Scottish endurance cyclist Jenny Graham, the world’s fastest woman on a bike, stops off for coffee in Edinburgh
It’s a sunny Sunday morning in Edinburgh as endurance cyclist Jenny Graham jumps on her bike Little Pig, and moves off, for once at the rear of a pack pedalling around the city on a social cycle. There’s laughter and whooping as they set off on the spin which is part of a series of rideouts and events throughout the UK on Graham’s route from Bournemouth home to Inverness to celebrate the launch of her book Coffee First, Then the World - One Woman’s Record-Breaking Pedal Around the Planet.
Today is a pedal in the park for Graham, who at 38 years old became the fastest female to cycle solo around the world in 2018. Her record breaking journey of 18,000 miles took her 124 days and 11 hours and saw her visit four continents and 16 countries, taking in their cultures and people along the way
The gargantuan effort is captured in Coffee First, Then the Word, which is a riveting read covering 14-hour days and uncomfortable nights dodging hazards and challenges - from lorries and grizzlies to potholes and predatory men - which she cycled alone, unsupported, leaving family and friends back in Inverness. As well as the hard stuff, the near misses, saddle sores, exhaustion and loneliness, there are many lighter moments in the book, which is infused with the sheer joy of cycling and discovering new landscapes and foodstuffs (cinnamon buns in Canada, vegetables and curry in China), and the humanity sparked by her interaction with the people she encounters along the way: there are countless cups of coffee, beds for the night, clothes washed and people who just wanted to say hello, from friendly cops who flag her down for a hot drink and photo to the family in rural China who insist on providing bed and board and wake up their nephew in Beijing to translate.
With family, friends and a global network of cyclists tracking her dot of progress, and casual listeners keeping up when her voice diaries featured on mainstream radio, Graham had a legion of fans suffering vicarious anxiety as she dodged monster trucks on lethal Russian roads, slept in drainage pipes under motorways and endured extreme weather in the southern hemisphere. But along with the challenges were the sheer exhilaration of riding and discovering new places and the people in them.
Personable and full of life, Graham is a force. Just having a coffee with her (well she did say Coffee First) makes you want to jump on a bike and get pedalling, no matter how long you may have left it loitering in the lobby. When we talk at her hotel in Edinburgh Little Pig, strong, reliable and named for the film Babe and referencing the line ‘that’ll do Little Pig’ which she found herself saying to it during the record breaking ride - is safely locked up and she takes a break to chat about the book and how it has put the achievement into perspective for the 43-year-old.
“I was always really proud that I’d got the record, it was great, but I was aiming to go faster, aiming for 110 days, so when I came back I was like ‘oh yeah it was great I got the record’, but I didn’t think it was THAT great. I was like, ‘it was good, but I could have done better’, and it was only in writing the book that I would sit back and think ‘bloody hell, you did well out there!’ It was the first time, five years on, that I could get that reflection and be like ‘wow, that was cool, that was really good.’
If you’re a cyclist, you’ll understand the appeal, but for those who’ve never saddled up, what exactly is it that Graham likes about cycling?
“For touring the thing I enjoy is the pace so you’ve got momentum, but you’re not moving so fast you’re not taking it all in. You can feel everything, smell it, hear it, you’re getting a real idea of where you’re travelling through.”
“And moments with people, yes some were fleeting, but it didn’t stop them being any less intense and personal. I’ll remember their faces for ever more and I’m sure they’ll remember mine.”
Of all 16 countries she travelled through, there was one that stood out and to which she has since returned.
“Mongolia was the one for me,” she says. Because of the culture, the sights, the people, everything was wonderful.”
“I also like the freedom of breaking down the stuff we have in our lives, getting rid of it all, because it’s exhausting. We fill our spaces and time full of things and when I’m travelling on my bike I can’t take all that. Everything you have is for survival and you have to carry it up every hill. When I come back home I can feel suffocated by things we fill our lives with.”
Graham recounts coming off the road in Canada to visit a shopping mall with a minimal shopping list of puncture repair kit, socks and a sleep mat, and being overwhelmed by the choice of items for sale and the people buying them.
“I was seeing people buying things and thinking thank goodness I don’t have that in my life. I’m literally going in for insoles because my feet are crap.
“But we all fall into it. I certainly do. How do you live in our society and not get pulled into that? So I loved that sense of freedom from things, of time, the letting go of adult responsibilities and emails. But I had my phone on my handlebars and saw things coming through and felt like I needed to get it off. Look at it, it’s huge, it’s like a bloody TV,” she says, brandishing her phone.
Vital for planning and recording, when it did indeed bounce off her handlebars in Spain, Graham spent a frantic hour searching for it in the verge.
“It had everything on it so it was really important I find it, and I did, god knows how.”
“I was using my phone to book accommodation, navigate my way through cities, for audio diaries, photos and I’d backed it up but was nervous if I lost it I would have no evidence that I’d been round the world. Then I wouldn’t have got the record. How gutting would that be?” She laughs. “Honest, I did it, but I just don’t happen to have any pictures to prove it!”
Nowadays a presenter for the Global Cycling Network documentary channel, making films and writing content for them as well as a plethora of conference and public speaking events and working as a brand ambassador, for Graham the opportunity to write the book saw her looking back at her solo cycle with a fresh perspective.
“I was much kinder to myself! When I was out there I was really hard on myself and maybe I had to be because I was self-motivating. When I listened back to my diaries I was like ‘give yourself a break, you’re doing really well’. I could see for the first time what my family did when I was out there. My sister spent a lot of time chatting to me and she’d be telling me how well I was doing and I’d say ‘you don’t even know what you’re talking about, I’m not doing well’ and she was saying ‘no, honestly please believe me you are’.”
As a child in Inverness Graham describes herself as not sporty and after having her son Lachlan at 18, it was as a young adult that she began enjoying outdoor sports, heading for the hills with him on foot, bike or skis. A course in outdoor pursuits led to her catching the cycling bug and when she came across the Highland Trail 550 race, she was hooked. At 38, she set out to break the world record for Fastest Female to Circumnavigate the World by Bike, Unsupported’.
Who would Graham say have been her biggest inspirations, in life and in cycling?
“I’ve had really strong women in my life; my mum, my aunty and my sister. None are cyclists particularly, but they’re strong, capable, hard-working, good fun people and when you’re brought up with that mentality, it instills a sense of belief. My mum has literally never questioned anything I’ve said I’m going to do. She’s got this utter faith I’m going to pull it out of the bag. Sometimes I’m like ‘god, please try and stop me’ and she’s ‘No! You’ll do it,’ so that’s been really good. And then I read Mark Beaumont’s book years ago and that was the first introduction to ahhh, this is what breaking a record could be like.
“And just seeing other women doing stuff. Iona Evans, she was the first female to do the Highland Trail [550-mile cycle in 2014], and her dot was a huge inspiration. It’s not been one person for me, but building blocks of seeing lots of cool stuff and being in this environment.”
On her round world trip, Graham endures extreme bad weather as she cycles, along with the sheer effort of gruelling 14-hour days, mentally she stays strong with messages from home, listening to music and podcasts (although her passion for crime series was occasionally a bad choice on night time rides through remote areas), but was she ever scared her body wasn’t physically capable of completing her task?
“Looking back I think wow, you were really pushing your body and mind to the edge, but it didn’t feel like that while I was there. I was too busy surviving and dealing with it. You’re so focused on going forward that you can’t allow yourself to think is this too much? You’ve just got to deal with the here and now and move onto the next step and the step after that.”
How does it feel to be an inspiration to other cyclists and those facing a challenge?
“Sometimes I struggle with that. People are so kind and have the most incredible stories and feel like I’ve helped them in some way and that can feel deeply uncomfortable because that’s a lot to take ownership of. Then another part of me looks at people who have inspired me and who I have taken great strength from and I’m like ‘oh yeah it’s just sharing stories and hearing them at the right time in your life when you can connect with that person. So when I look at it like that, it’s such a privilege to have a voice that you’re able to say it loud enough that people can hear.
“And one of the main reasons for not going round the world earlier was because I didn’t know if there was a place for me in this outdoor world. I didn’t know if I fitted the mould and that was purely because I just didn’t see people like me. So just being my authentic self. I love the thought of young girls and boys seeing women who are doing things that are strong, athletic and feminine and building a picture of a realistic woman, and I think that’s important storytelling.”
Were there ever times that Graham regretted embarking on her journey, for example when she found herself on a lethal stretch of highway in Siberia where juggernauts missed her by centimetres, or when she cycled exhausted through bear country in Alaska?
“No, I never regretted it ever. It was just such a privilege to be out there. Also being a mum from the age of 18, I’d never had four months to really get to know myself. I didn’t know how I was going to act or feel in that space, not to mention the privilege of having the choice, of having the money, the kit… So even on the really hard, hard moments, that sense of gratitude was never far. Every single day I felt at least once that I was grateful for being there. I didn’t feel like that every minute of every day,” she laughs, ”but even in really hard times that perspective would come back. It doesn’t make it less hurt-y or warmer or dryer, but it does give you perspective.
“That moment I passed over the start line, that was it, I was just doing it, no questions. I didn’t think about quitting.”
When was Graham happiest on her ride?
“At night time. I’d get beautiful nights when I was watching the moon coming up, and every night I’d get this moment of personal space and clarity and had fantastic rides through the night where it was just me and the sky and I felt so alive. These were magical moments, and I felt so connected to the planet. Just watching the moon do its thing, watching the stars move around and here I was just riding my bike around the planet; we all just seemed to be working in harmony. I had that throughout the world, there wasn’t one place where I didn’t have amazing skies, and those were my happiest moments.”
And what was the weirdest experience she had on the cycle? As she thinks I suggest sleeping in drainage tunnels under roads perhaps?
“I wasn’t even thinking about that,” she laughs. “You normalise absolutely everything that’s happening out there so nothing felt particularly weird. It just felt like life on the road and what you had to do, so if I was getting a pipe to sleep in that was a good day. If I was eating Wotsits for the whole day because that’s all I had left, that was normal. Getting cracked onto via Google translate, that was probably the strangest thing. I’d never had that before, never want to have it again, so that was the weirdest.”
Since her return Graham has cycled the 2,000 km Pan-Celtic race and the Highland Trail, but not signed up to race, having been working with GCN+ making film documentaries, and working on cycle projects in Columbia, Iceland and Mongolia.
“I’ve been hungry for different things,” she says. “And I’ve got tonnes of hobbies - lots of active stuff - run, ski, roller skate, crossfit - but equally I enjoy downtime, being at home with my family, and I’ve got a greenhouse and do like pottering around in the shed.
“Getting this book out was the biggest adventure of all and I’ve purposely not crammed my life since to give myself a bit of time. I’ve got lots of things locally that are on my list, like running some munros and doing more outdoor swimming and I’m going out to the Alps this summer run with my friend round Mont Blanc. I want to do smaller things that have been on my bucket list for ages but I’ve never got round to because I’ve always been concentrating on such big things.”
We’re not sure that running up munros or round Mont Blanc qualify as ‘smaller things’ but this is a woman who’s cycled round the world so it’s all a matter of perspective. Sure enough, moments later she’s back talking bikes and planning future trips.
“I’d like to go mountain biking around the world,” she says, “visit all the big mountain ranges and take a lot longer about it. There's so much in the world to cycle, so many roads and mountains to get over…”
And with that she finishes her coffee, saddles up and she’s gone.
Coffee First, Then The World by Jenny Graham is published by Bloomsbury Sport in hardback priced £16.99. Also available in eBook and Audiobook.
Jenny Graham podcasts are on Spotify, ITunes and GCN+ and along with her film Eastbound, are also downloadable from her website jenny-graham.com WATCH HERE