," she says, “because I can start slowly and it’ll gradually build up as I go along."
“If I can do long rides in mountains, pretty much anyone can"
“If I can do long rides in mountains, pretty much anyone can, because I really did start from a very low starting point and I’ve just gradually gone further over the years. I’m still slow as a cyclist and I don’t do mega distances in one day, I just trundle along on my bike.
As she explains in her blog, this trip will see her cycle 5,000-6,000 miles, from cold, high, mountain passes of over 15,000 feet, to arid deserts.
“It’s amazing what the bike can open up in terms of adventure," she says.
“It’s hugely empowering to know an ordinary body can become quite fit and then that body can carry you to these amazing places. The Peruvian Andes - it’s going to be amazing to be there - and it’s a relatively simple bit of machinery and doing a few miles every day and gradually you get fitter and stronger."
Rawles echoes what fellow long-distance riders often say, that the key to taking on a challenge is not necessarily the physical element, but the ability to stay calm, positive and solutions-focused along the way.
“I try to take the position where if it’s not life threatening, or threatening of serious injury, then this is an experience, and just go with it."
“The most important stuff is what goes on in your head," she says. “I try to take the position where if it’s not life threatening, or threatening of serious injury, then this is an experience, and just go with it. Most situations aren’t life threatening, there’s usually a way out. I try to stay calm in these situations and figure out what’s next."
For Rawles, as for many who ride long distances, the simplicity cycling offers is a major appeal, as well as the closeness to nature it affords.
“I love the freedom of carrying all your stuff with you and just basically cycling. Life becomes really simple – you cycle until you get hungry and then you cycle, then you sleep and you cycle again. And that simplicity is wonderful in modern society when everything becomes so complicated and so pressurised."
“A lot of my work focuses on environmental issues and it’s good to be reminded what environment is and how important nature is to us even though we get very cut off from it in our lives," she says.
Rawles will visit environmental projects on the way and talk about the environment with passers-by as she goes.
The bamboo bike she built herself, with the Bamboo Bicycle Company, is part of that narrative. The bamboo itself was grown in the Eden Project in Cornwall and the joints are made from hemp soaked in ‘Super Sap’, a European Eco-resin – she believes it’s the UK’s first home grown bicycle. Although she’s used to riding road bikes, Woody is a mountain bike – new territory.
“I think it’s going to be a great bike for this trip because it is very comfortable and it’s a huge people magnet, everyone wants to come and find out about this crazy bike and why I’m on it. So that’s really positive, given my trip is all about communication."
She’s also quietly changing perceptions about what people assume women can do.
“Often people do a bit of a double take – ‘oh you built [your bike?’ - that’s been very empowering"
“Often people do a bit of a double take – ‘oh you built it?’ – they don’t assume I actually did most of it myself, and that’s been very empowering."
It’s also helped improve her skillset.
“I’ve got basic bike mechanic skills but I’m not brilliant at it, so to be able to learn how to build a bike myself from scratch means I can probably figure out, from first principals, how to fix it if things go wrong, and that’s a great feeling."
The Adventure Syndicate is all about opening up more possibilities for women in terms of what they can achieve on bikes, and that’s important for Rawles, too.
“I think people like the fact, I’m doing this journey, much of it on my own as a woman, on a bike I built myself, and doing it not just for myself but I’m actually standing up for other species and the biodiversity and trying to do something about our impact on the environment, and actually people appreciate that."
“I think the dominant narrative about what women are is changing," she says. “We’re realising more and more that women can do amazing stuff, and we want to be doing amazing stuff. The whole story about women and our roles and what we’re capable of and who we are is changing for the better, and I think it’s great to be part of that."
Perhaps Rawles is also helping change our perception of what’s possible into our 50s and beyond. She admits losing her fitness is her biggest fear.
“I became very unfit last winter and it was actually quite shocking how long it took to get it back. I’m 53 now, so there does come a point where it does start to get harder to get your fitness back and I thought: ‘I have to watch this’."
“The aging stuff is quite difficult to get your head around. Frankly it hasn’t made much of a difference yet. I’m slightly slower than I used to be, but I’ve always been slow so that’s not a great big deal really, and I still enjoy riding my bike in the mountains, and touch wood I still am able to do that. And that’s amazing, isn’t it?"
As she inspires other women, she recalls attending a mountaineering club’s 50th anniversary celebration as a student, which still inspires her today.
“There were loads of people in their 70’s still climbing mountains, and that was quite inspiring, you realise if you keep going, and you don’t stop exercising and being outdoors; as long as you’re not unfortunate and get ill or injured, there’s no reason you can’t still be in the mountains in your 70s and 80s."
Kate will start cycling in late January/early February and will be blogging as she goes. You can follow Kate’s progress on her SPOT tracker. Her previous book, the Carbon Cycle; Crossing the Great Divide has just been published as a second edition.