Juliana

No matter which way you look at it Juliana Buhring is an amazing woman. Arguably the world's strongest female ultra-endurance cyclist, she had never really ridden a bike until the age of 30.

Not one to do things by half measures, Buhring decided she would not only take up cycling but take on a challenge no other woman had tackled before - the Guinness world record for the fastest circumnavigation by bicycle. The same year she set off the 'wrong way around' the world, into a headwind, unsupported and without a sponsor, to cycle a gruelling 29,070km (18,063.22 miles) in just 152 days - a record which still stands unbeaten.

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Buhring is now on the verge of a major deadline for her second book, about her round the world ride, due out in August, published by Little Brown. The first, Not Without My Sister, she co-authored with two of her sisters about their childhood in and eventual escape from infamous Christian fundamentalist cult, the Children of God.

I first met Juliana on the eve of the inaugural TransContinental Race (London-Istanbul) in 2013, at the event launch in Look Mum No Hands in East London.

Rather in awe of her, I asked: "You must be really tough?" Her response was typically understated: "I just don't like to give up."

The only woman in that 31-strong race from London to Istanbul, Buhring came in at a highly respectable ninth place, completing the ride in 12 days.

When we catch up on Skype, from her home in Italy, Buhring talks about the ability to push herself long after others would have given up, her future ultra-endurance plans, and finding that elusive sponsor.

"I really did just wake up one day and think: 'I'm going to cycle around the world'. Then I was like: 'What do I need in order to achieve this goal? Probably I need to start out and cycle!'"

"When I was, like, six I pottered around a courtyard... I think I had training wheels, but I had never actually cycled properly."

So why start with the biggest challenge of all - to cycle around the world? A friend had suggested they ride across Canada. She thought: why stop at Canada, why not cycle around the world?

Juliana

During her research, Buhring realised, to her astonishment, no woman had done the circumnavigation record by bike.

She thought: "How can that be possible in this day and age that a woman hasn't done it?'"

Juliana's thinking was: if she made it, great, and if she did it in a good time, even better. However, it wasn't an easy ride. After waiting in vain for a sponsor she ended up having to go the 'wrong way' around the world, into a headwind, to avoid the monsoon rains.

The ride took her across Australia's Nullabor desert, literally translated as "no trees". With water every 200-300 miles she had to carry a lot, and then pay $10 for a single bottle of water.

"It is literally 1000km of nothing, not even a single tree, just ankle high shrubs and nothing. One straight road as far as you can see. You feel like you're not moving, you keep pedalling and nothing changes. It's endless."

Buhring's refusal to give up, no matter what, is somewhere between extreme asceticism and superhuman endurance, with a strength she attributes to her upbringing.

"I grew up in a Christian fundamentalist cult, and my parents signed me off to the group from the time I was a toddler, so I was just property of the group and shipped around all over Asia and Africa. It's probably why I'm very independent now."

Perhaps it's where her ability to withstand suffering comes from, too. The book tells a harrowing tale of her survival in the face of abuse, and speaks volumes of Buhring's incredible personal strength, which she exhibits in eye-watering feats on the road.

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Three months before the inaugural Trans Am, the race across America in June 2014, she cracked a rib when someone stepped out in front of her bike. She continued to train through painkillers.

During the race Buhring rode for ten days across mountains with the saddle right down on the seat post after the seat post bracket failed. She cycled most days on only two hours' sleep, and for the final 800km, 36 hour sprint, she didn't sleep at all. She ran out of food with 200 miles to go and rode the final 100 miles in agony with a pinched nerve, resting one leg on the saddle and pedalling with the other. After the race she boarded her return flight in a wheelchair as she could no longer walk. She came in fourth overall in a field of all men, completing the 4,322 mile race in 20 days and 23 hours.

Her mantra, which she repeats, is "just keep pedalling".

"I could not live with myself if I quit at that point. When you've done so well and gone so far and suffered through so much pain, it would be redundant to just stop then."

Despite her height - almost six foot, a disadvantage, especially for climbing where weight is absolutely key - nonetheless Buhring is still beating a lot of the men who enter these events, and she gets stronger and faster each year.

She says ultra-endurance cycling is 50% in the mind, and that's where her advantage lays.

"In endurance cycling, the reason I've done so well is because most people give up after a certain pain point. I just keep going, I have a really high tolerance for pain, and I feel the need to just push through where a lot of people would have finished a long time ago."

She says the solitude is another reason many people give up, something she relishes.

"I love being alone on the bike, that's my best time. I thrive on solitude... it just appeals to me. Once I get on the bike I become another being, I just lose all sense of identity and even of sex - as in being feminine - I just become an animal, and I just go, it's like a horse smelling that finish line.

Juliana buhring

"The best thing about it is the simplicity and the sense of absolute freedom, and just boils life down to eating, sleeping and riding - maybe the least stressful thing, mentally, in the world to do - just reach this place of absolute peace that it's really hard to achieve any other time."

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Carrying only the lightest possible sleeping bag, no tent, some tools and a first aid kit, and few clothes other than a second pair of socks and a jacket, Buhring says: "You don't even need the comfort of even a sleeping mat, you just collapse and you're gone for two hours, so you do without the comfort. Every five days I would stop in a motel to have a shower and brush my teeth and have three hours of sleep instead of two."

"I feel the most at touch with myself and the world when I'm on my bike on the road, that sense of adventure, not knowing where I'm going to ride that night, how far I'll get. That's the best part for me."

Out on the road she was never totally alone, though. Having followed her progress via her GPS tracker during the Trans Am, fans would stand at the roadside with signs, waiting for her to pass.

"It's so weird passing through and there's these strangers on the roadside shouting for you. You don't know how much of a boost that is when you're super tired on your bike and you pass and everyone's screaming your name like you're a rock star. I didn't stop but I was like 'thank you!'"

"I almost never paid for a meal the entire [Trans Am] race because everybody knew about the race, I don't know how."

On those last 800 sleepless kilometres across America one woman, one of many "road angels" along the way, decided, when it became clear Juliana was staying up for a second consecutive night, she would drive three hours to meet her on the road.

"She brought three power shakes. At that point I had this pinched nerve running down the entire leg at the back so I was crying the last 100 miles to the finish line. She brought her girlfriend who's a masseuse, so her girlfriend's massaging my ass in the middle of the road! It was another 30km I went without any pain and then it started up again. The only thing that keeps you going at that point is your mind, because your body should have quit a long time ago."

"The worst part is obviously the absolute exhaustion, you're putting yourself through extreme duress mentally, physically, you suffer a lot of post-traumatic stress afterwards. You're putting your body though something you're not supposed to do, and it takes around four to six months to recover.

"When I finished the Trans Am I was wheeled onto the plane in a wheelchair, I couldn't walk. I was hobbling around for about a week after because my knees and ankles were so swollen from the bike being broken and riding with the seat all the way down in the mountains for ten days. I was just surviving on taking painkillers to keep the swelling down."

For a week after the race she was snapping awake every two hours, her body expecting to get back on the bike.

juliana buhring

Other than being gifted a bike, other promises of sponsorship have failed to materialise, leaving her to fund these extreme ventures - and the financial aftermath - alone. She just received her first free clothing from Chapeau! - previously opting for the cheapest men's clothes she could find.

Buhring says where many athletes find sponsors with ease, she has, to date, done everything, as with the rides themselves, unsupported.

"I'm not from anywhere, so maybe it's a case of people get behind their country's athletes. I grew up in Asia and Africa, I was born in Greece, my dad is actually Welsh, my mum is German. And I grew up in over 30 countries around the world."

Of course this hasn't stopped Buhring in the past, and it doesn't look like it will stop her now. As well as tackling the TransContinental again, this year she is hoping to ride across Italy in 24 hours, as well as an unsupported 500km race around the Dolomites - a race in which she is the only woman to sign up so far.

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Increasingly, however, she is not the only woman taking part in these epic challenges: in 2014 two women completed the TransContinental, doubled from 2013. The women's winner, Pippa Handley, completed the race in around Juliana's time of 12 days, and Buhring clearly relishes the thought of the two of them going head to head this year.

So what is the future for ultra-endurance female cyclists, for those fearless few willing to put themselves through this ordeal?

"I think now there are starting to be some women who are going for it, and that's cool to see. Particularly with these races across continents I think women are getting interested in it. Every year the numbers are growing. "

Ultra endurance is certainly not for everyone, but Buhring sums it up nicely:

"How much you suffer or how much you enjoy a race like this one is all in the mind. I think the same is true of life."