Lee Craigie is Scottish mountain biker, endurance cyclist and co-founder of The Adventure Syndicate, a collective of female endurance cyclists who aim to increase levels of self-belief and confidence – especially in women and girls – through inspiring stories, an encouraging community, workshops and training.
Lee raced XC Mountain Bike for Scotland in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and for GB in the World and European Championships. In 2016 she was UK 24 Hour Mountain Bike Champion, and has ridden the Highland Trail 550, the Trans Pyrenees mtb race and the 2750 mile self-supported Tour Divide race. She has also ridden, off-road and fully self supported, from Geneva to Nice on a fat bike.
Lee is passionate about encouraging others to ride. She has helped re engage countless young people who have been excluded from school through Cycletherapy, a Scottish mountain bike project. More recently she led a group of teenage girls on an overnight bike packing adventure, and coached four 13-year old school girls through the Strathpuffer 24 hour endurance mtb race in January.
With funding secured from the Sporting Equality Fund, in 2018 Lee and Adventure Syndicate colleague Paula Regener will be working with five schools across Scotland. The Inspire, Encourage and Enable Programme will identify teenage girls at each school who will train for and take part in a bikepacking expedition, lead by Lee and the team, in the summer. The aim is to change the girls’ relationship to exercise and outdoor activities permanently, resulting in improved self-esteem, resilience and confidence. Meanwhile, the Match the Miles Challenge, during which Adventure Syndicaters will ride for one week while schools try to collectively match the daily mileage, aims to engage all pupils and offer future bikepacking opportunities.
AM: How did you get into long distance cycling and mtb?
LC: When I was a kid, cycling was my emancipation, I would disappear for hours on my bike pushing the boundaries of what I felt I was capable of and nudging the edges of where I was allowed to travel independently. As an adult, I continued to use my mtb to practice independence and self-reliance and, as a result, got fit and able without actually “training”. When I retired form xc racing in 2014, I was 36 and had a lot of miles in my legs. I was done with the horrible max effort training required to stay at the head of the xc game, but I found I could keep going steadily for a very long time with the experience I had. I also fell in with a bad crowd! Emily Chappell, with her round the world credentials, encouraged me to go further and further while I encouraged her to go faster and faster. Out of this mutual respect and collaboration, the Adventure Syndicate was born and we began attracting all sorts of interesting characters who now all encourage and support one another to push the boundaries of what we all think we are capable of. It’s a good thing and a bad thing!
AM: What is the appeal of endurance cycling for you?
LC: It has become my meditation. I used to try and sit still and calm my busy brain with breathing exercises before I realized that I needed to move to let stress and thoughts all shake down into some kind of order. The shorter more intense, technical riding is lots of fun and requires a level of focus that can be quite therapeutic in itself but I find those long distances filled with repetitive motion allows a different kind of meditative state to take place. The miles can slip by while my brain chemistry sorts itself out.
I’m also constantly fascinated by the distance it’s possible to cover by just keeping the pedals turning. I don’t have to go fast, I just have to keep going and when I do the world shrinks, distances feel manageable and I’m left with a sense of control, competence and contentment.
AM: And what has it taught you?
LC: That we are capable of more than we think? There’s an Icelandic saying that goes roughly like “When you think you are absolutely done and cannot take another step you’re actually only half way to your limit”.
It’s also taught me that there are characteristics not traditionally associated with achieving athletic greatness that we should be celebrating more. Our world likes to measure success against power. Business, politics, academia and sport all encourage aggression to achieve “success”. Individuals win by causing others to lose, we think black or white, strong or weak, dominate or submit. But patience, collaboration, remaining in tune with your body and the natural environment (generally not being a dick, my personal mission statement!) can actually help you go further and faster if you want to stick to the race analogy. I think it’s time we started celebrating these characteristics and stop thinking of them as the soft option. These are the performance enhancers of our future, in sport and every other aspect of life. There’s more than one way to measure success.
AM: On the subject of being capable of more than we think, what do you consider your greatest achievement as a competitive rider?
LC: My performance on The Highland Trail 550. This was when I realized that pushing my body hard didn’t have to mean being unkind and out of touch with myself. By remaining relaxed and focusing on the present, even when it was uncomfortable, meant I spent no time wishing away time or distance and as a result, genuinely enjoyed the ride. Even the sleep deprivation was interesting (in an uncomfortable way!). By staying in the moment and chatting to myself like I was a caring friend, I was able to control what was going on in my head in a way I’ve never managed before. I stayed up at the front of the race with four other guys all the way to the end. After the finish I realized I had missed a section of trail towards the end of the ride and was disqualified which was a blow at the time but very quickly, I discovered it didn’t matter. That ride was magical and revealed to me how much unknown potential there is in us all for great things and real strength.
AM: Can you give us three top tips for riders who would like to get into endurance riding?
LC: Let go of any expectations you might have of yourself, negative or positive. Every experience will teach you something if you remain open to it.
Find your people, even if you like riding alone. We do not live in a vacuum and we are all motivated by others who have gone before us to a greater or lesser degree. Own it and recognize what is personal motivation and what is an attempt to prove something to others.
Learn when to push through discomfort and what to stop and sort. This takes time on the bike and a deep sense of self-awareness to master. I’m still getting it wrong.
AM: What motivated you to start the Adventure Syndicate?
LC: Emily and I were sick of the way the media continues to represent women in sport, and particularly in cycling. We wanted to stand up and shout “Hey! We are not just one big homogeneous group. We are one half of the population so expect diversity please.” It’s totally fine to love pink and ride shopping bikes to cafes but that’s just one woman’s style and if that’s all people see then that’s all girls will aspire to and it’s all boys will expect women to be. We wanted to offer an alternative sporting role model for everyone and suggest to all those brand marketing guys that maybe gender shouldn’t be the main concern when it comes to producing quality bikes and clothing.
AM: You’ve been a ground breaker in both competitive riding and mentoring work with young people: which do you found most fulfilling and why?
LC: I couldn’t have done one without the other. Bike racing is such an introspective, selfish thing to do that without the time spent thinking about and focusing on the needs of others, I think I might not have liked myself very much. That said, racing gives you such a sense of confidence and self assurance that you become a naturally engaging character for young people who might be finding it hard to relate to other adults. I think the fact that I was taking them mountain biking helped too! The feeling of winning a race and that of getting a young person to the bottom of a descent they were a bit nervous of attempting are very similar feelings.
AM: You have talked about the joy of ‘Type2 fun’ (something that is not fun at the time but retrospectively becomes the best thing you’ve ever done) – which event that you have ridden has been your best example of this and why?
LC: The Strathpuffer is proper Type2 fun: 24 hours of mountain bike racing in the dead of winter in the Scottish Highlands. My favourite way to race the ‘puffer is in a team of four which essentially means you start every lap shaking uncontrollably from the cold, go as hard as you possibly can for an hour, return to the team tent and shiver for three hours then get up and do it all over again with seized muscles. I know that sounds more like Type 3 fun (not fun at the time OR fun afterwards) but honestly, there’s something of the blitz spirit around the whole event and afterwards, the sleep deprived euphoria of racing hard on and off all through the night will leave you giggling in a manic way well into the following afternoon.
Lee recently coached and supported four 13 year old school girls – Emilia, Bethany, Rowan and Lillybelle – through the arduous and very snowy Strathpuffer 24 hour endurance mountain bike race mentioned above. The event took place in the Highlands of Scotland in January, and each girl completed four x 90 minute laps during the event, in freezing conditions and riding through the night. Lee led the team and also rode as a chaperone rider with endurance rider Jenny Graham, each working in six hour shifts.
AM: How did you encourage the Strathpuffer girls – who are very young teenagers – to work as a team, and keep them going when moral and energy levels inevitably dipped during the night?
LC: I didn’t. All the adults did was set the tone. Jenny, Ferga, Liz, Mark, Marisa and I all pulled together in that tent and valued each others contributions to the whole team effort equally from start to finish. This atmosphere affected the girls I think but to be honest, they already had these values instilled in them. The goal setting exercise I did with them beforehand (designed to ensure they were all on the same page and had strategies for dealing with things when the going got tough) was not required. They’d already thought it through and their focus was already on each other not an external, largely uncontrollable end result.
AM: What do you think the girls took away from the experience?
LC: I think they were all surprised at how much they knew and were capable of already.
AM: And what did you learn from it?
LC: There was a moment on the last rather time pressured lap, that Emilia calmly pulled over to let loads of anxious guys pass her so that she could travel at her own speed. In doing so I realised that I was anxious she didn’t lose time and was willing her to not be so generous. In retrospect, this was exactly what she needed to do to stay true to herself and focused on the goal she was setting for herself, not get caught up in the drama of it all. I can still lose my head a bit when racing!
AM: Would you like to see your Inspire, Encourage and Enable Programme extended to other areas of the country?
LC: I think that would be amazing but one step at a time. I’ve seen too many organizations get caught up in delivering quantity over quality (there’s that “what is success?” thing again) and we want to ensure we deliver these opportunities well and have time to reflect on them and adapt them to make them better before rolling them out to the nation. It would be good though!
AM: Research has shown that women are half as likely to cycle as men. What do you think would encourage more women to see cycling as a viable option?
LC: I think you’d need to ask them. Human motivation is such a complicated thing that there is no one answer. As a society, I think there are things that can be done to make cycling seem more valued full stop (segregated cycle lanes, incentives, driver education etc) but I don’t think there’s a formula to get women cycling.
The best we can do is promote a diverse range of female cyclists in the hope that a wider range of younger women (and men) will be inspired by them.
AM: Anything else you would like to add?
LC: Thanks x