Interview: The Adventure Syndicate – overnight on a school night

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No self-respecting Inspiring Women interview series could be complete without featuring the motivational force that is The Adventure Syndicate. In fact, given the founding principle of the Syndicate is to ‘inspire, encourage and enable’, there’s a good argument for the whole series to be about its work.

The Syndicate’s four core riders, aka The Quad – Lee Craigie, Rickie Cotter, Jenny Graham and Jenny Tough – have all had some pretty epic and inspiring adventures in the last few years. Lee, Rickie and Jenny Tough all rode the Silk Road Mountain race this August with Jenny being the only woman to complete the race solo. Lee and Rickie’s 2017 Tour Divide attempt has started to become a thing of legend and their self-recorded documentary Divided won the Best Adventure film at this year’s Kendal Film Festival. Arguably all of these exploits have been trumped by Jenny Graham’s around the world bike packing trip this year which took 124 days, knocking a staggering 20 days off the previous women’s record.

Like normal PE, but way better

Impressive as all of those exploits might be it’s perhaps the Syndicate’s activities closer to home that are really working to enthuse people about getting out riding and have adventures with its schools project. After all you’ve got to be pretty inspiring to get a group of girls aged under 14 to take on a 24 hour mountain bike race in snow, ice and temperatures of -12C. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, over to Lee to start at the beginning:

“The Adventure Syndicate applied for funding for this project as we’ve always been about the encouraging and the enabling as well as the inspiring. We put out all this great content showing folk what an amazing time we’re having but I think that’s really empty unless you can hold the hands of people who might not be able to do it otherwise.

You have to get it all back in there tomorrow morning

“We wanted to work with girls who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily do physical and adventurous things and people who wouldn’t otherwise have the ability to go into the hills on their own. We reckoned we could go into schools and inspire those girls to get involved in a physical activity sort of through the back door. We wanted it to be for those who wouldn’t necessarily excel at PE and traditional sporting activities where competition is often a key element. We thought we could engage those girls by focusing on adventure as well as the social aspects.”

The Syndicate were able to get funding through the Olympic legacy programme the Spirit of 2012 which meant it could work with five schools in Inverness and Glasgow. What the Syndicate did within each school varied a bit but it all started with a school assembly (remember those? No-one ever came to my school assembly to talk about having cool adventures), a school challenge to get kids and staff riding and an expedition for a lucky few. Back to Lee:

“The whole motivation for The Adventure Syndicate in the first place was to provide an alternative sporting role model to anyone, not just teenage girls, so the idea of going in and delivering the whole school assembly was really important to us. We could also show the boys that you don’t have to be this solo conquering hero which is so often the narrative you see in outdoor adventurous settings. You can go out with your mates and everyone support each other and have a nice time with friends, you can all journey together and still achieve massively but not have to be beating each other. I think that’s a really valuable message for boys as well as girls because boys are often taught it’s about winning, about being first and about conquering, about being brave and not failing at stuff, which is the opposite message that we’re trying to coach in young people.”

After the assembly each school got involved in the Match the Miles challenge. The challenge involved the Adventure Syndicate Quad riding from Bristol to the south of France and together pupils and the staff at schools tried to ride the same distance each day.

Lee: “We were doing 100 miles a day and each of the schools collectively was matching those miles. Not only did they manage to do that, they managed to beat us so that was a really cool start to the programme.”

Homework

While the all of the school got to be involved with the assembly and Match the Miles, only a few lucky girls got to be involved in the really cool expedition stuff.

“After Match the Miles we went back into the schools and with the help of the teachers we managed to isolate the girls who were most improved, those that showed the most commitment; not the girls who had put the most miles but those who showed the most enthusiasm. It was those girls who we went back to engage to get prepared for an overnight expedition. We worked with them over a period of time to get them trained up in mechanics and technical riding ability so we could take them out.”

The expeditions that the girls went on were different school-to-school depending on their bike riding experience and their capabilities. Some of the girls were pretty competent riders to start with whereas others were complete beginners.

Lee: “For Inverness Royal Academy we met at the end of their school day and got them prepped in record time and we took them out for the night to sleep on the shores of Loch Ness, ‘Overnight on a school night’ was the hashtag for that. We got them back to school for nine o’clock registration the next morning and their eyes were wide with delight, the idea that they hadn’t gone home after school the day before but they’d just slept outside and cooked their dinner with us and then just came back to school. They just had that magical secret which they kept with them all day.

What did you do last night?

“We worked with a Special Education Needs unit too. Those girls didn’t even know how to ride a bike before we started with them so an overnight with them would have been a bit too full on. Instead we took them out and just took camping kit and cooked dinners and made tea away from school and brought them back within the same school day.”

How utterly cool must that have been for those girls? The sheer idea of having done anything at school rather than the dour choice of hockey and netball is pretty inconceivable to me. But the girls at one school took had even bigger adventures than the others as I found out when I ended up in the pits next to them at Strathpuffer, the coldest and darkest 24 hour race in the UK.

Lee: “I guess the biggest one, the showcase and the one we did most work with, was the Dingwall Academy girls. As part of this process we worked on getting them up to this level where we could take them on an overnight expedition we mentored four of the eight girls in the Strathpuffer. The girls were strong riders already and part of the school’s excellent MTB club run by teacher Drew Graham but because they were under 14, Jenny Graham and I chaperoned them every lap and helped them believe that they were capable of more than they thought that they might be. Their school art teacher Liz Graham was busy in the pits all night rallying, feeding and clothing all of us. We all really bonded over that experience and the four of them bonded really well with each other too, a 24 hour mountain bike race will do that. That was pretty special helping them race through the night, 24 hours mountain biking.”

Dingwall girls at Strathpuffer

The girls riding for the full 24 hours put many of the other teams of older and more experienced riders to shame. There expedition was more than a lot of us would dare to take on too.

Lee: “When we came to deliver their bikepacking adventure there were those four and four less-able and experienced girls that joined us. For that particular expedition we decided we could ride from the east to the west coast of Scotland [using part of the notorious Highland 550 route] with a bivvy midway with the four more experienced girls supporting the other four.

“It was pretty full on, a pretty big undertaking especially as one of those girls was by the other girls’ standards much, much slower. But they all really rallied and there was never any question that we would bail early or leave that girl behind with a school staff member when the rest of us journeyed to the end. We all rallied as a team and decided we would all get to the end together. We split her kit and carried it amongst us and at points we were pushing or towing or cajoling. And it wasn’t just me and Rickie that were helping this girl get to the end but the whole team who really stepped up and supported this one girl getting to the end.

Not a Garmin or Strava segment in sight

“It was a relentless route. It was very exposed and quiet out there, she had never slept out under the stars before. It was really inspiring for us as leaders to see what could come from that kind of comradery and mutual support. It was exactly what we were aiming for in the girls who wouldn’t normally excel. That was pretty cool.”

With the first year of the project now at an end the Syndicate are busy planning the next.

Lee: “None of this would have been possible without the enthusiasm of the schools, the teachers and the girls themselves. A special thanks and credit has to go to teachers Drew, Liz, Kim, Jeanette and Jane. It’s all inspired us to want to do more of it so we’re doing more of that next year, getting more schools and more businesses involved, especially in the Match the Miles so we can afford to work in schools and continue that work.

Are we there yet?

“All of the folk involved totally had their eyes opened to what they could do without our support. What was so lovely about this was that everyone supported one another, the pupils and the staff, to get out there and travel further by bike. You could see that it made a massive change in how they felt about themselves and their relationships with the outdoors.”

Talking to Lee underlined to me that there are many things that we all put into and get out of mountain biking aside from fitness and adrenaline. It’s about self-esteem, it’s about confidence, risk taking, success and failure, and aspiration. It’s about putting your trust in yourself and your riding companions. By supporting these school girls to have adventures by bike the Syndicate are giving them much, much more than the riding itself.


We want to hear from you about who we should be talking to for next month’s Inspiring Women’s feature? Which female rider inspires you (whether you’re male or female), or which man or woman has done lots to support female riding? They could be a pro, a local coach or someone next door. Let us know in the comments below who we should be featuring and why.

Comments (2)

    I saw the Dingwall Academy team on the ‘puffer on The Adventure Show (BBC Scotland) and was massively impressed. Good to read the backstory to it – I didn’t realise it was part of such a wider project.

    It’s a brilliant programme, and the depth of talent running it is exceptional.

    I can see a whole generation of cycling stars coming out of this.

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