We Meet Jenny Graham: The Fastest Woman to Ever Cycle Around the World
Illustration by Charlie McCulloch | Words by Stuart Kenny
Jenny Graham lives for adventure. The fact that the Scottish cyclist recently became the fastest woman to ever circumnavigate the globe on a bicycle is a fair insight to that. But the contagious enthusiasm with which Jenny speaks about her mammoth journey is an even clearer indicator.
“When I get onto my tri bars I could be anywhere in the world,” she tells us, on her way to speak to a sold out crowd at the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling. “I could be crossing the Gobi Desert. I could be coming down the Alaskan highway. It just takes me right back out there.”
Jenny has been finished for six months now. “I think I’m beginning to come to terms with it, but I’m still coming out of a sort of state of shock that it’s done,” she says.
It’s no surprise. The journey spanned four months and 18,000 miles. Graham travelled through 16 countries, rode through Russia, Mongolia, China, Australia, Canada and more. In the end, she took a full 20 days off the previous women’s record (set by Italian cyclist Pola Gianotti in 2014) and rode around the planet in 124 days, 10 hours and 50 minutes. Guinness ratified the record on 10 June 2019, and now it’s official.
“Seeing myself in the book has been pretty crazy,” Jenny says. “You’re just getting on with life and then you see that. It just hits you.”
A Journey Around the Earth
The idea of waking up to a different view of the world each morning might seem like the stuff of dreams, particularly when the alternative is a wobbly computer chair and the regular 9-5, but for most people, it’s just that; a dream. And a farfetched one at that. The reality of the challenge – the commitment required, the solitude, logistics and physical demands of the cycle prevent most people from getting even near the start line.
Indeed, you often hear long-distance cyclists talking about their worst days on a bike, and tough moments when they considered packing up and flying back to the comfort of home. For Jenny, though, this cliche couldn’t be further from the truth. Graham is also the co-director of the Adventure Syndicate, a collective of elite, all-female cyclists who aim to inspire and enable boundary-pushing adventures, and she practices what the group preach.
“You go through every emotion and every attitude possible on the road but the thing that was with me the whole time was a feeling of contentment,” Jenny says. “A feeling that this was what I wanted to be doing with my life.
“The weather was horrendously bad in Australia. There would be days when you were just riding into the wind all day long. And it was dangerous out there. [In the Yukon] there were bears and buffalo and bison roaming about freely. There were a few times when I wondered if I had really thought it all through. But I never lost sight of just how lucky I was. The suffering was put into perspective because I had this underlying gratitude just to be there.”
An Unsupported Venture
At the final shop for 100 miles before entering the Yukon, with those bears in mind, a Canadian shop owner asked Jenny if she was armed with a gun for protection. She would call Jenny “crazy” when she replied in the negative. Graham remained unarmed throughout the trip and instead relied on whistles, bells, bear spray and flashlights to keep her safe.
As you’d probably imagine after reading that, there’s a lot to think about when you plan a round-the-world cycle then. And certain rules must be followed if the trip is to be eligible for the world record. The cycle must be one continuous trip in one direction. The minimum distance must be 18,000 miles. And the journey must pass through two antipodal points – that is, two places diametrically opposite one another on the surface of earth.
“I would sleep at the side of the road or in bus shelters or next to
pipes under the road”
The attempt can be either supported, with a team organising your meals and accommodation and repairs along the way, or it can be unsupported, carrying all your own gear and without any outside support. Current men’s record holder, and Jenny’s fellow-Scot Mark Beaumont, did the journey in 78 days, but he did it with a support team. Jenny chose to do her journey completely unsupported, making it an entirely different beast.
“I could use local resources. I could go into bike shops, but I didn’t have a support van or a mechanic or a bed sorted each night, and I had to carry all my equipment,” she explains.
“I went through eight chains and four sets of tyres. My bottom bracket went going across Canada. It went really badly. And my actual gear lever broke in New Zealand, so I cycled the entire north island of New Zealand with only front brakes. There were all sorts of things.”
When it came to night, Jenny’s time was divided between paid-for accommodation, which she used approximately one-third of the time, and sleeping “at the side of the road or in bus shelters or next to pipes under the road”. She relied on coffee to get her up and going, and jokes “I’ve had to wean myself off it since. It was my bargaining tool to myself”.
Jenny didn’t spend every night sleeping, though. Hectic highways in Russia led her to make the somewhat unconventional choice to do a lot of her riding on the trip at night.
“The traffic was getting far too dangerous through the day, so I switched my day to night. I would ride through the night until maybe 8 am then sleep during the busy section,” she says.
“I did that for about 1200 miles. It got me out of Russia. But then I fell into this routine where I was getting on the road by 8 am and riding until maybe 2 am or 3 am the next morning. My body clock just works better riding at night. I feel strong. So I just went with it.
“It did mean that I had a lot of dark times but I still had the moon and the sky and the stars. In the Outback of Australia I did 90 miles straight in the dark. The sun was just setting when I hit the sign and I could see all these silhouettes and this big moon. I just love riding at night.”
Making Adventure a Necessity
Given the scale of the accomplishment, you might assume Graham has been spending days on the bike since she was a kid. Far from it. Jenny only started riding seriously five years ago, though she did have substantial outdoor experience by the time that she did.
“I’d had about 15 years experience in the outdoors and I was in the Mountain Rescue team in Torridon and I just had this total passion and love for the mountains,” she says.
“When I did start competing, it was in endurance, and every-time I did big miles I’d wonder how much further I could go. It really just captured my imagination.”
Adventure is Jenny’s life now, on and off the bike. Jenny is currently enwrapped in the legacy work that follows a record-breaking cycle around the world – the media, content and talks. And she now runs the aforementioned Adventure Syndicate, who helped Jenny dream up her round-the-world trip to start with, with Lee Craigie.
“We’ve all got an excuse, but for the majority of people, if you look at all the benefits of being outdoors then you can justify it. You realise it is a necessity, because it benefits your whole life.”
It wasn’t always so. Jenny used to have a Monday-Friday job and fit adventures around it. We close our chat on the question of how to maintain an adventurous life with a busy everyday schedule. Jenny says it’s all about shifting your thinking to view time spent outdoors as a priority instead of a second thought.
“It’s always a juggling act,” she says. “But for me, it was always about making training a priority – not something you try and fit in if you’ve got time. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity that I’m on my bike. It makes me feel good and it’s what I want to be doing.
“You have to make that your mindset, because we’re all busy, and we’ve all got an excuse, but for the majority of people, if you look at all the benefits of being outdoors then you can justify it. You realise it is a necessity, because it benefits your whole life.”
Make adventures a necessity and who knows where you may end up in the days, months and years that follow. Jenny Graham is living proof that the world is your oyster.