On a Mission To Spread Bike Joy

Photo: Dessa Lohrey

For Devin Cowens, cycling isn’t just a way to get around. It’s a way to change lives.

It was October 2018, and Devin Cowens—now the founder of Atlanta nonprofit Radical Adventure Riders—was crying on the side of the road. Her bike lay on the shoulder next to her, wheels spinning. She was in Alabama, miles from home, completely exhausted. 

Cowens (she/her) had recently ended a long-term relationship and decided to process her heartbreak by going bike camping for the first time. Her friends had told her the distance, but she had no way of knowing just how grueling the 128-mile trip would be. It was the hardest thing she’d ever done.

“Afterward I was like, ‘Oh, that was insane, but I want to do it again,’” she laughs. The physical difficulty had helped her realize how much she was truly capable of. And the emotional difficulty had allowed her to access a deeper kind of camaraderie with the friends she’d been with. 

After the trip, Cowens couldn’t stop thinking about bikepacking. But she didn’t just want to bike-pack. She also wanted to make it more accessible for others.

Though she’d grown up cycling around her home in Dallas, Texas, and later gotten into bike commuting as an adult in Washington, D.C., Cowens hadn’t realized that bike camping was an option until much later. Now, she wanted to raise awareness about the magic of bikepacking. She also wanted to help others realize just how possible it was to do in Atlanta. 

“I saw Atlanta as a bike city in many ways, even though it was built for cars,” she says. Upon moving there, she’d caught a glimpse of the city’s potential—a glimmer that would take many other Atlantans years to notice. Famous for its traffic, multi-lane highways, and urban sprawl, Atlanta doesn’t exactly top lists of commuter-friendly cities. But through her work at a local bike advocacy group, Cowens stumbled into a local cycling community that was small, tight-knit, and full of energy. Meanwhile, the city’s first bike-share program had taken off, and the number of bike paths and bike lanes was slowly beginning to grow. Amid all this change, she wanted to do something to galvanize the bike community and help others take advantage.

“If you have a bike and a backpack, you can bikepack,” she says. “You can ride some bike you already have, go to Stone Mountain and back, all on trails, and you don’t have to take off work to do it.”

To spread that message, Cowens launched an organization called WTF Bikexplorers. Today, that group is the Atlanta chapter of Radical Adventure Riders (RAR ATL). It exists to provide a safe space for women, people of color, trans, femme, and nonbinary folks to try bikepacking, learn about bikes, and meet like-minded folks. 

“The cycling and outdoor industry usually ignore women, people of color, trans, femme, and nonbinary folks,” Devin says. “But folks want to bikepack, and I wanted people to have a safe space to develop community and have access to bikepacking resources.” 

To that end, RAR ATL plans and organizes group rides and beginner-friendly bikepacking trips entirely for free. 

A portrait of Devin Cowens Photo: Cliford Mervil

“You just show up as yourself, at whatever your intersections are. Hopefully you have a bike, but if you don’t, we have bikes, too,” she explains. Cowens always knew she wanted to make free, easy-to-borrow gear an important facet of RAR ATL. Bikepacking gear is expensive—Cowens estimates about $1,780 for a full kit (not including the bike)—and out of reach for many people.  

But on her first bikepacking trip (the 128-miler to Alabama), Cowens made do with what she had. She used a bike she’d bought for $90 on Craigslist, one commuter saddlebag she already owned, a backpack, and a borrowed saddlebag. The borrowed bag made a huge difference in her personal comfort and in the balance of her bike. It was free, too. The biggest hurdle was figuring out who had spare gear. 

So, she started making a spreadsheet of all the people she knew who had bike stuff. Any time someone asked her where to find gear, she’d connect them with the folks on her spreadsheet. Fast forward to today, and that spreadsheet has morphed into a thriving gear library stocked with about 170 items that RAR ATL members can check out any time. RAR ATL also offers skill-share sessions where folks can learn how to use and maintain bike gear, as well as plan and execute their own rides. 

Today, RAR ATL has grown from about six of seven regular riders to about 100. It got a major boost from the post-pandemic bike boom—and, likely, from Cowens’s own rising fame. In 2021, she was on the cover of VeloNews. The same issue featured a story about her gravel racing career (she currently rides for Diamondback).

“Things started taking off after that,” Cowens says. Reporters reached out to her for interviews. Companies wanted her advice. RAR ATL kept growing. “It was very exciting,” she says. “It’s still exciting.”  

Today, Cowens isn’t sure what the future holds. She’s working through her strategy for managing RAR ATL’s growth. She’s also trying to figure out what she wants her role to be, and how to make sure the mission remains sustainable and joy-driven. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about, she says: sharing and spreading “bike joy.” 

“You take this idea of you as a person, powering this machine, carrying everything you need for a period of time—really relying on yourself—that’s really powerful,” she says. “Biking has brought me so much joy. It’s been an outlet for me to experience nature. And, without sounding super cliché, RAR has allowed me to see the power of relationships and friendships. It’s so transcendent. It feels like my life’s work in a lot of ways.” 

So, while Cowens doesn’t know exactly what she’ll be doing in five years, it’s easy to predict where she’ll be: on a bike, leading the way to new places. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.