Border crossing: in conversation with Emily Chappell

A former bicycle courier in London, Rapha ambassador Emily Chappell has participated in the Transcontinental twice – and was the first woman to finish the 4,000km race across Europe this year.

Hooked on long distance cycling and determined to encourage as many other women as possible to feel the same, Emily recently spoke to Rapha about her inspirations, her future plans, and how the simple pleasure of riding keeps her searching for the next ultra-distance challenge.

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How did you start riding in long distance events?

When I was a kid, I had this dream that I wanted to be the first woman to ride in the Tour de France. I got into cycling too late, so even if I’d wanted to go the pro route, by the time I was good enough to consider it everyone my age was retiring.

But there’s this wonderful scene hidden just below the surface, where everything is DIY, and a lot of the races are just a few people agreeing to turn up at the same time and ride the same course and see who rides the fastest. With long distance riding, you just take matters into your own hands and go out and do it. It doesn’t matter what age you are, or whether you’re male or female, you can just come along. I’d probably still have ended up doing what I’m doing, but simply going for really long rides on my own, so I feel really lucky this kind of scene exists.

Last year, your first appearance in the Transcontinental was also your first experience in competitive cycling. How did you feel going into the race for the second time?

The Transcontinental is this arena in which everyone – even the strongest rider – is challenged. You have to look after yourself during the ride, and any risks you take are your own risks, but just having the target stretches everyone so much further than they would stretch themselves otherwise. Last year, I was the last female participant left when I was forced to pull out because of a health scare.

Returning to the race, I still couldn’t quite picture myself finishing. But I wasn’t worried that I would get it wrong and blow up – I felt a quiet confidence that whatever problems came up, I could handle them. I’ve done so much long-distance bike travel, and so much has gone wrong, that I know I can handle most situations.

It’s an odd way to think about a big race, but I really genuinely love being out there riding my bike. It’s where I feel comfortable and safe, and you have this clarity leaving all of life’s complications behind: eat as much as you can, ride as much as you can, sleep as little as you can. This year, I finished in 13 days, 10 hours, and 28 minutes, two days ahead of the next woman to finish.

Will you ride the Transcontinental next year?

I’m surprised that people ask me that. Why wouldn’t I? Partly because I love it, and partly because I can still see a lot of room for improvement, and I know that I can do better, with a whole year to work on everything. I’m looking forward to it. There’ll definitely be more women, too. Over the last month or so, I’ve had countless women approach me asking about riding it, so I know there’ll be a strong field.

How do you see the ultra-distance cycling scene developing?

Most continents have races going across them now. There will be a lot more races to come, too – but the ethos of being self-supported, and doing these things yourself, will have bigger implications on the cycling and bikepacking world, and particularly for women.

One of the barriers to women getting involved in things like this is the way we’re socialised. There’s this helplessness that we’re encouraged to learn, whereas men are often brought up with the idea that they can do or fix anything. A big part of what I’m trying to do is encourage women to reconsider what they’re capable of, and to think, “maybe I’ll have a go, and if it goes wrong I’ll sort it out.” After three years of being a courier in London, that’s what I learned.

It’s really valuable to cock up and have failures, then get through them. When something else goes wrong, you know you can deal with it. And it’s one of the most powerful things about self-supported races like the Transcontinental. Not only do you arrive at the end knowing that you’ve pedalled there, you know you’ve crossed the continent by blagging and hustling your way there, too. You come home and feel like you can do anything. I’d love to bottle that feeling and hand it out to other women, but I can’t. I’ll just have to encourage them to race the Transcontinental.

You’re also part of a women’s cycling collective called the Adventure Syndicate

Me and a group of extraordinary cyclists, who are all women, had this idea that started off as a women’s adventure cycling team, but we soon realised that we’re far too diverse to race together. It’s morphing all the time, but one of the biggest aims of the Adventure Syndicate is to help break down the barriers to women taking part in long distance cycling. We’re trying to do the inspiration thing, but that’s a load of bollocks unless you follow through with it. Rather than just showing people some well-lit Instagram feeds, we’re running bike-packing courses, route planning workshops, training camps, and much more.

What’s next for you?

On day 11 of the Transcontinental, I was riding into Greece, singing Don’t Stop Me Now at the top of my voice, and I started thinking: “This is day 11 and I’m feeling really good. I don’t want this to be over.” I thought maybe I need to try something bigger, and I remembered that no one has broken the women’s round-the-world record since 2012… Even if it all goes completely wrong, I’m still on my bike – and for as long as that’s the case, I’m in the right place.