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Coffee First, Then The World

Author:             Jenny Graham

Publisher:         Bloomsbury

Date:                14/3/24

Format:            Paperback

Pages:              277

ISBN:                9781399401043

Price:                £10.99

Reviewed by      Richard Peploe

Every year, numerous people embark on some sort of cycling adventure, and a fair number decide to write a book about their travels. We have covered a few of them here, such as ‘Northbound & Down’ and  ‘Eat, Sleep, Cycle’. That group includes Jenny Graham, and while ‘Coffee first, then the world’ first appeared in hardback format last year, it’s the arrival of the paperback version that has prompted this review.

If you do plan to write a book, it would be useful to do have something noteworthy to write about – but what? Even cycling around the world has become fairly mainstream, with ever more niche attempts. Single-speed?  Done. What about a unicycle?  Also done

Coffee first, then the world cover.jpg

Setting a world record is always an option, but not an easy one: Mark ‘Marketing’ Beaumont garnered lots of publicity for his successful attempt of under 195 days in 2008, taking 81 days off the old record. It was the account of that trip, ‘The Man Who Cycled the World’, that gave Graham “the first insight I had into what a feat of endurance on this scale would take.”

Since then things have become a whole lot harder, culminating in Beaumont’s new record of under 79 days in 2017. Now that was definitely worth another book.

One significant difference between Beaumont’s two trips is that the first was completely unsupported, whereas the latter was so extensively supported that you can’t really compare them – except that is exactly what Guiness World Records do, because they don’t distinguish between the two approaches.

Guiness do however have a different category for male and female records (and tandem), so Graham’s target was the more realistic (but controversial) 144 days set by Paola Gianotti in 2014: even though that attempt was supported, Graham decided to make things harder for herself by riding unsupported – yet still managed to knock 20 days off it. 

After just a few pages I feared that self-inflicted (and unnecessary) drama was going to dominate the narrative: the night before starting the race, Graham still hadn’t got around to unloading the routes onto her Garmin GPS. “In only six hours’ time I was due to start the ride of a lifetime … and I’d just realised that I didn’t even know the way out of Berlin.”

However, once underway, Graham grapples with the sorts of challenges that tend to confront such adventurers: border crossings, time zones, language, weather, illness, animals, and mechanical mishaps, for example. 

Equally there are plenty of positive experiences, including the kindness of strangers, local hospitality, and some memorable night skies. 

This is not a guide on how to attempt such a journey yourself: there are no maps or detailed routes, nor will you find much discussion about equipment. As a result, the book will have appeal beyond cyclists, because there’s little here to alienate them.  

book eview cycling world jenny graham

I felt the few cycle-specific discussions address some of the more common questions you might expect from less-experienced cyclists, such as choice of saddle, or how to avoid saddle-sores. Or how about having a pee? Brace yourself for a description of using the toilet-friendly flap of Endura’s Drop Seat bibs … while still riding along. Not surprisingly, it was “only a night-time activity and preferably in a rural setting.”

We also learn that the oil from a tin of sardines makes for a passable short-term chain lubricant – and you are still left with a nutritious snack! 

book review friends jenny graham round the world cycle

Although the extent of any outside assistance would make no difference to a claim on the record, Graham was determined to keep to the spirit of a self-supported ride. This includes trying to remain loyal to any brand that was providing equipment should the need arise for replacement kit – where only other brands might be available. The choices “definitely slowed me down, but they enabled me to maintain my integrity”. 

Just because you can achieve things on the bike that are beyond the abilities of mere mortals, it doesn’t mean that you are also equipped to write a compelling account of your trip. Fortunately, Graham can do both, although we learn that  she had doubts, taking “four times longer to write about the world than to ride it”.

I didn’t expect too much from the pictures: after all, if you are on your own with a record to set, faffing around taking photos is unlikely to be the top priority. However, while the images are not plentiful, and tend to be selfie-style, they actually give a good flavour of what it was like to be there – both in good times and bad.

Graham may have fallen short of her personal target of 110 days, but by any conventional measure her achievement is incredible. Fortunately for the rest of us her abilities with a keyboard aren’t far behind those on a bike, giving us all some appreciation of what it was like on the journey.

Great adventure, great story: chapeau. 


Cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury

Inside images courtesy of Jenny Graham

cycle ride book round the world review



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