One of the first things you’ll learn about Devin Cowens is that she’s a planner.
We first bumped into Cowens at a conference that brought together trail operators and advocates for the East Coast Greenway, the nonprofit she works with from her home in Atlanta.
Cowens zipped around the event, making sure everything was in its right place. When we spoke on a phone a few months later, that was the image we held onto when she told us that her 2020 calendar was filling up, fast. She's the type of person that always seems to be moving, on a bike or not.
An avid traveler, she was planning a handful of adventures for the upcoming season, but she also had big plans for her role with WTF Bikexplorers, which is working to create community for women, transgender, femme, and/or non-binary people looking to get more involved with biking and bike touring. She launched a chapter of WTF in Atlanta, a project she’s dedicated to outside her day-to-day role managing events and trips for East Coast Greenway.
We touched base with Cowens in February to hear more about her personal and professional experience with the bicycling community in Atlanta and beyond.
You just got back from a week-long bike camping trip in Cuba. Tell us about that.
I have a friend who I met less than a year ago at the National Bike Summit. We became fast friends because we were both experiencing similar life transitions. We decided we would do a trip every year, alternating between international and domestic trips. Last year, we biked in Montana. This year, we decided on Cuba. The landscape there was beautiful. Cuba feels a little like stepping back into time. A lot of people that live there use a bicycle to get around.
You could have explored Cuba in a number of different ways. Why did you choose to explore it using a bicycle?
Seeing the country by bike was a great way to engage. There was time to think and reflect, which is why I usually come to the bike. And I had the chance to physically explore using my body and having everything I need contained on my bike and within me. It was an empowering, exciting experience. For me, biking is another way to see something and another way to explore. Something I’ve decided to do is that when I travel to new places, biking will be the first form of that exploration. Then, after, if I decide to go back, I’ll return without my bicycle.
What does biking mean to you?
I originally came to cycling as a means to get around, as a means of transport. And then a few years ago, I discovered that biking brings me pure joy. I think biking is a tool for many things. It’s a tool for empowerment, healing and access. Empowerment is the actual strength I find being able to achieve things on the bike physically. I use time on the bike to think and meditate. And biking is a connection point to build community and learn from others. Biking helps me meet a lot of personal goals.
How did you end up working professionally in the bike community?
I was a bike commuter in D.C. and my partner at the time got a job and we moved to Atlanta. We didn’t have a car. We moved near public transit, but I decided I wanted to bike. Atlanta is hilly, so it wasn’t as easy as I thought.
I was trying to do some bike rides to get into the community, but early on, I found that parts of the Atlanta bike scene weren’t super friendly to single-speed bike users and women. You could join a ride, but it wasn’t as welcoming as I hoped.
Then I experienced a breakup and needed to find a community to lean into. Within the cycling community, I started meeting more folks that shared my passion for riding and connecting, working with communities of color and providing access and transportation equity.
I was giving bike tours for Civil Bikes, which tells stories of Atlanta’s history that haven’t been told, making folks visible in the patchwork of the history of Atlanta, a lot of brown folks specifically. I did my first bike packing trip, with two women who I’m good friends with and I was really glad I had someone to support me, especially because I had been in other bike spaces where I struggled and things weren’t as supportive.
And I would say this shift happened. It propelled me into the space of wanting to create a community for folks who have been, or who were not typically welcome in the bicycling industry. That included women, gender non-conforming and queer folks, as well as brown folks. And I wanted to create space for size diversity, for people of different body sizes, or not your typical image of what a cyclist looks like.
I’m grateful that I’ve been able to create this exciting, busy day-to-day life where I get to bike, talk about equity and and help to get rid of some of the initial barriers that people interact with when they come to biking, as well as get rid of this stigma around what folks assume about brown folks, queer folks and those that have been othered in the bike world.
Could you share a little more about what exclusion looks like for the people you’re working to support?
When I first tried going out with riding groups, there was a lot of commentary on what my bike looked like. Or because I had a single-speed bike, people offered me suggestions for other rides, like social rides, the slower paced rides without a lot of climbing.
Finding community takes time, I get that. But I asked myself what I was seeking and whether folks would benefit from a different approach: a space where people would not be misgendered and could talk among a community where others weren’t worried about the type of bike they had.
One of the things that we do for all of our WTF events is an introduction. I say, “Hey, I’m Devin. Thank you for being here. Here are my pronouns, what are yours? Here’s what we’re doing today and here’s why.” It gives this even playing field of conversation and sharing before we get right into something. If you come to a ride for the first time and you don’t know anyone or maybe you’re an introvert, there isn’t always that space to just talk for a few minutes.
I think that biking can be intimidating if you didn’t grow up with it or haven’t had that experience as an adult, yet. But I think that you quickly start to figure out that it doesn’t have to be this overwhelming thing that you have to be good at right away. So it’s really important to me to think about how I can take that beginner, that initial experience, and make sure they keep coming back, thinking about what I wanted when I came into that space.
Tell us about those early days for you, starting to ride your bike as an adult.
I was working in Washington D.C. for AmeriCorps and at the time didn’t provide a public transportation pass, so I wanted to buy a bike. My brother, who was living in Chicago, offered to make me a very bare bones single-speed bike. I went to Chicago, packed it up, brought it back on the plane, and put it together at the airport when I got to D.C. and rode it home. It was just really easy to get around and I loved it. I felt so free and in control. It’s funny, I started biking with a friend who started around the same time as me. It’s now become such a part of my life, and we were joking recently about how she doesn’t bike anymore, and that it’s become my life’s work: cycling and the conversation around that.
How does your work in the Atlanta community translate to longer-distance or multi-day travel?
I'm still figuring out my role in this. When I think about access, because I'm someone who identifies as a black woman, within those various marginalized intersections, I have privilege. I’m gainfully employed with a salaried job and paid time off which allows me to take a week-long trip to Cuba.
When I’m doing bike travel, there’s this element of surprise from people I meet, who ask, “what are you doing, why are you doing this, how are you doing this?” I think it’s really important for me to use moments like that to communicate about bike travel.
I also want to connect with folks who are doing the same thing as me and find ways to create more opportunities for folks who want to bike travel, who may not have the same needs as others. I want to help make sure there’s a pipeline to get communities of color engaged.
What next for you? What are your personal goals for biking or being a part of the biking community?
I'm working on building strength and endurance on the bike and working toward trying some gravel races. And I’m really looking to grow the WTF Bikexplorers Atlanta community, getting more people engaged and providing some really great content throughout the year. We host a few monthly events that people can get involved with. People can work on their bikes each month at Sopo Bikes, join us for a happy hour, or come along for one of our weekend rides. You can also stay up to date with new events by subscribing to our email newsletter, following us on Instagram or Facebook or emailing us directly.