You know who Emily Chappell is right?’ My bezzie mates’s boyfriend said to me, about, ooh six weeks ago now. ‘No?’ I replied, quizzically. ‘She was a courier with me in London,’ he said. ‘You should look her up.’
So look her up I did. What I found immediately got me interested. This is a female cyclist talking about the stuff that I’d been chewing on of late. Namely the fearful comments and thoughts that women get from others, and give to themselves, when considering doing almost anything intrepid, and specifically, alone, and why in the face of it all, they really should just get on it…
Emily Chappell is a cyclist who started out as a courier in London, and in 2016 was the first woman across the line at the Transcontinental race; a 2500 mile ride (as-quick-as-you-can), from Flanders to Istanbul, with check points through the Alps no less. When she won in 2016, it was her second attempt at the race, and a comeback from 2015, when she had to drop out following some self-confessed foolish pushing of boundaries in the sleep deprivation department…
On Wednesday 16th November, Emily wheeled into to Roll for the Soul, Bristol’s not-for-profit bike cafe, to talk about going long as a lady. Alongside her were two equally intrepid women, both having also finished the Transcontinental. Two of them, Emily and Rickie, are part of ‘The Adventure Syndicate’, a 12-strong collective of extraordinary cyclists who happen to be women, and who aim to challenge what people think they’re capable of. Their strapline is ‘Inspiring, Encouraging, Enabling‘, and inspire they did, on that rainy winter evening in Bristol.
Bristol was the fourth and last in a sell-out series, that saw members of the Syndicate visit different cities to impart their stories. In this case, the intrepid trio stood up for no less than two hours, to talk and laugh their way through memories of solo and unimaginably long distance riding, with a view to getting more women on the start line of the annual Transcon race, and inspiring women to – as Emily’s cap points out, just f* do it.
We sat, mostly women, probably all cyclists, and a smattering of men, absolutely transported into their race and their world, as conversation and input flipped between the three of them.
Emily, the published and recently Champion one, Gaby, the one who won alongside her husband in a pair, and Rickie Cotter, the utterly gobsmackingly infectiously hilarious one with many a eye-widening story to tell us.
‘I’ve been encouraged to think big and think, f* it,’ says Rickie. ‘You have to find your motivation and just go for it. I found my motivation, and it gave me the strength to get up early and cycle through whatever life threw at me. Whatever you do… find it.’ Rickie has finished shed loads of 24-hour mountain bike races, almost won the World Champs twice, and completed the Transcontinental race solo. ‘But I’m just a painter and decorator from the Cotswolds,’ she laughs.
She ain’t afraid of speaking the truth either. In regaling her tales of the gruelling Transcon, where, we heard, you ride as far as you can before you must sleep (in Rickie’s case up to around 36 hours), we learned about the night she accidentally broke into an abertoire and fell asleep on a reddish-brown concrete floor – and the night she accidentally ended up checking-in to a brothel in Albania…
If the stories off the bike sound challenging, that’s nothing compared to what it’s like being on the bike for endless hours.
‘You lie to yourself that you’ll only feel this way for a moment,’ says Rickie. ‘That you’ll come through it eventually, and you’ll come good.’ ‘My lowest points were always in the darkest moments of the night, and just after the sun came up,’ says Emily. ‘You just get through it, and as you go on, the day gets brighter and you start to feel better. The wiggly journeys are the best ones,’ she says. ‘When I won the Transcon, I’d pictured myself a triumphant hero, singing Don’t Stop Me Now; but when the moment came, I was an exhausted tired mess, whimpering from saddle sores. The last 100 miles went on forever, and I limped across the finish line. You learn that the bad things are a blessing.’
So what of the good parts?
‘You will suffer, but you will end up with unbelievable friendships,’ says Gaby. ‘I was totally underprepared for the Transcon, but it blew me away. It was epic.’
‘Cycling long and hard gives you unbelievable strength in your every day life,’ says Rickie.
Whilst many will find the idea of cycling across endless European borders solo through the dead of night less than appealing, Emily is keen to tell us just how doable it is, in the face of a huge amount of fear.
‘We should do this because we can,’ says Emily. ‘We are so privileged to have the opportunity. Imagine having 50% women on the start line for this race – it would be amazing,’ she says. But there’s a question that Emily hears all the time, and it really winds her up: ‘but isn’t it dangerous? You know, as a woman?’
Emily feels that this is misguided question for many reasons (which you can read about on her blog, here), and that it’s our duty to do this stuff, because we can. I relate to this on a local level. When there was report of rape in our local running parkland in Bristol, women were warned to stay away after dark. I whole heartedly disagree with this approach. Women runners should not stay away, they should in fact, double, nay, triple in their numbers. Because if we give in to fear, we retreat into our boxes, and this is no good for anyone.
Admittedly, you don’t have to do something this epic, you could push boundaries just outside of your comfort zone instead. But the point, say the Adventure Syndicate, is that you can.
Even Emily suffered ‘imposter syndrome’ before she rode (and later won) the Transcon. I heard the same thing when I met Anna Mcnuff. All of us think that these epic things are done only by someone special, that person is usually ‘over there’, they are never ‘standing here.’
But you can. Yeah you can, and frankly – you really bloody should.
The Adventure Syndicate will be visiting towns next year to help women start their own adventures, with practical advice and information. You can find out more by signing up to their newsletter via the website. They are also running a training camp in early 2017. Find out more here!