It took Jenny Graham just 124 days to cycle solo and unsupported round the world last year, riding an average of 156 miles a day to cover the 18,000 mile distance. It was a remarkable feat that smashed the existing record by almost three weeks and saw 37-year-old Jenny encounter bears, kangaroos and the kindness of strangers as she navigated her way through 16 countries.
Jenny fills me in on her epic journey around the world by bike below, along with her must-have kit and upcoming plans with The Adventure Syndicate. But if you want to hear more, please go and see her Kendal Mountain Festival Tour talk on 5 April in Penrith.
You’ve been cycling competitively for five years. What events were your stepping stones to taking on the round the world record?
The Strathpuffer (24-hour mountain bike race in the Scottish Highlands) was my first mountain bike event with four friends from Velocity Café. I was training to do the Highland Trail 550 and had talked everyone into doing it. We had a quad team that year and I think we might have even come first. We had a great time. Then I did the Highland Trail, and straight after, I went away by myself and cycled the Haute Route backwards. It’s meant to be Chamonix to Zermatt, but I did it the opposite way because I’d been climbing in Italy. That was actually the first time I’d cycled alone abroad. It was amazing, but really hard going. I learned so much from it.
A few years later, (having done the Strathpuffer and Highland Trail several more times) I did the Arizona 750 from Mexico to Utah with a mandatory carry of your bike through the Grand Canyon – it was absolutely incredible. And I’d done the Cairngorm route two or three times in amongst that and endless amounts of trips with my friends and by myself all over the country. The Strathpuffer got me into the racing, the Highland Trail really got me testing my endurance and the trips abroad and my solo travel really instilled in me that I could actually travel alone, abroad, by bicycle.
At what point did you have the idea for round the world?
I’d been pushing my endurance over that last five years and I was always fascinated by what I could put my body and mind through. I always thought it was really impressive that every time you thought you didn’t have any more, actually, you did. So I was in this mindset of wondering what on earth would be next, what I could be capable of, and at the same time I went away to an Adventure Syndicate training camp and met John Hampshire. He’s a coach, and at the end of the training camp, he offered me a year’s free coaching. At that point, I was like, ‘Oh my god’ – I’d never ever had a coach; I wasn’t in the position to get a coach. And at that point, I knew I had to make something really special of it.
I wouldn’t say the record attempt was a lifelong dream or anything, but I’d been thinking of it for a while. I’ve always thought that was the way that I would travel – by bike, around the world. And the record thing, whenever I heard people talking about records, a lot of people were like, ‘I’d hate that’ but I was like, ‘Nah, I wouldn’t mind that’ – I’ve always been open to it and the opportunities that come up.
What was your training like and how did you fit it in alongside a fulltime job?
Oh my goodness, it was epic. So I was training around 20 hours a week, I had a fulltime job, I’m a mum… I wasn’t very good at any of those things! (laughs). I had endless amount of planning to do and preparing to do and kit trials to do, and I just got away with it and no more (laughs). I think that was the hardest part of the whole thing, keeping that all together and not being in meltdown mode. I definitely wasn’t being a functioning adult for quite a lot of the time towards the start date.
What was a typical day like during your round the world cycle?
I would tend to get up with the sun, unless I was in Asia when the sun was up at 4am. I’d be on the road by 8/9am, bit earlier in Asia, and then it would just depend on the part of the world I was in – how far apart the stops were. In some parts, you’d get up and have to cycle 50 miles to get coffee, and you knew it would be another 100 miles before you’d get anything else. Those days were really easy to plan for; you knew you just had to sit on the bike. When you were passing places all the time, that was harder, that was like, ‘I wonder if we should stop there…?’
I’d get up and ride to get breakfast and then sort myself out over coffee and then ride again until lunch or dinner, depending where I was. Normally, I’d ride through the night, so I’d be stopping anywhere between midnight and 4am, depending on what time I’d started. I was always aiming to get 15 hours of riding a day – I didn’t, but I always aimed for it.
Where did you sleep?
I tended to sleep out on the hills in bushes, in toilet blocks, in pipes under the ground, in bus shelters, in old buildings, under bridges… anywhere that was out of the way.
You only allocated a handful of days for unforeseen problems. Did you ever feel under pressure?
(Laughs) Yes, I felt that tremendously – but not for the record. It wasn’t the record pressure, but the pressure of my 110 days [target] was massive on me, especially when I knew that I was going over it and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I think I’d accounted for six days’ faffage, but yeah, it didn’t work like that. It was unrealistic, but that sounds quite like me! I found it hard to let go, so if it was a shorter day, I wouldn’t enjoy that, I couldn’t rest, I would just be anxious about keeping going and staying on target.
You were totally self-supported. Were you always able to find food when you needed it?
No, I wasn’t always able to find food when I needed it. Depending where I was in the world, I’d try and carry a meal and snacks to get me through. But I didn’t always get it right. I was so sick of food that sometimes I’d leave a shop [without food] even when I knew I had to get supplies in it, feeling: ‘Ugh, this is disgusting, I’ll get something somewhere else’ – but never did get anything else. Those days were really annoying because I could have helped it.
And then other days it took longer than expected to find food or you didn’t realise that the next place you were going to didn’t have a shop – especially in New Zealand, actually. Going over the Gobi with massive distances between places, you’re kind of expecting it so you’re always, always taking enough with you, enough water. But in New Zealand, I didn’t expect it. And in the South Island, I properly messed up with my food because a stop I thought was going to be there, wasn’t.
What was the traffic like in Russia? Certain stretches of roads are pretty hairy?
Russia was actually really nice, I really enjoyed my time there so I’m worried I’m giving it a bad press. A lot of the people there was so lovely and I really liked the vibe, the sense of humour, stuff like that. But the traffic was crazy – cycling east for 1200-1500 miles, it was really, really silly. It was thick, thick, thickwith lorries, and no hard shoulder; nowhere for you to go, so it was a pretty tricky time to get through and I decided to ride through the night instead. I really enjoy riding at night for one, and knew I would be better seen, and I’d see the trucks. And it was less busy.
How cold and wet did you get – were you putting on cold, wet gear in the mornings?
Australia was so cold and wet it was unbelievable. It was really cold at night, so you’d get really rained on all day and then it’d go down to -3°C or -4°C at night time. It was freezing and that would just wear away at you constantly. At one point going through Australia, I put new insoles in and I bought a new pair of socks (laughs). Up until then, I’d been wearing the same pair of socks, and this new pair of socks was just going to change my life. I had tiny little down slippers that I could wear at night time, so I was wearing something dry on my feet at night time – but these cycling socks felt like a major luxury.
Anyone who’s done this stuff knows that [putting on wet gear in the mornings] is part of it. The mornings – you’ve got to dig deep, it only lasts for a minute, you get it on, you start cycling, you talk yourself into the coffee you’re going to have, and it does pass, but it’s definitely quite a thing when you’re in it.
How did you manage your tiredness and what strategies did you use to coax yourself to keep going? Did you use counting games/making deals with yourself etc?
Yeah, I did all that. I counted relentlessly. I had two computers up front and I was always getting my averages. I could have just flicked the button for my averages, but I used to work out how fast I was going, how many miles I was going to do that day; quite often I’d forget and then come back to it. That was really fun if you had a tailwind, that game, I could play it all day. You couldn’t play it if you weren’t doing very well (laughs) as that would wear you down.
I always made deals with myself that I would get back into bed early if I’d just got out of it. And I always made deals with myself that I could have a bit longer somewhere, but I rarely did. I would play lots of audio books of other people suffering (laughs) – so all of the Antarctica stories. I listened to them so many times. I was like ‘Yes, this is what I need’ – people who were really suffering, not riding to the next Costa (laughs). But finishing was never a question of ‘Will I?’ Once I’d started there was never a question of ‘Maybe I can’t do it’. It was ‘This is what I’m doing and I’m going to do it as fast as I can, so I’ll just keep going’.
You came across bears, moose, kangaroos… how did you feel about wildlife during your ride?
Oh my goodness, wildlife is so scary. The kangaroos were just out of the world, like nothing I’d ever seen before. And [they were] just massive in the west of Australia. I was really worried about their behaviour; I didn’t look into them before I left, I just thought they’d be really cute. But the bears massively took it out of me because I was so tired by the time I reached Alaska that they became another thing I was mentally dealing with. Carrying on riding once it got dark was really, really hard. Because I was petrified.
How did locals react to you and did you experience lots of kindness from strangers?
All the time. Honestly, it was just incredible. I had dot watchers, I think I must have had about 15 dotwatchers coming out to me. Anywhere I went, people would come and chat to me, if they could, especially in Canada – oh my goodness everyone is so chatty in Canada, so, so friendly. I didn’t have any bad reactions.
The biggest kindness the whole way round the world was definitely from bike shops. I got so helped by bike shops on so many occasions. It was just really incredible. I feel so lucky to have experienced that – eight different bike shops I visited, and they just scooped me up and treated me with such kindness. Filled me full of coffee, high-fives, cuddles, sorted my bike out really quickly.
Riding 18,000 miles and an average of 156 miles a day, did you get sore?
I was sore and achy at different points of it. Now, I can’t remember it really, but at the time, I got aches and pains and then they’d go. I remember one day riding thinking, ‘Oh this is it, that’s my Achilles going now’ and then it would be absolutely fine, and I’d totally forget about it. I’d have to give myself a good stretch sometimes and roll myself out.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
Yes, I am. I’m co-directing The Adventure Syndicate and we’re sponsored by Leighday, Endura, Apidura, and riding Juliana Bikes.
What are your favourite items of kit?
I think my dynohub. I was cycling [round the world] on a Shand bike with Wheelsmith carbon deep section wheels, and fitted on the front was this Son Dynohub which I hooked up to a sinewave front light, which has a USB charger in the back of it. It worked like a dream. In the practices it failed and failed and failed and I just wasn’t getting it right, but when I was out there I always had front and back lights, and I could always charge. 10 hours of riding could charge up one of the 5000 battery packs, which I was using to keep my phone and GPS charged, so that was really cool.
And I had this exposure light, it was a front and back light, so I could have it on my helmet and switch between whichever one I was needing the most.
What’s on the horizon for the rest of the year?
Well, Lee Craigie and I are going to be riding from the north of Scotland to the south of England for a week in May for Match the Miles with The Adventure Syndicate. We’re putting it out there to the whole country, to schools, workplaces, bunches of friends, to get a team together and collectively, in your team, try and match the miles that Lee and I are riding each day. We’re planning on doing 150 miles a day in a team of two, so that’s 300 miles a day and we’re putting it out there for people to beat us. It will be very interactive; we’ll have a spot tracker so you can track us, it will be on social media, it will be a race between schools, between work places, if that’s what you want to do. So that’s quite exciting.
And I’ll be doing the Highland Trail later that month, then I’m going with a bunch of friends to Colorado to ride bikes and maybe race out there. Lee’s racing, so the Adventure Syndicate are going to be out there. I don’t know whether I’ll race… there are so many cool things to do out there, and I’m not sure racing is at the top of my agenda this year!
You can buy tickets to Jenny’s talk in Penrith on Friday 5 April as part of the Kendal Mountain Festival Tour here. Go, go, go!
Follow Jenny on social media via www.twitter.com/jennygrahamis and keep abreast of her adventures with The Adventure Syndicate via www.facebook.com/theadventuresyndicateand www.twitter.com/adventuresynd.