Title: Where There’s a Will – Hope, Grief and Endurance in a Cycle Race Across a Continent
Author: Emily Chappell
Order: Profile Books
What it is: Emily Chappell explores her experience of ultra-endurance riding – covering three Transcons, two Strathpuffers, and an Irish ride – along with her friendship with Mike Hall
Strengths: The final section where Chappell explores her friendship with Mike Hall is the book’s best bit
Weaknesses: It’s another cycling misery memoir, which is fine if you like that kind of thing
Ah me! alas, pain, pain, ever, for ever!
No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.
In the late hours of the last Friday of June, 2015 – so late it was in fact the following day, the clock having just struck midnight – 172 riders set out from the Belgian city of Geraardsbergen bound initially for Mont Ventoux in France, with the ultimate aim of getting to Istanbul in Turkey, more than 4,000 kilometres away. The riders were participating in the third edition of the Transcontinental, an unsupported ultra-endurance ride that many have compared to early Tours de France, especially those jaded by the Tour today and in awe of the big buckle’s mythic origins.
The comparison with early Tours is largely based on ideas of authenticity and a mythical past. The reality is quite different. For all that we raise Henri Desgrange up as the cruellest of task masters, his Tours showed their riders a lot more respect than Transcons do. Early Tours alternated racing days with rest days. While riders in early Tours were not supposed to receive assistance from team-mates drafting was not banned, which it is in Transcons, turning them into very long time trials with coffee stops. And while early Tours banned support on the bike, off the bike riders could be assisted by their teams, with accommodation organised for them and soigneurs provided to help their bodies recover from one day and prepare for the next. Transcon’s rules, they make the Father of the Tour look soft for the paternal concern he showed for his riders.
In its structure Transcon is more like the Six Day races that, apocryphally, inspired Géo Lefèvre when he pitched the idea of the Tour to Desgrange. In those races – the American version, not the original British Sixes – riders would start at midnight on a Sunday (the Lord’s Day being a day of rest Sunday was, for a time, free of racing as far as Americans were concerned) and ride through to the following Saturday without scheduled stops. When to sleep and how much to sleep became part of a rider’s strategy.
When Teddy Hale, the Irishman who wasn’t, won the Madison Square Garden International Six Day Race in New York in 1896 it was reported that he had got through the first 52 hours of the race – taking him through to the early hours of the Wednesday morning – without taking a time-out for sleep. In all, Hale claimed after the race, he had slept only eight hours between the race’s Sunday night / Monday morning start and its end the following Saturday night. Another rider in the race was Major Taylor and his strategy was to take one hour of sleep for every eight hours of riding.
Emily Chappell is closer to Major Taylor than she is to Teddy Hale. She likes her sleep and Where There’s a Will is filled with it. Asleep is where we meet Chappell at the book’s start, snoozing in a field somewhere in Slovenia:
“I woke on my back. 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.”
We last met the former adventure syndicalist lately turned redcoat in a touring Tour de France holiday camp in 2016’s What Goes Around. That told the story of how Chappell was seduced by the romance of the road and went from tube-riding commuter to bike-riding courier. If you haven’t yet read that book you really should, it’s one of the best cycling books published in the last ten years.
After quitting couriering Chappell became a round-the-world adventurer, riding across Europe and then across Asia. That in time led her to becoming an ultra-endurance bike rider and taking part in the 2015 Transcontinental. She got as far as Slovenia before packing it in.
I was sent a copy of What Goes Around in 2020, shortly after its publication, and I too packed early. It was the start of the pandemic and this just wasn’t the type of book I wanted to be reading at that time. Avoidance was my coping mechanism – avoidance of things that were going to depress me, avoidance of things that were going to annoy me – and Masterchef Australia and The Good Place filled the gap in my life once filled by cycling books.
I had made it through Where There’s a Will’s first three chapters, a pretty miserable account of Transcon 2015 with which I empathised (“mostly I felt tired, uncomfortable and fed up. Ventoux seemed as distant as it had the previous night, and I failed to muster much interest in getting there”). Chappell eventually reached the Ventoux and suffered her way up it. Even before she’d reached the shrine to Tom Simpson she was reminded of climbing Mount Everest, quoting Reinhold Messner: “I can scarcely go on. No despair, no happiness, no anxiety. I have lost the mastery of my feelings, there are actually no more feelings. I consist only of will.” Chappell had the will to go on (and on and on) with what Rouleur has described as “an evocative existential battle on Mont Ventoux.” I lacked the will and that’s how Where There’s a Will ended up sitting on my expanding shelf of unread cycling books for the last two years. I was in no frame of mind to cope with it.
Transcon 2015 and its aftermath fills the first third of Where There’s a Will, with Transcon 2016 filling the book’s middle. In the final third Chappell explores her friendship with Mike Hall, the Transcon organiser who was killed while riding 2017’s Indi-Pac transcon (which has been written about by Rupert Guinness in Overlander). You get to the end of Transcon 2016 – what in other books would be the high point of the story, with Chappell the first woman to finish the ride – and you still have a third of the book to read. (Peaking early is a thing in cycling books, look at God is Dead.)
In a way, the experience of reading Where There’s a Will is like riding 200 kilometres out to get to the start of a hilly two hundred and then riding 200 kms to get home. With that final two hundred containing some of the best riding you’ll do all weekend.
Chappell didn’t quite take naturally to riding Transcons. She notes that they came with a new grammar wholly unlike that of the type of riding she had been used to before in couriering or long-distance touring. She felt, she explains, like she’d married into a family whose language she didn’t yet speak. She certainly picked the language up quickly. It’s the language of pain and Where There’s a Will is fluent in it.
So many cycling books are filled with the language of pain – from David Millar’s The Racer through to most of the self-published My Cycling Summer Holiday travelogues you’ll come across – that when you find a cycling book that actually talks about the joy of cycling you’re quite surprised, whether that joy is of the sort previously expressed by Chappell in What Goes Around or by Geraint Thomas in The World of Cycling According to G.
A lot of this is down to the way in which many cycling fans revel in the sport’s Hardman mythos. Merckx riding on even after someone had punched his kidney out. Hinault completing that race where his hand fell off with the frostbite. Hamilton eating all his teeth or Thomas riding on with his pelvis held on by sticky tape. Cycling is not, we are time and again told, a sport for softies. If you’re a softie, we’re told, go play football where you can roll around on the grass clutching your ankle every time you trip over your laces.
Oddly, no matter how much many dream they are true Flandriens, born to ride shit roads in shit weather, once you put them on a hill they stop being flahutes capable of stoic suffering. Put them on a hill and they feel a need to share their pain with the world, every metre of every mountain turned into a public sufferfest. An extreme example of this came from the respected Dutch journalist Wilfried de Jong, who wrote a 22-page short story about climbing Mont Ventoux in which every metre of the mountain was climbed like your 96-year-old grandparent going up the stairs after their Stannah has broken down. Slowly and painfully. If you’re not suffering on a climb, the thinking seems to go, you’re not doing it right.
That filters through into how we ride. That filters through into how we depict riding. And that has consequences.
In her 1977 collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag put forward the view that “our capacity to respond to our experiences with emotional freshness and ethical pertinence is being sapped by the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images”. While Sontag repudiated elements of that argument in a later essay, Regarding the Pain of Others, the basic point still stands: that over-exposure to depictions of pain can inure us to the pain of others. They can render suffering banal.
That, I think, is happening in cycling: we have so many personal accounts of people suffering as they ride that most of the time we stop seeing their pain. The best response we can muster is a trite cliché: Epic! Savage! Nails!
Where There’s a Will’s constant depiction of cycling as something miserable is not wholly down to Chappell having acquired the grammar of the Velominati. Some of it is down to how she relates to the way she thinks other people see her (“I felt neither fear nor ambition, and was bothered by everyone else’s assumption that I should”). Certainly there are people who see Chappell as being cast from the mould of the flahute. And so – I think – she sets out in Where There’s a Will to undermine that image of her by laying bare her suffering, letting that crowd out any joy she experiences (and she does experience joy, she tells us that she experiences joy, she just doesn’t show it as well as she shows the pain and the misery).
Perversely, all Where There’s a Will actually does is to reinforce people’s perception of Chappell. The more Chappell lays herself bare on the page – the more she cries, the more she stops, the more she suffers – the more in awe of her some will be. She endures. She was the first woman to complete Transcon 2016, don’t you know. And she won the Strathpuffer (a 24-hour ride similar to the Highland Trail Lee Craigie wrote about in Joining the Dots).
As well as undermining the expectations others have of her, Chappell is also seeking to undermine the expectations people have of books like this:
“before I started my ride across Asia I devoured any book I could find that covered a similar journey. Quite quickly I found myself abandoning them before the final chapter, losing interest just before the hero’s triumphant arrival at his home […] as my own journeys progressed, I discovered a deep scepticism towards the endings other travellers described. I found I simply didn’t believe the emotions they recalled, their uncomplicated joy and the resolution they implied by leading up to this moment and putting it at the end of the book. A lot of their stories followed a formula as clear as any thriller or romance novel, and after I’d read two or three, the homecoming scene rang as false as the happily-ever-after. Their writers, I told myself, were saying what they felt was expected of them – what they themselves had expected: that this was the greatest moment of their life, that they were happy, that everything had built towards this. I wondered if they were even able to admit to themselves that the template they’d spent however many thousands of miles moulding themselves into was false.”
And so we get an underwhelming end to Chappell’s Transcon 2016 ride and an even more underwhelming homecoming: she lands in Birmingham airport and a pain in her foot leads her to thinking she’s come down with a dose of DVT. Being the alarmist type that I am I thought it more likely to be Type 9 diabetes caused by all the sugary crap she’d eaten en route to Turkey and the foot would have to come off. But the pain disappeared of its own accord a week or so later.
Once freed of the need to push onwards in her Transcon accounts, the need to follow this town with that, one day with the next, once given the time to take a more leisurely approach to Where There’s a Will’s narrative, Chappell delivers something poignant and touching as she takes the reader through the development of her friendship with Mike Hall. (“It was a relief to return to his company after standing on the Strathpuffer podium, or after one of the talks I was increasingly invited to give about my exploits, and to know that nothing more was expected of me than what I had to offer on any given day.”)
After Hall’s death, Where There’s a Will returns to its chosen path, ending with another joyless bike ride, this time down Ireland’s Atlantic coastline.
There are some interesting ideas introduced by Chappell throughout Where There’s a Will, from the nature of competition through to the bouts of depression she falls into upon returning from her adventures. Few of them are developed to any great length. The idea most developed is that of the invisible peloton, Chappell imagining herself riding in the company of some of the women she admires the most. That may seem to be against the spirit of Transcon’s draconian one-lone-rider rules but it’s not yet illegal. The invisible peloton idea has been sold to Rapha, who I guess must love the idea of being able to market invisible clothing to it.
The idea most in need of development by Chappell is why she does these rides given how miserable her descriptions of them are and how miserable she says they make her feel when they’re done. She does intimate that they are a way of keeping the world at a distance (“I longed [...] for the relief of returning to my element and pushing the world to an arm’s length”). Avoidance as a coping mechanism. Who am I to argue with that?
I do have to admit though that it doesn’t work.