Jenny Graham Q&A: ‘I’ve stayed in more public toilets than I care to admit’

The Scottish ultra-endurance cyclist talks about bikepacking, hiding from bears in Alaska, and writing a book

Portrait image of ultra cyclist Jenny Graham
(Image credit: Markus Stitz)

In 2018, Jenny Graham broke the world record to become the fastest woman to cycle around the world unsupported. She wrote about the four-month trip in her book ‘Coffee First, Then the World’, which was one of Cycling Weekly’s favourites of 2023. 

What was your first bike? 

I had a little BMX. It was like a bumblebee sort of yellow and black. I can’t remember what make it was, but I remember the colours really vividly. My neighbour got the same one as well, so we would just burn about on our BMXs when we were probably four or five. There was a local BMX track where we used to go riding a lot, but my wheels definitely weren’t leaving the ground. 

When did you properly get into cycling? 

I was like 24 when I got my first mountain bike and went into the woods. Even then, I just did it a bit. I was more into just getting into the hills, getting into the mountains, climbing, running and hiking. Then when I found out about bikepacking, and how you could take your bike into these places that I loved to go, that was the thing that really sparked my love for cycling. 

How did you get into the ultra-endurance scene? 

I was planning a bikepacking trip to Romania, and I was looking at panniers, and my friend said, “Oh, you want to check out these bags. This is going to be the new thing. And there’s this race called the Highland Trail 550.” He got the tracking page up on the screen for me and there was only one pink dot on the whole screen. All the blue dots were going round, and Iona Evans was the first and only woman to be out there. I was like, "Oh my God, that looks so cool but why is there only one woman in it?" And that really spurred me on to be on the start line the following year. 

ultra cyclist Jenny Graham riding with Mark Beaumont

(Image credit: Markus Stitz)

What’s the best place your career has taken you?

That’s such a hard question. Something that’s been in my head recently is when I was out in Colombia with GCN a few years ago making some documentaries. We got right into the heart of things and met the most incredible people. We were taking bikes places that clearly bikes didn’t go, you know, people weren’t riding there. 

What about the most obscure place? 

There have been a few toilet blocks at 3am where I’ve been questioning my life. Honestly, you could point to any corner of the Highlands on a map and I’ll have a story about a night that I’ve had to spend in a public toilet or a shed because I’ve completely miscalculated how fast I could go. I’ve stayed in more public toilets than I’d like to admit. 

There are also places that have stood out for me, like Siberia, Mongolia and China, where I was blown away on my round-the-world trip. Just the whole culture, the smell, the feel, everything about it. Coming into Asia was like the most foreign place I’d ever been, and the fact that I cycled there from the middle of Europe was such a cool feeling. I’d meet little kids on the street and show them Google Maps, and I’d point to Scotland and they’d just look confused. They had literally never heard it. 

Do you ever feel unsafe on your trips? 

When I feel really unsafe it’s mostly with traffic, to be honest. Riding round the world, it was really sketchy going across Russia. 

I also felt really unsafe with the wildlife in Alaska. As soon as I saw my first bears, I was like, "Oh, shit, right. They’re real, and they’re here, and I’m sleeping out in the woods, and so are they." I just had to keep my head together to not let the fear get too out of control. When the fatigue kicks in, things become a bit more irrational in your head. 

What do you do to keep your mind occupied? 

I’ve got loads of techniques to keep me going. I quite like counting, especially if I have a tailwind, estimating where I’m going using the computer and running through all the maps. 

Other times, I might have audiobooks, podcasts, or music. I find that I can get an extra 10 miles out of the day if I stick in a good podcast or good tunes. When I did my round-the-world, my mum made up a playlist for me with loads of folk music and stuff on it. When I heard the songs, I could just picture family moments and it gave me a lot of strength. I also asked my friends to send me their Desert Island Discs - their eight favourite songs - and that was quite nice, because I’d play the music and think about the person who sent me it. 

How did you find writing a book? 

When I look back at it, it was actually a bit traumatic. I had to relive every moment of my round-the-world trip and dig really deep into how I actually felt and what was going on for me. I had given loads of talks, made a film, made podcasts, but they had all only scratched the surface of what went on. 

I’m rubbish at sitting still as well, and concentrating, so it took me so long just because of hours sitting doing nothing. I went to so many different places to write this book. I had a huge deadline in the spring, and I bought a new tent and went on a bike tour of Spain, because I decided that’s what I needed to do. I spent like six weeks in Spain, just camping and running out of charge on my laptop battery and never being able to get WiFi. My editor was like, "You’re where?!".

I’m not sure I’d recommend it as a writing technique, because you don’t write very well, and you don’t tour very well. 

What’s your next challenge? 

I’ve signed up to an Ironman, a local Ironman, which is completely different for me. I just thought it might be quite nice training, mixing it up a bit over winter. I do a bit of running, and I can swim, but with no technique or force. I’m having to train at everything, which is really exciting. I’m looking at my training schedule now and I’m like, "Oh my God, it’s so cool." 

I’ll do some bikepacking stuff at the end of next year, but that’s to be confirmed. 

Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1