Emily Chappell: How to look fear in the face and win
Emily Chappell believes that facing your fears is the greatest gift you can give yourself. Here, the former bike courier and Transcontinental race winner tells us how she got there…
On the final morning of this year’s 2,361-mile Transcontinental race across Europe, I stopped for breakfast on the outskirts of a Greek seaside town and checked the remaining distance on my phone. Ravenous after a full night’s riding and thankful for a brief respite from the blazing sun, I wolfed down lattes and pastries. Two hundred miles to go.
All of a sudden, I realised I was going to succeed. Until then I don’t think I’d really believed I’d finish, let alone win it. I could ride for 24 hours. I’d done it so many times before that I’d lost count. Cycling from London to Manchester to see my sister. Competing in the Strathpuffer 24-hour mountain bike race. Those horrendous few days where I’d raced through Eastern China on as little sleep as possible, desperate to catch the ferry to Korea and beat my visa deadline. There had been moments during all of those rides when I thought I wouldn’t make it – moments when I cried and panicked and sat with my head in my hands thinking it was all over – but I had always made it. And that meant I probably would this time too.
I bought another armful of pastries for the road, filled my bottles and reapplied my sun cream, feeling as if I were preparing for battle. Then I rolled off along the coast, telling myself as I went that all I had to do was keep going and I’d make it to the finish. I could handle whatever the race threw at me now. I’d seen it all before: the breakdowns, the hills, the headwinds, the heat, the blisters and calluses, the fear, panic and exhaustion. No matter how hard it was, I could handle it.
A flash of belief
I still cherish that moment. Like anyone else, no matter how much I achieve in life, I’ll always dwell on my inadequacies, my shortcomings, the mountains I have yet to climb. For that one brilliant morning (before the heat really set in, the saddlesore took hold and the final day turned into the nightmare I’d feared), I knew I had it in me. I haven’t felt like that before or since.
It all started with failure. It’s surprising how often things do. In 2008 I fell into working as a cycle courier because I couldn’t get PhD funding. I loved riding my bike and liked the sound of a job where I’d get to do that every day, but really it was because no one else would have me.
Eight years later, I tell people that of all the adventures and influences that have shaped me, couriering has had the most profound effect. The morning I strapped the radio to my bag and wobbled off into the Vauxhall traffic was, it turns out, the day I took my destiny into my own hands.
A lot is written about how unfair the courier industry is, how few rights couriers have and how unfairly they’re exploited by the companies who begrudgingly give them their daily crust (minus equipment hire, uniform hire and insurance charges). None of this is untrue. But another side of the story – and probably the reason so many couriers stay in the industry for so long – is that while you’re on the bike, you’re your own master. You’re the one doing it.
Your controller gives you nothing but the most minimal coordinates: pick up the job from this office in Holborn; take it to this warehouse in Hackney. The rest – the route you take, the speed you ride, the interactions at either end – is up to you. Your controller has no idea of the little adventures you might have along the way: the chance encounters, the angry motorists, the near misses, the spur-of-the-moment detours. The times when it all comes together and you dance among the traffic with the grace of an acrobat, speeding through the busy roads as if you are the only thing moving, leaning body and bike voluptuously into each corner. The beauty and the triumph are all your own. As, of course, are the gloom and disaster.
When I was suffering, be it with a cold, sore feet, or the period pains that reliably assailed me for two days of every month, there was no boss standing over me to notice I was struggling and go a little easier on me that day. I had to carry on as normal. Controllers, even when they seemed to be on your side, had little patience with whingers.
“The thing about a good courier,” said my first and favourite controller, Andy, “is that you can’t tell by their voice what the weather’s doing.” He was impressed when he found out that I had once spent a whole afternoon riding brakeless because of a snapped cable I didn’t have time to replace. A good courier was one who made no fuss, who took the job’s challenges in their stride and just got on with it.
After a couple of years of couriering, I realised I was riding over 1,000 miles a month within the same small circuit of Zone 1 and started to look for a bigger circuit. Eventually, inevitably, I decided I’d cycle around the world.
It was an idea that arrived in my head fully formed – as if it had actually always been there, propped up in a dusty corner of my mind, waiting for me to notice it. Although it was accompanied by a whole swarm of doubts and anxieties, it was something I was capable of. I compared myself to the late great Anne Mustoe, who wrote: “You don’t have to be 20, male, and an ace mechanic to set out on a great journey. I’ve cycled round the world twice now. I’m not young, I’m not sporty, I never train, I appreciate good food and wine and I still can’t tell a sprocket from a chain ring, or mend a puncture.”
If she could do it, I definitely could. What I hadn’t anticipated was how many people would try to convince me that I couldn’t – or rather, that I really shouldn’t – because cycling around the world on my own would expose me to so many perils that I was very unlikely to make it back in one piece.
The real deal
"But isn't it dangerous? You know, as a woman?" I've heard that single question more often than any other. It echoed constantly in my ears during the year I spent preparing for the trip, it popped up again and again in hostels and teashops and petrol stations all across Asia, and now it’s the number one thing I’m asked whenever I give talks about my experiences on the road.
There’s a lot of evidence that it isn’t dangerous for women to travel alone. I’ve now spent years of my life cycling through far-off lands without coming to grief, as have a whole host of other women I could introduce you to. And the only evidence I can find to support the ‘isn’t it dangerous?’ question is... the question itself. We’ve all heard it so many times that it’s started to feel like the truth, even though there’s nothing behind it beyond a few flawed assumptions about female vulnerability and incompetence. The question makes me angry now. I wonder how many women have planned to cycle round the world, then heard it one too many times and decided they’d better not after all.
The courier life
I was one of the lucky ones. Three years of couriering had shown me decisively that I could handle almost anything that came up in a day on the road. They’d also made me very good at fighting my corner.
The controllers and most of the other couriers rarely seemed to differentiate along the lines of gender. If you wore a radio, carried a variety of bulky and cumbersome loads on your back and rode your bicycle through traffic at high speed, then you were a courier, and that was that. But the taxi drivers and postroom guys and ordinary men in the street were another matter. My years on the road taught me to deal with anything from unsubtle sexual overtures to outright murderous rage. And, perhaps worst of all, the underlying assumption that I was weaker, that I couldn’t manage, that I needed help. I was used to proving people wrong. I did it every day. I’d keep doing it.
We learn by doing. That’s nothing you didn’t already know. But this basic homily somehow misses out the complexity, the hesitations and wrong turns, the struggle of the learning process. Because doing is hard, and in some senses it remains hard, even once you’ve taken the plunge and gathered the momentum and set yourself firmly on the right track.
No matter how much I achieve, I am afraid that I’ll fail in the next challenge. Fear seems to be the irremovable stain on our human personalities; a hungry demon, stalking the inner chambers of our minds, looking for objects to pounce on. Once one object is exhausted or disproved, he’ll move on to another. I quickly discovered that nothing bad was going to happen to me as I cycled round the world, that most people when faced with a lone female cyclist will try to befriend, protect or feed her.
The fear factor
So my fear found a new object: myself. I worried that I wasn’t good enough, that I was too weak, that I’d fail in the tasks I set myself, and somehow everything would come crashing down.
But alongside this fear, my self-confidence was growing. Ironically, this meant I took on greater and greater challenges, pushed my limits further and further – and eventually did begin to fail. The first time I attempted the Transcontinental, I ground ignominiously to a halt in Slovenia eight days in, having foolishly decided that I could do without sleep. And, to my surprise, the world kept turning.
I am still afraid. And I no longer believe I’ll ever be able to strangle my fear entirely. But, just as we learn by doing, we know by having done. I’ve survived all the things I was ever afraid of. Now, when fear starts to stalk me, I have stories to tell myself about how I turned to face it and ran through it like a cloud of smoke, and how everything always felt so much better on the other side.
During last year’s Transcontinental, I cycled up Mont Ventoux in the dark after three days and 1,000km of solid cycling. When I began the climb I felt utterly spent, fit only to collapse in the corner of a field and sleep for 10 hours. It seemed impossible that I could haul myself up 21km, with over a vertical mile of climbing. I made it by telling myself stories.
For every 2km of the climb, I tethered my mind to a different woman who inspires me, some of them close friends; some distant heroes. I made myself run through every single thing I knew about each of them, attempting as much to distract my mind as I was to somehow harness some of their strength.
Quietly, at the back of my mind, I knew that I was writing my own story as I rode: a story that I’d tell myself and – as it turns out – many other people, long after the race was over. A story to remind myself that I’d faced a task that seemed both terrifying and impossible, yet somehow managed to keep myself going until the end.
We learn by doing. I learn by riding. And as I turn the pedals, as the road unfolds ahead of me, I’m not only proving to myself again and again that I can – I’m forever writing the stories that I’ll tell myself in those dark, dark moments when I’m afraid I can’t.
Emily's ear worms
Emily reveals the songs going through her head as she took on the TCR
Emily has penned the brilliant book, What Goes Around. "Chappell is a gifted storyteller, deftly weaving in a plotted history of couriering, from the explosion of the industry in the late 1980s... through to its gentle decline at the hand of email attachments... In and out of all this, fine words flow on the simple but profound pleasure of floating through the city on a bicycle."(Robert Penn, Observer)