Jaimi Wilson on winning the Women's GBDuro 2021
Words: Pete Harrington
Photos: Maciek Tomiczek
Anonymously described as a scrappy rolling picnic through Britain’s ever-changing landscapes, GBDuro is a 2000km all-road romp from Land’s End in Cornwall, the most south-westerly point of the UK, to John o’ Groats in the far north of Scotland. Consisting of four timed stages of 500km each, the participants pedal a predetermined ‘GB Divide’ route, variously off and on-road, wild swimming, camping and rough sleeping along the way. Winner takes nought – not even a golden spork. For the entrants, like women’s winner and overall 3rd-place finisher, Jaimi Wilson, it’s all about the experience.
A few days after her return to normal life, we spoke to Jaimi to chat bikepacking, her win, the kit that worked, and why deciding to circumnavigate the globe by bike is best done without any planning at all.
Congratulations on the win, Jaimi, and for placing so well overall.
Thanks! I’m happiest about the third. Women are often overlooked, but the organisers did a great job encouraging participation, which helped balance the field. But what people forget is, women aren’t here to make up the numbers, or as some fluffy idea of representation, we’re here to compete and win.
For sure. And to any doubters, two words: Fiona Kolbinger.
Totally. And that doesn’t mean women are unrealistic; a biological element gives men the advantage – to a point. But the longer the event, the narrower that physical gap becomes until it seems to close completely.
Jumping back in time for a moment, when did you start riding seriously?
Around 27, when I bought a road bike. Typical weekend warrior stuff for a couple of summers. Two years later, I left to cycle around the world, which took almost four years.
That would vex Willy Fog! Why did you decide to do it?
Because I thought there had to be more to life than how we perceive and experience it in the UK. I wanted to see other cultures, meet other people. It sounds trite, of course, but I wanted to see the world.
And when did you start planning?
About two months before I went. I didn’t have a bike until two week’s before departing, so that was tricky. And I hadn’t even tested my tent out. It was all a bit of a rush.
Seasoned cycling globetrotters are coughing into their beards as we speak.
Ha! Well, at a basic level, it’s pretty simple. You need a bike, a tent, some bags, good clothing, luck and total ignorance about pretty much everything else that’s to come after that.
Did you follow other adventurers via social media or blogs before you went?
No, I didn’t know if an endurance cycling community existed or that anybody did this sort of thing, which probably helped me get out of the door and down the road.
And why the bike?
Because the feeling I get from riding is impossibly amazing. Sometimes I have to shake myself to remember it because it goes. But it’s like being a kid again. I can go wherever I want, wherever I point my wheels. You’re not worried about anything. Things fall away, and you see that they never really mattered. You’re in nature, and you feel the connection to it.
I’m guessing you learned enough as you went along to counter any problems that cropped up?
When I look back now, it does seem a bit ridiculous that I was so green. I couldn’t even fix a puncture, which was unfortunate because I got one while I was still in England heading for the coast. It turns out there are two different valve types, so I walked 10km to a bike store thinking my pump was broken. It wasn’t; I just had to flip the adaptor.
The bike industry loves to complicate things.
They seem to! But I wasn’t embarrassed at all when I found out my mistake. Things like that don’t bother me. I learned, and now I know.
“What people forget is, women aren’t here to make up the numbers, or as some fluffy idea of representation, we’re here to compete and win.”
Before we jump to GBduro, one final question: when you look back on your ride around the world, do you have an overriding feeling or memory of the experience?
I think of it as the best years of my life. The people I met and the cultures I experienced were life-changing. I got to see the world through other people’s eyes. One example is China. I would never have known that the people were so culturally diverse and the geography so varied unless I’d ridden some 6000km through the country.
How did you make the jump to competitive endurance cycling?
I’ve always liked competitive sports, football, cross-fit etc. However, when I was travelling, I missed that side of things, so I was keen to bridge the divide between weekend bikepacking trips and racing.
And finding out that there was a growing bikepacking community on your doorstep must have been quite refreshing after so long riding on your own?
Yea, it sure was. Finding like-minded people was special. But I still peppered events with solo trips, like riding the coast of Britain and doing an Everest.
Did you go into the GBDuro with good legs, with a feeling you’d place well?
Yea, I felt pretty good going in. I knew some of the names, like Mark Beaumont and Angus Young, but I didn’t recognise anyone else, so I wasn’t too sure how I’d fare. At the back of my mind, I had set a goal to be the first female finisher, and anything after that would be a bonus.
What did your prep look like for the race?
Well, I only knew five weeks before the event that I’d be riding it. Back in June, I was doing a lot of road riding, but then as the summer traffic started congesting everything, I began to head off-road, doing similar distances, then linking routes, all the while getting a feel for riding on mixed surfaces.
Did you get much practice with your GBDuro bike set up before heading out?
It didn’t differ too much from my road stuff, although I changed to walkable SPD cleats and pedals for the hike-a-bike sections. Other than that, not a lot of significant differences. The bike I have is a gravel bike anyway, so I just slipped on some bigger tyres – 42s, I think. It converted pretty easily.
Did you have a sleep strategy?
No sleep! Or at least I slept when I absolutely needed it. But when I did, I tried to sleep near trails, away from the road and potentially other people unconnected to the race. On the last day, I had 380km to complete, so I tried to keep going, but I was so tired that every time I went through a gate, I leaned against it and closed my eyes for a few moments. That was tough!
“I can go wherever I want, wherever I point my wheels. You’re not worried about anything. Things fall away, and you see that they never really mattered.”
The stats always say that your stop times are what matters, not your average speed. If you can minimise your stop times, you give yourself a good chance of placing well. Still, it’s exhausting.
And in terms of 7mesh, what did you wear and what worked?
I loved the Skypilot jacket – the hood goes over the helmet and saves the day in the rain. And it’s totally waterproof. No matter how tough the conditions, it never let anything in, but I didn’t overheat, either. The jersey – the Horizon – is great too, exactly what you want. Lots of pockets for stashing snacks! I also have to give a shout-out to the WK3 bib and the Pull2P feature. It’s incredible. I could pull the shorts down without taking off my top layers and go when I needed to go – game changer. When the temperature dropped, I pulled on the long sleeve Synergy jersey – super nice to have a little extra warmth and the fit is fantastic.
What do you have planned next?
I have a hunger to ride more events like this. The camaraderie was terrific. GBduro isn’t like a competition in any ordinary sense. Because it’s so demanding, you want other riders to do well even while you’re giving it your all to stay ahead of the next person! So more bikepacking, more competition – more of everything!