In a new series exploring international ‘bamboo heroes’ from all walks of life, INBAR presents a profile of Kate Rawles, British adventurer, environmentalist and bamboo bike enthusiast.
Kate Rawles, who grew up in Scotland and now lives in picturesque Cumbria in northwest England, has been passionate about environmental issues her whole life. After a career spent in environmental education, she has recently re-centred her life around using adventure and travel to raise awareness of climate change and biodiversity. In 2006 she spent three months on a cycle ride from Texas to Alaska exploring North American responses to climate change. After publishing a book and presenting many hundreds of times on this trip, ten years later she planned another trip, this time with a twist or two: she quit her job and intended to be away for over a year; and she wouldn’t cycle along the spine of the Andes on a normal tourist bike, but instead on a custom-made bamboo bicycle.
INBAR talked to Kate about her experiences with Woody, her bamboo bike, whilst she is in the midst of writing her second book about the journey.
Upon discovery of the Bamboo Bicycle Club in London who run regular workshops to help people to make their own bikes, it seemed like a natural choice to build the bike for her trip. “Once I started doing a bit of research, I found out that making a bike out of bamboo really connected with the aims and ethos of my trip. Bamboo bikes have a lower carbon footprint, and I was even able to source bamboo locally from the Eden Project in Cornwall.”
To make the bike, Kate spent five days in London, cutting down the bamboo to size and then joining the pieces at the joints with a strong bond made from Yorkshire hemp soaked in a European eco-resin. Other Bamboo bike joints have been made variously from carbon fiber or even metal, but at the Bamboo Bicycle Club, the bikes are made as ‘homegrown’ as possible, sourcing materials from the UK or Europe. The rest of the bike components were crowdfunded and sourced from British suppliers where possible, ensuring of course that the bike would be of a high quality when finished to get her over those tough roads when loaded up with all her gear.
She knew that she would be going off-road as she took a challenging route through South America, and the bike needed to be tough – and bamboo was a great choice, with a higher tensile strength than steel and withstanding compression better than concrete. It’s also light, although her bike wasn’t as light as it’s carbon fiber cousins, at around 16.5kg when fitted with panier racks. Of course, when on such a long tour, her luggage was by far the main contributor to weight – so strength was more important than weight to her.
Kate set off in January 2017, and would be on the road for more than a year, cycling over 13000km overall. Any doubts about the reliability of a bike made out of a plant (biologically a grass, in fact) that she has built herself were soon quashed – in fact, she says ‘It turned out to be the most reliable bike I have ever owned. It has quite a lot in common with a steel bike – quite shock-absorbing, very smooth, and able to deal with any terrain.”
The most inspiring thing about Kate’s journey with her bamboo bike is the amount of conversation that bamboo generated along the way – from locals in Chile crowding round her whenever she stopped for a quick break, to her local bike shop in Ulverston, Cumbria, who have now mounted the bike in the shop for guests to see. Although she was by no means a bamboo expert before the trip, she now tells whoever she can about the amazing properties of bamboo: “It really is an amazingly sustainable material – from the fact that you can harvest it without giving up the roots to how fast it will regenerate, it’s so interesting!”
Since her return to England in April 2018, Kate has given many talks and presentations about her trip, detailing the lessons learnt about biodiversity and sustainability along the way, and it’s clear where the biggest interest lies – it’s in the bike itself! She has become known as “the bamboo bike woman”, she laughs, which wasn’t exactly her intention but is by no means unwelcome.
In her talks, she uses examples from the environmental protection projects she encountered on her trip, some of which even involved bamboo, including Ecocultura, in Cali, Columbia, who run a social entreprise making and selling bamboo bike frames, and training others to do so. She also saw incredible construction projects using bamboo, and everything she saw impressed her even further.
The Life Cycle has converted Kate Rawles into a bamboo fan, and INBAR into Kate Rawles fans! To find out more about her work, please check out her website here.