Emily Chappell, the former cycle courier, started making a name for herself last year when she published her first book, What Goes Around. Not content with cycling round the world and crossing Alaska on a fat bike (in winter), she then entered and was the first woman finisher of the Transcontinental bike race this summer.
Now she’s out and about promoting ultra endurance cycling events to women with snappily named The Adventure Syndicate. It’s an organisation she founded which aims to challenge perceptions of what women are capable of and to promote inclusive role models for them. She was a big draw at Velo Vixen’s Hub at this year’s Cycle Show at the NEC. And last week she could be seen hosting an event at Rapha’s central London store in Brewer Street where she invited five women to talk about their achievements on the bike.
It was a packed house at the trendy Soho flagship. Normally the stomping ground of the MAMIL, this was a distinctively different clientele to the usual well-heeled gent cyclist. The majority of the audience were, of course, women, and listening to not just the speakers’ but some of the audience’s exploits on two wheels, they would have put many of the regular Rapha rouleurs to shame. It seems that this sector of the cycling population are eager to venture beyond Richmond Park or the Sunday club run for something a bit more challenging and adventurous.
Chappell had put together an inspiring panel of speakers. Three of them have completed unsupported rides where the rider is completely self-sufficient: Laura Scott has completed the TransAm (an unsupported race across the United States); Jayne Wadsworth and Rose McGovern are both Transcontinental finishers, a race which starts in Belgium and ends in Turkey with various checkpoints to be crossed. Other than that the route is down to the individual rider’s choice.
Meanwhile the supported side of ultra endurance cycling was represented by Shu Pillinger who was one of six women to compete in the Race Across America (a non-stop, supported race). And Jasmijn Muller, a “cycling mad Dutchie”, has completed 12 hour and 24 hour endurance events and plans to break the record (52 hours) of Lands End to John O’Groats.
You may think that to achieve such remarkable feats these must be former Olympians or sportswomen of high pedigree. But the abiding impression given was that these were ordinary women who have achieved the extraordinary. Shu Pillinger was candid about how she started getting interested in sport through a casual football team and Rose McGovern revealed how she was challenged to compete in the Transcontinental after one too many bottles of wine on a Tinder date.
They all juggle busy lives with jobs, friends, partners, family and the day to day grind with pushing themselves and their bikes to the limit. So, in terms of inclusivity, The Adventure Syndicate gets a big tick. And speaking to some of the audience after the talk, there was an overwhelming sense of, “Yup, I can do this too if I want to.”
The two different sides of ultra endurance cycling – supported and unsupported offer different challenges and disciplines. Taking part in the TransAm or Transcontinental requires the competitor to be resourceful, plan their own route and overcome the hardships on their own. The supported riders have a whole team behind them of drivers, mechanics, cooks and coaches making it much more of a team effort. While some thrive on the team atmosphere and support, others like Chappell, Scott and Wadsworth like to rely on their own inner strength.
Jasmijn Muller comes at it from a very technical angle, obsessive about interval training, nutrition and kit, while Chappell revealed that she just rides as much as she can to prepare herself for her long distance journeys. “In fact, I’m not entirely sure what ‘intervals’ are,” she confessed! Rose Mcgovern rides a £700 Scott Speedster, whereas Shu Pillinger will demand more high end equipment. What they all have in common is a determination, spirit for adventure and ability to push themselves to the limit.
Pillinger talked about the hallucinations and goblins she encountered when crossing the United States. On her first attempt to complete the Race Across America she fell asleep, came off her bike and broke her collarbone. She returned the following year and became the fastest British woman to cover 3000 miles as she crossed the States on a bike. Chappell spoke about how she arrived at the base of Mont Ventoux (the checkpoint was at the top) exhausted, having timed her journey badly for the ascent. She got to the top by breaking down the climb into 2km segments devoting each one to a woman who had inspired her. She also gets through by singing to herself loudly and, she says, badly.
Ultra endurance cycling events, supported or unsupported, offer the ultimate challenge for the cyclist but, as this panel of speakers confirmed, they are accessible and within the grasp and abilities of ordinary men and women. All the speakers here spoke of how they started on shorter events like sportives and Audax touring, and gradually built up to the tougher challenges.
Judging by the buzzy atmosphere at the end of the evening I think there’ll be quite a few more remarkable achievements in the not so distant future. I’m also sure that they’ll be accomplished by the audience members as well as the speakers from this event. You can expect a few more women’s names on the start list for next year’s Transcontinental, that’s for sure!
Emily Chappell will be appearing with Rebecca Harrison and Kajsa Tylen for another talk on long distance cycling at Rapha Manchester on Tuesday November 8th at 6.30 pm.