Women on Bikes Series: Rebekah Gordon

My name is Rebekah Gordon and I am a girl full of wanderlust. I have been riding bikes for as long as I can remember. I grew up in the state of Wisconsin, but my career as an English teacher has taken me all around the world.

While I have yet to take my own bicycles on an airplane, I have managed to acquire one in each country that I’ve lived in, including South Korea, Ethiopia, and China. Bicycling has introduced me to lifelong friends all around the world and has allowed me to experience cultures and opportunities not possible on four wheels.

You've been riding pretty much all your life, what has inspired you to live "life on two wheels?"
I think, initially, it was more of a necessity than a choice. While completing my bachelor’s degree in Madison, Wisconsin, I couldn’t afford to have a car and found that riding my bike was a great stress-reliever as well as social activity. Later, in grad school, I made the conscious decision of being a “crazy biker lady.” I rode my bike year-round through the cold, snowy Minnesotan winters often clad in a skirt or dress! I know that I’ve definitely been influenced by my father as well; he has been biking his entire adult life, including weekend and week-long tours. Although his age has caused him to switch over to a recumbent, he is still riding and touring year-round.

It took years before you attained your very own bike, what did you learn about having a bike that fit you vs. being too big, etc.?
I was used to riding bikes that were a little too big for me – hand-me-downs from my dad or sister. However, before I embarked on my trans-America bike trip, I bought a used Novara Safari touring bike on eBay. It was not only the right frame size for me, but I also took it to a LBS to have it fine-tuned to my body. I learned that a well-fit bike can make a world of difference in riding comfort and speed. I think I gained confidence too; rather than feeling a bit too-outstretched and unsure of my controlling abilities, I knew that my “new” bike was like a puppet perfectly molded to my unique shape.

Do you remember how you felt on your first mountain bike ride? Were you nervous?
I was so nervous, but I was with a guy I had a crush on. I wanted to impress him and show him that I was tough. I don’t know if I succeeded in gaining his approval, but I definitely tried harder than I would have on my own. Seeing him go over various obstacles gave me the confidence that I could do it too. I was riding too slowly to roll over some easy obstacles and had to walk around others, but it motivated me to go again and get better.

With mountain biking what were some handling skills that challenged you? Do you have any suggestions for what helped you grasp them?
I love downhills and tight turns, but am still slightly uncomfortable with big logs and rocks. It is so counterintuitive to go full-speed, head-on into a large object. Everything in my brain is telling me, “Stop! Don’t do it!” Overcoming that has not been easy. I guess it’s just a matter of starting small. Before going over a log, I practiced going over smaller branches. Eventually, I moved up to piles of logs (but they still scare me). Same for rocks. Also, I find it really helpful to follow someone who can show me the right line to ride and simply prove that it is possible to maneuver obstacles that otherwise look impossible!

When you can, you are a year-round bike commuter- why do you choose a bicycle as your transportation?
Mostly because I am frugal and love riding! Of course, it’s also good for my physical, mental, and social well-being.

You haven't owned a car! I'm sure there are those who feel it must be difficult- what are your thoughts on being car-free?
After traveling around the world and meeting so many other car-free people, I know it’s a realistic endeavor. Although much harder to be car-free in America, it’s entirely possible...especially if you have friends with cars! I have saved so much money, have made so many more friends, have contributed so much less pollution, and have burned so many more calories...it’s totally worth it!

Any suggestions for those interested in commuting all-year round?
Get the right gear. If you have the right clothing and the right bags or panniers, commuting can comfortable in all conditions.

You've biked in several different areas/countries- Have you had a favorite location? What have been some challenges?
I would have to say that Ethiopia was the best and the worst place I’ve cycled. I managed to find an old steel Batavus road bike, but there were only bike shops in Addis Ababa and even those shops didn’t stock parts for size 700 wheels. So, anytime I had a mechanical issue, it was a challenge to find a solution. Each of my tubes had at least 6 homemade patches on them! The other main challenge was dodging rocks that children like to throw at you when you’re riding. I really don’t know why they do this, but I don’t think they realize the consequences if they actually hit you! Despite all of that, riding in Ethiopia was amazing. I was able to go on roads that few foreigners had been on before. I could stop wherever I wanted to take photos and interact with the locals (something that was impossible to do when traveling by public taxi or bus).

Have you had any biffs that were challenging for you on a physical/mental/emotional level? What did you do to heal and overcome?
The worst biff I had was on my trans-America bike trip. Both my front tire and tube exploded while I was going downhill (on a fully-loaded touring bike). My friend Emily was behind me, so she ended up crashing into me and also getting scraped up. I now have scars from the road rash on my left leg and left arm. I wanted to keep riding, but my bike was out of commission. The most upsetting part, to me, was that I had to hitch a ride to the nearest bike shop (hours away). We were over halfway finished with the trip by then and I had biked every single mile; it broke my heart to have to “cheat” and ride in a car to the next destination. I rested and let my wounds scab over for a few days and continued on. I eventually learned it’s not about the miles logged, but about the experiences one has.

Tell us about your 2011 bike trip! What did you learn from your long-distance ride?
The 2011 trans-America trip took me and two of my female friends from Jacksonville, Florida to San Francisco, California. We did very little training before setting out, so we started conservatively. None of us had any extensive bike experience before the trip and we knew little about bike maintenance. We definitely had our doubters – some people believed that we would end our trip early. We learned so much in those first few days – how to quickly change a flat tire, how to fix a broken spoke, how to properly draft each other in windy conditions, and how much food to eat to stay energized (5,000+ calories)! However, the most important part of the trip for me was restoring my faith in the goodness of Americans. After living abroad and hearing so many negative stereotypes about Americans, I wasn’t prepared for all of the kindness and hospitality that strangers would provide my friends and me. I have so many stories of random strangers cooking meals for us, giving us a place to stay, and even giving us money.

What do you love about riding your bike?
The thing I love most about riding my bike is the freedom that I have. I can go anywhere that my legs and mind are willing to take me. While I love walking, bicycling allows me to cover 3 or 4 times the distance in the same amount of time. Biking around a new city or new country is one of the most thrilling experiences. Right now, I’m living in central China and I just bought a road bike. I’ve ridden about 10 times in the past month and each route was completely different. I have seen so many awesome things that I never knew existed just a few miles from where I live. The other thing I love most about riding my bike is meeting fellow bikers. When someone sees me on my bike or I see them on their bike, we automatically have a connection. Bikers are the best!

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
Currently, in China, I have a Giant OCR 5500. It is an entry-level road bike that gets me up and down the mountains that surround my apartment. I am not particularly attached to it, but may end up bringing it back home when I leave China. I miss my 1986 Bianchi Brava most – this steel beauty is the same age as me and we have many memories together. I bought it used when I was in grad school and used it to race. I bought it because it was cheap and I loved the black/teal color scheme. My touring bike, as I mentioned earlier, is a Novara Safari that I bought used on eBay. Once again, the price was right and I liked the colors (gray/green). It has since become my commuting bike since it is set up for panniers. My MTB is a Giant Trance X1 that I bought used on Craigslist. After MTBing two or three times on my friend’s bike, I knew I needed one for myself. The guy selling it was a sponsored rider, so he passed on all of his saving to me! Of course, I also chose it because of the low price and the color scheme wasn’t bad either (green/gray).

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?
I love my Novara road cycling shorts from REI. I wore them almost every day for 3 months on my trans-America trip and put them through the washing machine so many times, but they still look great! I also love all my Planet Bike products (lights, fenders), especially since I know they give 25% of profits to bike-related causes. Oh, and I also love MapMyRide.com. It’s very motivating to see how far you’ve gone and how many feet you’ve climbed; it’s also great for planning routes in foreign countries.

You mentioned that mountain biking isn't boring and provides you challenge that road biking didn't. What inspires you to embrace challenge and ride dirt?
I am a perfectionist – I hate failure. So, if I go for a ride and can’t go over a certain obstacle or have to get off and walk, I am motivated to get it right the next time. As soon as I master one obstacle, there is always a new one awaiting. I also love the variety of levels and intensity that MTBing provides. I can ride my MTB on a paved road, a gravel road, a wide grassy field, rolling single track, downhill berm tracks, or through rock gardens.

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? Especially mountain biking or commuting year-round?
Of course women are deterred by the male image associated with cycling, especially MTBing. At first glance, the biking community may not seem like a welcoming group – hipsters are too cool, road racers are too fast, and MTBers are too tough. These stereotypes, however, are quickly forgotten once one gets more involved in the diverse biking communities that exist around the world. Sadly, I think that vanity prevents many ladies from biking as well. People associate spandex and helmets with biking and would rather not partake in an activity that is going to show off some of their body parts they are most self-conscious about and mess up their hair.

What do you feel could happen to make changes and/or encourage more women to ride?
I think more females need to start ladies-only events. Cycling is so male-dominated and it can be intimidating to ride with them, especially as a beginner.

What inspires you to encourage women to ride?
Selfishly, I want more female riding partners! I am so used to riding with men, but would love to have more ladies-only bike events. A couple years ago, I did the all-female “Babes in Bikeland” alley cat race in Minneapolis and never imagined it would be so awesome! I want other women to experience the freedom, challenges, and opportunities that biking has provided me.

Tell us a random fact about yourself!
I am a leftie!