Friday 5: adventure cyclist and round-the-word record breaker Jenny Graham
Continuing our quick-fire interview series with the bikepacking and endurance legend
Jenny Graham hit the headlines in October 2018 when she set a new female record for cycling round the world. She was almost three weeks faster than the previous record holder over the 18,000 miles and finished in 124 days. Now a book written by Jenny, Coffee First, Then the World, is about to be launched. In the book, she reveals the physical and emotional rollercoaster of riding solo and unsupported during her circumnavigation of the planet.
Jenny, 43, lives in Inverses in the Scottish Highlands, with her son, 24-year-old Lachlan. Trained in outdoor education, she is now in demand as a guest speaker at festivals and for corporate teams. She is also the presenter for the Global Cycling Network documentary channel.
We interviewed Jenny to find out more about her cycling – and bikepacking – adventures.
When, and how, did you get into cycling and then long-distance cycling?
I have always ridden a bike, for as long as I can remember. I was probably about three or four when I first rode a two-wheeled bike and back then we used our bikes to get around and for playing with friends. Bikes were a way of life growing up in Inverness.
However, I didn’t see cycling as a sport until I was in my mid-20s. I did an outdoor education training course at Inverness College and lots of new activities opened up to me. These included climbing, mountaineering, skiing and mountain biking.
At this point, I started getting into longer-distance mountain biking. I’d already built up quite a lot of mountaineering skills and I was hiking, climbing and skiing in wild places and then I saw a long-distance mountain biking event, the Highland Trail 550, on a computer. I spotted that Iona Evans was the only female taking part that year and I thought: “Wow, you can actually take your bike to those wild places!”
That was the start of doing the things I was already doing but on my bike.
I also knew I had a tractor diesel engine and I was good at endurance, so cycling long-distances was a natural progression for me.
When did get into bike-packing?
I first started travelling by bike at the same times as I discovered mountain biking. I learned you could stick a rucksack on your back and go hiking, or you could get a trailer or panniers for your bike for multi day trips. After that, I did lots of Scottish trips and I really enjoyed them.
After I spotted the HT550, I read Mark Beaumont’s first book about cycling around the world. Mark wrote about cycling in Romania and suddenly I wanted to go to Romania.
I persuaded a friend to come with me on this, my first cycling trip overseas. We just packed our kit in waterproof dry bags and attached them to our bikes with bungees. We had cycling shorts and a party dress and that was us set for two weeks of cycling touring. It was great.
Things progressed from there and once I knew I loved bikepacking, I began to invest in the bikepacking kit and then started racing things like the HT500.
Do you have any tips for long-distance cycling?
It’s really important to build up the training miles on the bike and to do it in sensible increments.
Once you have built up the miles, you could try one of my tricks for staying motivated. I take a train to a point far enough from home that will be a challenge to ride back but not ridiculous. That way I have to keep going to get home again.
Any tips for bikepacking?
The right kit for bikepacking really helps but don’t spend lot of money on it until you are sure you will be into the activity. You could use reinforced plastic bags and bungee them to your bike to start with. You don’t need all the hi-tech lightweight kit at the outset.
I also recommend you try an overnight somewhere local or somewhere you know. There are so many things to get used to, such as taking the right kit, feeling safe and knowing where you are going, that it is better to start with a familiar area. You can build from there, travelling further and to new places.
Any tips for solo adventure cycling, especially as a female?
Really it's common sense stuff, and I’d tell my son the same as a female friend. If you are travelling to new countries, you should do some research to find out about the culture and the attitude to travellers and to women.
I did a lot of reading of information written by other travellers, including women, in the same places as I was planning to cycle on my round-the-world trip so I could understand what to expect.
You also need to think about where you will be sleeping and make sensible decisions. I slept outside for about two-thirds of the nights on my world trip. Sometimes, I would find a place to bivvy and make sure I was up before anyone else was around. This avoids confrontation with passers-by.
I trusted my instinct, too. If somewhere felt dodgy, I cycled further on.
I also got to trusting my gut feeling about strangers. If things felt felt wrong or uncomfortable, I’d just cycle away. It is much easier to get away by bike than on foot.
Friday 5s: Jenny's views on adventure
If you could only keep one item out of all your outdoor gear, which would you keep and why?
My bike! For obvious reason! You can do so much with your bike.
We’re sitting round a campfire. Tell us a funny or entertaining story about one of your adventures
It has to be the story of riding in fear of bears on a highway in Yukon in north-west Canada. I had got myself into a bit of state about the bears and so I decided I needed to be seen and to be noisy so they would see and hear me coming and run off.
So I cycled along playing my music out loud and singing loudly. I set all my lights to flashing and I had several bells that I kept ringing. Plus I kept on blowing my whistle. I must have been quite a sight, but I didn’t care.
This was topped off when I arrived at a petrol station forecourt in Whitehorse and this guy stood and watched me. He shouted over: “You look like a Christmas tree!”
I had literally jangled to a stop and he could see all my lights and jingling bells. It was funny once I got to thinking about it.
What’s your pet peeve in the outdoors?
I think that so often - and it was certainly how I felt while growing up – that the outdoors was a thing for people with money. To me, it seemed like the outdoors was for middle-class folk who could afford to buy the kit and had the time and freedom to get up the hills.
I think our government and local councils should take more responsibility to integrate the outdoors and outdoor activities into schools and our way of life. More people need to be shown that the outdoors is accessible for everyone.
Still, today, I feel that you need a parent to help children to access the activities and even as an adult it doesn’t always feel accessible. For example, in the Highlands if you don’t have a car, the outdoors can feel very inaccessible.
It just seems like the outdoors is something exclusive, when it shouldn’t be.
If you could be transported to the start of any outdoor adventure, where would it be and why?
This summer I will riding a route called the Cairngorm Loop with friends and finishing with a party. I wish I could be there at that the start of that right now.
Is there any gear that is on your shopping list just now?
I’d really like a new mini headtorch. Something that I can use as an emergency back up with a red light. My old headtorch is 15 years old and broken.
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Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, who is better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favourite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing, both downhill and back country. Her target for 2021 is to finish the final nine summits in her first round of all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of more than 3,000ft high. Aside from being outdoors, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy the great outdoors, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors.