by Beth Donovan
This is exactly what happened to ambassador Ashley Finch (you can call her Finch). Today we learn about her progression into her newfound love of cycling, including useful tips for planning that bikepacking adventure.
My name is Finch, and I am located in traditional Muscogee (Creek) land; Atlanta, GA. I have lived in Georgia my entire life throughout different parts of the state. I love the beauty and seasonality of the Southeast, and I continue to be surprised by how much is left to see of this region of the United States. I work as a rail/transit planner for the government, and I am passionate about equitable and safe mobility options beyond automobiles. I am in love with all disciplines of cycling - commuting, gravel riding, bikepacking, mountain biking, road riding, etc. If you can do it on a bike, I will probably love it. I also love hiking and really want to try fly fishing this year (bike-fishing seems so rad)! I am involved in the local cycling community through Radical Adventure Riders (RAR) Atlanta Chapter and always strive to get more folks on bikes.
Transit planning is your main gig, how did you discover it?
I was raised in the suburbs and felt very isolated from everything as a child and teenager because you needed access to a car to get anywhere, including out of the neighborhood. Moving to a very walkable college town after high school opened my eyes to the possibilities of what can happen when streets are safe, walkable, and connected by frequent transit service. The city wasn’t without its transportation faults, but it was night and day from the suburban sprawl I was used to. When I moved to Atlanta after college, I realized how important frequent and reliable transit options are for cities, which is something the Atlanta Metro area really struggles with. Depending on what side of Atlanta you live on, you have a very different level of transit service and connectivity to the rest of the city. I want to continue to advocate for safe mobility options to alleviate traffic congestion and create safer streets, but also to provide equitable opportunities for people to access major job and education centers throughout the city.
I also find a lot of freedom in transit, especially when you connect it with bike commuting. With a train or bus and my bike, I never have to worry about parking and the ride to my destination is almost always way more fun. I love sitting on the bus and watching the movement within the city. There is a lot of stigma around riding the bus in many metro areas, Atlanta included, and I really hope to change that perspective. I am also very passionate about connecting people to parks and recreation areas by public transit. How wonderful would it be to take a bus to your favorite trailhead? It would open up access for so many people without cars, which is a big limitation in outdoor access in general. Think of how many trails you love that you can only get to by personal vehicle. It creates a big equity issue about who gets to use what public spaces and creates a sense of gatekeeping.
You consider yourself fairly new to cycling. What inspired you to check it out?
I rode bikes a bit as a kid, but there weren’t a lot of opportunities to get out there in my isolated suburb. When I moved to Athens, GA for college, there was a robust cycling culture that I always admired from afar. I had friends that rode bikes and thought it was really cool, but I was too intimidated to really immerse myself in it. Also, most of the other cyclists in town didn’t look like me. However, I stumbled upon videos on YouTube and Instagram of people bike touring, bikepacking, and gravel riding in remote areas and became immediately obsessed with the idea that I was going to do that. When I discover a new hobby, I tend to fall quickly in love and get very into it. When I started biking again on a heavy steel touring bike that I bought from a friend, I was immediately in love even though it was a huge struggle at first to even go up small hills or ride for 10 miles. I found that bike commuting was so much more fun and efficient than driving to work or even taking the train (I still love the train though!). When I moved to Atlanta, I started doing large group rides through our Critical Mass Chapter and connecting with other local cyclists through Instagram. I knew I wanted to try bikepacking and other disciplines of cycling, and it also became one of my favorite ways to stay fit and healthy.
Tell us about your first bikepacking experience.
The RAR Atlanta Chapter was established by local Atlanta cyclist Devin Cowens in 2019 with the goal of creating a robust cycling community for women, trans, non-binary and queer cyclists in the city. My first bikepacking trip was with RAR Atlanta. It was a beginners trip to a popular local gravel route with amazing riding about 30 minutes from Atlanta. The trip was in late February 2020 right before things shut down from COVID-19. At the time, we had no idea what was to come. We had a pre-trip planning meeting at a local brewery, which was a perfect way to meet everyone, share tips and tricks for bikepacking, and discuss if anyone needed to borrow any gear or bikes. This made the entire trip way less intimidating, and it gave everyone the opportunity to share their experience and skill level to set safe and fun expectations for the trip. RAR Atlanta has a “use what you have” ethos, and we use our community resources to find gear or a bike for someone if needed.
This ride was the perfect introduction to bikepacking. We parked at a cafe off of one of the gravel roads on the route. We grabbed some coffee and food while we packed our bags together and nerded out about our bikes and gear. Once everyone loaded up their bikes, we set off at a chill pace to our campsite about 11 miles away. The campsite was a really nice primitive site at a public park along the gravel route. Since this was a beginners trip, we focused on the creature comforts and had another member drop off delicious food, drinks, and firewood. We spent the entire evening getting to know each other and had an absolute blast connecting with our community. This trip was amazing because there was absolutely no pressure to be a fast rider, have the coolest/lightest gear, or even have any bikepacking knowledge. Some folks were on borrowed bikes, and I had cobbled together a camping set up from buying things second hand from Craigslist and REI. This was the best low pressure introduction to bikepacking, learning how to pack the bike, and sharing a unique experience outside of the very white, cis male cycling space that most of us didn’t see ourselves reflected in. I came to cherish this trip even more when COVID hit, as it was the last RAR event we had before group rides and trips were postponed indefinitely.
How do bikepacking and weekend bike getaways energize you?
I am a planner by nature (and trade!), and I LOVE planning all aspects of a bikepacking trip - obsessing over the route, planning water stops, curating the menu, deciding what gear and clothes to bring, and figuring out how it is all going to fit on the bike. Also knowing we are going to see beautiful places on the bike is a huge motivator for me to get out there. There is nothing like the mountain view at the top of a grueling climb on a loaded bike when you’re wondering why the heck you ever thought this was a good idea. I also really enjoy nerding out about gear and making sure I am as comfortable as possible out on the trail. I don’t mind extra weight if I will sleep well and be cozy after a long day in the saddle. Another huge motivator for me is that I love supporting local economies in small towns and cities. Often, the places we ride through rely on tourist dollars and will always hit up a local cafe or general store for snacks and fuel (COVID-safely these days, of course). Sharing bikepacking trips on social media is also important to me as a way of showing people the range of things you can do and places you can go with just your bike and some bags. Social media and YouTube is what introduced me to bikepacking, and I like to share my own experiences as a FTWN-B cyclist.
What would you recommend to others who are interested in trying bikepacking?
I would recommend that folks connect with their local adventure cycling community or find a shop that really supports and values that type of riding. I have learned so much from other bikepackers in my own community, and they are always willing to share local routes or give advice on their experiences during trips. A good relationship with your local bike shop is so valuable, as they can provide insight on gear and make sure your bike is well-suited for the terrain you want to ride on.
If you’re brand new to bikepacking and unsure if you want to take the plunge into buying an expensive bike, try to borrow or rent a bike to take out on an adventure that sounds cool to you! Bikepacking can potentially have high upfront costs, so I always recommend trying to borrow gear or buy second hand before going all in. You can often find ridiculous deals on lightweight gear on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace/Bikepacking groups. Try to be creative with gear you already own. There are so many different ways to strap things onto a bike! You can also see if you have a local bikepacking group or organization and reach out to them about potential places to rent or borrow gear. RAR Atlanta recently started a gear library that will rent out gear to FTWN-B and BIPOC riders that are new to bikepacking. I am so excited to see this program get off the ground when we start group rides and bikepacking trips again. I highly encourage people to start something similar in their local communities. More folks on bikes and bikepacking, the better!
For route planning, sites like Ride With GPS and Komoot are invaluable. You can find bikepacking routes that other people have developed and discover a lot of the popular bikepacking routes near your area just by doing some searching. Ride With GPS also has great route creation functions if you want to create your own route, which you can also base on other routes that you find on the site. Strava’s heat maps are also great tools for looking up heavily cycled areas near your location or destination. I also find YouTube, Instagram, and Reddit to be great resources for finding out more information about bikepacking, gear, and routes, as well as connecting with the bikepacking community. Bikepacking Roots is also a cool organization. They are a nonprofit dedicated to supporting a diverse bikepacking community.
What's a fond memory from a bikepacking experience that gives you motiviation and inspiration?
One of my favorite recent trips is rolling into a campsite in Woodbury, GA after a really lovely gravel ride with friends and being greeted by the sweetest old man named Herman in a vintage restored truck. He was in charge of managing the campsite, and he was so kind to us even though we showed up right before he was supposed to leave for the night. He showed us all of the campsite amenities and made sure we were taken care of. There was nobody else at the campsite, so we had these amazing lakefront spots and picnic tables to ourselves. It was a beautiful clear night, and we made dinner by the lake and played games well into the evening. We laughed so much that night, and it was just really lovely. I woke up sometime in the night - maybe around 1am? - to the wildest sound, which I thought at first was a coven of witches screaming. After coming to, I realized it was definitely a pack of coyotes in the park. It was a sound I had never heard before. It just amazes me the sounds, sights, and experiences you can have while out bikepacking. I loved it. The next morning we woke up to a misty fog rising over the lake and watching the sunrise. It was so quiet and peaceful. While I love the breathtaking mountain and ocean views, this little lake in rural central Georgia was exactly where I wanted to be at that moment. I look forward to so many fun evenings like that after a long day in the saddle - eating salty snacks and feeling a bit loopy from exhaustion with friends. It is such a welcome change from my typical 9-5 day.
Bikes are seriously the best!
Finch's Bikepacking Checklist: