My Ultimate Adventure
Written by Fiona Russell
When Inverness mum Jenny Graham set out to break the women’s around-the-world record, she believed she was capable of cycling the 18,000 miles. But what she couldn’t plan for was the nightmarish traffic, non-stop rain, a punishing home straight and, erm, the bears…
We caught up with the 38-year-old to discuss the highs and lows of her unsupported ride through four continents in just 124 days, 10 hours and 50 minutes.
To achieve a Guinness World Record for cycling around the world, Graham – a member of The Adventure Syndicate – had to comply with a set of rules:
Jenny rode a steel Shand bike, adding “the bike ran smoothly, amazingly.” She suffered 25 punctures, needed two new front tyres, four new rear tyres, eight new chains, a new drive chain and a rear cassette change, two new gear cables, three new cleats, a pair of fresh pedals and a new bottom bracket for good measure.
Jenny rode away from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 16, 2018 and rode east through the European countries of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Russia. She then crossed into Mongolia in East Asia before reaching the end of stage one, China.
“It felt so amazing to be starting the ride. I had this incredible excitement bursting from my toes to my head. I just couldn’t believe I was starting. I said to myself: ‘I can do this. Cycling is what I do.’”
For much of the first few weeks, the weather was kind to Jenny. “It felt like a total joy to be riding day after day and on a continent that I am fairly familiar with,” she adds. “I felt like I was having the best time.”
She made a decision to start cycling through the night instead of the day: “For 1,200 miles, I cycled for 15 hours every night. I was cycling up to 300km at a stretch. I was on fire and I just needed to get that section done and go back to daytime cycling. It was the only way I could get around all that nightmarish traffic.”
The right food was hard to come across, too. “Asia was unfamiliar to me in terms of culture and language and I didn’t find the food I wanted to eat so that made it hard.”
After the first flight of the trip, Jenny left Perth in western Australia to cycle along the southern coast of the country to Brisbane. A short flight took her from Brisbane to Invercargill in southern New Zealand. She then rode the length of the South and North Islands to Auckland.
“It was the middle of winter with short days when I arrived. For practical reasons of getting in the miles, I ended up doing a lot of riding at night. The moonlight and the stars – there is no light pollution – were amazing. In other circumstances it might have been a very boring section to ride but the moonlight made these silhouettes, and the scenery was incredible.”
Jenny also found New Zealand hilly: “There were long ascents and that was pretty exhausting.”
She also caught a bug that made her sick. “I felt horrible and I had sickness and flu symptoms. I had to do two short days of cycling because I felt so bad and then I had to bang out 380km to make it to the airport for the next flight.”
“The wildlife was also a high point. The bears were scary but I also saw moose, bison and caribou up close. It was a stunning place to ride and that is because of its remoteness.”
Jenny took delight in the plentiful food options, too: “My aim on the ride was to maintain my weight and in America I could have put on weight. The doughnuts and coffees alone would have been enough! It was all so tempting.”
“My strategy was to be as loud as possible while cycling my bike so they could hear me coming and be frightened off. I sort of jangled my way along, ringing my bells, whistling, singing, playing music on a loud speaker and had my lights flashing. I felt on high alert for many days in a row. It was exhausting mentally.”
Jenny talks, too, of feeling “acutely on my own”. “At no point in the around-the-world ride did I get lonely as such but during this stage I felt remote from humans,” she adds. “I wanted someone to talk to share my fears of the bears. This is when I most wanted company.”
Stage four: Lisbon, Portugal, to Berlin, Germany
The final stage of the ride saw Jenny return to summer in Europe. She took just 12 days to ride through Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, The Netherlands and into Germany to finish back at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on October 18, 2018.
Highs: Unsurprisingly, Graham reveals many great things about the final stage. “I was back into warmer weather and summer in Europe. It felt amazing again, especially after two months of bad weather.
“With 500km to go, two friends – Lee and Alan – joined me. We decided to do a 36-hour non-stop stint. It was hard but really fun at the same time. It all felt so surreal and special. I was giddy and tired all wrapped into one.
“Then cycling back into Berlin and to the Gate, where all my family, including my son, and friends were waiting for me, it was absolutely incredible. It felt very emotional.”
Lows: With 1,000km to go, Jenny said she felt an odd despondency. “It was ‘only’ 1,000km, which in the grand scheme of things wasn’t much,” she says. “I was almost there but I think I was just so exhausted.
“I kept thinking: ‘It’s so close to the finish but it’s still so far.’ It felt like when you bonk during a day of cycling, except, instead of having to force myself to get home for the last hour or so, I had three more days of riding through that feeling of bonking.”
“I knew I could ride the distance, day after day,” adds Graham. “I couldn’t control the variables, such as mechanicals, weather, wildlife and all sorts of other things, and fortunately everything went pretty much to plan.
“At the outset, before I announced to people I was going to do the ride, I didn’t have the confidence to put my name on the line, as it were. I wasn’t sure I deserved a place at the table of record-breaking world rides. But once I was on my way, I knew I could do it. And I did. I am still taking it in and it feels amazing.”