Going in circles: Amanda Coker, world record cyclist

Chris Townsend
May 15, 2017

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.

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.

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.


All by
Chris Townsend