Photo: Charlotte Barnes
With a raft of impressive endurance cycling titles to her name (including World 24-Hr Time Trial champion), you might assume Jasmijn Muller has decades of bike racing under her belt. In fact, she only got into cycling aged 31. Seven years later, in 2017, the 38-year-old ‘Dutchie’ took on the immense challenge of breaking the speed record for cycling from Land’s End to John o’ Groats (850 miles), and was on schedule for success until illness forced her to withdraw. This year she’s back to settle the score.
In the first instalment of this two-part Q&A, Jasmijn chats through her cycling background, LEJOG attempt and learnings from last year. Plus, don’t miss her clothing recommendations for comfort on the bike – if anyone knows what works over long distance cycling, it’s Jasmijn!
Let’s rewind to your childhood – were you sporty growing up?
I came to sports quite late and wasn’t part of any sports club growing up. Like all Dutch children I would ride my bicycle to school, but it was a method of transport, not a sport and certainly no long distances. My hobbies were ballet and music.
How did you get into cycling?
It wasn’t until 2010, aged 31, when I started working in London as a management consultant. A client at work had used cycling as a means to recover from oesophagus cancer and had organised a 100-mile charity ride from Penrith in the Lake District to Warrington. A colleague and I joined the merry bunch of cyclists. I didn’t consider myself a cyclist back then, but I happened to have an old bike – with down tube shifters and about 6 or 7 gears – and was up for a challenge.
At the time I didn’t know how to fix a puncture, was scared to use the modern clipless pedal system, struggled up Shap (the main climb on the route) and had white knuckles descending. I didn’t know how to hold a wheel or ride safely in a group and was flabbergasted by how smoothly my colleague (and current boss) could move between the group of stragglers I was in and the faster group at the front to warn them we were dropping off a bit. But I made the 100 miles without any training and absolutely loved it.
That ride was a proper milestone and will stay with me forever. During the ride, the client who organised it was easily one of the strongest riders of all us, yet 3 months later the cancer returned to hit him hard in the brain, and he died. We raised £10,000 for Cancer Research UK that time, and ever since I’ve continued to raise funds for Cancer Research UK.
Did your cycling step up a gear after that?
After that I purchased my first modern road bike (a white Eddy Merckx with a triple chainset) through the Cycle-to-Work scheme and did various sportives around the UK. It was a great way to see more of the country without having to worry about route planning or getting lost. By summer 2011, I was riding the 153-mile long Flat Out in the Fens (the longest sportive in the UK) and I joined Kingston Wheelers, my local cycling club. In March 2012, I felt brave and strong enough to ride Lon Las Cymru, a 250-mile long challenging route from Holyhead to Cardiff, all on my own (admittedly I had to walk up a few hills) and by summer 2012 I was able to hang on the back of some of the faster club runs. On shorter rides the guys would either drop me or I would need to fight hard to hang onto their wheels, but on longer rides I found the tables turned in my favour.
How soon did you discover you had the makings of a great ultra-distance cyclist?
After some brief and unsuccessful flirtations with road/crit racing – I ended up with a broken spoke in my first race and broken hand during my second race due to lack of skills, awareness and tactics – I found my niche and my edge in ultra-endurance challenges with a win in the women’s solo category (and 10th place ranking overall) at Le Mans 24 Hours Velo in 2013.
Since then I have continued pushing my boundaries, resulting in the Best British All-Rounder title in 2014; the fastest average over 25 mile, 50 mile and 100-mile time trials in the UK – still one of the funniest achievements as a Dutchie! I also became National 12-hour TT Champion in 2015 and National and World 24-Hour Time Trail Champion in 2017.
In 2017, I also broke and held the Zwift distance record (1828km over 60 hours) for a little while, until it was broken by the next kickass woman (Jessica Belisle in Canada who even kept going for 5 days!). I’ve done a lot of unsupported long distance cycling too, including the 1400km London-Edinburgh-London and numerous long randonnees, riding through the night for distances up to 600km. On all of these rides I find myself to be one of the fastest finishers.
How did the LEJOG record idea come about?
After becoming a National and World Champion over 24 hours, a logical step (in my crazy mind, at least) was to take the challenge up to the next level and see how I could do over 48 hours and beyond. That’s one of the reasons why I set my heart on the Land’s End to John o’Groats record (840 miles; 52 hours and 45 minutes) as well as the 1000 mile record (64 hours and 38 minutes). My first attempt at these records was in September 2017. I didn’t succeed, but don’t give up that easily and will have another go in early July 2018.
How did having to abandon your 2017 LEJOG attempt through illness affect you?
I was pretty down about having to pull out after 370 miles on my first attempt due to gut issues. I knew it had taken some of the past record holders several attempts to break the record, but to fail because of an issue that could so easily have been avoided (i.e. tailored nutrition and proper adaptation) was literally gutting.
Racing the Revolve 24 event (a circuit-based 24-hour race) 10 days after the failed record attempt, along with the World 24hr TT championships another 6 weeks later, provided perfect opportunities for me to test out a new nutrition plan. Winning both races in challenging circumstances (freezing cold and foggy for Revolve24 and very hot for the World 24) was a really good way to regain some confidence, both in my own abilities and in a new approach.
Success and failure is very clear-cut for a record attempt. You either break it or you don’t.
How challenging is the logistical side of such a long record attempt?
Planning and executing a record attempt the length of the country is a massive and daunting task. People can tell you things, but sometimes you don’t fully understand what they mean until you’ve experienced it for yourself. Much of a record attempt is down to good planning. Some of it is down to luck or elements that are not fully within your control (e.g. weather, traffic conditions, availability of support crew, work deadlines etc); but there are other elements I can most definitely control and improve.
Your second LEJOG attempt is next month. Will you do anything differently?
The main thing I’m doing differently this year is delegating much more and reducing my stress levels where possible. This is helped by having savings left over from last year and having an extra year to save up. Crew members know better what’s involved and required, so I’m no longer trying to communicate with everyone. There are all sort of discussions happening between the crew members to sort things out, without me even being aware of it. And it feels good to let go. It feels good to trust them and it feels good to focus on my areas of responsibility: to make sure I am physically and mentally as fit as I can be for the record attempt come early July.
Are you training differently this time around?
Shortly after the first record attempt in September 2017, I started working with a new coach who is also part of my crew, and this has increased my accountability and compliance to execute his training plan for me rather than my random mad plans my previous coach often would give in to. I still have a lot to learn, but I enjoy how Rob Lee is slowly teaching me about consistency, specificity and compliance – all areas I didn’t really do so well in before.
Whilst the goal remains the same, the approach is somewhat different this year. Last year I got side-tracked by other races and challenges I also wanted to fit in. I won four 24-hour races, including UK and World titles, set a new PB for a 12-hour TT, was the first female finisher at London-Edinburgh-London, set a new distance record in Zwift, secured a new exciting job and promotion.
This year, LEJOG will be the main goal and the only goal. There may be other races I take part in, but only if they contribute to the main goal and if their timing fits with the record attempt. Race execution and lessons for LEJOG will be more important than placings.
Do the conditions make a difference to your attempt?
Last year I set off in sub-optimal conditions for a record attempt. This year, I won’t start until the wind is favourable for at least a good chunk of my route. That said, the reality is that I am mostly self-funded for this record attempt and not able to pay my crew. Neither do I know a bunch of retired or unemployed people who are fully flexible. As such, we need to find a balance between crew availability, cost and weather, and settle on some form of compromise that also factors in the logistics of arranging rental vehicles and accommodation in Cornwall during July. Then again, the perfect conditions are unlikely to materialise for anyone, regardless of how flexible you can be with time or money.
What do you find the hardest aspect of a challenge like LEJOG?
Last year, the biggest challenge was managing my stress levels. I was experiencing financial, emotional, work, planning and physical stress in the build up to LEJOG and that was before I even pushed off the start line.
Physically, I was – and still am – confident that I can break the record, albeit with a bit of help from the weather gods. Before the gut issues set in, I was still 2 hours ahead of schedule. Mentally, I felt quite well prepared last year, but this year in many ways I’m in a better position still, if only for the fact I now know much better what I’m getting myself into.
Under what circumstance would you stop the attempt this year?
Last year, we discussed scenarios with my crew under what conditions they could stop the attempt, such as me getting too sleep deprived or too far behind schedule etc. We didn’t have any protocols for when I was allowed to pull the plug, as nobody – including me – expected me to do that. In hindsight, I sometimes wonder if I could have kept going and I could have turned things around last year.
This year, the decision to quit is out of my hands. I will need to keep going whether I want to or not. We now know much better how to handle and avoid gut issues. There may be other issues, but I can only stop if the paramedic deems it unsafe or my coach reckons there is no way I can physically achieve the record anymore. As long as they believe in me, I will continue to pedal.
Lynne Biddulph, the current record holder, was down on schedule for an awful long way when she set out for the record in 2002. She managed to turn it around when the conditions turned in her favour, but I think she was already in Scotland by then. Mentally, it takes quite a lot to be told that you are down on schedule for all that time and keep faith you can still do it.
As part of your LEJOG training you spent over 60 consecutive hours on a turbo for your Zwift distance record – yet you said you felt you had more in the tank?
If it wasn’t for a badly infected saddle sore that took a week of strong Spanish antibiotics to heal, I would have continued. I sometimes wonder about having another go, but I don’t think our neighbours in the flat below us would be as understanding for a second time around and I’m not sure any of the crew would be up for hearing the whining noise of the Wahoo Kickr for days on end again. So, whilst there may be more in the tank and it was actually quite a fun thing to do, I don’t think I will have another go any time soon at the Zwift distance record.
It’s also important to remember that it never was a goal in its own right. It served a purpose. It was part of my preparations for the LEJOG record. I still enjoy some training sessions using Zwift, and even use it from time to time to ride with and chat to my sister in Dubai, but you won’t see me doing another Zwift record attempt.
You’ve spent a LOT of time on a bike – what kit have you found most comfortable for cycling?
It is all about the contact points:
My favourite saddle is a Cobb V-Flow Max. Saddles are very personal, but this one just works for me. Cobb have a very long (60 day) try-out period so you can thoroughly test their saddles. They also really understand relieving pressure from soft tissue when spending hours in the TT position and have really cracked how that all works out with the female anatomy. That is a genuine endorsement, by the way. I am not sponsored by Cobb and have tried a few saddles. Unfortunately, with saddles it really is a matter of trial and error.
I have wide feet and like a bit more wiggle room in the toe box. The number one thing for long distance is shoes that are slightly bigger than your usual size. Your feet will swell up over time, so a little extra room is very important. I like the Specialized Zante shoes for training rides (comfortable and reasonably priced). For shorter TTs I use Specialized S-Works Sub 6 shoes which have laces and are quite aerodynamic with a stiff sole. I will probably use my old Zantes for the record attempt, unless I can find some money to buy a new pair of shoes that I can still wear-in on time. Again, I am not sponsored by Specialized.
I like using bibshorts rather than normal shorts which dig into my belly. Wearing bibshorts does require a little bit of practice for quick pee stops though. I have a tried a few bibshorts that came up with clever solutions for this issue, but weren’t that quick or comfortable, so I stick with the simple but effective rolling up one leg method (which I first rehearsed in the bathroom). I really like the bibshorts from sponsor Le Col, but have also enjoyed wearing ALE and Assos bibshorts. Ultimately, the right fit is the most important thing. You can have the best quality bibshorts with the most amazing chamois, but if they are too big and there simply is too much material, it will chafe you up and make things very uncomfortable very quickly.
If there was one piece of equipment I could wish for to make my cycling more comfortable, it would be electronic shifting. Certainly for 24-hour circuit races or an attempt the length of the country, you are at risk of developing RSI simply from all those shifts. Unfortunately, I can’t quite afford it at the moment, but it is on top of my wishlist for the future challenges.
You’ve done a lot of ultra-endurance cycling. Do you think you’ve reached your body’s endurance limit yet?
No way. I am only just getting started!
Look out for part two of Jasmijn’s Q&A later this month!
You can follow Jasmijn’s LEJOG training and attempt by visiting her challenge website, https://www.lejogrecord.co.uk, her own website, www.duracellbunnyonabike.com, and by following her on social media via www.twitter.com/jasmijnmuller1, www.twitter.com/lejogrecord and www.instagram.com/jasmijnmuller.