The Cycling Champion Who Started Out as a Bike Courier
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you don’t have to be an Olympian to be inspiring.
By Fiona Zublin
Emily Chappell was en route from Bosnia to Montenegro, cycling along a 30-mile gravel road she hadn’t expected. Her bike skidded over a sharp stone and slashed a big hole in the tire. She knelt to fix it, but the tube she tried to wedge into the wheel wasn’t fitting. “I realized either I will have a very long walk or I’ll hitch a lift, but something is going to happen,” she said, “And afterward you say, ‘I was terrified and I didn’t know what to do and I survived.’ It was such an empowering feeling, not knowing what was going to happen.”
She eventually fixed the tire with a larger tube she’d forgotten she had in her bag and went on to win this Transcontinental Race, finishing ahead of every other female competitor. Today, the 34-year-old Welshwoman is heading back into endurance racing — the Transcontinental again, and a race around Scotland — with an eye on bigger projects, like setting a round-the-world record or spending part of 2018 cycling the Himalayas.
Chappell studied English at Cambridge and was to become an academic, but while waiting around for Ph.D. funding, she decided to do something she’d always secretly wanted to try: She became a bike courier. If this doesn’t sound like an act of bravery, you have never tried to cycle around London: It is essentially Mad Max: Fury Road with less compassion and less chrome spray paint. But Chappell speaks of it nostalgically. London’s a big, intimidating city, but on a bike, she says, it become less impersonal, a place one could understand and mentally map. “I knew where I was,” she says. “That was what made me love London.” She wrote a book, What Goes Around, about careening around the capital, and then she decided to take her bicycle mania international, attempting to cycle around the world, from Wales to Wales. She set out in 2011, but by the time she got across Asia, she decided to cycle the rest of the trip in smaller chunks after health problems and depression reared.
But she kept blogging, kept riding, and then came the Transcontinental race — which is a funny beast among bike races, a cross-European trek founded just four years ago that’s respected as one of cycling’s toughest challenges: a solo trek across Europe (next year it starts in Belgium and finishes in Greece.) The November before each race, organizers announce a start point, an end point and four checkpoints. How the hundreds of riders get from place to place is up to them. It’s unsupported — no camera-loaded car follows the peloton — and thus is an order of magnitude cheaper to enter than fancier races, and also means a lot of time alone. Mike Hall, the founder of the race, says Chappell’s courier and long-haul background made her a strong contender in the Transcontinental. “They’re good at navigating while they’re moving,” he says of couriers, “and doing big trips makes you comfortable with solitude.”
And yet Chappell’s equally interested in community as she is in solitude. Earlier this year, she and fellow female cyclist Lee Craigie (who’d already hung up her cleats as a professional mountain biker) founded the Adventure Syndicate. The collective of female cyclists pushing the message of biking as an extreme sport doable by ordinary people, launched in May while setting a world record for speed on Scotland’s 518-mile North Coast 500 route as a group time trial. Their message — push yourself, believe in yourself, lean on your friends when you need to — sounds like a Pinterest board except that all the women involved are world-class athletes setting records and winning races. While the group isn’t meant to encourage only women, about 80 percent of the audiences tend to be female, Chappell says. “The cycling world is more or less designed around men, and we’ve just been trying to find parts of it that we fit into,” Chappell says.
Between running workshops and making appearances at cycling film festivals, bike days and events, they give talks — something Craigie says is essential, because the whole point of the Adventure Syndicate is face-to-face contact. It’s that elbow-to-elbow solidarity with amateurs that gives the people they talk to the confidence to get on a bicycle — and the skills, through bike-packing courses and endurance-training camps, to make it through when the unexpected happens. At their packed talks, which now sell out within hours, Craigie, Chappell and their group stand in front of their audiences and explain that they get scared and bored and lonely too, and they still manage to have adventures. “It’s about blowing apart that traditional male adventuring stereotype,” Craigie says. “Putting a bomb under it and saying, ‘Everyone can do that stuff.’” Which seems to resonate: Less than a day after announcing a training camp, Chappell and Craigie had already seen 20 applicants.
While the Adventure Syndicate founders seem a bit caught off guard by its runaway success, the sold-out talks, appearances and workshops aren’t necessarily translating to a career — and they’re hoping to keep it cheap, so people don’t feel shut out by not being able to afford participation fees. But they’re getting over qualms about being paid — because work you love doing is still bloody hard work — and it turns out people are willing to pay for that pit-of-the-stomach conviction that they can do it, especially if it comes with a workshop on how to change your own tire in the middle of nowhere.