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Jenny Graham: 'You’ve no idea what your body can do until you have to do it'

Laura Laker
25 Oct 2018

Home after smashing the round the world cycling record, Jenny Graham looks back on her achievement

The rules of engagement were simple, even if the execution wasn’t. There was to be no assistance of any sort, no offers of food, no moral support. No hugs.

When Jenny Graham set out to become the fastest woman to cycle round the world, she decided to do so unsupported, and the rules applied to friends who joined her on the road, too.

The Guinness World Record association doesn’t distinguish between supported and unsupported round the world rides but it was important to Jenny she carry all her own kit, find her own food and water, and navigate alone for four months and 18,000 miles through 16 countries,.

Her goal was to beat the 144 day world record, held by Paola Gianotti since 2014. Paola rode supported and paused the record midway after braking a vertebrae – not diminishing that impressive effort.

On 16th June 2018, Jenny left Berlin, and 125 days later, on 18th October, she returned to the Brandenburg Gate. She was 20 days faster than Paola and more than a month faster than Juliana Buhring, the first woman to hold the record, unsupported, in 2012 (Buhring rode for 144 days, but travel time increased her overall time).

Cyclist caught up with Jenny in the days following her triumphant completion of the grand boucle to end all grand boucles.

'You just don’t know if you’re going to manage it,' she said, in an Inverness accent you could listen to all day. 'You do everything in your power to make sure you are ready, but you’ve no idea what your body can do until you have to do it.

'I was in amazement.'

Jenny, who is 38, was 'never a sporty kid', and hadn’t raced on road before. Her cycling began in earnest in 2015, with the Highland Trail 550, when brutal weather forced her and 39 of the 56 entrants to scratch.

Her ankles swelled up so badly she could no longer put pressure on them.

'It didn’t put me off, it just made me more determined to come back and smash it the next year.'

Races got longer, until she won a place on an Adventure Syndicate training camp, where she met coach John Hampshire. She was among a handful of riders John offered a year’s free coaching to.

'I thought: I have to do something big, I have to make the most of this opportunity,' she said. 'I started looking at different routes, but I kept coming back to the [world] record.'

Things started falling into place for the woman the Adventure Syndicate’s Lee Craigie describes as inspirational, 'for her integrity, humour, and never losing sight of the important stuff – and positivity'.

Jenny joined the Syndicate, granting her the moral and technological support of the world’s great women cycling adventurers, as well as a bespoke Shand bicycle, and other sponsorships.

Circumnavigating the globe by bike is not cheap, and she fundraised the rest of the money via her local cycling community, with bike raffles and events, while Cycling UK, which she is a member of, helped with insurance, logistics and promotion before and after the ride.

There was the never ending kit selection, and she trialled seven saddles before finding one she could sit on for four months.

'I must add I was not the most entertaining person to be around for quite a long time beforehand.'

Jenny followed Mark Beaumont’s record-breaking route, crossing Poland, Latvia and Lithuania in the first week.

Then it was into the flat expanses of Russia, on a road with no hard shoulder, where after having to bail off the road when a truck came past, she rode at night when traffic was lighter.

She rode into Siberia and crossed Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. She flew from Beijing to Perth, enduring rain all day and ‘Baltic’ sub-zero temperatures at night in a bivvy bag, at either end of Australia’s Nullarbor desert.

She crossed New Zealand’s North and South islands, one of the most beautiful parts of the trip, encountered bears and moose in the Canadian Rockies, singing at the top of her lungs to scare bears away.

She saw an hour’s display of the Northern Lights, 'like a massive green rainbow'. She cycled into America, before crossing Portugal, Spain, across the Pyrenees into France, then Belgium and the Netherlands, and back to Berlin.

Jenny cycled 156 miles, for 15 hours each day, at an average speed of 13mph, bivvying out in fields and drainage pipes big enough for her and the bike. She installed a mirror on her handlebars to watch the sunset each day.

'The best bits were the sunsets and sunrises, and the skies; actually being out with the moon. There was something very grounding about it, being by yourself and having nothing else to do than turn that wheel.

'It was really cool, and you meet the most incredible people along the way.'

In one of her enchanting phone postcards to the BBC from the road, she describes Russian traffic police pulling her over after she passed them, no hands, headphones in, while eating a bun.

They wanted to offer her a cup of tea. They conversed in charades, belly laughed together, and took selfies.

She was followed by dot watchers worldwide, see the dots here, who sent messages of support, and occasionally joined her on the road.

She killed a bottom bracket. She fell asleep at the side of the road, and face down on the table of a 24-hour McDonalds, where Lee Craigie was on hand to take a photo.

In the final 33 hours of her record attempt she cycled 292 miles.

Now she’s back in a whirlwind of interviews, and hoping, through the Adventure Syndicate, to inspire others who maybe weren’t traditionally sporty that they too can dream big and achieve incredible things outdoors.

'Going out and doing this is so selfish, it’s all about your goals. To be able to then come back and for it not to be all about you is really important.'

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