Around the world in 124 days – on two wheels


Duncan R. Jamieson
Ashland University

Jenny Graham
Coffee First, Then the World: One Woman’s Record-Breaking Pedal Around the Planet
288 pages, hardcover
London: Bloomsbury Sport 2023
ISBN 978-1-3994-0106-7

I was meant to be tough,
Fearless and an adventurer,
Challenging the perceptions
Of the dangers facing women,
Embracing my wild soul.
Jenny Graham

People have been writing of their travel experiences for millennia, some more successfully than others. Jenny Graham’sCoffee First, Then the World, is on the successful side. Following Karl von Drais’ invention of an alternative means of transportation in 1817, others modified and advanced it to become the bicycle in the 1860s. In April 1884 Thomas Stevens rode, pushed and carried one of these high wheel, or ordinary, machines across the United States from San Francisco to Boston. He then crossed the Atlantic to Great Britain, then on to Europe, the Middle East, India, China and Japan before crossing the Pacific to return to a heroes’ welcome in San Francisco in January 1887. Since then, an untold number of women and men have followed in his wheel tracks, headed east or west, to circumnavigate the globe awheel, but few attempted to be the fastest. In 1955, the Guinness Book of World Records first appeared, establishing criteria for, among other feats, speed cycling around the world. To be acknowledged the cyclist needs to travel by bicycle 18,000 miles (28,968 kilometers) in one continuous journey crossing four continents and two antipodal points. There are specific criteria for supported and unsupported rides. The times for both men and women have fallen significantly; at the time of this writing the men’s record holder for a supported ride is Mark Beaumont while the women’s record holder for an unsupported ride is Jenny Graham. Coincidentally since I am Scottish American, it is worth noting that both are Scots!

In the interest of full disclosure, though I have been tricycling, bicycling and now recumbent tricycling for decades, I have never participated in a cycle race at any level. I did once as a preadolescent accept a challenge from a friend to “race” down 104th Avenue, from 206th Street to 199th Street. No prizes, no spectators, no commentary. He won by half a wheel. Then and still today, I much prefer the slow lane where I can stop and smell the roses as I cycle by.

In 2010 someone recommended Beaumont’s The Man Who Cycled the World, his account of his first record-breaking unsupported ride, which hooked Graham on her own attempt at a record.

Jenny Graham, an endurance cyclist, has a totally different vibe. Starting at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, a location chosen by her son Lachan, at 6:00 a.m., June 16, 2018, she began her attempt to lower the women’s around the world bicycle time for the Guinness World Record. She set a daily goal of 300 kilometers and fifteen hours in the saddle. She returned on October 18, 2018, riding 29,352 kilometers in 124 days, breaking the previous record of 144 days. From Germany she went to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia and China, then on to the Southern Hemisphere to Australia and New Zealand. Back in the Northern Hemisphere she crossed the United States and Canada, then on to Portugal, Spain, France and Germany. In all she crossed four continents and fourteen countries. Ten years earlier Mark Beaumont earned his place in the Guinness Records, only to lose it before regaining it in 2017.

Jenny learned to ride in an empty carpark with her father stabilizing her while her mother cheered from the sidelines. Once she no longer felt her father’s hand, she rode unsupported and from then on “I never really stopped riding my bike” (p. 6). When she didn’t have enough work experience to land a teaching position in outdoor sports, she began volunteering with an Outdoor Education program for young people. This made her eligible for a nine to five position guiding youth in a variety of sporting endeavors. In 2010 someone recommended Beaumont’s The Man Who Cycled the World, his account of his first record-breaking unsupported ride, which hooked Graham on her own attempt at a record. Still, she debated “whether riding around the world at pace was a waste of a trip? Would you miss out on too many experiences, or was it actually a purposeful adventure?” (p. 9). Though she accepted the challenge of riding “at pace,” she does acknowledge, sometimes more introspectively than others, regret about what might have been.

Jenny Graham with her Guinness World Record certificate.

While this in not my idea of how to bicycle, I am in awe of her resilience, mental and physical strength. Graham does seize on two very important realities. First, if you’re interested in a record such as this, it has to be a complete, total, all-consuming endeavor. On multiple occasions she continued for many more than the scheduled fifteen hours a day to keep on track. She found it easier to ride at night—less traffic, for example, than in the early part of the day—and her normal time to stop had become around 3:00 a.m., “although the hours after midnight were becoming much tougher to deal with” (p. 232). That’s when the “sleepy monsters” attacked. She would stop and straddle the bike with her head resting on the handlebars to sleep. As soon as she felt the bike lean, she awakened and continued on before she fell. A daily regimen of fifteen hours or more bicycling, day after day, has got to be tedious. Second, the time off the bike is at least as important as the time spent pedaling. Except when she was flying from one continent to another, she had no rest days. Pedaling was only part of the issue; every day when not moving she had to charge lights, phone, GPS, and camera as well as maintain a diary, take pictures, send and read messages. “Despite wanting those hours on the bike, more than anything I found it difficult to always prioritise them and nothing falls away quicker than minutes in the day” (p. 231-232).

Again, my focus is on traveling and touring rather than racing. I crossed North America from Los Angeles to Boston in forty-seven days with a group sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists. We averaged seventy-five or eighty miles a day with several rest days on the journey. We had time to explore and enjoy the places and sights as we traveled. The record for the Race Across America is seven days, fifteen hours and fifty-six minutes. Neither right nor wrong, Jenny Graham is more aligned with those who participate in the Race Across America or with Robert Louis Jefferson (1866-1914), a member of the Catford (England) Cycling Club who in 1894 set a speed record for cycling from London to Moscow and back than she is to me, or for example, Bernard Newman (1897-1968) and Dervla Murphy (1931-2022), the doyenne of cycle travel. A British civil servant, Newman spent his summers from the 1930s to the 1960s bicycling through every country in Europe. Newman generally averaged about fifty miles to leave the rest of the day for engaging with the local people and exploring the sights. His books offer an intimate look at the daily lives of ordinary people and places. Again not a criticism, but I can’t help but compare both Graham and Beaumont, in constant contact with friends and supporters, with Dervla Murphy who during her fifty-year cycling career often traveled off the grid. On a journey to southern Africa, she purposefully told no-one where she was going nor what her plans were. Still, no matter the length, speed or purpose of the journey, relative specifically to calls of nature, it “stops you mulling over the big picture stuff and brings you right back into the here and now, and the immediacy of dealing with the simplest of tasks” (p 141). Anyone bicycling for any reason at any speed is well aware of this reality.

Another challenge involved riding through wilderness areas, home to bears, moose, wolves and snakes. Though she saw each, none posed a threat. Mosquitoes, on the other hand did create an issue when their bites caused her face to swell.

Like so many other cyclists who traveled through poorer regions of the world Graham came face to face with her entitlement. It struck Barbara Savage in India, Erica Warmbrunn in Vietnam and David Duncan in South Africa. In Graham’s case it came in a Siberian hostel. Arriving at 2:00 a.m. she inadvertently commandeered a bed previously occupied by another woman who had arrived earlier with a man and a child of about eight. In the morning the obvious divide between them and herself struck Graham; though she knew nothing of their circumstances, she knew she had a support network and equipment worth thousands while they were alone and destitute. “It was a stark reminder of my privilege” (p. 68).

Being monolingual, language presented a barrier, especially given her distinct Scottish burr. Gestures and sign language bridged the gaps while Google translate offered some assistance. Beyond communication issues, as prepared as she could be, equipment challenges often happened far from the nearest bicycle shop. Ever inventive, Graham created workarounds, my favorite involving a stiff chain. With no appropriate lubrication available, instead of using grease which would attract dirt, sand and grime, she bought tinned sardines and used the oil as an effective substitute! Another challenge involved riding through wilderness areas, home to bears, moose, wolves and snakes. Though she saw each, none posed a threat. Mosquitoes, on the other hand did create an issue when their bites caused her face to swell. Weather also did not cooperate. During my transcontinental ride, the only rain we faced came one night in Texas after our day was done; the following morning broke clear and sunny. Graham, on the other hand, rode in the rain for days, often adding low temperatures to make it more miserable. Being a woman alone represented another challenge of a different sort; though never sexually assaulted Graham was propositioned.

Jenny Graham’s laser focus on the Guinness world record pulled her away from the Brandenburg Gate while throughout the 124 days on the road it constantly drew her back. Unfortunately, in many ways this makes her narrative shallow, lacking depth. In Australia she passed up an opportunity to divert for a few kilometers to witness “a pod of up to a hundred orca mums and their young [which] would be spectacular” (p. 125). Later in British Columbia she refused to soak in the Liard hot springs despite their rejuvenating power. Then in the Great Lakes a friend with whom she shared “a love of good food and even better coffee” drove six hours and offered to take her to a local roastery café, “a detour of a few kilometres each way [but] I was saving every ounce of energy. Instead, I pulled into a Subway” (p. 229). This was her new normal, which undoubtedly disappointed her friend. While this dedication to the goal made success possible, it also leads me to wonder if, in the words of Michel de Montaigne in 1580, “is the game worth the candle?” I did enjoy the book, but I will leave it up to the reader to answer Montaigne’s question for themselves.

Copyright © Duncan R. Jamieson 2023

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