Jenny Graham - Cycling Around the World in Record Time

Photo of Jenny at the Brandenburg Gate - courtesy of Stefan Haehnel.

You might have seen the news recently about Jenny Graham, who broke the women's world record for cycling around the earth. Jenny not only broke the record, she crushed it by completing the 29,600-kilometer (18,400 miles) journey in 124 days. The previous record was 144 days. The 37-year old from Scotland started and ended her ride at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on 16 June. Over the next four months, she pedaled through fifteen countries, averaged 256 kilometers per day and, at one point, rode for 32 hours straight.

Jenny is a member of the Adventure Syndicate, which is an organization of female cyclists who coalesce around the goal of empowering, inspiring and supporting people around the world, particularly girls and women. The visibility that her accomplishment gives to her organization's goals will be immense.

Ritchey is proud to support Jenny and other members of the Adventure Syndicate, and thier goals, by supplying them with Ritchey bars, stem and seatpost. Jenny was kind enough to take an hour out of her post-record-breaking adventure recovery to answer some questions for us. We expect you'll gain as much inspiration from her actions and her words as we do.

Jenny Graham - Ritchey

You're fastest woman to cycle around the world. How does that sound to you?

It's so great! When I read articles, especially headlines, or when I'm getting interviewed on TV, I feel like, "Oh my god, they're actually talking about me." And I'm looking over my shoulder. It just feels so surreal. That's me, yeah…the fastest woman to cycle around the world. It definitely has not sunk in yet. But yeah, I'm so delighted.

You are member of the Adventure Syndicate, and part of its mission statement reads that it's, "A collective of female endurance cyclists whose aim is to increase levels of self-belief and confidence in others (especially in women and girls) by telling inspiring stories, creating an encouraging community and delivering enabling workshops and training." Obviously shattering the record stands as a mighty awesome illustration of that stated goal. But how, in your own words, would you further explain to someone the gravity of what you accomplished in a way that would inspire them?

That's kind of a hard question. I think we kind of shy away from our accomplishments having any significance. Just saying that out loud and admitting that can be quite hard sometimes. But the bit that I think people can take from this, and it's certainly the bit that I'm going to be pushing when I'm doing talks at schools and with other people who might need a bit of encouragement, it's the start of it that was the hardest bit.

It was actually getting to that start line. It was having enough belief in myself. It was brave enough to say it out loud. A lot of people said I was brave for doing the cycling, but I don't really feel like I was. I felt like getting to the start line was the brave bit…putting yourself out there to be judged by other people. I was so out there in the public eye. I had this massive anxiety before I started that I was not good enough to do this. Not not good enough of a cyclist…just not good enough of a person. It was so weird. It was just that I was so ordinary, and everyone that I knew who had done this, in my eyes, were absolute heroes. So, who was I to be putting myself on the line with these people? So, it was a bit of an inferiority complex, I guess. Even at Christmas time, with six months to go [until the start] I still struggled saying it out loud. I would stammer my way through it. I always believed I could do the cycling, but it was letting go of that feeling of not being good enough to put myself on the line. And I know that's not just me that had to deal with that. That's the main thing that will hold people back. It's, "What will other people think?" "Am I good enough to put myself on the line?" I mean…the cycling is the easy part, isn't it?

Getting to the start line, sticking to your guns, and breaking down what it is you're frightened of. When I would feel like that…incredibly anxious about it…I would just say, "Well, what's driving this fear? Is it inferiority?" I've broken it down and it's fear that's actually making me feel like this, and that isn't a good enough reason. Just because you're scared is not a good enough reason not to do something. Yes, if you're scared of death, it's is a good enough reason not to do it, but not when you're scared of being shamed or you're scared when people are going to judge you. That's not good enough if you really want to do something.

Dreaming big and saying it out loud. Just practicing that…it's amazing the people that actually come on board. Yes, some people don't come on board with you. And some people you can see it in their face that they've passed that judgement, and they've got the same fears that you do, that you're not good enough. But they're almost as important as the people who support you. Because the people that support you, that's great. You need that. Definitely. Just to encourage you along the way. But I, personally, also need someone to fight against. Not literally, but mentally. "They're thinking I'm not good enough. I'm going to prove to them that I'm good enough." Having that mix is good. 

Jenny Graham - Ritchey

My daughter is obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records and counts down the days to when she gets the latest copy. It's cool that I'll be able to point to your entry in the next one and talk about your accomplishment. How does it feel knowing you not only broke this record, but that it will inspire other people?

I used to be completely obsessed with Record Breakers [a British children's television program]! It feels like I'm an incredibly lucky position. If the younger generation is into things like Record Breakers or the Guinness Book of World Records, then they might see someone in there from their hometown, or from the Highlands, women, someone not necessarily with an athletic build, and all these things. I think I probably break quite a lot of the stereotypes, and that makes it even better in my eyes. Because I think that will speak to people that don't have someone that represents how they see themselves. I feel incredibly lucky to be in that position to do that.

Every adventure, especially one that includes cycling more than 18,000 miles around the world, includes some ups and downs…literally and figuratively. What were some highlights…and lowlights?

Some of the lowlights would be dealing with the stuff before you get to the start line, and making decisions on your own. Sometimes it can be difficult if it's a dangerous thing, or if it's going to hold you up or if it's a decision to backtrack and lose time. They're really difficult to make on your own. If it's a danger thing, like the traffic or the bears, it's just so reassuring to have someone to bounce that stuff off. That was one of the hardest bits.

I'll tell you what else got me down. The weather. Like when you've got wet, cold…I'm used to this. I trained all winter in Scotland, and I do train every winter in Scotland, but I go home at night. I get dry and I put on clean clothes the next day, and then I go out again. But when you're bivvying out in that and you haven't even got a tent…just lying in a bag in a ditch, or under a tree…it's just, goodness me, it can be miserable. You just get so, so worn down with it. I struggled with that, in Australia, especially. I just kept it in my head that, "This isn't forever. Just battle on through this."

Because summer was gorgeous! I had this amazing time, and it felt great. I was just sleeping out and I barely needed my bivvy bag. It was just beautiful. And then to be, like head-to-toe waterproof GoreTex for a whole month was difficult to get my head around.

The highlights were definitely traveling through the world at that pace you do when you're on a bike. And going with the sunrises and sunsets and the moon cycle. Just that whole system and you're a part of it. That's your constant, and it was a really powerful thing.

Living on a bike for four months with no clutter. Just me and the stuff I need to survive. That is magic. More people should do that because it really gives you a perspective of what you actually need in your life…what's necessary and what's luxury. And unfortunately, we've got so many luxuries in our life, which just ruins it. So…I need to watch it when I go home. I'll be chucking the couch out the window [laughing].

Why start and finish at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin?

It was just a really special place because it was a place that we always wanted to go as a family, and just never got 'round to. We just thought, "Oh, what a fantastic place to start and finish." And actually, my family all came out well before I'd finished, and they had a great time. And yeah [laughter], the city just welcomed us. Even afterwards, it was just so much buzz around Berlin. But yeah, it was mostly for the party after.

Ok, so you rode "around the world," but obviously you can't ride on water without some divine intervention. To get a peek behind the curtain, what kind of logistics were involved in getting from place to place when you weren't pedaling?

There was a bit of logistics, actually. There were four flights to get and a boat. The boat was easy enough because there were loads of them. But the flights, I needed to get a box to the airport because you need a box to put your bike into. And because it was self-supported, I couldn't get any friends to help out. So, I had to reach out to the biking community.

I used Warmshowers. The self-support rules state that any support has to be a service that's open to everyone so that anybody has got the same opportunities as you. I reached out to bike shops and Warmshowers people, and I think I got two from each. Oh, no, actually, I didn't get any in Beijing. I just tried to blag it in Beijing. But I did need to get Uber from Badaling to Beijing because the rules say you had to stop. So, I had to either stop at Badaling or I had to start after Perth, because if I carried on to Beijing, then I would have been crossing the same latitude line twice. And there's something about it…there's something in the rules [that said] I couldn't do that. So, I needed to set up an Uber from Badaling to Beijing airport. And then I kept missing it, and then I had to rearrange it all from the road because I couldn't get anybody else to do that. I couldn't get anybody else to rearrange my flight.

Jenny Graham - Ritchey

And the countries, it would have been best if I just didn't need to have to order flights, and then I could just pick them when I got there. But to get into these countries, you have to have a flight out of them again. China wouldn't let me in unless I had an out. So, that's why I had to book them. In fact, everywhere apart from Canada…I managed to get into Canada without having a flight, or into America, which is bizarre, isn't it? I think it was just an oversight. It meant that that was the only flight that I could actually book it and then cycle to it [laughter] and not have this big, huge faff of reorganizing my flights.

There was getting to bike shops and trying to make the most of your time, so getting to a bike shop either before the airport or straight after the airport so that you could get all your fixes done then and to start the new continent. Believe it or not, apart from Australia, when I flew to New Zealand, it was always flying to a new continent, which was just totally bizarre. That sort of stuff sounds quite easy if you were at home, but when you're doing it from the road, it can be quite difficult. 

How did your equipment perform on the ride? Many/any mechanicals along the way?

It was amazing. It was absolutely outstanding. So, of course, I had mechanicals, like tons and tons of punctures. I had a gear lever [break], which was bizarre. Had a couple of gear cables let go, brake pads, like new tires, my bottom bracket went, chains…stuff [that will wear out] with that many miles. But actual wheels and frame and kit that I took was perfect. I spent an unbelievable amount of time beforehand getting it right. It was amazing. So, I did have to deal with mechanicals along the way, but it was all stuff that I was prepared to deal with, and I had all the equipment with me to do it, or could get to a bike shop very easily to get it done.

What did you do to prepare your bike and equipment for such a journey?

I did lots and lots of miles on it. I tested the kit like…I went through something like seven saddles before I found the right one. I went through four sets of tri bars before I found ones that I was happy with. I slept night after night on different roll mats and sleeping bags and bivvy bags, and talked about it unbelievably obsessively. I can't believe I've got any friends left [laughter]. I was a complete and utter kit bore.

Tyres, you know, I tried out so many tyres, over lots and lots of miles. Luckily, I was training lots and lots of miles anyway, so the miles were easy. But it was hard, because you're working and training all at hours, so in between working and training and planning, then you're changing kit about on your bike, so it was a load of work. But it was worth it. 

What did you do to prepare yourself, mentally and physically, for this ride?

I had a coach, John Hampshire, who was working with me on the cycling side of things to make sure that I had a good pedal stroke, that I had good tempo, that I was doing back-to-back rides. So, physically, I was training.

Mentally, I guess I was just thinking about it nonstop, went through reasons why I wanted to do it. I was thinking of things that could go wrong, and then coming up with solutions for them. I was visualizing it. I was just planning it, and I think you spend a year planning something and that actually mentally gets you ready for it. It certainly got me ready for it, I think. 

Jenny Graham - Ritchey

The thing is, I'm used to doing that stuff. This is what I do. This is my way of life, you know, I go off on my bike, and I have adventures, and I live on it, and I sleep out in hillsides, and I am self-supported. So, it was just a big extension of that. I always knew, when I got riding, things would get easier. The preparation for it was always going to be the hardest. Because when you're riding it, that's what you love doing, you know. 

What was the one creature comfort you afforded yourself, if any?

Well, I don't know if it was quite a comfort, but I needed it for my lips. I had lip salve, which I love. It feels like such a luxury, but I needed it for the wind chill. The wind was hacking away at my lips and stuff. So, I had that, but no, everything on the bike is just what you need for safety. I didn't feel like anything was particularly luxurious [laughter]. Just what I needed to survive. 

What was the most beautiful part of the journey, and what part of the ride would you never do again?

Oh, that's a good question. So, I'd never, ever ride on that part of the road between Moscow and about 1,500 miles east, on the Trans-Siberian Highway. Just crazy, mental, unsafe. Bikers just shouldn't be there and are very stupid for being on that part of the road.

The rest of it, however, going through Siberia, Mongolia, and China was stunning. Blew me away. It was a very special part of it. It's funny that the worst part and the special part were so close by. 

I read that at one point you rode for 36 hours straight? How do you motivate yourself to do something like that?

[laughter] It is ridiculous, isn't it? The best thing is that if I got up…I was riding at like 9 o'clock that morning, and by 5 o'clock that night, I was like, "Oh, man. I've had enough. I am so tired." And then I actually went and rode for another 24 hours after it. For that particular ride, I was riding to the finish. My family were all there. And I sort of wanted to get back in daylight the next day. I set myself the goal, and it was the end. It was getting motivation. It comes in a rollercoaster. Sometimes you're so motivated when you're riding, and other times, you just want to stop and you can't go any further. You feel like you can't, mentally. But it's like I've done enough of it that I know that'll pass, so I just ride through it. Say it out loud. Even if I'm by myself, I'll say that out loud.

Jenny Graham - Ritchey

I'll accept that I'm feeling like that, and then just be like, "Okay. You're feeling like that. That's okay to feel like that. Is there anything you can do to make that better? Do you need to stop for coffee? Do you need to have a little nap?" I can have power naps on my bike. To pull over and just sleep on the tri bars. I'm saying to myself, "What do you need to carry on here? Do you need the toilet?" Just simple things. "Do you need to put another layer on? Are you cold? Are you too hot? Do you need music? Do you need to take your music out?"

Sometimes you find yourself feeling really negative, and you've got a sore head. And then you realize, "I've got this music on that's really irritating me," and all you need to do is take your headphones out and you feel so much better. And the same with the layers.

I'm constantly just sort of playing with what's happening on the bike and what I need. But normally you fight through the dark bits, and they're normally literally in the dark. So, that's when it becomes hard. That's when you get sleepy and yeah, your body is fighting you for staying up.

But then when the sun comes up and you're still riding and your goal is so much closer, then that bit becomes much easier. That's just a bit of sort of dealing with the sleep deprivation and sort of keeping yourself well-fed and watered so as you can be safe on the road and things like that.

Again, just practice. I've done loads of 24-hour minor bike races and ridden all weekend in different silly races. So, the very first time I did that, I was probably motivated but I didn't have the belief or the ability. But then, I've built that up.

And, of course, what's next? How do you and/or the Adventure Syndicate plan to maintain the momentum from this accomplishment?

As being part of The Adventure Syndicate, it's about doing these amazing, amazing feats that just…You're doing it for yourself, absolutely. But then it's coming back and giving back, sharing the stories. Going into schools. Going into communities. Doing talks. Sharing videos. Setting up bikepacking-skill classes. Going out and riding with groups so they can begin to feel confident, and they can start on the journey.

Jenny Graham - Ritchey

We run this program, actually, that just started last year, and I'll be working on this next year. It's called Southbound, where we are going into schools and workplaces, and building a rapport with them and a relationship with them and doing different bike skill-type sessions. Then we go away and we ride south for a week. Schools and workplaces will then try and match our miles. So, they get together, like schools and young people and staff come together and do extra rides in the evening, riding to school and back. They you collect miles and put them online. I mean, we were getting lapped! We were doing 100 miles a day and only our combined mileage. It wasn't our combined mileage, it was just ours as a group. Whereas in the schools, it was their combined mileage. So, they could add them all together. And honestly, the response we got from that was incredible. Everyone had so much fun doing it and really threw themselves into it.

We do a lot that. Just concentrating on how we can make it a bit more meaningful, and how we can take it away from just being about gnarly adventurers and actually, how to give everyone a bit of that. And how do we help enable other people to feel like they're actually more able to do things as well? That's it. They're all more capable than they think they are.

Interested in supporting Jenny and the Adventure Syndicate? You can go here to donate.