Rachel Finklestein, a cyclist, artist, teacher and explorer from Boston, Massachusetts, told herself that she would try to complete a cycling tour across the United States by the time she was 30. Two weeks ago she happily celebrated her 30th birthday in Denver, Colorado, with 2,612 miles of cycling accomplished since leaving her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 2. Averaging 65 miles a day, her journey has taken her through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Colorado- where she is currently enjoying a short break to hike and explore before continuing on through Utah, Nevada, and California. The west coast does not mean the end of the tour for Finklestein, though.
Powerful and ambitious, and without an end-date in sight, she hopes to ride her bike across the border to Baja, Mexico and potentially continue south from there.We were fortunate enough to speak with Finklestein about her cycling adventure, the role privilege plays in our society, and what it means to be a solo female cyclist.
When did you begin long-distance cycling?
I began riding my bike more seriously when I was in college, doing 2-3 day charity rides. I did my first cycling tour when I was 22. I had been living in Portland, Oregon for a year and decided it would be fun to try and ride along the coast down to San Francisco. I was a bike commuter at the time, and living in a very bikeable city. I thought it would be an adventure! I took a basic bike maintenance class, got my bike prepped to tour, and went for it! I rode a little under 800 miles on my own along beautiful, albeit curvy and heavily trafficked roads. It was incredible, beautiful and extremely empowering. I was hooked!
What brought you to the decision to ride your bike across the U.S.?
This has been something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Years back, I thought I’d try to do it by the time I turned 30. I turned 30 a couple of weeks ago on this trip, so it’s been kind of like an incredible gift to myself. I also just finished grad school, and decided I didn’t want to continue with my job, so it seemed like a good time to take a break and go. Initially, I was going to take this trip with two other women. It ended up not working out, for various reasons; in the end, though, I’m really glad I ended up on my own. They helped push me to start planning this trip and take myself seriously, though, for which I am very grateful.
Must be difficult planning for an adventure like this.
Since I’ve done a handful of smaller tours before, I had a general idea of what to expect and what I needed to bring. I always like to have a general idea of my route before I go, but I’m not a meticulous planner, and really value flexibility on the road. You never know how you’re going to feel, or what the weather or terrain will be like, or who you’ll meet. The flexibility is one of my favorite parts of this journey. There is so much unknown, and it is both scary and beautiful.
From a more logistical standpoint, things to keep in mind are:
General biking route: Adventure Cycling has great routes mapped out.
Gear: I carry all my gear on the back of my bike, but many people carry front panniers as well to balance out the weight – I’m sure it’s helpful, but I’ve never done it so I guess I don’t know what I’m missing.
Lodging: I camp a lot, and I also rely on the kindness of strangers! I highly recommend checking out warmshowers. It’s kind of like couchsurfing, but only for cyclists. I’ve stayed with over a dozen incredible folks/families/couples since embarking on my trip. I’ve also stayed in a couple of cheap motels.
Most importantly – the bike: I decided to splurge and get a new, touring bike for this trip. I’ve done all my other tours on a road bike, but it’s not as sturdy and prone to have more problems along the way. The pricing of a trip like this can vary a lot, depending on where you sleep and where you get your food. I know people that stay in hotels and eat at restaurants the whole time, and others who camp in the wilderness and eat the cheapest supermarket food you can find. The gear is obviously the most expensive, but it lasts a long time and is totally worth it for a touring enthusiast.
Many people ask me how I can afford to do this. I’ve thought a lot about privilege along this journey. While it is not necessary to have a lot of money to do a bike tour, it is definitely a privileged activity. I can afford to take off time from work, I can afford to travel leisurely and at my own pace. Even if I were to camp for free every night, I have the privilege to stay in a motel or even fly home at a moment’s notice if I so chose. I want to believe that anyone could do this – and I believe anyone could – but it is definitely easier for me than for many others. I am also white and straight-looking, two other incredible privileges that allow me to go into cities and small towns alike and be treated with respect rather than scrutiny or distrust. It’s sad to say, but very much the truth. Class and race cannot be ignored here.
Many people would argue that, because you’re a girl, it is too dangerous to embark on an adventure of this kind alone. How do you respond to fear from others and within your own self?
One of the most common things people say to me when they learn I am touring on my own is: “Aren’t you afraid?” It’s so interesting to me. I kind of want to reply: “Of what?” Instead, I say: “If I’m afraid of anything, it’s cars, not people.” I know if I was a man, I wouldn’t get that question. There are very few solo women cyclists, and I’m particularly small and young looking. We’re taught to be so fearful in our society. Of course bad things happen. I’ve gotten robbed at gun point, I’ve been hit by a car while riding my bike… but you know, I choose to believe most people are inherently good. I would rather live my life out in the world, doing things that I’m passionate about, even if the risks are higher. In all my travels, I’ve found people to be incredible generous and kind, and that is one of the reasons I keep doing it.
You’ve spent many a solitary hour on the road these last two months. What have you learned most about yourself?
Riding my bike for hours a day, days in a row, I am reminded of the incredible enormity and diversity of the world around me. I feel self-sufficient, strong and powerful, while simultaneously tiny, insignificant and humbled (in the most beautiful way). I get to glimpse into a hundred other worlds that people inhabit. I am reminded that my reality is one of many, and my truth very much tied to my lived experience. I am reminded to open up my heart and mind more, breathe in compassion, and focus on only the most basic needs: food, water, shelter.
I’m not always that poetic, though. I spend many hours thinking about food, how many miles I’ve already gone and how many miles I have left to go, my relationships, my personal struggles, my body (physical discomfort), the scenery, the elevation grade…
How do you continue to motivate yourself when you feel like you just can’t possibly peddle any further?
When I’m feeling overwhelmed or exhausted, I try and remind myself to focus only on one step or pedal at a time. I try and break down the enormity of the task at hand into smaller, more achievable segments (a 75 mile day becomes 3-25 mile sections). I also have to remind myself that I can stop whenever I need to. No one is forcing me to do this but myself. I am not stuck.
Any more super-woman challenges on your radar?
Always! I really love to ride my bike, so I’m sure I’ll do more tours in the future (maybe on another continent?). Otherwise, who knows! Having goals and challenges to work towards and push myself through has always been a priority of mine. But, I’m not a big planner, so I’ll just see what comes my way and/or feels right at the time and works out logistically!
What advice would you give to our audience on accomplishing their own goals?
Trust yourself and go for it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t finish. Every step is a victory. Don’t be afraid to be alone; don’t be afraid to talk to people you don’t know.
Follow Rachel’s cross-country adventure on her Instagram @rfinkles