Saturday 7 December 2019

Book review: Where There's A Will - Emily Chappell

Following the success of her debut autobiographical account of life as a cycle messenger, What Goes Around, Emily Chappell's sequel Where There's A Will transitions into the next phase of her cycling life - the slightly more arduous world of ultra-distance cycle racing.

Emily's second book
The story centres around Emily's experiences riding the Transcontinental Cycle race. This cycling challenge starts in Geraadsbergen, Belgium, and sees riders racing around 4,000km to reach a given town in Turkey or Greece.

I can only give an approximate distance because riders don't follow a waymarked route, but plot their own itinerary to get across the various countries between Flanders and The Balkans as quickly as possible.

As the timer is constantly running, riders have to be extremely measured about how many sleep breaks they take, and they can't receive any outside support in advance - meaning that they can't book accommodation or restaurants in advance.

So riders end up carrying all their provisions and food with them, and sleeping in bivouacs in church doorways if they're lucky - otherwise more usually in fields under the stars.

In the early part of the book Emily describes quite vividly how she wills herself along when climbing over Mont Ventoux, in Southern France, after dark in order to reach check-point one, 1000km into the route.

We get an insight into her mind as she battles up this testing iconic 21-km route that is no stranger to crowds of cycling fans cheering on riders in the Tour de France, or riding the route themselves by day. On this occasion, though the route is completely desolate, save for an overeager German journalist who runs alongside Emily for a few minutes, trying to interview her in the pitch black.

Although Emily describes how privileged she felt to have gained this experience she soon describes the deflated, drained feeling of wanting to give up, and how all she can do is cry.

Eventually, after crossing the French Alps, and reaching the second check point in Sestriere, Italy then going down crossing northern Italy, Emily is compelled to pull out of the race in Slovenia after developing chest pain. Nevertheless, this doesn't stop the Cambridge graduate from entering the Transcontinental race in subsequent years and being the first female finisher in 2016.

Emily at the London Bike Show
Throughout the book you get a real sense of goodwill from others along the way - whether it is from other riders from the world of ultra-distance cycling, strangers in the different towns and countries she traverses, or social media messages of support from the thousands of  "dot watchers" who follow her progress from her GPS tracker.

As Emily details her adventures in other races and her subsequent visits to the Transcontinental race you really want to will her along and hope that she makes it through the event and you live her emotions with her - be they the anxiety of another competitor about to catch her, the elation of winning, the nagging pains in different parts of her body from riding 300km in a day, and the grief following the death of her friend and Transcontinental founder, Mike Hall in 2017.

I enjoyed reading this book, which gives you an insight into the minds of the various characters such as Juliana Buhring, Mike Hall, and Kristof Allegaert, who seemingly won't get out of bed to ride a bike for less than 4,000km.

The story goes a little bit forwards and backwards in terms of its chronology of events and at times I did get a little confused about what year was being referred to, but don't let that stop you from understanding and enjoying this niche world of ultra-distance cycle racing.

Although I am not especially tempted to get into this cycling discipline, which appears to be gaining traction among keen cyclists, I do take from the book the analogies with life and dealing with the challenges that get thrown at you. And that makes Where There's A Will a worthwhile read.

From the book, it's not clear to me what drives Emily to repeatedly do these two-week long bike rides where you survive on whatever food you can grab from a local shop, or occasionally leftovers of someone's meal in bar when in a one-horse village in Montenegro, then getting soaked and sleeping in a cemetery, wearing the same clothes for a few days on the trot without getting a wash, and sometimes having a cry here and there.

When I asked Emily about her drive, during her book launch at the Look Mum No Hands cycle cafe, she said it was really down to the wish to push herself to the ultimate limits, seeing how far she can go, and learning to cope with those situations. I have a lot of admiration for that.

In parts of the book Emily also refers to a lost love. I can't confirm exactly who is referred to at these moments, but I do think about the part in What Goes Around in which Emily breaks up with a girlfriend, and says "I don't think I ever cried over our break-up. I just kept riding."

Emily (top right) at the book launch with cycling journalists and writers (credit: Look Mum No Hands)
Could it be that these biking exploits may be a de facto way of dealing with those down moments in life such as break-ups and grief?

Whatever your thoughts are on bike riding or ultra-distance cycle racing I would recommend Where There's A Will. It is an engrossing read, and I would say it's an analogy for life with all its up and downs, albeit over a 4,000km-bike ride between here and Turkey.

Where There's A Will, Emily Chappell. 2019 (Publisher: Profile Books Ltd.) ; Hardback, £12.99.

A few words from the author

I posed Emily Chappell a few questions around Where There's A Will:

When thinking about your biking adventure and recalling it in the book how has this changed you as a person?

You could say that racing has changed me, or you could say that it simply removed some of the impediments that were preventing me from being my full self. Hurling myself across Europe, and having to deal with anything that came up, meant that I got very good at looking after myself, at keeping a clear head and thinking my way through any tight spots I got into. I’m now more confident, more capable, and far less likely to be held back by fear or self-doubt.

When writing the book was your intention to inspire people, help them if they're coping with a difficult situation, or was it just a straightforward tale of your cycling adventures?

I didn’t set out to write a self-help book, though I know, given some of the topics I’ve touched on, that some people will find it inspiring or comforting. My main motivation, I think, was to make sense of the experiences I’d had, to find ways of explaining them to myself, and to create a cycling narrative that was different from the others I’d read.

Emily's first book
How does this writing process, and where you were emotionally compare with "What Goes Around"?

The writing process was similar in some ways. Because I’d been through the highs and lows of book-writing once before, it wasn’t necessarily easier, but I knew what to expect, and that I’d get through the times where it felt like the end of the world. (There are such strong parallels with an ultra-distance bike race.) 

The main difference was that I was writing about an emotional journey that was still ongoing. My friend Mike, who features in the book, died when I was in the early stages of writing it, and the grieving process and the writing process became entwined together.

What similarities would you say there are between the world of cycle couriers and that of ultra distance cyclists? They both seem to be quite particular activities that involve testing situations from what I can see.

The main similarity – and the way in which I think my years as a courier best prepared me for ultra-racing – is that you become accustomed to getting up every day and getting on the bike, no matter how tired, unhappy, injured or reluctant you are, and no matter what the weather’s doing. You don’t consider whether or not it’s a good idea – you just do it. And both couriering and ultra-racing have a strong community around them, with a wonderful diversity of people. It’s one of the best bits.

And on that note, would you say you just enjoy the trials and tribulations of cycling? 

I do. All the good bits, and all the bad bits too. I can’t imagine my life without bikes.

Emily on the Radio
Emily on Robert Elms Show, BBC Radio London 15th November 2019

Emily on Saturday Live, BBC Radio 4, 7th Decembver 2019 (~45 minutes into the show)

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