© Kristian Pletten
Author and endurance cyclist, Emily Chappell, spent six years working as a cycle courier in London before realising she had a talent for riding a very long way. Her bike adventures have taken her all of the world with wins in races such as the infamous Transcontinental (3500 miles, non-stop and self-supported from Belgium to Istanbul) and the Strathpuffer 24-hour mountain bike race. She also leads the annual amateur Tour de France ride, Le Loop, each summer too.
Next month Emily launches her new book Where There’s a Will: Hope, Grief and Endurance in a Cycle Race Across a Continent, which chronicles her long-distance bike racing journey and what inspired it. She’ll be speaking about this and more at the Kendal Mountain Literature Festival on 16 November (get your tickets here). In the meantime, Emily shares her love of riding, the secrets to cycling in -40°c temperatures, and the memorable moments from her worldwide bike adventures, with me here.
Emily, tell us about your new book Where There’s a Will and what it’s about?
It’s the story of my journey into long-distance bike racing. I had been cycling for quite a few years before it occurred to me to enter a race – as a cycle courier, and then as a tourer – so I came into it very experienced in some ways, and a total newbie in others.
How did the long-distance cycling come about?
As a courier I got used to being on the bike all day long, five days a week (and sometimes weekends too, as I got fitter and stronger). I loved the job, and although I knew I’d have to move on one day (there is zero career progression), I dreaded the downhill slide I feared would follow it, assuming I’d have to succumb to a desk job, and the knowledge that my best years were now behind me. So I think I was – and still am – looking for ways of spending my life that will enable me to be on the bike most of the time. Long-distance touring was probably the obvious choice.
At what point did you realise you had a talent for riding a very long way?
Long after I should have! For many years riding long distances was just a personal challenge – to find out whether or not I could go that far – or, eventually, an enjoyable pastime. I didn’t think of it as something you could be good at until the first time I raced in the Transcontinental. I dropped out on Day 8, but I’d gone further and faster than I expected, and witnessing the various crises of fellow riders made me realize that I was in my element. My extensive touring experience meant I was used to being on the bike, familiar with all the challenges of riding through different countries and over different terrains, and ready for all of the physical, logistical and mechanical disasters that inevitably arise when you try to ride that far.
You’ve cycled all over the world. Tell us where you’ve travelled to so far, plus any memories of riding abroad that stick out in particular?
I won’t list all the countries, but I’ve cycled across Asia, across Iceland, around Ireland, and through various bits of North America in winter – I have a thing for snow and ice. I’ve also crossed Europe several times, ridden the Tour de France route twice (as Lead Cyclist for Le Loop), and am constantly looking for new bits of the UK to explore.
The places that stick out are often the ones that I had low expectations of, but which turned out to be hidden gems. During the Transcontinental in 2016, I took a much longer route between Montenegro and Turkey than the other racers, passing through Albania rather than Kosovo and Macedonia. Initially, it felt like a disaster – I had potentially thrown away my lead, and I’d only ever heard bad things about cycling through Albania. But instead I was greeted with wonderful hospitality, beautiful countryside, and some of the finest roads I’d ever ridden. I spent 24 hours riding across the country, and it felt like a little holiday within the race.
You also spent three months cycling in Alaska and Yukon in -40°ctemperatures. How did the extreme cold change your long-distance cycling experience?
Everything was harder. Little things I’d take for granted on warmer expeditions, like going to the toilet, or even just reaching into one of my bags to get a snack, become complex logistical operations, as the moment I stopped the bike or removed any piece of clothing, the cold would become so painful it was frightening. I’d often ride along seriously hungry and dehydrated, just because the difficulty of eating and drinking was too much to face. My kit behaved differently at low temperatures – a lot of things snapped and broke and stopped working, which added to the struggle.
Extreme cold made me slower and weaker and stupider – presumably because it took so much of my energy just to keep me warm – and I was riding a heavy fatbike, loaded with all the kit I could possibly have needed, so progress was a lot less encouraging than on my summer rides. On the first day, I covered 45 miles in eight hours and despaired of ever getting to the end. And when I did start to speed up, I had to be careful not to overdo it, because if I ever broke a sweat, it would freeze inside my clothes, and I’d carry the resulting ice with me until whenever I next got to a place where I could defrost and warm up.
I loved it though and did another big ride in the Yukon last winter. Speaking to other people who’ve done extreme winter expeditions and races, we’ve agreed that it’s no longer so much about toughness once you get below -30: ideally you should have organised all the systems of how you take care of yourself – hydration, accessing food, sleeping arrangements – so that you never get to the point where you need to be tough. The margins are so much tighter at low temperatures that if you get into trouble, it’s often already too late.
As a little girl, you harboured dreams of competing in the Tour de France one day and even had a plan to disguise yourself as a man to do so. Where did your early interest in cycling come from?
My family always watched the Tour de France, so I think that’s where that dream came from, even though I really didn’t cycle much as a child. I didn’t learn till I was seven, and because we lived out of town, I didn’t get to spend most of my childhood playing on bikes with my friends (though I often wished I could). I also had a dream of climbing Mount Everest, and back then these ambitions seemed pretty interchangeable, though I have definitely gone off the idea of mountaineering now. These days I have an incredible summertime gig leading a group of riders around the entire Tour de France route, one week ahead of the race with Le Loop, which is as close to that childhood dream as I’ll ever get – and probably a far more enjoyable way of fulfilling it.
With many ultra-distance races under your belt have you found a way to deal with sleep deprivation?
Sleep is the main limiting factor in ultra-distance racing, and balancing sleep time and riding time is a fine art – how little sleep can you get away with, without putting yourself at risk, or losing time to other riders? Sleep deprivation affects me as it would anyone else – it reduces my coordination and energy levels, troubles my mood and motivation, and increases my appetite (though that’s no bad thing when you’re cycling 300km a day). I’ve got used to being mindful and keeping an eye on myself, noting whether whatever state I’m in is dangerous (in which case I’ll stop immediately and get some more sleep) or just debilitating.
I talk myself through the moods swings by keeping a wider perspective, telling myself that this is a normal effect of sleep deprivation, that I’ve got through this before so there’s no reason I won’t now, and I anticipate the clumsiness and lack of coordination by making sure all of my systems are as simple and fool-proof as possible. For example, I keep a water bottle in a pouch on my bars, so that I don’t have to reach down and wrestle it out of my frame, because I can see exactly how this might go wrong.
You pack very light – what are your kit ‘essentials’ for long events like the TCR?
I’m asked this a lot, and I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer, because when you’re travelling as light as I do, pretty much everything is essential, otherwise, I’d leave it at home. A better question would perhaps be how I’ve refined all of my systems, to make me and the bike as light, fast and efficient as we can possibly be. I have a dynamo hub in my front wheel, which charges my phone and GPS, and powers my lights at night, meaning that I never have to stop to plug things in. I favour modular clothing, like gilets, overshoes, and arm and leg warmers, so that I can adapt to temperature variations without carrying a lot of bulky extra layers. I have several food pouches on my handlebars and stem so that I can keep myself going for hours without needing to stop and refuel.
What have you found to be the secret to avoiding saddlesores during ultra-distance rides?
Saddlesore is an inevitable fact of ultra-cycling, though I’ve suffered less than some people I know. My personal strategy is to keep the area as clean and dry as possible, particularly in hot climates, where sweat increases the risk of friction and infection. I carry a spare pair of shorts, so that I can put on a clean pair every day (some riders will race for two weeks in the same shorts – I don’t know how they do it), and when I sleep I change into merino underpants (or stay naked if I’m in a hotel), to improve air circulation and promote healing. Over the years I’ve figured out the best combination of saddle and shorts for me, and dialled in my bike fit, but there are no short-cuts, as everyone’s anatomy is slightly different, and there are so many factors to consider. I’ve noticed that if I have problems with my hands or legs the saddlesore will get worse, as I unconsciously put more of my weight on the saddle to relieve whatever else is hurting. And I’m more susceptible to infection if I’m a bit run down. As with all things in ultra-racing, it really pays to keep a holistic eye on how my body and all my systems are working, because one thing rapidly leads to another.
Do you ‘train’ as such or simply ride as you please?
I ride my bike all the time, but I’ve never followed a training plan, despite knowing that I’d probably get faster and stronger if I did. I’m worried that I’d become too obsessed with the numbers, and that cycling would turn from being my freedom and my escape route into a series of targets and obligations. To prepare for big events I gradually increase the distances I cycle over the preceding months, typically by entering a couple of smaller events and putting various rides and challenges in the diary, so that I have stepping stones to aim for. I do try to take a couple of weeks off before a race (which is hard), and I’ve been doing a bit more yoga over the past couple of years, as I’ve noticed I ride better when I’m looser and more flexible.
Far too many people suggest travelling the world solo via bike as a woman is dangerous. Tell us about your experiences of solo bike travel and what they’ve taught you?
I get asked the danger question all the time, and it’s started to make me angry because it’s effectively an assumption that women are both vulnerable and incompetent – i.e. that bad stuff is going to happen to us, and that when it does, we won’t be able to cope. And this is so far from what I’ve found on my journeys. The opposite, in fact. When I’m on the road I’m treated much better than I am at home – people look out for me, and take care of me, and offer me help whenever I need it (and often when I don’t).
The world is a much kinder place than we fear, and my faith in humanity is never firmer than when I’ve just finished a bike trip. And when I have had a difficult situation to deal with, I’ve learned to rise to the challenge and find a solution. I am so much more confident and capable now, and I often wish I could bottle this feeling and hand it out to other people. By telling women that it might be dangerous to travel alone, we’re effectively discouraging them from making their own mistakes, learning their own lessons, and developing resilience and capability, and I find that appalling. I’ve learned lessons on the road that I’ve brought back into the messiness and complexity of real life – and as most women know (or would realize if they stopped and thought about it), we’re much more likely to be attacked or assaulted in bars, offices and public transport than we are out in the wilderness.
Danger is also much more subjective than many people realize. In most places I travel, being a visibly affluent white woman with a British accent puts me at a strong advantage. People find me interesting, feel less threatened by me, and want to protect me (whether or not I need it). I know that women of colour have strikingly different experiences, and I’m also more and more aware of how risk levels vary depending on context. There was a particular valley in Pakistan where I knew I was for once more at risk as a white woman (a local extremist mullah had issued a very specific threat); there are parts of the US I would not want to visit if I were a black man, there are certain regions of the world where I would not come out as gay.
Rather than just believing that the entire world outside my home country is full of dangers, I take responsibility for assessing the risks wherever I go, finding out whether they apply to me specifically and whether I can mitigate my behaviour or presentation to be safer, and putting plans in place for what I will do in the very unlikely event of something bad happening. And really, nothing ever has. I’ve had all sorts of highs and lows on my journeys, but if anyone ever asked me to tell them my worst, or most scary experience, I would really struggle to think of one.
Do you ride solo because you enjoy the solitude or is it just due to circumstance?
Both. I love the peace and solitude of long-distance riding, and I think it’s one of the best bits of ultra-long races like the Transcontinental. Once the bunch has spread out, you’re physically more-or-less on your own. But you’re also united in a common aim with your fellow racers, even when you don’t see them for days. Of course, with the growing phenomenon of dot-watching, I’ve become more and more aware of the constant scrutiny of spectators and sometimes found it difficult to immerse myself in the moment as much as I used to.
Conversely, I have really enjoyed leading Le Loop for the last couple of years – a charity ride where amateur cyclists take on multiple stages of the Tour de France, a week ahead of the professional race. I love the bonding and camaraderie of riding together as a group, though the constant company can get a bit overwhelming by the final days. I’ve come to see audax (self-supported, non-competitive long-distance rides) as a happy medium, where I can be as sociable (or as antisocial) as I like, and know that no one’s watching me, or caring about my progress and position.
Tell me about your bikes – how many do you have?
Eight. I think. It’s a vague number because there are always a few being borrowed by friends. (I strongly believe that bicycles should be ridden and that I should share my good fortune to have so many. They also take up a lot of space.) Plus there will be a couple in pieces, and sometimes one or two on loan from bike companies, that I’m testing or reviewing. I’m currently riding a Canyon Endurace: a beautifully designed carbon road bike that’s super-comfortable over long distances. I still have my old courier fixed-gear bike for riding around town, I occasionally go mountain-biking on my Shand Oykel, and I’m desperate to rebuild my Shand Stooshie (the one I won the Transcontinental on) so that I can spend more time on gravel. Just about every single part needs to be repaired or replaced, so it will be a massive (and expensive) job.
What are your 2020 plans – any bucket list races or events on the agenda for next year?
I think I’ve got racing out of my system for now. It gave me a lot, but once I’d won a couple of races, I didn’t feel the urge to compete any more. It was as if I’d needed to find out how it felt, but once I knew (and had proved to myself I could do it), that was enough. I do still sometimes feel glimmers of interest though when someone announces an exciting new race, so you never know. What remains is my very deep love of cycling long distances. I did a 500km audax with 8,000m of climbing recently and I was still glowing a week later. It turns out riding uphill into the sunrise, fuelled by junk food and twitching with saddlesore, is my happy place.
So next year I’ll be entering lots of audaxes, I’ll be riding an extremely interesting (and hilly) Tour de France route on Le Loop, and I’ll be saying yes to any other two-wheeled opportunity that comes my way.
Emily will be at the Kendal Mountain Literature Festival on Saturday 16th November to talk about her book, Where There’s A Will, and the experiences that inspired it. Book your tickets here.