Juliana Buhring on her circumnavigation of the world by bike
BY LARA VIRIOT
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2019)
She had never cycled much before – but nevertheless she decided to circumnavigate the globe, following just eight months of preparation and without any sponsors. That’s how true adventures start. It’s the story of a sporting battle with many highs and lows. And a journey to the inner self.
Juliana, you hold the Guinness World Record as the fastest woman to circumnavigate the globe by bike. How does that feel?
I won’t hold it for long! Another woman who I admire a lot, Jenny Graham, completed her circumnavigation last year and is waiting for Guinness to verify her record. However, I am proud to be the first woman to show that it could be done and hope many more women will try in future.
What does cycling mean to you?
Cycling is freedom. It is a kind of meditation, when I can detox from the stresses of life and get back to the basics of what I need to be happy, which is very little. The simplicity of ‘ride, eat, sleep, repeat’, it brings everything else into focus and puts things into perspective. There is something beautiful and appealing to me about the solitude of a bikepacking adventure, just me and my bike on the open road, with no definite plan, not knowing when I’ll next eat or where I’ll sleep that night. I think that cycling has always been a symbol of freedom for women in particular, harking back to the women’s suffrage movement.
How did you come up with the idea? And what were your thoughts at the time when you decided to go for this project?
I decided to cycle the world after the death of someone I loved very much. After he died I lost my way, I didn’t know how to bounce back from the devastating sadness. I needed to find a way to heal myself and to carry on with life. He had promised me we’d go on an adventure together, so I decided I would go on that adventure anyway. The fact I chose a bicycle to do it was very random, but once the idea got stuck in my head, I couldn't get rid of it. When I found out that no woman had ever made a complete nonstop circumnavigation, I was curious to find out why. People kept telling me what I wanted to do was impossible. I didn’t have any money and I was not an athlete and had never even really ridden a bicycle. I told them, “by the time I get back, I'll be a cyclist”. I think we discover the best of ourselves by doing something completely new that is outside our comfort zone, or what we think we are able to do.
How did you prepare for this project both physically and mentally?
Training physically involved lots of hours on the bike. Every day I’d go out a little longer, pedal a little further, until I was cycling up to 200 km quite easily. Mentally, I think I wasn’t all there at the time. I was suffering so much pain psychologically that the cycling became a way to channel that grief. It also made the physical pain and exhaustion a welcome distraction and I was probably able to suffer a lot more than I would have allowed myself to ordinarily.
Did you ever find yourself in dangerous situations while
circumnavigating the world?
Once in New Zealand I got stuck up in the mountains with freezing temperatures and strong winds and I started to get hypothermic. I was rescued by a lovely elderly couple who let me sleep the night in their campervan with them. The only other time I felt inherently unsafe was cycling through India. Often whenever I stopped, I would be surrounded by a hostile mob of men. A couple of times it got so bad, the police had to come with batons to break up the crowd and let me escape. Or I would act like a crazy monkey and they seemed to fear insanity and would leave me alone.
You often spend a lot of time on your own during your tours, which can be very long. What do you do against this solitude? Do you have any special tricks?
I listen to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts when the route becomes tedious or long. I also tend to talk to my bike, since it’s my main companion, it takes on a life of its own, my version of a “Wilson” I guess. But most of the time I actually enjoy the solitude and being alone with my thoughts. I think it’s important to have stints of solitude every so often. If you aren’t okay being alone with yourself, then you won’t be okay with people either.
What difficulties have you encountered in the various different countries?
Travelling alone, everything can and did happen to me, but usually most of the troubles I encountered were mechanical breakdowns, or being underprepared with my kit or gear for the many different situations I found myself in.
I found my human encounters to be the most rewarding. Everyone said it was dangerous for me to be travelling alone around the world, but I found the opposite to be true. No matter where I went, I experienced the kindness and generosity of strangers over and over again. It reaffirmed my belief in the basic goodness of people.
What parts of the world would you still like to explore and why?
There are still so many countries and places I’d like to explore by bike. I try to tick a new one off my bucket list every year. High up on the list are the Himalayas, Indonesia, Scandinavia, Peru and Bolivia.
Would you bike around the world again – and if so, which route would you take and what would you do differently?
If I ever cycled the world again, I would probably do everything differently. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing so it was like jumping in the sea without knowing how to swim. I had the wrong bike with the wrong parts, gear, everything. I would also definitely cycle in the opposite direction. I headed the “wrong way” in order to avoid the monsoon in Asia. It was a choice between rain or headwinds, so I chose the wind, which, in hindsight, was probably worse. I think I rode into a headwind 75 per cent of the time.
Juliana Buhring is a British-German ultra-endurance cyclist and author. She only began her cycling career in 2011 at the age of 30. In 2012 she set the first Guinness World Record as the fastest woman to circumnavigate the world by bike. She cycled 29,000 kilometres around the world in 152 days in total, 144 of which she spent in the saddle. She is currently the world’s strongest Endura cyclist.
Picture credit © Juliana Buhring