coffee first, then the world. one woman's record-breaking pedal around the planet. jenny graham bloomsbury sport hardback 288pp illus. £16.99

coffee first, then the world

i will happily confess to the fact that, while i love riding my bicycle, i am bereft of anything resembling wanderlust. during my participation in three editions of hotchilee's london-paris, ride, other than the champs elysees and the arc de triomphe, throughout each of the three days in the saddle, i had not a clue where i was. and nor was i much bothered by that fact. but thankfully, the definition of the word wanderlust does not rest upon my velocipedinal activities; thankfully, there are other cyclists possessed of sterner stuff and a great deal more of exploratory inquisitiveness than am i.

several years ago, two friends of mine gave up their jobs, rented out their flat and headed off around the world "cherry picking the best places in the world to cycle". in other words, it took as much time as it took. alastair humphreys set off at the age of 24; four years 60 countries, five continents and 46,000 miles later, he returned. edinburgh-based, markus stitz encircled the world on a single-speed. but none of the above set out to break any records, unlike scots riders, mark beaumont, who currently holds the record at under 80 days, and latterly, jenny graham who holds the women's record at 124 days.

the difference, in the case of the latter, was the unsupported nature of her particular circumnavigation, a facet of the ride to which she strenuoulsy adhered. mr beaumont's ride was fully supported, but oddly, guinness world records, self-appointed arbiter of pretty much any record you care to mention, does not differentiate between the level, or lack, of outside support.

jenny graham opted to commence her 29,000km, round the world bike ride from berlin's brandenberg gate in june 2018, possibly, she records, as the result of a childhood obsession.

" a ten year-old, I obsessed over cheryl baker and roy castle's tv programme, record breakers programme." [...] "it was the first time I remember questioning what action was needed between havig the dream and then making it happen."

self identifying as not having been particularly sporty, graham was brought up in inverness in the scottish highlands. her avowed lack of sporting prowess stretched even to her appreciation of the tour de france; "...what these men were doing on bikes, didn't feel in any way connected to how I use(d) a bike." having volunteered at an outdoor education centre with a remit to work with young people "...displaying challenging behaviours...", in 2010, a fellow student recommended 'the man who cycled the world', the story of mark beaumont's record-breaking, self-supported 2008 global endurance ride.

" was the first insight I had into what a feat of endurance on this scale would take."

and what of the book's curious title? the author elicits in her chapter on preparation for the ride, that coffee stops would assume major importance on the ride. "It had to be coffee first and I had to have one before I could really get on my way." what ms graham opted not to have at the start was anything by way of friends or family, figuring the enormity of the challenge that lay ahead was enough stress for one day. that enormity included a daily target of around 15 hours in the saddle and a daily average of 290km. "...the plan was to complete the world in 110 days."

jenny's book is divided into distinct sections, the first of which takes the reader from europe to asia following the author on her edinburgh-built shand stooshie rolling on wheels built by wheelsmith's derek mclay. those initial kilometres on leaving germany, took her through lithuania, acclimatising herself to the daily grind of riding a bike for way past most folks' bedtimes. "In preparation, I'd imagined that horrific weather, endless miles and huge mountain passes were going to be the elements that wore me down. I'd overlooked insects."

russia followed on from lithuania, a country for which, she records, gaining entry visas was a mission in itself. for any reader who considers they might wish to follow in her tyre tracks, ms. graham helpfully generalises the trials and tribulations of negotiating entry and exit from several of the countries that were a necessary part of her route. and as mentioned by many other intrepid cyclists who have attempted to ride across the russian continent, unruly traffic was a constant threat. "Lorries would pull out [...] and drive full speed towards me on the wrong side of the road. There was no recognition of my right of way and no indication that they might slow down."

"As the least importnt person on the road, I felt like a pawn that could be sacrificed at any moment."

and, for the lone woman cyclist, it seems that it was not only unruly traffic that proved a danger, but occasionally the male drivers of said vehicles. however, it would be remiss of this review to concern itself solely with the difficulties engendered by an unsupported bike ride around the world. as the majority of cyclists will know, even those who remain steadfast to minimal distances, such as yours truly, there are a commensurate number of joys to be experienced along the way. such as the friendships and generosities offered, with no thought of personal gain, and the sights to be seen. "Behind this little bus shelter I just had the best view of the sunrise."

rather obviously, riding a bike for 124 days, entails having to sleep for 123 nights, and on an unsupported ride, that often meant making best use of what was available at the time. each day's riding is headed with such details, including the ride time and distance covered. jenny's beds for the night included a bench in a cafe, bivvy in the woods behind some sheds, the back of a bus shelter, storm drain pipes and very occasionally, a motel, a posh hotel, or proffered bed for the night.

when russia and mongolia ended, it was time to board a flight from beijing to perth in australia.

throughout the trip, the author often benefited from the expertise of bike shop mechanics, her story frequently espousing the skills and generosity of this worldwide network of experienced fettlers, without whom, many cyclists would come to a grinding halt. and not solely for their mechanical skills. "I went to this bike shop in Perth [...] they were the most amazing people in the world [...] we've got your bike sorted, what do you need?" friendly behaviour such as this seems to be law amongst bike shop owners and mechanics across all the major continents of the world, continuing across the pacific into the wilds of canada and southern europe.

the fascinating part of 'first coffee, then the world' is the compulsiveness of the narrative. because from the outset, we all know the end result, yet i turned each page with trepidation lest a physical or mechanical interruption put paid to a successful conclusion. in australia, the fears emanated from the possibility or liklihood of snakes, while north america, from alaska, across the yukon and into canada, it was the possibly exaggerated danger from grizzly bears ("You'd need to be very unlucky [...] It's very rare"). it would not be unseemly to think that the interest in cycling around the world in 124 days would be exclusively confined to the cyclist, while we, as ostensibly interested bystanders, might find ourselves considerably less invested in the outcome.

stretch that possibility all the way from the brandenberg gate and back again across a range of different countries that almost merged into each other (borders are, after all, simply lines on a map), in a story occupying nigh on 300 pages, and it wouldn't necessarily be too hard to accept a bit of 'jet-lag' along the way. this is not such a book - it's one which maintains a high level of involved interest from beginning to end. the author has an admirable knack of neatly traversing the path from travelogue to related, non-linear digressions every bit as engrossing as the ride itself and back again without missing an inherently modest step. not for nothing has jenny graham found herself to be in demand on the speaking circuit.

if this tale can appeal to a hebridean homeboy such as myself, i feel sure that the world (pun intended) is its oyster. this is not the tour de france, not paris-roubaix and definitely not de ronde van vlaanderen, and all the better for it. undoubtedly jenny graham's second triumph. and once it was all over, "...rather than 'training down' as advised, I just rode as part of everyday life.

wednesday 12 april 2023

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................