Back in March we spoke to 37-year-old Jenny Graham about her plan to set a new women’s record for cycling round the world. Now, seven months later, she’s done it. Inverness-based Jenny cycled 18,000 across four continents in 124 days, smashing the previous record by 20 days. Having just arrived home, Coffee Stop chatted to Jenny about her ride of a lifetime. We’re incredibly proud to have been able to support her!
What gave you the energy and confidence to embark on this epic challenge?
JG: I guess I just felt ready for something big this year. I have been training and gaining more and more miles with my rides. My home life was at a point where I could take more time away; my work was ready to give me a sabbatical because I’d been there long enough; and things just started to fall into place. I felt just ready, I felt it was my time. And that feeling stayed with me the whole way round on the ride: I had the feeling that this was exactly what I was meant to be doing and I was exactly in the right place, which is very reassuring because you don’t often get that!
I have been building up to something big, even before I thought about doing this challenge. But once I decided this was what I was going to do, there were still lots of times that I needed friends, the Adventure Syndicate, John Hampshire and family to keep me going. If I started to feel a little low, then I always seemed to get a nice text message or phone call or meeting and I’d be revived again. It took a lot from other people devoting their time and effort and money and resources to get me there, but knowing I had that amount of people behind me made it even more special.
How did you go about route planning and why did you decide to go eastbound?
JG: I decided to go east because I spoke to some sailors and they said the prevailing wind was from the west all over the world, so it made sense to go east. And at the same time as I was thinking about this, Mark Beaumont had gone out and become the fastest person to ride around the world in 78 days. So I spoke to Mark and found out that his team and him had put two years of work into finding the fastest route around the world, so it made sense to follow his route and make use of all that research. I had to change bits here and there to suit my self-supported approach, but essentially, I just followed Mark Beaumont’s route.
Are we allowed to look inside your bags? What did you pack for a ride that was likely going to take you through imaginable weather conditions? And how did you keep your bibs clean?
JG: You wouldn’t want to look in my bags! They’re actually still all packed.
I knew that it was going to be summer in Asia up until Beijing, so my winter stuff — an extra waterproof layer, waterproof trousers, overshoes, overmitts and a Buff — was shipped to a bike shop in Australia to pick up. When I got to Perth I collected it, which was just as well because there was nothing but rain from the minute I arrived in Australia, so I was really glad. I’m quite good at packing light but it’s still difficult because you’re going to be on the other side of the world. I just thought I would never be that far from a bike shop if things get really tricky.
I had two pairs of bibs with me. I carried a little container of shampoo/soap and that lasted all the way through Asia to Australia. I would just wash one bib, dry one; wash one, dry one. Sometimes I would change twice a day if it was really hot. I would put clean bibs on every day and I would wash them in the toilets at garages or service stations. It was much easier to wash them in warmer places; in winter it would take a couple of days to clean off. But at least you don’t get as sweaty as you do in hotter countries, so your bibs don’t get as dirty and uncomfortable.
The sleeping bag was difficult in the colder countries, though. I didn’t have another sleeping bag to use, so I decided to just wear another layer but still use my summer sleeping bag. I shivered going to sleep and waking up a lot of nights, so I’m not convinced it was the best thing to do, but I’m still here, so it was fine.
Did you stick to a specific sleeping-riding pattern? Did you give yourself days/nights that allowed for a tiny bit more luxury such as occasionally sleeping in an actual bed?
JG: I think it was quite a luxurious trip, actually! I stayed in more hotels and motels than I have previously in my entire life. I haven’t counted them all up. It was due to be a third of the trip in hotels but I think it was a bit more than that. If I cycled to a place and it was 2am I would often just take the hotel. After a couple of months of cycling you’re absolutely knackered, so having a bed and washing facilities makes a big difference to your ride the next day.
I probably got my sleeping pattern best towards the end in Alaska. Naturally I ride really well at night and I can easily ride until 3am or 4am, but I need four or five hours sleep and by then the day has already started. In Asia it was absolutely impossible to have any kind of routine because it’s just bonkers. I started trying to get a routine started in Australia, but it was so wet and cold it was worth just riding extra hours if it meant I could get to a motel.
One time I slept outside for three nights in a row and every day it rained, and every night it dropped to minus three or minus four, so I was lying there in my sleeping bag soaking and freezing, trying to camp under trees. It wears you down so much, you just can’t maintain that. If I was riding for just a week, it would be totally different, but when you’re two months in to a ride like this, it grinds you down.
Ideally, my optimum routine would be riding from 8am until 2am and I’d have breaks in the middle of that. So I’d try to ride for 13 to 15 hours a day. I seemed to work pretty well to that routine, but that was easier said than done sometimes.
Which countries would you say were most respectful of you as a cyclist on the road and which stretches did you feel uncomfortable on?
JG: Overall, if I was out in the countryside and in rural areas, then people were so courteous. Then, if I was in cities and urban areas — just like over here, really — then I had to be fully aware of what’s going on because people are just so busy they aren’t always watching out for cyclists.
East of Moscow for about 1,200 or 1,500 miles was really bad, I had so many near misses, they left just no room for cyclists and there were tonnes and tonnes of trucks. But then, once you get into Siberia the roads are lovely and the traffic is fine. In Mongolia they couldn’t have been nicer. In Russia they would beep the horn to say, ‘move, you’re going to get run over’. But in Mongolia a beep of a horn would come with someone hanging out a car window waving at me with a big smile. They were so happy to see a cyclist it was hilarious. So the difference between Russia and then into Mongolia couldn’t have been starker. Coming across Alaska and Canada, the traffic was great. Actually, after Russia, I think I had a better perspective on traffic generally!
Any cultural surprises in terms of how you were perceived and treated?
JG: Very much so. In Siberia, Mongolia and in particular China, the reaction was hilarious. It seemed like they had never seen anyone like me before. ‘It’s a white woman on a bike! What’s she doing?’ In China, especially, people would get their phones out to film me whenever I walked into somewhere, even with my helmet on and greasy hair!
People were so warm and welcoming I just didn’t expect it. I expected to be blown away by them, I didn’t expect them to be blown away by me. I thought they would have seen people like me travelling in their country before. Women would come up to me and start squeezing my thighs at service stations; it was really funny. Getting used to other people’s comfort zones and how close they come up to you was very cool, too.
Where did you get the best food and where did eating/refueling become a struggle?
JG: Heading towards China, it was really hard to refuel. Inner Mongolia is so remote, shops look like every other building there and you’d never know. I wouldn’t know if it was somebody’s house or a restaurant and quite often it was both, or somebody just opening a room to sell stuff from. So it was really hard. In Russia I could learn the word for ‘food’ or ‘drink’ or ‘shop’, and I could gradually come to understand signs, but I had no clue what I could eat and nobody spoke English across Mongolia.
But when I finally did manage to refuel I have so many happy memories of people’s kindness who helped me and took me in, and nobody would accept any money for the help or food they gave me. Every place had something different going for it. One night I got something from a service station and I was so hungry, and that was an amazing meal. Equally, I went to a Chinese restaurant in Australia or New Zealand and had some vegetarian dishes and the meal was so nice. Actually, I went to a few all-you-can eat places in cities and pigged out on the vegetable sections.
You faced some mechanical issues (as would be expected on such an epic trip!) as well as physical ones early on. How did you cope with setbacks and was there ever any moments of doubt about being able to complete the ride or achieve the record?
JG: At first I found setbacks very difficult to deal with as I was on a mission and left myself little room for having problems. I was so optimistic, I’d given myself just four days for problems, crossing the entire world!
That was hard to deal with mentally at first. I was getting frustrated with myself but I guess my initial target of 110 days and the existing record of 144 days had a lot of buffer room in there. So I never felt the record was out of reach but I was very aware that it wouldn’t take much for that time to slip away, and I never took it for granted. I knew I had to keep my eye on the ball and just keep chipping away at what I was doing.
What would your advice be to any new cyclists who you’ve inspired to dream big and who are now perhaps looking to venture beyond their local lanes and trails?
JG: I couldn’t even talk about this challenge last Christmas. I was almost embarrassed to feel that I could do this, that it was for other people to do. ‘Who do you think you are Jenny, for thinking you could do this?’ I really had to battle with myself for standing up and saying I thought I could do it.
It wasn’t about doubts in my own head — if I could have just sneaked off and done this, it would have been fine — but planning it and telling people what I was aiming to do was really scary. I had to be aware that that was just fear of failure and fear of being judged, and I’m not really happy having either of those things rule my thoughts. So I had to step away from the emotion and understand it wasn’t acceptable to think of that.
What helped that was telling people. It wasn’t even telling people who thought I could do it, sometimes I told people and I knew by their reaction that they didn’t think I could do it. Having both those types of people is important: I got strength from those who believed in me; and I had someone to fight against with those who didn’t believe in me.
By putting you goal out there, you’re sowing the seeds. And once I’d done that, there was no way I could back out. I’d told the universe and I had to see it through. Another thing about saying it out loud, you’d be surprised by the number of people who say, ‘What a great idea, can I be involved?’ And then you’ve started the momentum of something happening. So don’t wait for it to happen, you make it happen.
What’s next for Jenny Graham?
JG: Well, as we speak I’m on a train going to Aberdeen and then I’ll be home with my family, which will be so nice. I think the coming year will be so exciting for me. I’m not sure what will happen, but I think this trip will have such an impact on my life, I’m intrigued to see what will come of it. I’ve given myself until Christmas before I make any other big plans because I’m knackered, so — first — I’m going to get lots of rest!