WHERE THERE'S A WILL
Author: Emily Chappell
Reviewed by Richard Peploe
‘Where There’s a Will’ is the story of Emily Chappell’s experience one of the more extreme cycle races available the Transcontinental . Chappell does a great job of conveying the challenges involved in such an event, as well as telling a really exciting story.
I wasn’t sure how well a book about extreme distance racing would appeal to me: they are not events that I have ever done, nor do I plan to do so. From what I have read they seem to be primarily about coping with sleep deprivation, and the mental aspects are at least as demanding as the physical ones: surely even the best writer would struggle to make that relate to those of us without similar experiences?
How wrong I was. I was lucky enough to hear Chappell talk about her book at the Rouleur Classic show, and she was so eloquent and engaging that I couldn’t wait to get started on it – and soon discovered that her book was equally compelling.
Roughly a quarter of the book is given over to her first attempt at the Transcontinental race, which is basically a race across Europe, where Chappell had to abandon the event due to a health scare. This provided a moment of black comedy, and a reminder of how different such events are from ‘normal’ life: the Slovenian doctor trying to diagnose her chest pains “asked if it ever woke me up during the night.” “I haven’t been sleeping at night’, I reminded him.”
A similar proportion of the book is given over to the death of fellow endurance cyclist (and close friend) Mike Hall, which was all the more harrowing because of the initial uncertainty about the facts. In between there is an account of her second attempt, in which she won the female category.
The Transcontinental is one of a growing number of ultra-endurance races, events that are normally so extreme that even the EF Education First professionals undertaking their ‘alternative calendar’ have not tried them.. Yet. Being races, there is a start line, and the first to cross a distant finish line is the winner.
As Chappell explains, beyond that there is little in common with most of the racing that we encounter: riders are entirely self-supported, and choose their own routes. For the most part spectating takes the form of remote ‘dot watching’, courtesy of GPS trackers. Despite covering some of the most iconic and scenic roads in Europe (albeit often at night), the Transcontinental is not touring, it is racing.
Even though Chappell had considerable experience of long-distance cycling, such as taking part in Audax events, and partly completing a cycle round the world, it is interesting to observe her struggle with the mental shift required for endurance races: “bicycle touring was in my bones; with bicycle racing I seemed to have married into a family whose language I didn’t yet speak.”
It seems obvious that one needs to keep moving if you want to finish the course, but until you have been in that situation it is hard to imagine how difficult that would be when events are conspiring against you: it doesn’t matter “how many hours I had lost”, the only answer was to “get back on the bike, because really, there was nothing else to do.”
If you have any experience with ultra-events then this book will resonate with you. I don’t, so some of the discussions that Chappell had with fellow endurance riders covered topics that non-participants like me probably wouldn’t think about, such as the use of anti-depressants to cope with normal life after an endurance event. Chappell’s own experiences don’t sound any more appealing: even after victory she felt “Fractured. Fragmented. Doubtful.”
Prospective participants will undoubtedly benefit from reading such a book, but not necessarily in the areas they might wish for. There are no maps or recommended routes, although the importance of good route planning is a recurring theme. We learn that Chappell’s likes to visit a “Wetherspoons for breakfast if I’d been riding all night, enjoying the cheap coffee and bacon rolls”, but that advice won’t always translate well abroad!
You won’t find much advice on what to take with you either, although a kit list is promised on Chappell’s own website. I liked the suggestion on how to occupy the mind when progress was slow: whilst riding up Mont Ventoux Chappell decided that “for each 2km stretch I would think about a woman I found inspiring, and dedicate that part of the ride to her” - which is made easier on popular climbs where there are usually marker boards situated every kilometre.
If you simply want a good adventure story based around your favourite past-time, with the added bonus of learning about a niche side of the sport, then you won’t find a much better. I now have even greater respect for those who take part, but I have also been convinced that it is not likely to be an activity for me.
I am not familiar with Chappell’s first book, ‘What Goes Around’, which covers an aspect of her life that is not covered here (that of a cycle courier in London), but on the evidence of her latest book it will be well worth seeking out.