Emily Chappell: Winning the Transcontinental Bike Race and Feeling Strong, Powerful, Unstoppable - Total Women's Cycling

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Emily Chappell: Winning the Transcontinental Bike Race and Feeling Strong, Powerful, Unstoppable

The courier, tourer, bike packer and Adventure Syndicate athlete shares her experience

The weekend just passed was punctuated with thrilling adrenaline soaked performances at the velodrome in Rio where Olympic athletes demonstrated just how fast a bike can go. However, over in Turkey stood a very different finish line – that of the PEdAL ED Transcontinental Race, located around 3,800km from the start line with approximately 50,000 metres of climbing in between. 

This year, the first woman across the line was Emily Chappell – bike adventurer, ex-courier, and author of ‘What Goes Around’ as well as Adventure Syndicate women’s group athlete. Chappell finished in 13 days, 10 hours and 28 minutes – just under two days ahead of second place woman Johanna Josten-Van Duinkerken who made it in 15 days, 3 hours, 35 minutes.

Chappell – adventurer, bike packer, racer. Image: James Robertson

“I felt I was thriving, even during the more challenging sections”

  • Chappell rode on a custom-built steel frame from Shand Cycles
  • Unlike many, she opted for no aero-bars – Chappell says: “I barely use them, and have found it’s much more efficient for me to have a lot of space for food up front – this means I can hydrate and refuel whilst riding”
  • She took less than on her 2015 attempt: “Immediately after I finished last year I went through everything I was carrying, photographed it all, and then weeded out all the things I hadn’t used.”
  • Chappell was kitted out in Rapha kit, taking 2 pairs of shorts: “No matter how far I let the rest of my personal hygiene slip, I always put on clean shorts once a day. And was rewarded with an almost-saddle-sore-free ride!”

This year the race began in Belgium. It was the second time Chappell had made her way to the start of this event, but the first time she’d finish it – having been forced to pull out due to chest pains which put her in hospital in 2015. Looking back now, Chappell can appreciate that her attempt would have been over with or without those pains – saying: “I knew in my heart of hearts it was really because I’d mismanaged the race. I’d rashly decided, a few days in, that I could do without sleep, which was impairing my mood, pace and decision making, and eventually the exhaustion caught up with me. If it wasn’t the chest pains that knocked me out, it would eventually have been something else.”

Interview: Adventurer Rickie Cotter Talks Freedom, and Almost Snorting Energy Powder

Ending up on hospital after 8 days of solid riding might be enough to put some people off – but not Chappell. If anything, the experience made her realise how suited she was to this style of competition: “When I checked social media, a lot of the other riders were constantly complaining about their saddle sore, and back pain, and aching knees, and how painful and difficult it all was – whereas I felt I was thriving, even during the more challenging sections. So I came back for more, partly because I had unfinished business, but also because I now knew this was something I loved doing – a challenge into which I could pour all the skills I’d gained in my years of touring, couriering, bikepacking, and generally living in the saddle.”

Chappell checks out her beloved Shand. Image: James Robertson

Chappell led almost from the off, attributing her success largely to taking fewer and shorter sleep stops. She finished knowing she’d comfortably taken the top spot on the podium. There was only one alarm-bell moment, when a follower tweeted her to say her nearest competitor was only 150km away – a moment she describes: “I was taking another accidental detour around the Greek coast and a Twitter follower announced that Johanna [Josten-Van Duinkerken] was only 150km behind me. He turned out to be wrong – it was more like 350km. The few hours I spent sprinting through the heat to try and defend my lead are probably part of the reason I suffered so much on the final night.”

Jayne Wadsworth: Riding the Transcontinental Taught Me to be More Self Assured

Aside from live tracking updates and Twitter, Chappell didn’t have a lot of interaction with the other female riders along the way – only seeing last year’s only female finisher Jayne Wadsworth a couple of times, and meeting with Johanna at the finish. Wadsworth arrived five minutes after Chappell left the finish town of Çanakkale, but she commented: “I left her a beer with one of the race volunteers.”

“I’d actually won. Me. A race. I never expected I’d be this sort of person. It’s been life-changing. And also life-affirming”

The level of respect between riders is evident in bike packing adventures, but at the end of the very long days, it is still a race – and Chappell won. It took a little while for that to sink in, she told us: “It felt much less overwhelming than I’d imagined it would. I was so wrecked when I arrived that I didn’t feel like a triumphant hero – more like an exhausted, filthy, broken-down old woman. It was only over the next couple of days that it began to sink in, and I realized I’d won – I’d actually won. Me. A race. I never expected I’d be this sort of person. It’s been life-changing. And also life-affirming, because really it was just more of what I love: riding my bike, seeing new places, meeting new people, going to sleep every night in a very different place from where I woke up that morning.”

Chappell among the crowds in her blue Rapha jersey. Image James Robertson

The final 100 miles of the race were probably the hardest for our winner. Perhaps not helped by the fact she’d believed she was being chased down by her nearest competitor. Describing the most difficult riding of her life, she says: “The toughest part – and the only part I can’t wring a single happy memory out of – was the final 100 miles. I had skipped a night’s sleep, and spent the whole day battling up and down Greek hills in 40C heat, and was exhausted. Suddenly the saddlesore I’d avoided for two weeks kicked in, my feet and knees and hands started to ache, the road surface deteriorated and a brutal headwind kicked up. It was the longest night – and the longest century – of my life, and by the time I got to the finish I no longer cared about the race, or the fact that I’d won it. I was just relieved that my suffering was over.”

Of course, there were infinitely more moments of absolute joy, exhilaration and beauty – otherwise seasoned bike packers wouldn’t keep going back for more.

Riders on this year’s Transcontinental Bike Race had to meet four check points, this year they were situated at Clermont-Ferrand,  France, the Furka Pass,  Switzerland, the Passo di Giau, in Italy and Durmitor Massif, in Montenegro. Needless to say, starting in Belgium and finishing in Turkey, the route took in an array of varied landscapes. Chappell says:  “I feel privileged to have witnessed some of Europe’s most glorious mountain landscapes – and I was also lucky to avoid most of the storms and high winds that plagued riders behind and ahead of me in the pack.”

“I found myself racing along the road into Albania as the sun came up, feeling strong and powerful and unstoppable”

She adds, searching her memory for her favourite moments: “There was a surreal morning when I found myself racing along the road into Albania as the sun came up, feeling strong and powerful and unstoppable, enjoying one of those rare moments when it all comes together, and I started to fantasise, as I sometimes do – don’t we all? – that I was in a breakaway, winning a race, miles out ahead of the rest of the pack …and then I realised I actually was, and didn’t know what to do with my brain any more.”

The bike. Image: Emily Chappell

It wasn’t just the sheer beauty of the natural landscape, or the joy of riding at the edge of her ability for days on end that Chappell enjoyed either, looking back she picks out a few favourite moments from the more inhabited areas – saying: “There were also more prosaic moments, like spotting my first Lidl after I’d been living on a diet of petrol station junk food for two days, and finally finding coffee on Day 1, after 14 hours on the road. And there’s always that special moment when you’ve been riding all night, and roll into a town, and can smell that the bakeries have opened.”

Though Chappell chose to spend around half of her sleeps in hotels, to ensure the best rest possible, she cherished the outdoor sleeps – saying: “Some of my happiest memories will always be of stretching my tired limbs out on the thick green grass of the Alps, listening to the silence around me and gazing up at the canopy of stars above me. I’m always a little regretful that I fall asleep so quickly, and don’t get to savour it for longer.”

And what’s next for this adventurer? Well – first a week off the bike – something she calls an ‘endurance challenge’ in itself, then on August 27 she and the Adventure Syndicate will be riding another North Coast 500 – in 7 days, not 36 hours this time (you can join them – sign up here!). Then, in September she’ll be riding the Deloitte Ride Across Britain – Land’s End to John O’Groats in nine days. That’s a lot of riding, but as she says: “After the Transcon, riding hundred-mile days, with someone else to carry my luggage, cook my meals, pitch my tent and fix my bike, will feel like a holiday…I hope.”

We love stories like this – of inspiring women doing incredible things. You can find more similar (though every one is unique) tales here. 

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