Jenny Graham burst onto the outdoor adventure scene in October after cycling around the world in 124 days, shattering the women’s world record by 20 days in the process. Just to avoid any doubt over the epicness of that achievement, let’s run some statistics: she travelled over 19,000 miles across four continents, averaging 156 miles per day. Setting out from Berlin, Jenny journeyed through Eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia and China, flew to Australia and New Zealand, then cycled through Canada and the US to reach the Atlantic Ocean, completing her journey through Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium and Holland. The scale of the expedition is stupendous and the speed at which she completed it...well, inspiring doesn’t really do it justice. We caught up with Jenny just after her appearance at Kendal Mountain Festival to hear the story firsthand.
WILDBOUNDS: So, how was Kendal?
JENNY: Amazing! It was so lovely; just such a lovely year and lots of good things happening - The Adventure Syndicate film won Adventure Film of the Year, too!
What sort of mileage were you clocking on the round-the-world attempt?
I’ve written it all out as people keeping asking me about stats and I’ve usually got no idea! The overall average came out as 156 miles per day, cycling at an average of 13.5hrs/day. It’s amazing how the continents change; I think it’s a lot to do with the weather, as Australia and New Zealand were my worst averages and that’s when the weather was really bad. There was no accommodation so I was going to bed wet and shivering, then waking up and going again. Your body just gets worn down. I’d got sick, too, and I was wiped. Instead of taking a day off, which I totally should have done, I was like, “I’m fine, let’s see what I can churn out”. I was lying in this motel and just shivering, I couldn’t even take my clothes off as I was so plastered to the bed. I got up in the morning and tried to have a shower but I couldn’t even do that - it was that feeling that your skin would just rip open if the water touched it, so I went back for lie down. I was getting up every hour to see how bad it was: “can I move yet?” As soon as I could have a shower, I thought I could get back on the bike.
That must have been one of the lowest moments of the trip - what was one of the best?
The bears in the Rockies took it out of me a bit - I saw three of those, loads of caribou, and oh my goodness, just loads of bison! They were all over the road so I was cycling through herds of bison. At the time, you’re sort of taking it all in your stride because that’s just what you’re doing but when I think about it now and look at pictures, I’m like, “oh my God, that is crazy!” That night, I had the Northern Lights behind me and there’s me cycling through a herd of bison and, yeah, it was pretty good.
Going back to the start, what first made you think, “Right, I’m going to cycle round the world”?
I’d been building up miles for a while after getting my road bike (I’m a total mountain biker!) and you get to that point where you do your first 100 miles and wonder if you can do the same again tomorrow. Then you go and do it again so you’ve done back-to-back centuries...there’s that constant questioning of how much further you can go, and that’s always been in my head. I’m always pushing things, whether it’s cycling or not - even at home I take things too far.
So I had that, then I went away on an Adventure Syndicate training camp and met this guy, John Hampshire, who’s a coach. He said “I’d like to work with you”; I was doing this Arizona race and I think he could just see that I had all these questions about what I could do. But I was skint, I could barely afford to go on the training camp - I got one of their funded places just to be there, so I was never, ever going to buy a coach. I’d stopped working so much so I could cycle more! When I got back, John emailed me and was like, “Look, I’m going to work with you”, and he offered me a year for free with no expectation on me whatsoever. I think he thought I might go and do the TransCon the next year or something, because he knew where my head was at.
He must have really seen some potential in you to make an offer like that.
You know in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when he wins the golden ticket and he’s like, “What has just happened?” That is exactly how I felt. I was crying and everything, it was incredible.
John lived in Spain, so I wasn’t working with him face-to-face, I wasn’t out riding for him or anything, and then I went away to Arizona by myself. I’d gone to Europe by myself before and put extra days on my holiday to cycle and stuff, so I’d travelled alone, but I’d never properly gone and crossed a country by myself, not knowing anyone out there. But once I did that, I thought, “Oh my God, I can do this, this is fine!” I went back to work and I was part-time by then but the other part-timer had left, so I offered to come back full-time but with a sabbatical the year after, so they were up for that. So now I’ve got six months off work, I’ve got a coach, I’ve got a thirst for miles and I’ve realised that I can go anywhere by myself.
So everything just seemed to click into place for it.
Yeah, it was like the stars aligned, honestly. At one point, I looked back - because I had wavers on that journey, though not once I’d started riding - but before the start line I’d think, “What are you doing?” I had no funding until about three months before I had to leave and stuff like that, it was just silly. But then I’d look back at what was in place and I knew it would never happen again; this is special. And people just started coming into my life, like filmmakers I’d met in the past, I’d bump into them in Tesco, before anyone knew, and they were like, “Oh, we want to make some adventure films, do you know of anything?”, and once I said I was going around the world they wanted to make a film about it. Then, Adventure Syndicate got on board!
Was there a moment when you thought, not only do I want to cycle round the world, I want to do it faster than anyone else?
It was always there - this would never have been a trip if I wasn’t trying to break the record. I was always going to be a record-breaking trip. If it wasn’t, I’d have gone on my mountain bike. It was basically after I met John and after Arizona, I was looking for races and something that could test my body and strength the following year. Originally, before I met John, I was thinking of doing a tour or going to Iran or something, but as soon as John gave me a that chance, it was like, “This is a race and it’s a solo race”. I wasn’t just looking at road cycling, either, it was mostly mountain bike races. Then this popped and I thought, “I reckon I can probably do that”.
I’ll be doing more work for the Adventure Syndicate and taking this story into schools, etc - I feel like I’m still on the journey! The pedalling’s stopped but it’s such a big commitment. Everyone watches the dot on the tracker but actually the build-up to it and the aftermath is almost bigger! Cycling and adventuring is a way of life, it’s just what I do. So there’ll always be new things - I’ve got no urgency to run off to another bike race just yet, though.
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