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This Road I Ride, by Juliana Buhring

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Juliana Buhring
Juliana Buhring
(Photo: Richard Brandon-Cox)

This Road I Ride, by Juliana BuhringTitle (UK): This Road I Ride - My Incredible Journey From Novice To Fastest Woman To Cycle The Globe
Title (US): This Road I Ride - Sometimes It Takes Losing Everything To Find Yourself
Author: Juliana Buhring
Publisher: Piatkus (UK) | WW Norton (US)
Year: 2016
Pages: 210
Order: Little, Brown (UK) | WW Norton (US)
What it is: An account of Juliana Buhring's record setting round the world bike ride
Strengths: Buhring's own story - not just the story of her 2012 round the world ride - is curiously engaging
Weaknesses: The story of Buhring's round the world ride is told economically but the telling of other parts of the story is perhaps too taut

Before the Gods that made the Gods1 - before Pierre Chany and Orio Vergani, before Antoin Blondin and Dino Buzzatti, before Henri Desgrange and Pierre Giffard, before these pen-wielding Titans made Gods of riders from Charles Terront to Jacques Anquetil, Maurice Garin to Fausto Coppi - there were other Gods of cycling. Older Gods. Smaller Gods. But Gods nonetheless. Household names, in some households. Revered. Worshipped.

Inspiring faith and deserving allegiance, it was all a lot easier back then. All you had to do was do something no one had done before. The bicycle - the not very modest bicycle, which had yet to find humility and an association with the working class - was an ideal way to do that. It was new. There were new records to be set for everything, from the time taken to ride a fraction of a mile up to the most miles ridden in a year. And this included pointless point to point records, riding from Sometown to Anytown, wherever took the fancy (London to Brighton, Moscow to Paris). It was the birth of modern racing, the history books tell us, but not as we know it. It was also the birth of the world of ultracycling, which we are only beginning to reacquaint ourselves with. And if there was one ultracycling event that captured the imagination - and attention - it was globe-girdling: riding round the world.

There was something about the idea of riding around the world that seemed to attract public attention in the bicycle's early years, those closing decades of the nineteenth century. Jules Verne had published his story about the globe-trotting Phileas Fogg in 1873 (shortly after the Franco-Prussian War), helping to popularise an idea that was already gaining followers. By the time the diamond-framed safety cycle arrived at start of the 1890s the romance of the round the world trip was coupled with an ideal means of locomotion (ideal, unless you preferred the more sedate method of completing the whole journey by train and boat, an option that was being sold to the public at the time). Such an adventure, of course, was not cheap. An edition of Bearings from 1893 that I flicked through estimated the cost to be $5,0002. But, with a booming bicycle industry, finding sponsors willing to pick up that tab was only a minor challenge.

Where it all began for bicyclists is even less clear than where Verne - who had a magpie-like tendency to borrow from others - got his idea from. There's mention in several books3 of Richard Lesclide, the editor of Le Vélocipède Illustré, having pseudonymously authored in 1869 - the same year bike racing was born, if the plaque in that park in Paris4 is to be believed - an account of a fictitious round the world bike ride, Tour du monde au vélocipède, his hero an American wheelman called Jonathan Schopp. Bearings credits a man called Tom Stevens with having set the first globe-girdling record. Stevens did his ride in the 1880s - it was chronicled in Outing magazine - on one of Pope's ordinaries (or the rather extraordinary penny-farthing, as we know them today), starting in San Francisco in 1884 and travelling east, across to Boston, allegedly becoming the first to complete the US transcon ride along the way5. After wintering in New York Stevens sailed for Liverpool and then travelled south through Newhaven, stopping off in Berkhamsted where he had been born. A ferry took him to Dieppe and from France he travelled onward to Turkey before wintering in Tehran. He then travelled on to Calcutta by way of Afghanistan, and on through Hong Kong and China before boarding a final ferry in Japan to take him back to San Francisco in early 1887.

Stevens was followed by others. How many I don't know. But they included William Sachtblen and Thomas Allen Jnr. Edward Lunn and Francis H Lowe. Darwin and Hattie McIlrath. Karl Creelman. An 1893 edition of Bearings carries a report of a father who, for two years, scoured the shelves of a St Louis public library to learn more about the places his unnamed son had passed through and written home about while on a round the world bike ride. Another edition of Bearings from 1893 - I was just dipping in, quite unscientifically - carried an advertisement from the Overman Wheel Company (of Boston, Denver, Washington and San Francisco) in which Frank Lenz recounted his journey so far: "I have been gone just a year from home; to here I have covered awheel and afoot, in America, Japan, and China, 8,592 miles; and crossed the Pacific and Yellow seas by steamer, over 6,000 miles of water." The ad also noted how Lenz had "suffered many attacks from the natives, in several instances barely escaping destruction." The journey was never completed, Lenz disappearing somewhere in Turkey the following year, presumed killed.

Few remember Tom Stevens today, even though he was once a globe-girdling God. The riders who followed him - and the riders who failed to follow him, like Lenz - are just as forgotten, though in their day they found fame and (sometimes) wealth. That's the way it is with old Gods. They lose their power. Even when someone reinvented the idea of globe-girldling and brought back into fashion the idea of riding around the world for fame and glory - it had gone out of fashion, but never quite away, just into that hinterland of ignored and overlooked - the Gods of old were ignored in favour of our newer Gods. This was the 1980s - the most beautiful decade of all, a scientific fact - with Nick Sanders tootling around the world, or 20,900 kilometres of it, in 78 days. But, as with the UCI's multiple attempts to press the reset button on the Hour record, Sanders's ride was wiped from the memory, like Bobby Ewing's death after he stepped out of that shower.

There had always been a problem with globe-girdling: people just made up the rules as they went along. And while Stevens and others are forgotten despite appearing to have carried out feats we would even today count as round the world bike rides, there is a woman who is remembered for having ridden around the world even though she did no such thing: Annie Cohen, born in Riga in or around 1870, who became Annie Kopchovsky in 1888 upon her marriage and who gained a third name, the most lasting of all, in the 1890s, when the Londonderry spring water company paid her to be - in today's parlance - their brand ambassador. It was in 1894-95 that Annie Londonderry performed the feat that earned her the fame she has today: she accepted a wager to travel the world by bicycle within fifteen months, and earn her keep as she did it. How much of her globe-girdling adventure was accomplished awheel is open to debate, and it would be more true to say she travelled the world with her bike, rather than on it. But that was the way it was then: you made the rules up as you went along. Now, it's not so.

The round the world record, today, officially began in the noughties - an ugly name for an ugly decade - when Steve Strange (regrettably, not the New Romantic) beat Phil White (not the Cervélo co-founder) in a race with proper rules, stating they they had to pass two antipodal points6 and ride at least 29,000 kilometres with the total trip covering at least the length of the equator (40,100 kilometres, plus or minus a little). Record attempt followed record attempt thereafter as man followed man trying to do the thing faster and faster and faster. Some played by the rules and got their name in the Guinness Book of Records. Some chose not to play by the rules but claimed the record nonetheless. Men, they can be like that, little boys at heart.

Rider Date Unrecognised Guinness Recognised
Steve Strange 13 Feb 2005 276 days, 19 hrs
Mark Beaumont 14 Feb 2008 194 days, 17 hrs
James Bowthorpe Sep 2009 175 days
Julian Sayarer Jun 2010 169 days
Vin Cox 1 Aug 2010 163 days, 6 hrs 58 mins
Alan Bate 4 Aug 2010 125 days, 21 hrs 45 mins
Mike Hall 4 Jun 2012 107 days 2 hrs 30 mins

And then came Juliana Buhring.

* * * * *

Calling Juliana Buhring a God seems a bit odd. A survivor of the Children of God7 - one of those couldn't-find-Rome-on-a-roadmap apocalyptic Catholic cults that takes the fun out of fundamentalism, shiny happy people who lived for the Great Tribulation - Buhring is a lot more secular these days. The story of her time with the Children of God has been told elsewhere8 and, while some of it is repeated here, This Road I Ride is more concerned with Buhring's attempts to find meaning and purpose in her post-cult existence. It is also about Buhring's attempts to cope with the death of Hendri Coetzee, a man she had first met eight years before her round the world adventure. The two had grown close through a series of brief encounters and, after a five year gap, had found one and other again on Facebook:

"Every email and message we exchanged was like water for a parched wanderer. They called to the wild in me, the rebel, the social outsider. Although we were continents apart, I valued his words more than anyone else's. Even if all we shared was a distant friendship, that was worth more to me than a hundred close acquaintanceships."

Then one day in December of 2010 Buhring logged on to the net and discovered that Coetzee had died after being attacked by a crocodile while kayaking on the Lukuga River in the DRC. (Coetzee undertook various river-based adventures, such as kayaking the length of the Nile9 and wrote about them upon his return.) Shortly after, Buhring and other friends of Coetzee gathered somewhere on the banks of the Nile in Uganda:

"A few of us where sitting around a log table on the veranda of a layover house for kayakers and social misfits who were passing through Jinja. Hendri had stayed there himself for a time. Bamboo torches burning citronella kept the mosquitoes hovering on the periphery of our little circle of light. The cicadas were chirping loudly. The African night is never silent.

"'I want to do something big before I settle down,' said a cute English blonde who had known Hendri only briefly.

"'Why must we settle down?', I thought. 'Why do we feel this is expected of us after a certain age?' I would be turning thirty in a few months' time. Did all women start a biological countdown at that point? Or was settling down just what all mature people do?

"'Something like cycling across Canada,' continued the blonde. Then she turned towards me. 'Would you want to do it with me? It wouldn't be too hard to find sponsors if we did it for some charity. We could raise the money and just go.'"

* * * * *

Why she took on the idea of riding around the world - not just where did the idea to do it come from, but what really drove her to do it - is a point Buhring comes back to time and again throughout This Road I Ride. Tempting as it is to put her on the couch and say that, like a lot of people who take to cycling, she did it to exorcise demons, it is better to see why she thinks she did it:

"I have decided to cycle the world to push my existence to its limit, to see what I am capable of, both physically and mentally. Pain puts you on a fast track to that realisation. Pushing my legs up another mountain with the lactic acid building, my muscles cramping and my lungs burning, it becomes a game of mind over matter. When I finally reach the top and look down at how far I have climbed, with the rolling mountains covered with pine trees and forest flora fading into the horizon, I want to laugh and cry and shout, 'I am the queen of the mountain!' It is a high that no drug can give you. I feel insurmountable and as powerful as a god.

"'What more can one ask for in an adventure than to be moved by it?' Hendri wrote, returning home from one of his many missions."

What, then, does she find, on the road? In part, she discovers things about herself:

"I have learned a lot about myself in the long periods of silence. Without the usual comforts and safety of a familiar environment, stripped down to just the bare necessities, with no one and nothing to rely on but myself, I have felt myself changing, I am less willing to compromise with myself or others, less forgiving of weakness in myself, have no time for the day-to-day trivialities that I once felt were so important, like personal grooming, petty gossip and what other people think of me. I am increasingly unable to make small talk. After hours of silence on the road, when I finally open my mouth to speak, I now notice how much nonsense comes out. How little of substance is ever said. Everybody talks, but nobody really says anything.

"'I listen to people talk and I can't relate,' Hendri once confided to me. He had been alone in the wilds of Africa for so long that coming back to civilisation was a struggle. 'I have been trying to speak more and have been surprised by the amount of bullshit that comes out of my mouth at times. Makes me think I should be quiet more. So rarely does speech satisfy.'"

Atop a lung-bursting, leg-breaking mountain, Buhring also experiences inner expansion:

"And suddenly I am weeping for no apparent reason. Fatigue, stress, exhaustion, happiness, exhilaration? Life is a strange thing. You can create a reality to make it all easier to bear, then discover that you love the world you've created and it takes on a life of its own. Maybe none of this is real? Perhaps it is all just a ride? We forget who we are, and these moments awaken something in us that makes us remember we are the creators of our own worlds, our thoughts, our emotions. Hendri believed the purpose for existence was to express our consciousness and thereby to create our universe."

* * * * *

An aphorism-laden read, This Road I Ride tells an engaging story in an economic style, packing Buhring's round the world ride into barely two hundred pages. But that economy of story-telling comes at a price. While the reader can fully engage with Buhring's ride - she cherry-picks moments from it that capture the highs and lows - the heart of the story, Buhring's relationship with Coetzee, feels oddly empty, not quite real, like something out of Alex Garland or Douglas Coupland. You want to relate to it, but there's nothing there to relate to. Coetzee himself, though quoted extensively, comes across poorly, a charismatic authority on everything, given to gnomic faux philosophy. Buhring, though, is the glue that holds it all together, and as much as she deflects the story to Coetzee, it is her own journey - internal and ex - that makes This Road I Ride such an engaging read. It is to be hoped that when she turns to her transcon rides - she was ninth in Europe's first Transcontinental in 2013, was joint fourth in the inaugural RAAM-rival the Trans Am in the US in 2014 and failed to complete the 2016 RAAM - Buhring will hide less behind others as she seeks to find meaning in this curiously antiquated and yet curiously modern pursuit of ultracycling.

* * * * *

1 GK Chesterton by way of Half Man, Half Biscuit

2 $136,000 today if you allow for inflation. The estimated cost today? Depends.

3 Including Joyce E Chaplin's Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit and Robert L McCullough's Old Wheelways: Traces of Bicycle History on the Land

4 Parc St Cloud, where James Moore probably didn't win the first ever bicycle race on 31 May, 1869

5 RAAM - the Race Across America - didn't arrive until 1982, as the Great American Bike Race. Stevens's coast-to-coast ride was copied by others in the 1880s, notably George Thayer, Frederick van Merebeke, George Nellis and Charles Gray.

6 Points opposite one and other on the globe

7 AKA the infamous cult the Children of God, AKA the notorious cult the Children of God, today known simply as The Family International

8 Not Without My Sister, by Kristina Jones, Celeste Jones and Juliana Buhring

9 Recreating a 1951 journey by American adventurer John Goddard

10 For those curious, Buhring's record does and does not still stand. Guinness say that Paola Gianotti bettered the record in 2014 but argument rages over the way it was done, particularly with regard to a four-month time-out Gianotti was allowed while she recovered from an injury.

Rider Date
Unrecognised Guinness Recognised
Guinness Recognised
Juliana Buhring 22 Dec 2012 152 days, 1 hour
Thomas Großerichter 31 Dec 2012 105 days 1 hr 44 mins
Lee Fancourt 13 Jun 2014 103 days 23 hrs 15 mins
Paola Gianotti 30 Nov 2014 144 days
Andrew Nicholson 13 Dec 2015 123 days 43 mins

This Road I Ride, by Juliana Buhring

This Road I Ride, by Juliana Buhring
(UK and US book covers)