Q&A with ultra-endurance cyclist Emily Chappell
As Emily Chappell’s book, Where There’s a Will There’s a Way, about her triumph in the 2016 4000km Transcontinental bike race, is published, I put her through an (endurance) interview. She made it – and here are some of her answers.
Emily is 37 and recently moved from Mid Wales to Bristol. She is a freelance writer and speaker, as well as an occasional bike guide. In 2016, she was the fastest female to cycle the Transcontinental Race, from Belgium to Greece. She rode a custom-built Shand Stooshie and took 13 days, 10 hours and 28 minutes – just under two days faster than second-place female Johanna Josten-Van Duinkerken.
Emily is one of the founders of the Adventure Syndicate, a Cycling UK affiliated group that encourages women to take on challenging rides.
When did you discover your love of cycling?
I got into cycling when I was 24 and I’d recently moved to London. I’m still not quite sure why I wanted to, but I’m glad I did, as it turned the city from a massive, frightening and unfamiliar place into somewhere I knew like the back of my hand.
After a couple of years, I became a cycle courier and that pretty much ruined me for real life. Ever since, I’ve been looking for things to do with myself that involve spending most days out on my bike.
A few years ago, I started to ride further, such as my 18-month cycle trip across Asia and a couple of deep winter expeditions. Then I got into long-distance racing.
Before the Transcontinental bike race win in 2016, Emily had attempted but failed to complete the same event. I asked her about this previous race in 2015.
If you had told me before that race that I wasn’t going to make it to the finish, I’d have felt devastated. But by the time I dropped out (for medical reasons, because I’d overdone the sleep deprivation), I had already gone further and faster than I thought I would.
I realised then that I had an unexpected talent for this kind of racing.
I went home feeling inexplicably invincible and I knew immediately that I’d learn from my mistakes and be back the following year. I was excited to have another opportunity to race and, to my great surprise, I had enjoyed it.
In the 2016 race there were 30 women and Emily was the first to finish. (It wasn’t until this year that a woman, Fiona Kolbinger, won the Transcontinental overall.) I asked Emily about the race.
It’s a non-stop, self-supported race. This means that there are no stages or mandatory rest stops. You ride for as long as you’re able, resting when you need to, and the first person to reach the finish line is the winner.
Riders are forbidden from accepting outside assistance and they have to plan their own routes between the four checkpoints, which means strategy and skill come into play alongside strength and stamina.
People take very different approaches within the race. I preferred just to ride until I felt tired, then either sleep in a field or book into a hotel. But other people would plan out their daily mileage and overnight stops a lot more carefully, so they always had something to aim for.
Racers’ mileage could be between 250km and 400km per day. I averaged around 300km, but this varied considerably depending on whether I was riding through mountains or along flat, fast roads with tailwinds.
What were the highlights of this race?
Simply being on the bike – it’s my happy place. And there was such a thrill in moving so quickly across the continent – thinking back at the end of the day over all the different landscapes I’d passed through, and the things I’d seen, I’d frequently find myself struggling to believe that so much had happened in just 24 hours.
And the lows?
Those painful afternoons where all my energy left me and it was a struggle just to keep moving. I always knew the bad moments would pass, but sometimes they went on for far longer than they should have, and despite my long experience, it was really hard to believe that this doldrum would ever end.
Were there any challenges as a woman?
Not really. I took a pill called norethisterone to stop my periods and, quite honestly, when I’m on the bike, I tend to forget that I have a gender at all.
There were possibly a few small advantages, in that people were more likely to want to look after me when I stopped to eat or sleep, but since I mostly ate from supermarkets and slept in fields, this wasn’t a particularly big factor either.
What did you learn from the Transcontinental bike race?
That I am capable of far more than I often believe. And that, despite what everyone tries to tell us, when I’m on the bike on my own, I feel happier, safer and more relaxed than I do in any other part of my life.
Do you think that women are particularly good at endurance events?
I’ll leave the scientists to explain the physiological reasons why (and there are several) but my main theory is that a race like the Transcontinental really begins on day three, when everyone has ridden themselves into a state of exhaustion, sleep-deprivation and near-injury.
The riders who continue, thrive. They riders that might eventually win are not necessarily those with the highest VO2 max, or the biggest muscles, but those who are able to maintain themselves in this state and keep on riding.
The skills and self-awareness needed to do this are, as far as I can tell, not related to the gender of a rider and this potentially puts men and women on a more even footing competitively.
The Transcontinental celebrated its first female winner this year and I suspect there will be more.
You have suffered periods of depression. Does cycling help?
I’ve discovered strong links between what I do on the bike and what goes on in my mind. My daily bike rides don’t cure depression, but they help me to manage it and they ensure that when it does take hold, its grip is never too tight.
Racing the Transcontinental in 2016 ultimately took me out of a long period of depression. However, it’s common for racers to suffer a massive physical and mental crash on returning home and I’ve sometimes struggled to get back on my feet after this, or to accept that I need to rest and I can’t solve my problems with a nice hard bike ride.
Cycling is a drug – it can be extremely therapeutic, but it can also be abused and it’s important to use it mindfully.
Where are you at with cycling now?
I have moved on from racing although I think I still have a few competitive bones in my body, so you never know. I currently spend my summers leading a group of intrepid amateur cyclists around the Tour de France route, one week ahead of the pros, for Le Loop.
- Many thanks to Emily for telling me more about her cycling. To find out more about the impressive rider and her new book and tour see That Emily Chappell.