Chris HuntBASE Editor and Bristol-based adventure writer with a penchant for travel by bike, interesting coastlines and adventures that end in the pub.
Adventure’s obsession with strength, suffering and ultimately the ability to conquer our environment is a tired out narrative. More frequently, we’re seeing a move away from this exhausted machismo mentality towards our wild spaces, instead using adventure as the key to personal development, a tool to learn about ourselves and to reconnect with others and the landscapes around us.
Lee Craigie is a former professional mountain biker and outdoor instructor turned accessibility and representation figurehead. In 2013 she became the British Mountain Bike Champion, she represented Team GB at World and European Championships and Scotland at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She’s travelled all over the world self-supported by bike on routes including the Tour Divide, the Silk Road and the Colorado Trail. Then, in 2015 in an effort to provide alternative female sporting role models, Lee established The Adventure Syndicate – a not-for-profit organisation, designed to inspire, encourage and enable everyone (especially women and girls) to adventure by bike through telling the stories of their adventures, delivering talks to schools and communities and hosting annual online challenges and led overnight expeditions.
In June 2021, Lee embarked on the first a series of source to sea expeditions on Scotland’s major river systems with fellow Adventure Syndicate rider and world circumnavigation record holder Jenny Graham. I caught up with Lee soon after their return from the River Dee to hear how it went and to find out more about this latest project.
Hi Lee, where are you based right now and how’s 2021 been for you so far?
Right now I am between Inverness, Edinburgh and Aberdeenshire! It’s a long story but come October I hope to stay put for a while and enjoy the changing colours in the Cairngorm mountains.
2021 has been a mixed bag. I longed for freedom of movement during lockdown but when it began to happen I found justifying travelling far from home as I’ve always done before harder. I’ve also think Covid and our heightening climate crisis has pulled a veil from my eyes and I find myself keen to get as far away from screens as possible but not necessarily to far flung places.
So for those who don’t know, can you explain the Adventure Syndicate?
The Adventure Syndicate was set up in response to the bicycle and outdoor industries fixation with being the strongest, best, fastest and first. I was a pro mountain biker for many years and an outdoor instructor before that but became pretty disillusioned by both industries over time, so were all the other strong, capable women I was surrounded by. We were trying to be genuine and act with integrity while racing or encouraging others into the outdoors but our ways of being were overlooked and considered less worthwhile or weak. It seemed speaking loudly and definitively about your own competence was the way to get ahead but deep down we know that this way of being doesn’t make the world go round.
As women we were tired of never seeing ourselves represented in adventurous contexts and of the boring traditional narratives of conquering, defeating and treating our natural environments as big playgrounds exclusively for our own pleasure. As a group of endurance adventure riders who excel at big bike rides due to an ability to collaborate, communicate and respect the natural world, who could be gentle with themselves and inclusive of others, we thought it was worth retelling some stories. So we set some records and rode some very long distances but were humble and had fun too. Importantly, it encouraged others to do the same.
We wanted to dispel the myth that you need a chiselled jawline and huge biceps to belong in the outdoors. Everyone belongs here. It’s where we all come from and connection with wild spaces is the most natural, inclusive thing a human might experience. So we make films, give talks, organise challenges and gatherings of like-minded people, race long distances and tell stories about our failures as well as our successes. It’s honest and fair and as a result, we hope, inspiring.
We worry that people are becoming disconnected from the simple important stuff because they are so busy and moving so fast. It feels good to go slower sometimes and notice things
How long have you been going and who else is part of the team?
We established ourselves in 2015 with a team time trial around the now infamous North Coast 500 route in the highlands of Scotland. Six women worked as a team to break the record of 500 miles in 36 hours and we haven’t looked back since.
And back in June you completed the first of the Source to Sea projects, can you tell us a bit more about this?
For a few years now we have run Match the Miles challenges. This is when a group of TAS riders ride a long way in one week while represented by a wee dot moving in real time online. School groups and individuals attempt to match our miles each day that week and have their own dot virtually travelling down the same route online via our purpose built app. It’s a virtual race to incentivise more people (especially young people, women and girls) to be more everyday active.
This year our match the miles challenges are taking place as we ride and packraft the length of three of Scotland’s rivers from their source high in the mountains to where the river meets the sea. Along the way we explore how our health, social inequalities and our environmental crisis might be mitigated if more people chose to walk, ride or wheel places instead of driving their cars.
It’s a controversial issue. People are wedded to their cars as a way to get places fast and efficiently instead of considering the damage this does to their health and that of the planet. But more than anything we worry that people are becoming disconnected from the simple important stuff because they are so busy and moving so fast. It feels good to go slower sometimes and notice things. That’s what source to sea is all about.
So why the River Dee to start with?
Because we love the mountains and the Dee starts high up in the Cairngorms at nearly 1200m before gathering momentum and reaching the sea in Aberdeen. So many kids in Aberdeen have never even seen the Cairngorms but making the watery connection between the river that runs by their doorstep, what life it gives to living things along the way and the wild high lands it originates from is pretty powerful stuff.
How did you find the journey?
It was a bit weird to begin with to be honest. We’re used to travelling 100s of kms each day on our bikes and really challenging ourselves physically. This journey asked us to really slow down and notice things. To take time and invest in the connections with people and the places we were passing though.
We know this a valuable thing to do but we get just as caught up in the fast paced high achieving ways of living that everyone else experiences. We also feel that we owe it to ourselves to slow down and notice things once in a while as we travel smaller, more sustainable distances each day. Not every challenge needs to be a smashfest! Thirty miles a day riding and packrafting means there’s time to eat and sleep well, to tell the story of why we’re doing this and to encourage others to get involved.
And in September you guys are following another Scottish river source to sea, right? What can you tell us about this?
Yeah! During the Dee we focused on how travelling self supported by bike benefits our mental and physical health. In September we’ll be journeying down the river Tay and looking at ways travelling sustainably can be a social leveller. Not everyone can afford a car and those that can often make it harder for those who can’t to get around safely.
Making the watery connection between the river that runs by their doorstep, what life it gives to living things along the way and the wild high lands it originates from is pretty powerful stuff
What’s the grand legacy for the source to sea adventures?
In November we bring all the messaging together on our final journey down the river Clyde that ends in Glasgow during the United Nations Climate Change Conference. We hope that this self supported journey to Glasgow together with all the other cyclists travelling in carbon neutral ways to the city causes our leaders to consider the value of taking the time to travel sustainably and connect meaningfully with our natural surroundings. We’re so quick to innovate our way out of this crisis but we can’t. Electric cars and hydrogen plans will just exacerbate inequalities and remove us further from our true nature. We have to reassess what we value and change how we do things. We have to slow down and consume less if we are ultimately to be happy.
Source to Sea will produce a three part podcast and film series that will tell this story from the perspectives of young people in the areas we’ve travelled through. We hope elected members will watch and listen and understand what our next generation is saying.
What else do you have planned for 2021 / 2022?
The Highlands of Scotland is a harsh place to be in the winter so I might take my time riding to the south of Spain for the darkest months where I’ll live in a yurt and write my book for a while. I have a bikepacking trip to the Faroe Islands planned by cargo ship from the western isles to make a film about sustainable tourism. That’s if fate allows. Maybe I’ll just have to stay put and make that be ok too. Then who knows what 2022 will bring? Plans are important but more important is being able to let go of them.
For the Adventure Syndicate’s next challenge -River Tay, 6th-10th September – they’ll be challenging schools groups, community groups, individuals, families and everyone else in between to walk, run, wheel or cycle rather than drive during challenge week.
To get involved, download the mobile app using the Google Play Store or the App Store and you’ll be able to track your activity using the GPS function or upload your miles manually and watch your dot travel along the Tay with everyone! If you’re taking part as a group, you can use their desktop app or our Android / Apple mobile app to manually collect everyone’s miles. For full details head over toThe Adventure Syndicate.
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