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Emily Chappell: “Don’t Fear Failure”

Emily Chappell tells us what barriers women face when it comes to endurance cycling, and how to overcome them

Words by Laura Laker

Emily Chappell is on a mission. Fresh from winning this year’s TransContinental (TCR) race, and with a cycling book, What Goes Around, out earlier this year, she’s now determined to get more women into ultra-endurance cycling.

Last week, a talk was held at Rapha in Central London, specifically aimed at women and ultra-endurance cycling. It turned out her mission may be easier than anticipated.

Chappell was joined by Laura Scott, Shusanah Pillinger, Rose McGovern, Jasmijn Mullerand. With 100 or so women – and a few men – crammed onto stools and standing around the edges of the room, the talk began.

“I thought we’d have 10 around a table, we had 100 and a waiting list, we could have shifted 25 or even 50 more,” Chappell said.

Whether Audax events, touring, or challenges like the TransContinental (McGovern and Chappell),RAAM (Pillinger) 12 hour races (Jasmijn Muller), there’s a lot of options out there. However, as with other areas of cycling, women’s participation is significantly lower than men.

So what is stopping women from getting out there?

Image: James Robertson

“People often ask: ‘What’s the worst thing that has ever happened to you?’ and I don’t have a response” – Emily Chappell

TWC caught up with Emily Chappell before the event. This, she says, is an issue she could talk about all day, but safety is something a lot of women ask her about.

“Everyone has heard ‘it’s very dangerous for a woman’, so it becomes part of your mental landscape,” she says. “When you pick that apart, you think: what could go wrong? You know how to fix a puncture, you know how the world works; it’s a very vague fear of going outside of your comfort zone.”

Emily talks us through some of the main barriers that women face when heading out on long endurance rides.

From comfort zone to comfort breaks…

Being comfortable on the bike is paramount to a fun and successful ride. For women, going to the loo isn’t the easiest of feats, especially when you have your period.

Emily explains: “A lot of people think once you’re out there it’s just you and the bike,” she says. “But you can always stop. You can always buy food somewhere, go to the toilet and someone to appeal to, and most of the time there are people around.”

Chappell advises to carry a moon cup in case you’re somewhere where you can’t get tampons. If you tend to have heavy, painful periods, you can always stop for a few days.

Am I strong enough?

Doubts over physical aptitude commonly rear their ugly head, doubts Chappell had too. She may not be a training expert – she freely admits to not knowing what an interval is –but the Deloitte Ride Across Britain showed her what an apparently unfit person can achieve.

Chappell met people who had never ridden 100 miles before. Although it took some of them the whole day to complete each leg, and they no doubt suffered along the way, they managed it.

“I have never done anything that far above my ability,” she said.“I was blown away, with a bit of support and a bit of self-belief, what people can achieve.”

This, for her, can be just as inspiring as people she describes as the titans of women’s endurance cycling, women like Juliana Buhring.

Planning a Route and Choosing Kit

A lot of women Chappell talks to find the thought of planning a long ride daunting, more so than the men, which can be used to women’s advantage.“I find women are often better prepared; they might spend an extra two years getting ready but when they do it they have thought of every possibility, every contingency, whereas men go off and think: ‘I can handle it’.” says Chappell. She wonders if this is due to the different ways boys and girls are raised.

Like any problem solving exercise, Chappell says break it down, learn what works for you and have a backup should technology fail. Kajsa Tylen carries three Garmins for her ongoing Year Record attempt.

Kit essentials for a bike tour

Kit choice is a quagmire; some people ride carbon, some steel. Almost everyone Chappell talked to ahead of the TCR recommended something different. “I think it doesn’t matter that much,” she says.“If you have a bike you’re comfortable on, and you like riding, that’s fine”.

“Start riding with the rig you’re going to be riding for the big race, start riding it as early as possible, find out what you need, what you don’t.”

Training and practice runs are as much about getting to know yourself as your kit. Chappell recommends trial weekend rides, even taking less than you are comfortable with, to help allay some of those nebulous fears.

“Try and give yourself an experience of things going wrong, because it’s really not that bad, and you can cope with more than you think. Then when you’re off [for real] and something goes wrong you can think back and remember you got through it last time.”

Fear of Public Failure

“It’s really good to have some practice at being bad at things” – Emily Chappell

“That’s something a lot of women seem to find really hard,” says Chappell. “For me, it’s because I feel as a woman you’re going to be judged a lot more.”

You can turn this into a positive, though, as she learned after scratching from her first TCR.

“It really wasn’t awful failing at the first year of TCR. The part of the race I had done I was a lot faster than I thought I’d be.

“It’s really good to have some practice of being bad at things, but also learning giving up now and again is an integral part of getting good, you learn so much more from your failures than your successes. Keep your eye on the bigger picture, keep thinking ‘failure is part of it’. It’s a hell of a better story, as well!”

Emily Chappell cycled from Wales to Japan 2011-2013. In February 2014 she cycled across Ireland. In 2015 she cycled from Anchorage to Seattle, before making her first attempt on the Transcontinental Race, from Belgium to Turkey in 2015. She scratched mid-way, returning in 2016 to become the fastest woman to complete the 3,800km-odd race.

“What Goes Around” is Emily Chappell’s account of her adventures as a London cycle courier, and it was published earlier this year. It’s available from your local book shop, the Guardian book shop and Amazon.

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