A Camp of Our Own: How RAR New Haven Built The Community We Needed at Gravel Camp

I couldn’t stop moving the day before Gravel Camp. I was so excited, so nervous, and full of jitters. For years this camp had been an idea; since last year it was a real goal; and for the past two months, it was practically a part-time job.

Together, my fellow organizers (and friends), and I planned a weekend bike summer camp for femme, trans, women, and non-binary (FTWNB) folks to build the skills, confidence, and community to adventure on their bikes. From all over the East Coast and as far as Colorado, campers were coming to New Haven, CT, to learn about bike mechanics, riding skills, and bikepacking — all while in a community with other Queer, BIPOC, and radically cool riders. After years of dreaming, it was finally here.

I knew I was barely going to sleep the day before Gravel Camp but did not plan on reaching such high levels of anxiety and stress. Between Wednesday evening and Friday morning, 3 of the core organizers had to postpone their involvement in the camp because of COVID exposures. I was an anxious mess — issues with small details felt hopeless, and I was frantically revising the schedule, trying to find alternative transport for another counselor’s bike from Vermont, and trying not to cry because we didn’t have vegan marshmallows.

For a moment, it felt like the end of the world, but as soon as I leaned on the community, I knew it was going to be okay. Workshops were covered, transport reconfigured, and new places to stay offered. Friday morning, I bumped into a friend at the coffee shop near my house, and we walked and talked on our way to the Bradley Street Bicycle Co-op, the birthplace of Gravel Camp. I had the apropos ‘Tubthumping’ stuck in my head, “I get knocked down, but I get up again, You are never gonna keep me down.”

My theme for the weekend was “resilience”’ — the feeling of space within yourself to face, feel, and move through any hardships you may encounter. Reflecting now, I would expand that definition to include the ways we can be there for each other, hold space, and provide what we each need to persevere through hardship. It felt like healing, and it felt like home. In the act of making Gravel Camp a reality, and then living through it, I learned what resilience feels like not only as an individual but in a group — and how powerful a force that supportive community can be.

The desire for a space like this was clear from the beginning. We expanded from our original plan of 35 campers to 50, and still, registration sold out in two days, with a waiting list half as long. We wanted to make sure that we were centering BIPOC, Queer folks, and those new to gravel, and hit our target demographics (⅓ of each) without having to do any extra promotion.

Our community provided everything we needed. Camp Cedarcrest, an incredible local nonprofit campground let us book at a discount on an off-weekend because they believed in and supported the goals of Gravel Camp. Funding? Through a generous donation from the Adventure Cycling Association, and a week-long fundraiser, we were able to raise all the funds to run Gravel Camp free to all participants. Local and regional businesses worked with us to make sure we were fed, hydrated, and that every person was able to make it to camp with a bike to ride.

Organizers brought their knowledge, experience, and presence to the event in myriad ways. From the material – bringing compost buckets, finding bikes and water bottles for participants – to the intangible, bringing tenderness, empathy, and authenticity into every workshop, ride, and icebreaker that they led. Together, we shaped Gravel Camp into a supportive, encouraging, and vulnerable space where everyone could ask questions, make mistakes, and learn from each other without hesitation or anxiety.

As Friday afternoon rolled along and the official start of Gravel Camp drew closer, I was practically vibrating with excitement, as I directed the loading and send-off of vehicles filled with bikes, food, and supplies needed for Camp. It was hot, it was sunny, and the anticipation was palpable. After my co-organizer and I filled her van with a thousand dollars worth of food, we found ourselves behind a car with two bikes on the back, clearly en route to Gravel Camp. We waved furiously out of both windows for miles trying to get their attention. Finally, we pulled up next to them and screamed with unabashed elation into their open window: “GRAVEL CAMP!”

A steady trickle of campers from all over the East — Philly, Boston, DC, Burlington — made their way to Camp Cedarcrest. They were enveloped by the swampy heat of the August afternoon and welcomed by new and old friends with cold popsicles. Folks were well prepared with sweet and salty snacks, beautiful bikes, and an eagerness to get to know each other that made it feel like the first day of school. T-shirts were handed out, promptly cut into crop-tops, and worn. Bikes were admired and shared with big smiles — almost as soon as the compliment was spoken, “I like your bike”, the reply, “Thanks, do you want to ride it?” was offered in response. Test-riding bikes is one thing I always love at events like this, which only is possible when you gather with people close to the same height as you.

As the heat mellowed out, we rounded up the campers for an official welcome. I stood on a picnic table and shared my journey of finding healing and joy through biking and how Gravel Camp came to be. I shared one of my favorite poems (The Thing Is by Ellen Bass), cried, and then we did a giant round of introductions, followed by a slow-mo version of the hokey pokey as the sun began to set around us. It was the perfect blend of tender, silly, vulnerable, and fun — opening into a weekend filled with hard rocks and tender times.

With the rest of our evening, we drank beers by battery-powered candlelight, snacked on popcorn and clementines, and swapped a whole lot of gear. Over the evening, campers chatted and laughed while a sweet sense of peacefulness settled over the camp. Watching people unafraid to ask and get what they needed — gear, a snack, advice, help to unload their things — reinforced the belief I’ve had in the ability of our community to provide for ourselves.

I was woken up early on Saturday by the sun, having slept in my tent without a rain-fly. I pulled on some pants and began to help set up breakfast and plan for the day full of activities. Campers and counselors rolled out of bed one by one. We had forgotten to bring electric kettles, so I made a coffee station outside with camp stoves. Before the planned activities started, the first lessons were learned as campers taught one another how to boil water with the camp stoves. After a quick description of the different workshops and the locations they were at, we began.

I started my day teaching Gravel 101. I was surrounded by bright, fresh faces, eager to learn and practice new skills. People were curious and open to growth, without the hesitation or anxiety of shame. People of all skill levels were ready to take on a new challenge, do their best, and cheer each other on.

The Descending class was up next and brought more of that incredible gravel spirit. Folks truly showed up for themselves and each other to face one of the scariest parts of riding a bike. We talked through the basic skills of descending, and then we all practiced riding down a technical descent. Everyone sent it. As scared, as nervous, as unsure as each person may have been, they rode it. Some screamed, and some needed an extra hand or two, but everyone successfully rode the descent not once, but twice. I feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed the transformation in that hour-long session. Nerves dissipated, trust was leaned into, and with each other — each person was able to grow and ride in ways they couldn’t have before.

After Descending, I held a smaller session focused on how to get the most out of organized rides and races, and then we broke for lunch. After fueling up, we were back into the learning zone. For campers, this was a session on Trail Skills focusing on more advanced skills like cornering, riding over obstacles, and how to do a bunny hop. For me, this session cemented the major lesson I was learning through Gravel Camp — we can do so much more together than we can alone.

We sat in a circle and campers talked about our fears on the bike, what challenged us the most, and how we work through that fear. We each shared skills about building confidence, and getting the motivation to try, fail, and try again. One of the campers related our ideas to Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development”; a concept describing the difference between what we can do alone and what we can do with guidance. Essentially, we can learn and do more when in a supportive and skilled community. That’s when it clicked for me why spaces like Gravel Camp are so important. These spaces do more than just remove barriers in the moment — by creating a community they actually enable us to do more than we can do alone. Through a supportive and skilled community, we laid the groundwork for each participant to go farther and accomplish more together. With people, with trust, and with relationships, there is so much more we can accomplish.

The rest of Saturday was a blur of music, popsicles, tough rides, and amazing Thai food. We succeeded in creating a space that made the impossible possible and made challenges not only surmountable but even enjoyable. I got out of my head, stopped worrying about the little things, and leaned on my community of organizers and friends to fully enjoy this magical event. Not only was Gravel Camp a gathering, a learning experience, and a celebration, but it opened up people’s beliefs about what their bikes could do, what they could do, and what we could do together.

Sunday came too fast. We woke up extra early to eat breakfast before our morning rides. We broke out into 5 different group rides, aimed to meet a variety of paces and riding desires. I co-led a 30-mile gravel grinder up to one of my favorite local spots in West Rock State Park. Other rides stayed closer to Camp, riding around Maltby Lakes and Racebrook Tract. My ride stumbled across tens of squashed watermelons on the road winding up to West Rock, one ride saw a bear and another had a mechanical and campers worked together to successfully convert a bike to single-speed on the trail.

I started my ride off with a tubeless flat in my front tire, which turned into an on-the-trail session on how to put a tube in your previously-tubeless tires. Once that was solved, we were off, laughing and chatting and enjoying the views as we climbed, shredded, and survived the August heat.

As we returned to Camp Cedarcrest, the energy was as thick as the humidity. People were coming off the thrill of a hard ride, returning to good food, good friends, and amazing gear from our sponsors. We wrapped up Gravel Camp without an official closing, which seems fitting. Gravel Camp was just the beginning. The beginning of friendships, of learning, of a community that will continue to grow as people return home and keep finding ways to show up for themselves and each other.

I came to this kind of adventure biking (the weird and fun mix of gravel, mountain biking, and off-road riding that happens when you try to bikepack around the Northeast) in the midst of emotional turmoil. Some very sweet and kind people invited me on any and all of their rides, including a bikepacking trip in Tucson. I was incredibly mentally and physically underprepared when I signed up, and ended up not only facing the limitations of my bike and body but also coming face to face with how low I had sunk in trying to ignore my depression and anxiety.

The next two years had a lot of ups and downs — but most of my ups grew out of my experiences getting out into nature on my bike, making and deepening friendships, and building resilience through consistently challenging myself. I found healing and joy in a growing community of incredible Queer, and BIPOC FTWNB folks who all loved biking and what it gave us. That community grew into the New Haven Chapter of the Radical Adventure Riders (RAR), a national organization that works towards gender inclusivity and racial equity in cycling and the outdoors. Our dream is to create more of these spaces for the people who need them most, following RAR’s mission to provide education, connection, and resources to support FTWNB folks while centering those who are BIPOC. I’ve co-led the New Haven Chapter since early 2020.

I fell more and more in love with biking and what it can do for our minds, bodies, community, and connection with nature. At the same time, as a Queer black woman who grew up poor, I struggled with how inaccessible cycling and alt-cycling culture can be, especially to the people whom I know can benefit most from it.

I believe in passing on the good luck that you get, and am always dreaming of ways to pass on what I’ve learned, what I’ve grown within myself, and the connections and support I’ve gained in my journey as a cyclist. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of the radical and inclusive Bradley Street Bicycle Co-op, taking part and making connections at events like the Rooted Women’s Clinic. I knew that without warm and encouraging spaces, I would not be where I am today. So one day I figured: why doesn’t RAR New Haven host a big workshop, one where I can work with the awesome people that I’ve met and learned from together, we could teach the skills and create space for FTWNB folks to build community and get excited about adventure biking!

I put together a little list in my head of folks with whom I wanted to teach– incredible BIPOC women and nonbinary folks I’d met on my bike journeys. Arya Nam, an international bikepacker who helped me figure out gear for my first bikepacking trip; Izzy Johnson, a black woman mechanic who got me into my first gravel race; Devin Cowens, a RAR ATL community-building superstar; Lydia Moore, a black mechanic, artist and organizer based out of Brooklyn, and Disha Patel, a New Haven local who’s been part of RAR New Haven from the beginning. I reached out, and it became instantly clear that my community had more than enough energy, resources, and knowledge to make this dream a reality.

At every step of the way, I found that by leaning on my community, no challenge was insurmountable. The different aspects of camp came together like magic, and all we had to do was go for it. I learned, both creating camp and being part of it — that we can do more together than we can alone. In community, we can tackle challenges, recover from mistakes, and do more than we ever thought we could by ourselves. For that, I’m so grateful, and I can’t wait to do it again next year.