Book review: ‘Where There’s A Will: Hope, Grief and Endurance in a Cycle Race Across a Continent’ by Emily Chappell

I was probably a third into the Upper Thames Audax when I bumped into audaxer Jane Dennyson (‘as in, Tarzan’, she said to me, to make sure the name stuck). Since the weather was a bit poor and neither of us were in a hurry it was nice to be with someone for a while. We got talking about bikes and life while cranking along the rainy lanes, and she mentioned that I’d likely be interested in someone called Emily Chappell, owing to our shared occupation in cycle couriering (though Emily is a far more hardcore delivery rider than I’d dream to be).

From left to right:
Kat Jungnickel – author of Bikes And Bloomers
Max Leonard – author of Lanterne Rouge and Higher Calling
Jools Walker – author of Back In The Frame
Emily Chappell – What Goes Around and Where There’s a Will
Photo Credit: Look Mum No Hands

After getting home and sticking my minging wet gubbins in the laundry, showering, and then mopping up the grimey trail I’d laid through the house, I sat down with a big mug of tea and flicked through my Insta. By a shock coincidence, cycling hangout Look Mum No Hands was promoting a panel about storytelling in cycling, led by the woman herself, alongside three other figures in cycling literature, each selling their books, including Emily’s new hardback, which focuses on her experiences in transcontinental racing. I am a big LMNH fan and dutifully got my Eventbrite ticket booked. To cut a long story short, it was a really good panel (which you can watch in full), and I bought Emily’s book, which she graciously signed.

This article isn’t a ‘is this book good or not?’ review, because; it is. Rather it summarises what I’ve taken from the book and I hope it might give some insights into how it might interest you also.

Emily pausing on the Transcontinental. Photo credit: Kristian Pletten

If you’re looking for a technical ‘how to crack the Transcontinental’ book, then I should let you know right away that this book isn’t about that, though there are definitely pearls of wisdom to take away from it – such as ‘don’t accidentally add a full day’s extra distance to your route by accidentally going through flipping Albania.’ Rather it was, to me, principally concerned with the funny things that start happening inside your head when you’re plonked on a bike with just yourself for company for days at a time.

Cycling, particularly low-intensity cycling, means you’ve got no shortage of personal time, which really amplifies whatever else is going on your life – for better or worse. During my MSc this year, some of my best ideas have sprung on me while on the bike, either crunching around Regent’s or wobbling through an audax. But this is a knife that cuts both ways. As Emily shares in her book, it can be very hard to be alone with doubt, heartbreak, personal grief and disappointment on the road for days at a time. Emily shares what it’s like to juggle the demon ‘dozies,’ hunger, thirst, muscle fatigue, heat and cold, mechanical gremlins, knee pain and saddle sores, for nearly two weeks in one go. Her account of her racing is like riding through mountains; from the lows of frustration, anger and despair one minute, balanced by the thrill of her finding a warm shower and a clean bed, or a double serving of takeaway pizza.

That’s amore! Photo credit: Emily Chappell

Much of the book’s content is about the pre and post of big riding – as Transcontinental race founder Mike Hall shared in one conversation with Emily, recounted in the book, recovery from a big race can take as long as six full weeks, and the sense of ‘not being the person you were during the race’ takes some dealing with. Emily also shares that during the transcontinental, she used prescription medication to delay her period, which when races last as long as several weeks is no small consideration.

Time to stop the review – I’m hoping to swap my copy for a friend’s one of her earlier publication, What Goes Around: A London Cycle Courier’s Story. To cap it off, I recommend the book and feel that bit more equipped to do silly bike things going forward, and maybe it can do that for you too.

Emily’s book is available at https://www.waterstones.com/book/where-theres-a-will/emily-chappell/9781788161510

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