Going in Circles: Amanda Coker, World Record Cyclist

For the past 365 days, Amanda Coker, a 24-year-old woman from Zephyrhills, Florida, has been out on her bike, each day, every day, often cycling for over 12 hours at a time. She has ridden at a consistent pace, not too fast, but quicker than many amateur cyclists could sustain for half an hour. Sometimes she’s been alone, but often she was with other local cyclists who were trying to ride 100 miles with her — to join the ‘100 Mile Club’ on her social media networks. She has also been riding, for the most part, in circles. Coker, you see, has been attempting to break the Ultramarathon Cycling Association’s women’s ‘Highest Annual Mileage Record’, or ‘HAM’R’ for short. For the past 365 days, she has been attempting to cycle further than any woman previously has.

Or, that was her initial stated goal. The thing is, not only did Coker breeze past the previous women’s record — which, largely because the UMCA has only recently started keeping records, has stood since 1938 — but she also flew past the overall record, set only last year by Kurt Searvogel of Arkansas (notably, a man). Searvogel had ridden an astonishing 76,076 miles in his year-long effort; Coker beat him with a full forty days remaining. (She passed the women’s record on day 130 of her time trial.) Her average for the past year has been a little above 231 miles per day — for context, the longest stage of this year’s Tour de France will be just under 137 miles, and the longest race on the pro calendar, Milan-Sanremo, is about 181 miles. In the most recent months, Coker also embarked on three overlapping attempts at the UMCA’s second most prestigious title, the ‘Highest Monthly Mileage Record’. Her first complete month, totalling 8,009 miles exactly, beat the previous record, held by Steven Abraham of Great Britain, by almost 900 miles. Her second and third efforts each surpassed the one before. It became clear that, in the final months, Coker was only getting stronger. Now, at the end of her complete year, with 86,573 miles under her belt already, she’s still going — she now has her sights set on the record for fastest completion of 100,000 miles. She is likely to manage it with ease.

Superhuman displays of ability aside, one of the most astonishing elements of Coker’s story is not the mileage itself, but the fact that she makes those miles up on the same seven-mile loop of wide, level trails around Flatwoods Park, Florida. With only small deviances from that one path, usually including the short ride to the loop from the car park, this has meant that Coker has ridden in circles for around thirty times per day for the past year. Her uploaded data on Strava — the popular running and cycling app and website that tracks users’ activities and stimulates a sense of athletic competition — appear to the untrained eye almost identical. Even to the trained eye her rides look pretty darn similar. (Coker has been at the top of Strava’s digital leaderboard for distance each month for the past year; even in her slowest months no man nor woman could best her.) It is staggering to think that someone who has spent her past year riding 86,000 miles hasn’t seen much more than those seven miles of tarmac.

9/5/2017, Day 360; though it looks like the loop only makes up half of her ride, Coker went round it 35 times on this occasion for a total distance of 270 miles.

There are good reasons for this decision. The park offers a level stretch of path, without hills and excessive wind, and riding in a loop has meant that Coker is never too far away from water or nutritional support (Strava’s estimates of calories burnt by Coker are always well above 8,000 per day). And riding in loops means no stopping for traffic lights or to check a map. But there’s a further reason why Coker doesn’t ride on the open roads. In her late teens, Coker had been a promising young road racer, with a scholarship to ride on a college team. Disaster took this away from her. She and her father, whilst out riding, were hit by a car coming from behind; both suffered serious injuries, including in Coker’s case brain and spine injuries. Her career as a professional cyclist was never to be, but she was determined to return to the bike, and, riding in Flatwoods in 2015, she came across none other than Kurt Searvogel — whose world record she has now recently claimed. Searvogel was in the midst of his own record attempt then, and Coker had the opportunity to ride with him during his long days in the park. Flatwoods was the natural choice when it came to starting her own campaign.

In part because she has ridden herself out of misfortune, Coker’s rides get thousand of thumbs up on Strava, little affirmations known collectively as ‘kudos’. However, not everyone has been happy with her record, and browsing through her social media posts and comments on articles about her — especially in the early months of her efforts — you would find (usually male) voices of objection. In part this has to do with the choice to ride in a loop, rather than covering distance or riding ‘out and back’. The loop, according to Strava (which can’t always be completely trusted on matters of altitude), offers only 2m of height variance; Coker, as commentators have observed, often racks up fewer vertical metres in 230 miles than could be done on a climb. Coker also receives flak for her occasional use of a recumbent bike, one that allows for a more comfortable and sustainable ‘lying down’ position (she alternates between a road bike, a recumbent, and a triathlon or ‘tri’ bike). Her critics, whose voices have slowly been drowned out as the popularity of her rides has grown, generally make one kind of assertion: that she’s not being true to the spirit of cycling. A representative example from Strava reads: ‘You have such a flat course, you may as well do it on an exercise bike indoors. congratulations on your distance, but it is not real cycling’. Another: ‘Might as well just do it on a turbo bike’ (a ‘turbo’ is a device which fixes a bike in one place, for training purposes). A third calls her efforts ‘a long spinning class or something’; if the other comments implied sexism, this one surely makes it explicit. Cycling, it should be noted, as a sport, is plagued by such questions of authenticity. This might be in large part because of the history of doping in cycling, which reaches down — amazingly — even as far as the amateur level. But only a very few posts have implied that Coker might be cheating, and they usually relate to crackpot theories about ‘motor-doping’ — the use of a hidden motor in a road bike — and not to performance-enhancing drugs.

Coker on her recumbent bicycle

Then there are the dual questions of obsession and of boredom. What must go through her mind? A commenter writes, not entirely kindly: ‘I don’t know if I’ll be more impressed by your mileage or your ability to mentally ride the same loop over, and over and over and over…’. Coker herself, on her website, states that ‘the whole reason I’m doing it, it’s cos it’s fun. I get to ride my bike every day! For a year!’ But it’s hard to imagine that the same dull round, day in, day out, really is all that fun. Her labours beg strange comparison to the drudgery of the world of work, rather than those of leisure or pleasure — Coker has been spending on average over 90 hours a week on her bike. It doesn’t help her cause that the previous monthly distance record holder, Steven Abraham, has now set off in pursuit of Coker’s year goal, whilst riding greatly varying routes all around the east of England (more like ‘real’ cycling). It also offers the regrettable image of an older male cyclist bearing down on an upstart young woman’s new record. In reality, both Searvogel and Abraham are outspoken in their support for Coker’s phenomenal riding, but some of the ‘kudos’ Abraham is now getting can occasionally feel like an attack on Coker’s unpopular methods, especially given that cycling is a male-dominated sport; consider this comment: ‘Lets [sic] hope Steve Abraham takes it back and makes it an “open road” challenge again, and on a “bike” bike’. Commenters seem repelled by the sheer scale and repetitiousness of what she has done, with the question being asked, broadly speaking, ‘why?’ Why bother? What is there to gain? What’s the point?

These are good questions, of course, provided that they are not limited to Coker’s rides. It seems pretty clear that Coker is motivated by the past thought that she might never have ridden again; she has plenty to prove to herself, and she’s proven something to the cycling world in the process. But what about the rest of us? Look at Strava, a platform which encourages people to self-identify as ‘athletes’. We could equally ask what anyone on there hopes to gain. They might answer, ‘we are exercising’, and, therefore, the end-goal is health. But that’s not really what you see on Strava, or any other social media-enabled activity tracker. You see people trying to prove their health and vitality, alright, but health isn’t the goal. Like with other social media, people are out to show the best side of themselves, to show off. A more honest answer to the question ‘why?’ might be ‘to be faster’, ‘to be stronger’, ‘to go further’, ‘to be better’. Those are, after all, the metrics by which all Strava users measure and compare performances, and it is because speed and distance are recognised as goals in themselves that Coker’s efforts are mostly readily understood. But, even in light of these answers, we might quite reasonably persist: why?

‘When life has succeeded by dint of daily effort in conquering the enemies around it — natural forces, wild beasts, hunger, thirst, sickness — sometimes it is lucky enough to have abundant strength left over. This strength it seeks to squander into sport’. The quote is from Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1961 novel Report to Greco, hardly a conventional source for sporting wisdom, but wise all the same. For Kazantzakis, sport is a high point of culture, and a proof that we are indeed civilized beings, because sport, like art, exists in the moment ‘that life satisfies its primary needs and begins to enjoy a little leisure’. To that extent, Amanda Coker’s story tells us something about ourselves in the Western world. Hers is a story of excess, to be sure, but it is only one hyperbolic example of what we are all doing, what we’re all caught up in. Whether we eat to the point of obesity or chisel ourselves into hardened muscle, our bodies are registers of an abundance — a superabundance even. For the first time in history, enough of us have the requisite leisure time, food, and disposable income to make it the case that an excessive gaining — and, often, burning — of vast volumes of calories is perceived to be quite normal. This is hardly unproblematic given that much of the world goes without basic nutrition, but it is true to say that athletic achievement acts as the record of a vast surplus. And distance and time goals, be they ‘Couch to 5k’, the 26.2 miles that make up a marathon, or the HAM’R effort undertaken by Coker, offer us excessive indicators of what we are becoming as a society.

I have great sympathy for Amanda Coker’s efforts, although the knowledge that I couldn’t do what she has done is not incompatible, for me, with the knowledge that I wouldn’t want to. The particular form of obsession that grips ‘ultramarathon’ cyclists like Coker, Searvogel, and Abraham is certainly extreme — far beyond my wishes, desires, or capabilities — but it’s not completely alien to any sportsperson at any level. That Coker was met by some detractors was to be expected, especially in the age of the internet and anonymity; that most of her detractors seem to be men, and that she seems to have more critics than had Searvogel, was also sadly inevitable. But Coker, a woman, has won: she is the official record-holder of the annual mileage category, recognised by both the UMCA and now Guinness World Records. In cycling, a sport where women racers no longer even have a comparable world tour to parallel the Tour de France, where women’s prize money is a pittance compared to the men’s, and in which ‘podium girls’ still regularly flank winners of both sexes, one woman has come along and annihilated all previous month and year distance records. The record categories will now need rethinking, as, for the first time, the ‘regular’ world record belongs to a woman; the men’s record, for once, lags behind. For those reasons alone we should be pleased for Coker, and for her overwhelming and dizzying achievement. As they say in cycling, chapeau.

Chris Townsend is Articles Editor for the King's Review, and is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Cambridge. He writes broadly on literary history and the arts. @marmeladrome.

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