by Jim Cotton
What’s the most you’ve ridden in a year? 10,000km, maybe 15,000km? I bet it left you feeling pretty proud.
What do you consider a big day out on the bike? 140km leaves most of us craving bed, bacon and bourbons the next day.
In 2016 Kajsa Tylen, a Nottingham-based rider born in Sweden, rode 52,025km. That’s an average of 142.5km a day. Every Day.
In recent years there has been a surge of interest in surpassing a number of decades old Year Distance records. Targets that were previously disregarded as being “unbeatable” have been re-examined and a new generation of ultra-cyclists has taken on the challenge. At the end of her year in the saddle, Kajsa became the Guinness World Record holder for distance travelled by bike by a woman in a year, far surpassing the previous benchmark of 47,641km set in 1938 by another remarkable woman, Billie Dovey.
Throughout her early years in Sweden, Kajsa wasn’t particularly interested in exercise. After taking up kickboxing in her mid-20s and more recently having started competing in triathlons, exercise remained something she describes that she “enjoyed, but was never very good at.” However Kajsa did not let her relatively low ability level bother her in the way that it would some. She loved the simple exhilaration of exercise and the endorphins it produced, and her passion about her sport proved to be contagious, as her preaching about the benefits of her newfound habit lead to friends also taking up more active lifestyles.
A discovery about the life and achievements of Billie Dovey lead to enormous changes in Kajsa’s life. Despite the bike being her weakest triathlon discipline, Kajsa felt so inspired by Billie Dovey’s bravery and her inter-war mission to encourage other women into active lifestyles, that she too decided to undertake her own record attempt and mirror her predecessor’s achievements. After securing a year’s sabbatical from her very stable and predictable job as a business analyst, Kajsa ventured into the unknown and took to the saddle. For one whole year.
Assured by the knowledge that she had possessed an innate ability to inspire others into sports, Kajsa created the idea of a ‘Sweat Pledge’ campaign that would run throughout her attempt. The Sweat Pledge was an original initiative whereby she encouraged others to also commit to an activity goal for the year, with a view to promoting health and seeing just how many hours of exercise she could inspire in others. The response was great with around 150 people taking part officially, and friends of Kajsa also making pledges to her directly. One standout feat saw a lady committing to undertake one minute of activity for every mile that Kajsa rode. Because it was specifically related to her own own efforts, for Kajsa that particular pledge embodied everything that she was looking to achieve with the Sweat Pledge; inspiring other to undertake more than they would have otherwise.
And Kajsa certainly didn’t make her own challenge easy for herself. She chose not to undertake her feat on a local loop well known for its easy roads and favourable winds. Those 52,025km took her all over the UK – powered mainly by jam and cream scones it would seem – as well as around Scandinavia and Northern Europe during a summer tour taking in seven countries, and even lead to her riding the bike leg of the Challenge Roth Ironman in Germany as part of a team entry to this notoriously brutal triathlon.
Those rides in Europe marked some of the highs and lows of the year for the record breaker. For Kajsa, the Ironman ride, in which she had to meet a cut off time in order to enable her friend to complete the following marathon, was her best day. The required speed for the tough, rolling route was far higher than she had been averaging during the year, but having that specific target to hit, allied with the pressure of not letting a friend down, and some solid mental pep talks meant that she was able to surpass far what she thought achievable.
As is so often the case with these things, some of the days that others would have expected to be the stand out positives of the challenge turned out to be the toughest. The tour through Northern Europe, despite being in the peak of summer, was marked by fearsome headwinds and attritional riding. With her network of friends far away in the UK, and only her mum, her dog, and a caravan for solace, it was hard to “talk away the hard parts” with her usual support network. Much like that mentally challenging middle section of a single long day on the bike, when the initial adrenaline and enthusiasm has burned away and the final stretch still seems so far down the road, the middle part of the year challenge was the hardest for Kajsa to handle; keeping that passion burning in the trough of doubt proved tough. That Kajsa refers to the months from September as being ‘the final sprint’ really puts the scale of the challenge into perspective. A three-month home leg is a long one indeed.
Another member of the support network who was so central to Kajsa’s year was Steve Abraham, and no man was better placed than him to relate to Kajsa’s journey. Steve is the current Guinness Record holder for distance covered in a month, which he set in September 2016, covering a staggering 11,433km and who is currently in the early throes of his third effort on the annual mileage record. The two got to know each other after Steve heard of Kajsa’s challenge and offered his assistance and support. The two were initially strangers, but became close friends and regular ride partners. Kajsa explains that having someone who understood the specific difficulties and hurdles of the challenge was invaluable; unless you’ve ridden that far for that many days, empathy is impossible.
A central rule to the distance challenge is that only one machine can be used through the year. Needless to say, spending 2,711 hours on one bike over twelve months engenders interesting sentiments towards those two wheels. Kajsa developed a long-term love/hate relationship was her saddle, which led to almost 9 months of discomfort and sores until the perfect perch was found. However, happily, once Kajsa had resolved this, she finished the year “still in love with cycling”, a sentiment that carries on to this day.
This love for the bike, and the passion for challenge and adventure, is no more evident that in Kajsa’s pledge to ride the TransContinentalRace in 2017, the non-stop endurance race across Europe (LINK). She won’t be competing for a high placing in the event, but for the experience and to complete it. Kajsa’s nerves and initial sense of reluctance are being overcome by her unique tactic of “telling everyone about it in order to make me get on with it.” It’s her own Sweat Pledge to herself you could say.
The 2016 Sweat Pledge campaign that Kajsa ran alongside her yearly challenge was so successful that she is launching the sweatpledge.com website this year, which will enable individuals to host their own profile promoting their own endeavors, thus encouraging others to make pledges to them. The continuation of the Sweat Pledge campaign, and its mission to encourage others to dedicate themselves to great feats through a promise to others, is embodied in Kajsa’s gritty method of committing to the TransContinentalRace through the announcement of the challenge to the world.
Since Kajsa set her record, American Amanda Coker has not only broken the women’s distance record but has also recently surpassed the outright ‘Highest Annual Mileage Record’ – a massive 75,270miles (121,135km) set by Kurt Searvogel in 2015-16. Searvogel had also beaten an eighty-year old record, in this case set by Tommy Goodwin. As this blog is published, Amanda still has around 30 days of her ‘year’ to push that distance ever further. It should be noted that Amanda is riding under different guidelines to Kajsa. Like Steve Abraham, Amanda is riding under the Ultra Marathon Cycling Association (UMCA) rules for her attempt, whereas Kajsa rode under the Guinness guidelines, the latter of which prevent any form of drafting, thus making speeds and distances lower. Amanda has also adopted a strategy of riding a fast, quiet repetitive loop in Flatwoods, Florida. That is not meant to take anything away from Amanda’s efforts; to ride an average of 234miles (380km) a day for 365 consecutive days, and beat the likes of Kurt and Steve Abraham is a truly amazing feat – even more so when you learn that Amanda suffered terrible injuries when she was hit by a car whilst riding in 2011. Her year finishes in mid-May and so she is now on the home straight to the completion of an epic adventure.
We wish Kajsa and Amanda, and all those making their own Sweat Pledges, the best of luck in their challenges for 2017, and no matter what is being taken on, the commitment to taking yourself beyond your comfort zone is inspiring in its own way.