Q&A: Emily Chappell on being the first woman to complete the 2016 Transcontinental

Kristian Pletten

Kristian Pletten

Emily Chappell was the first woman across the line in the 2016 Transcontinental. She covered her 3,508km route in 13 days, ten hours and 28 minutes, almost two days ahead of second place Johanna Josten-Van Duinkerken. Emily had unfinished business with the Transcontinental - she was forced to withdraw from the 2015 race with chest pains after riding for eight days solid.

Emily has written a book, What Goes Around,  about her days as a London courier and is a member of the Adventure Syndicate group of female cyclists.

What was the first thing you did when you crossed the finish?

Submitted to a long hug from a friend who was volunteering on the checkpoint (brave of her, as I hadn't washed for many days), and was handed a beer by fourth-placed rider James Hayden.

Did it take as long as you expected? 

Kristian Pletten

Kristian Pletten

Yes and no. I did expect (and hope) that I'd finish in around 14 days. I also had a secret twelve-day plan that I knew was almost impossibly over-ambitious. In hindsight, had I done a few things differently, I could easily have knocked a day or two off my overall time.

You seemed to have taken an unusual route. Why? Would you take it again?

My Albanian detour was a mistake - I assumed everyone else would head south from Montenegro, as they have in years past - and I was originally intending to go east through Kosovo and Bulgaria, but decided to opt for plan B as I thought the roads would be easier on my (rapidly failing) tyres. It turns out I was the only rider who went that way, but I have no regrets. I avoided some bad weather and bad roads, spent a very happy day exploring Albania, and still came in almost two days ahead of my closest competitor.

Did you see any other riders on your route?

I went for long periods without seeing another rider, but at times they were everywhere, especially around the checkpoints, and we'd often end up leapfrogging each other for a few hours, or even a couple of days. It usually felt like running into a long-lost brother.

Did you have a strategy?

I didn't have a very detailed strategy. I'd planned my route, and knew roughly where I wanted to be and when, but I was prepared to let this slide if my speed turned out to be higher or lower than anticipated. And unlike last year, I knew I needed to sleep at least four hours every night, and to stay inside more often, because even though I prefer sleeping under the stars, I get a better quality of rest when I have a roof over my head, and that makes the following day's riding a little easier.

Did you get very lonely?

I never get lonely when I'm on the road - that's when I'm in my element.

Favourite food on the journey? Did you take enough?

I've been accused of being a food hoarder (by Juliana Buhring - see this video [left], from about 4:40), but I'm happy with the amount I carried. I had an emergency malt loaf on board, which came in extremely useful when the gravel section between Bosnia and Montenegro took longer than I thought it would, and I occasionally took longer than I planned to get to places where there'd be shops, and was grateful for the stale bread and melted chocolate I dug out of my food pouches.

Did you do a lot of riding at night? If so, how did you find it?

I prefer riding at night. It's cooler, quieter, and you can see cars coming a long way off, so it's also safer. Last year I tried to make the most of this, by riding all night and sleeping in the afternoon, but this time I gave in, and always had at least three hours' sleep while it was dark.

Where was the strangest place you slept?

Quite often I just curled up right beside the road (years of bikepacking and cycle-camping have made me extremely unfussy, and if you're tired enough, you'll pass out anywhere), but my most unexpected sleeping spot was a hotel I found at the top of a lonely mountain pass in Albania. I was the only one there, and I'm convinced it was haunted. I had a very good sleep though.

How often did you sleep?

I tried to sleep for four hours every night, though I reduced this towards the end. The main problem was that sometimes this was from 10pm to 2am, sometimes from 2am to 6am (depending on factors like when I got tired, and whether I could find a suitable place to lie down - occasionally mosquitoes, or big cities, meant that I had to press on), meaning that I could have up to 24 hours' riding between rests.

Was there a song or album that became your theme tune? Did you even listen to music?

I don't listen to music while riding. (I keep meaning to start, but I'm just not in the habit of it.) But I sing to myself, a lot. In the Alps it was mostly mountain-themed songs (Climb every mountainAin't no mountain high enoughThe bear came over the mountain), and towards the end it was Radiohead's Lucky and Queen's' Don't stop me now - because I didn't want it to end!

How did the kit hold up? Was there an item that you were particularly fond of?

Every single item of kit is essential, and singling out just one piece seems slightly unfair! I was, of course, extremely happy with the bike (Shand), which did everything I asked of it, and was a joy to ride. I was oddly attached to my Rapha merino knee-warmers. And I absolutely loved my latest acquisition - the Topeak Ratchet Rocket Lite. It was so much more effective (and fun to use) than an ordinary multitool. Unfortunately mine ended up being broken by a 'helpful' man who insisted on trying to disassemble my bike for me when I got to Canakkale.

Was there a point where you worried you could be heading the wrong way?

Oh yes! I took a more southerly route from CP4 than the rest of the racers (having mistakenly thought everyone would go that way), and had a horrible sinking feeling when someone pointed out on Twitter that I was now a long way from the rest of the pack, and said "I hope Emily Chappell knows what she's doing". But I worked out I could still get to Canakkale with a comfortable lead (although I slipped a few places overall), and in the end that was the section I enjoyed most. I've always wanted to visit Albania.

What overriding thought kept you going?

Quite simply, that all I needed to do was to keep going, and I'd finish. When I was riding well, and feeling strong, I'd make the most of it; when I was struggling I'd ride more gently, and take breaks, but still keep going; when I was completely exhausted I'd sleep, and I always found I had more energy (and a better mood) when I woke up, and could carry on.

Was it a surprise to discover that you were the first woman to finish?

seeing how I did, and knowing what improvements I need to make (mainly with routing), I’ll be targeting a top ten finish next year.

Not by the time I finished - I knew I had a good lead. But I was surprised earlier on in the race, to see that my closest competitors were so far back. I thought I'd struggle to stay ahead of Jayne Wadsworth, and I'd heard a rumour that one woman was planning to finish the race in nine days, so I thought I'd be a long way behind the leaders.

Did  you plan to come in the top finishers? Did that ever goal ever change?

I never thought I could challenge riders like Kristof and James Hayden, and when I started the ride my goal was simply to finish. Now, seeing how I did, and knowing what improvements I need to make (mainly with routing), I'll be targeting a top ten finish next year.

What do you think makes this kind of extreme cycling challenge attractive to women?

Well, it isn't attractive to many women, otherwise I'd have had more competition! I can only really speak for myself, but what attracts me to the Transcontinental is that it offers a combination of all the things I've come to love about cycling in the last few years - travel, independence, self-sufficiency, physical exertion, and the simple pleasure of moving constantly forward. I also love the opportunity it gives me to push myself. I found I got my second wind on about Day 11, and started to wish the race was about twice as long - so in future I'll maybe need to find a bigger challenge!

Did you ever feel in any danger?

Not at all. When I am travelling on my bike is when I feel safest.

What were your thoughts on the calibre of the other riders? Being such an experienced cyclist were you surprised by any of the riders taking part?

It's fascinating to see the variety of riders who line up for a race like this - and then to watch how they progress through it. Some of the people you suspect won't survive the first night make it all the way through to the end, and some of those you thought would make the podium end up dropping out with unforeseen problems. (like last year's winner Josh Ibbett, who ended up scratching on the first day, because of back pain.) I've long ago learned not to judge people on their experience - every year there are some people who are almost new to cycling who manage to complete the race.

Did your experience as a courier help you at all, maybe through town and city centres?

Thankfully I didn't pass through many cities, though I do think my traffic-handling skills probably helped a bit when I did. I think the main way my courier experience helped was that it meant I was used to getting up every day and getting on the bike, come rain or shine, no matter how tired or ill or fed up I was with the whole thing.

What home comfort did you really miss?

I don't really miss home when I'm riding - I miss riding when I'm stuck at home!

How much training did you do prior to the race and would you do any more or more strategically next time?

I intended to follow a strategic training plan, but life got in the way. Fortunately, for me, life tends to involve a lot of cycling! I did my book tour by bike back in January-February, I spent three weeks cycling down the US West Coast back in June (to get to the start of RAAM [Race Across America], in which I was supporting Juliana Buhring), and I never say no to a good long ride (much to the detriment of my writing career). In future I'll try and be a bit more structured, but I really think the most important preparation for a race like this is to do lots of miles, get plenty of rest in between, and really get to know yourself as a rider. I'll be joining the Deloitte Ride Across Britain next month, which should be a nice kickstart to next year's big mileage rides.

What SPF did you take with you? Did you find it lasted and worked well?

I carried SPF50, but actually had to use it less than I thought - it was a much cooler and cloudier Transcon than last year!

Did you bother taking hair products or take any makeup with you?

I never wear make-up, but as it happens I did take a small bottle of conditioner with me (my one luxury item!). Had I not, I'd have had to cut all my hair off by the end of the race.