Emily Chappell is an ultra-endurance cyclist who made her name as the fastest woman home in the 2016 Transcontinental Race (3,500 miles, non-stop and self-supported from Belgium to Istanbul).
From winning the infamous Strathpuffer 24 hour mountain bike race, to riding a fat bike from Anchorage to Vancouver in winter, Emily is in her element on a bike exploring the world. Needless to say, we are big fans!
Emily is also an incredible author who writes in an elegant, flowing style that contrasts with the raw emotion and biting honesty of her prose. Her new book "Where there's a Will", published November 2019, is a hauntingly beautiful chronicle of her long-distance bike racing journey and what inspired it, as well as her grief at the loss of her great friend, the legendary Mike Hall.
We recently caught up with Emily and asked her to share her insights on how she fights through the pain of long distance riding, her favourite races, places to ride and where she'd like to go next. You'll also find quotes from her book throughout the interview.
Disclosure: Emily's publishers, Profile Books, gifted us a copy of Where There's a Will - with no strings attached. The links to buy the book in this article are affiliate links from which we may make a small commission - there's more info in our disclosure policy.
1. Of all the ultra-distance cycling races you've done, which has been (a) the toughest (b) your favourite?
The toughest, without question, was the Strathpuffer – a 24-hour mountain bike race in Scotland in January. It was dark for most of the time I was riding, the trails were covered in ice, and I crashed so many times it’s a miracle I didn’t break any bones. I have never felt so physically broken as I did the following day.
My favourite (although it’s so hard to pick one) would be the Transcontinental Race in 2016. I had such a wonderful two weeks on the bike – it was like a year of bike touring condensed into a fortnight – and the course seemed to suit me well, in that it avoided the worst of the European summer heat until the final few days.
“All around me the long grass quietly tossed and turned in the wind, and above me the moonless sky was fading from indigo to grey. For a moment or two I was blank, not knowing where I was - perhaps not quite remembering who I was - and lacked the energy to wonder how it was that I might have ended up here, in the corner of this field.”
2. Give us an example of a time when your body and mind were screaming at you to stop. How did you keep going?
That’s happened so many times, but the most memorable is probably the day I reached Mont Ventoux, 1,000km into a race, and knew there was no way I’d make it to the top.
I was physically and mentally exhausted, and riding 21km uphill seemed completely beyond me.
But I think I was just too tired to get my head round what I would do if I quit, and all I really knew how to do was keep going. I decided I would ride 2km up the hill, slowly, and then take a break, have a drink and a stretch, and then worry about the next 2km. It took me a very long time (and I walked some of it), but I made it to the top just before midnight.
“The wind shrieked and bellowed, now dying down for a moment, now pouncing on me as I rounded a spur of the mountain. Sometimes it tossed me from side to side like a dog breaking a rat's neck... And finally I was there, staggering up onto the flat summit, nothing more above me but the tower, standing resolutely there like a lighthouse on a dark night.”
3. Do you ever get scared when you're alone in the middle of an ultra-distance race? How do you deal with the fear?
I don’t really. Cycling is my happy place. I often get scared before a big event, even though, if you asked me, I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is I’m scared of.
I don’t let it worry me though – I’ve been doing this for so long now, I’m beginning to understand that almost every challenge that comes up will be something I’ve dealt with before and proved I can handle, which is enormously reassuring.
“My sobs rippled in and out of my like breath. For half an hour I cycled along weeping quietly to myself, then my mood shifted, the rain stopped, and I finally found my way.”
4. What's the most memorable thing that's ever happened to you on a bike?
It’s impossible to pick just one! I’ll give you a top three:
The first time I rode through the night, from London to Brighton, back in my early twenties. We left at midnight, and I’d spent the whole evening feeling increasingly sleepy, wondering how I would ever manage to keep myself awake and pedalling for 60 miles. But to my surprise, as soon as I started riding, the tiredness fell away and I felt I could go on forever. I still love riding through the night.
The day I arrived in Vancouver, having ridden from Anchorage, Alaska, through the depths of winter, on a fat bike. The city was full of sunshine and blossom, and I was hit with the realization that a trip I’d been planning for over two years was now behind me, and had been a success.
The final day of a four-day winter LEJOG (Land’s End to John O’Groats) that three of us did over New Year 2018. For the last hundred miles we were riding up the east coast in the dark, on quiet roads, and a full moon lighting our way. It was bitterly cold, and we were pretty tired by then, but I found myself thinking that I didn’t want it to end.
“Alongside my conviction that I was attempting something far beyond my abilities, that things would eventually go wrong...ran a subtle parallel knowledge that I was in my element.”
5. You've ridden in more countries than many of us ever will. Where has the most spectacular scenery?
I have a lot of favourites. The Julian Alps in Slovenia are some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve seen anywhere, I’ve spent happy months exploring British Columbia and the Yukon, and I’ll always have a soft spot for my home roads of Mid Wales.
But I think I’d have to name France as the most spectacular – I’ve spent so much time riding there, and am still discovering landscapes that any other country would boast as their finest.
“ I continued down into a long valley, lined with soft grass and tiny Alpine flowers.”
6. If you could choose anywhere in the world to train for your next long-distance race, where would it be?
It would have to be somewhere with quiet roads, beautiful scenery, and a reliable climate. Perhaps Spain, which has the added advantage of being somewhere I’ve barely begun to explore.
“Beyond the barrier foamy white waves hurried across the surface of the sea, and great gusts of spray rose like steam between me the folded green mountains of Achill.”
7. Tell us about your bucket list bike ride - somewhere you’ve never ridden before that you’d love to ride.
I love riding uphill, so one of the places I most want to visit is Colombia, where the climbs are far longer than any you’ll find in Europe. I’ve long dreamed of riding the Alto de Letras, and I’d love to immerse myself in Colombia’s cycling culture.
Big thanks to Emily for taking the time to answer our questions.
Banner photo credit: Kristian Pletten