Transcontinental: Into the Alps

Conscious now of my army of spectators, I cycled on towards Sisteron, remembering ruefully that riding with a tracker comes with as many disadvantages as it does advantages. During last winter’s journey through Alaska and Canada my father had (quite predictably) become obsessed with the hourly updates from my YB tracker, and even started a spreadsheet, which he updated every day, with my distance cycled, average speed, temperature range, estimated time to finish, and various other arcane measurements. I didn’t know of the spreadsheet’s existence until the final month of the trip, and I was glad of this, because once I knew he was watching I would curse him on difficult days, knowing that he’d be sitting there at his comfortable desk, thinking ‘why is she going so slowly?’, with no idea of the headwinds and unforgiving gradients and exhausted muscles that were reducing my progress to a crawl.

And now, thinking of all the dotwatchers sitting at their desks and armchairs, checking my progress on their phone as they sat on the bus, or idled away their business meetings, or sipped their post-ride coffee, I felt uncomfortably exposed. Everyone could see I’d foolishly carried on through the mountains instead of following the rest of the pack along the lower route, and there was really no way of pretending that this was somehow part of my strategy, since I was clearly wasting a lot of time and energy by doing so.

The day began to heat up. Initially the eastern side of Ventoux had seemed cooler and more hospitable than the western, but now I realised this was just because it had still been relatively early in the morning – having started at 4am, I felt as if it must be the middle of the day by the time I stopped for my email check, but of course it was really only breakfast time. By the time I rolled into Sisteron my head was humming and throbbing with the heat, and I had long ago emptied my three litres of water. I stumbled into a small supermarket and, with the flimsy logic of the hungry shopper, came out clutching a two-litre bottle of water, an ice lolly, a bar of hazelnut Milka and two large soft peaches. The water, eased down with a nuun tablet, disappeared into my grateful body as quickly as it would have been absorbed by a patch of dried-out soil. The fruit and ice and chocolate followed suit, and soon I was back on the bike, casting barely a glance at the huge serrated cliffs overlooking the city, in keen pursuit of the Transcontinental peleton, which I now assumed I had fallen off the back of, thanks to my unnecessary detour.

But, just as I had the previous afternoon, I found myself alternating between energy and sloth, longing to stop and rest in every field I passed, giving in to my baser impulses every time I spied a petrol station or anywhere selling ice lollies. It was just too hot, I thought to myself as I sat on the pavement, outside yet another tabac (this time in Espinasses), throbbing feet resting on the shaded pavement on either side of my discarded shoes and a small pile of juice cans and flavoured ice. It was a shame Juliana was no longer in the race. She thrives in heat. I much prefer the coolness and freshness of an English springtime, which I most certainly wasn’t going to find here.

I looked up just in time to see another rider flash past me. For various reasons, it was always immediately obvious to me whether someone was a fellow Transcon racer, or just a local roadie out for a spin. And this was very clearly one of the former. He had Apidura bags on his bike, and he was wearing one of the bright coral Rapha jerseys that I’d last seen on Leo, as we lined up together in Geraardsbergen (just over three days ago – it felt like a lifetime). Could this possibly be Leo himself? Could I somehow have overtaken him? Was I about to run into a friend? I got back on the bike and set off in pursuit, wondering if anyone who knew both of us might happen to be watching my dot slowly gaining on his on the tracker page.

We were approaching Lac de Serre-Ponçon, which I knew from my route planning was one of the race’s more inconvenient obstacles. To get round it, you could either stay north of the lake, following a small road whose abrupt twists and turns suggested it would involve a lot of climbing, or you could stick to the main road that went south of the lake, but took you a long way out of your way, and added an extra 15km. I can’t remember which route I’d programmed into my Garmin. By this stage I was only keeping half an eye on it anyway, having failed to develop a deep and trusting relationship in the short time we had had together before the race. So when I saw the-man-who-might-be-Leo take the left fork (towards the shorter, wigglier road), I followed him without hesitation. If nothing else, this meant there’d be no more embarrassing Twitter commentary on Chappell not running with the herd.

The road immediately ramped upwards, and began to wind itself along the edge of the cliffs than plunged down towards the lake. I relished its hairpins, for the sense of progress as I ticked each one off, and for the alternate shade and sunlight that gave me some small relief to savour or to strive for. Up ahead of me I could see the coral jersey of the-man-who-might-be-Leo. I wasn’t losing him; in fact, I might even be gaining on him. Down to our right, a huge dam swept down into the valley. The-man-who-might-be-Leo pulled in at a small viewpoint to admire it (and probably also to take advantage of the shade of the trees), and as I joined him I discovered that he wasn’t Leo (I hadn’t really expected to catch him), but he was Kristjan, who had disappeared down Mont Ventoux the previous night, while I camped on the veranda of Chalet Reynard. It turned out he had slept somewhere near Sault – and that I’d probably even drawn ahead of him at some point, before I delayed myself with that pointless (but enjoyable) mountain detour. He loved descending, he told me. That made sense then. I told him I much prefer climbing, where at least you have some control over the bike.

We befriended a Scottish rider who’d been enjoying the same patch of shade (looks like I hadn’t dropped behind after all), and carried on up the climb within sight of each other. It wasn’t only a climb though. In order to traverse the various spurs and outcrops that overlooked the lake, the road rose up, then plunged downward again, losing us all the height we had so painstakingly gained. I watched Kristjan plummeting down the hill ahead of me, fearlessly racing towards an oncoming van (which prudently got out of his way), crept downward in his wake, and then set about catching him again on the next climb.

I failed. By the summit of the climb I was within sight of him and the Scottish rider, but then all of a sudden my energy failed me, and I pulled over in the shade, sat myself down by the side of the road, and calmly despaired of ever getting any further. For a few minutes I just sat there, forearms resting on knees, eyes staring blankly at the hot tarmac, knowing that in a few more minutes’ time I’d scrape together the reserve to get back on the bike and keep going, and hoping that somehow it would get easier, that I’d be able to recapture the joy with which I’d spent those few hours of the morning, skimming my way along undulating roads with a cool breeze playing against my skin. Now there was no breeze, and the heat was so oppressive that my skin throbbed and my head thumped. I was probably dehydrated again, I thought, gloomily, despite the litres of water I’d sunk in Sisteron.

Wearily I got back on the bike, wearily I pedalled my way up and down the remainder of that fiendish road, crossed the lake, and sat for half an hour on a restaurant terrace, filling myself with spag bol and baguette and tap water, and envying myself the purity of my struggle up Ventoux, which had already retreated into personal legend, leaving me with the messy and compromised business of an unfinished ride.

Eventually I pressed on, towards Embrun, where the road signposted towards Briançon was also very clearly signposted as being forbidden to bicycles (and tractors), and I was obliged to follow a smaller one, which wound up and down the hillside through the town, rather than following the valley floor. Another couple of racers chose differently, and I watched them shoot off up the valley, not finding out until two weeks later that they would have received a hefty time penalty for disobeying the rules of the road.

The road climbed and climbed – no longer the vicious switchbacks I had endured that afternoon, but in consecutive ramps, so that I had the curious impression I was going upstairs – and as night slowly fell and the sun sank behind the mountains, I noticed that the heels of my hands were becoming sore. To my dismay, when I removed my gloves, I found that they were pink and raw, and had the beginnings of blisters, and knew that, no matter how carefully I gripped the bars from now on, there was no way that the next few dozen hours of cycling wouldn’t eventually break the skin, and leave me riding on bare flesh.

After a few more merciless miles, I rolled into Briançon, my strength and resolve flagging, knowing this would be a night where I caved in and found myself a hotel, rather than spreading out my bivvy bag in the corner of a field. Some of the men I’d spoken to along the way hadn’t spent a single night outdoors, and while I was convinced this would cost me far more than I could afford in both time and money, right now I was past caring about either.

It was around 11pm, and although I searched high and low, there wasn’t a single hotel that was open, or had anyone on reception whose attention (and sympathy) I could plaintively attract. Grumpily, I resigned myself to another hour or two of cycling, a chilly berth somewhere in the mountains, and a hungry push on towards Sestriere, nearly 1,000m higher, in the early hours of the morning. Even more grumpily, I ignored the catcalls of a nearby table of Englishmen, sitting outside one of Briançon’s late-night bars.

They weren’t dissuaded.

“Hey! Yes, you!” shouted one of them, waving me over.

I am never less amenable than when summoned by drunken men outside bars, and was just about to turn tail and ride for the hills when one of them shouted

“Are you with the race?”

Oh. I turned back their way, and rode cautiously towards them, still half-assuming they were a bunch of drunken louts for whom I’d be part of the evening’s entertainment.

Turns out they weren’t. They were mountain bikers, on holiday in the area, who had been sitting at the same table all evening, eating and drinking after a long day on the trails, and had quickly noticed the sporadic stream of tired-looking roadies passing through the town. After flagging one down and asking what was going on, they had started buying them beer and pizza (on the table next to them was a huge pile of empty boxes). I was easily persuaded to join them for a bit, and to accept a glass of lager and a cheese-and-ham sandwich, since the pizzeria was now closed for the night, along with the town’s hotels.

The beer went down surprisingly well, and I found myself in a chattier mood than I expected, probably because of having spent the last few days with little more than the bike for company. We compared notes on our lives and jobs, and I discovered that these weren’t just any mountain bikers – they were the organisers of the Trans-Provence, a mountain bike race so well known that even I had heard of it.

“Is there anything else you need?” one of them asked.

“I think a nice comfortable hedge is next on the agenda” I told them, explaining that I had arrived in town too late to find myself a hotel room. My new friends exchanged glances.

“Well… we’ve got a spare bed in our hotel room. I mean, we’ve got a bed each, but there’s a van one of us can sleep in. Would you be up for that? I promise we’re all totally non-weird – I’m married, and he’s…”

They continued in this vein long after I had accepted their offer, assuring me of their non-weirdness all the way to the hotel (it was one of the ones I had failed to get into earlier on), while I assured them in turn that they were making a terrible mistake by allowing a smelly ultra-racer into their sanctuary, but if they were really sure…

And then they left me in peace to have my first shower in four days and well over 1,000km (I washed my hair with the tips of my fingers, not wanting to disturb the blisters on my palms), insisted on adding a couple of stickers to my bike, and fell asleep as quickly as I did, all three of us (and no doubt Plons out in the van) snoring our way through till my alarm went off at 3.30am and I reluctantly crawled out of bed, fumbled about in the dark for my things, whispered goodbye and stumbled out into the still-dark streets to start another day of riding.

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By the way…

I’ve written a book.

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I thought you might like to know.

And if you want to buy it, it’s available from all good bookshops (and probably a few bad bookshops too, if such a thing exists). I strongly urge you to support your local independent bookshop, but if you’re short of cash, the Guardian Bookshop are currently offering a 30% discount. You can also find it on Amazon, and via the Faber online shop.

I’ll be making a few media appearances to celebrate/promote/flog this new creation. (I’ll update the list as more get added.)

And I’ll be all over the UK for the next few months, talking about my adventures, and signing copies of What Goes Around. Check out my Speaking page for more details. And if I’m not yet coming to your town, but you’d like me to, please get in touch!

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Transcontinental: Joining the dots

I lingered at the top of Ventoux for half an hour or so, savouring the glow and the malt loaf and enjoying the company of friends after so long on the road on my own. Every now and then a gust of wind would shake the van, and we’d all remember – and marvel – that this tiny bubble of warmth and conviviality was perched on the summit of a mountain, and there was nothing but darkness above and below.

I had arrived at five minutes to midnight, Marion told me, as she stamped and signed my brevet card – meaning that I had covered the distance from Geraardsbergen to Ventoux in under three days. And, since Juliana’s departure, I was now leading the women’s field.

But now I couldn’t decide what to do next. I knew that the descent would probably be almost as challenging as the climb, with weakened arms and gusting winds, and without the warmth generated by pedalling. Perhaps I should call it a night, seek out a sheltered corner at the top of the mountain, and ride down to Sault after I’d slept a few hours. But experience tells me that starting a day with a descent is a bad idea – riding through the Balkans in the winter of 2011, I’d once spent the first hour of the day shivering uncontrollably as I rolled downhill into freezing fog, and then had to spend even longer thawing out my fingers and toes in the first cafe I found. Ever since then I’ve been careful to camp at the start rather than at the end of long climbs, so I can get my blood flowing properly first thing in the morning.

Shortly before I left the checkpoint a cheerful young Norwegian named Kristjan arrived at the van, displacing the rather more doleful German who’d been sitting there on my arrival. By now I was thoroughly revived, and we animatedly compared notes on our appalling eating habits over the last few days, as Kevin and Marion listened with increasing disgust. He had taken to ordering two pizzas at a time, and turning them into a sandwich (I wished I’d done that four hours previously, in Aubignan), and told me that he was managing to get a reasonably balanced diet out of his Macdonald’s stops, by ordering two meal deals at a time, one with fries and milkshake, the other with salad and orange juice (I made a mental note). He was planning to carry on to Sault that night, and told me that if I waited for a few minutes, we could descend together.

A more rational Emily would have known full well that company makes not the blindest bit of difference when the terrain is daunting or dangerous, but as it was I happily accepted, and shortly thereafter we reluctantly stepped back out into the ravening wind, slammed the van door closed behind us, and shivered as we swung our legs over our bikes. Within seconds Kristjan was gone, dropping like a stone down the road ahead of me, and I was staggering helplessly as the wind caught me once again, almost throwing me back against the tower. Feeling no less feeble than I had when I arrived, I meekly dismounted, wheeled my bike down the first few metres, and then began rolling carefully down the mountain, my left foot hovering an inch from the ground; my exhausted arms twitching and trembling as they gripped the brakes for all they were worth; my whole body poised for the moment the wind decided to pick me up and hurl me into the jagged scree slope to my left. This wasn’t much easier than going up had been, and knowing that it was only going to get harder, as cold and exhaustion set in further, I decided to go only as far as Chalet Reynard, to sleep there for a few hours, and to complete the descent in the morning.

I inspected the cluster of darkened buildings, aware that I might stumble across other furtive wild campers, but keen to find one of the few elusive spots that would be out of the wind. I drew the line at breaking into one of the outbuildings, so instead parked my bike in a corner of the veranda, spread my bedding out on the concrete floor, put on my compression socks and my waterproof jacket and gloves, got into my sleeping bag and lay there, very nearly warm enough, looking up at the stars, listening to the wind rumbling and roaring all around me, and savouring the satisfaction of what now lay behind me, with very little thought for what lay ahead. Eventually, inevitably, I fell asleep. Minutes (or hours?) later I was briefly awakened by the unmistakable sound of a Campagnolo drivetrain, accompanied by footsteps, and the muttering voices of a couple of other racers looking for somewhere to sleep. To and fro it went, for several minutes, until a brief blaze of light against my closed lids told me someone had shone their front light or head torch directly into the corner where I was lying, and after that the voices abruptly stopped, the drivetrain faded off into the distance, and I dozed off again.

I woke up before dawn, and carried on down the mountain, with the sense I always have after a big pass, and suspect is partly imaginary, of having crossed some border, breached some boundary, and now being in a new world, with a new landscape to marvel at; new customs to learn. As the light rose around me a vaster, more sweeping, more austere terrain revealed itself. I left the pine trees behind me and sank down into the golden fold of Provence that harboured Sault and – I fervently hoped – my breakfast. I joined a small knot of Transcon racers hovering outside a soon-to-open boulangerie, and then, fortified by hot pastry, set off into the mountains.

A few hours later, at the apex of a long sunny climb, I looked back at the summit of Ventoux, now bathed in sunlight, its white scree looking almost like snowfall, and thought about how far off it already seemed, not only in distance, but in time and temperament. The red van was probably still up there, and Marion and Kevin might even now be stamping the brevet card of some exhausted racer, congratulating them on making it to Checkpoint 1. But their climb would have been very different, and they – and indeed, most other people – would never have any idea of the sight and sound of Ventoux at night. My few hours up there in the darkness already felt like a dream, or a secret, that few would ever share, and that even I myself now struggled to recall with any accuracy or sincerity.

It was a glorious morning, and the road, as I followed it east towards Sisteron, was intermittently busy with local cyclists. Every now and then a group of them would rush past me, and once or twice I glanced behind me to find a couple of them furtively slipstreaming. I stopped in a small village for my second breakfast, leaving my bike unlocked among the many others outside the cafe, confident that I was among friends, and no one would steal it (and that it was a lot grubbier than any of the others, so probably wouldn’t be a thief’s first choice anyway).

I rediscovered the internet for the first time since the previous evening’s dinner in Aubignan (which was less than 24 hours ago, but felt a lot longer), and allowed myself a few minutes of scrolling through my Twitter feed and emails, so as to imagine that I was still part of the world that was carrying on without me. Except that, to my great surprise, I found that the world hadn’t forgotten me after all. In an email entitled ‘Mont Ventoux’, and sent on the stroke of midnight, my parents told me:

We’ve been tracking you up that hill off and on for most of the evening.  You’ve made it, wow, well done.  It’s a fantastic achievement.  You must be thrilled …. and maybe just a little bit tired :)

There was an email from a university friend:

Amazing efforts. I am loving following your dot. I did it for about 2 hours in meetings today (boring). Also enjoyed armchair following you up Mt Ventoux last night immensely. J said ‘surely she’ll wait until tomorrow morning? But… it’s DARK now’.

There was a text from my sister in Oxford, with a photo of the meal she was eating while she clicked refresh every three minutes and my dot crawled slowly forward along the winding red line that was the road up the mountain.

And over on Twitter was an announcement of my ascent from uber-dotwatcher Jack Thurston.

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Up in Scotland, my hosts from the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling told me they’d been willing me on all evening, and cheering (quietly, so as not to disturb their neighbours) when I finally made it to the top. A man I don’t even know said he’d used Streetview to virtually ride the last 5k alongside me, and congratulated me on my success.

Marion had posted a picture of me, sitting in the van with my malt loaf, and I was surprised, as I sometimes am after a difficult period on the bike, to see that I looked very much like the self I’ve always been; that there’s little external evidence of the extremities to which I’ve dived on the inside.

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All of a sudden, sitting in that sunny cafe, surrounded by chattering French families and old men in lycra, I found I was back on the mountain in the dark. Except that now the whole experience was revolutionised, because all around me in the darkness, floating just out of sight, were dozens of people watching me, willing me on, wishing me well – just like Sarah’s invisible peleton; just like the imaginary cyclist whose hand (in the form of a tailwind) occasionally rested against the small of my back, boosting me gently upwards. I had attempted to haul my exhausted self up the mountain by calling on the strength and support of stronger people and, although I was unaware of it at the time, it had been there all along.

But now here was another tweet:

@emilychappell is riding her very own race/parcours

And a screenshot that showed my dot where it was right now: following what was apparently an unnecessary detour through the mountains, while everyone else’s streamed north-east along a valley.

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Oh dear. I had better get back on the bike.

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The Kindness of Strangers

And now for something completely different. Well, not completely different. I’d like to invite all of you, warmly and persuasively, to come to an event I’m speaking at in London on the 30th of September, to raise money (and collect winter clothing) for the refugees at Calais. Of all the talks I’ll give this year, […]

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Transcontinental: Night on bald mountain

Ventoux needs little introduction, but in case you’re one of the few non-cyclists who read this blog, you should know that it’s one of the most iconic climbs of European cycling, notorious for claiming the life of British Tour de France rider Tom Simpson in 1967 (though alcohol and amphetamines also played a part); feared for its unrelenting gradient and […]

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Transcontinental: Until it hurts

Have to pee, holding it as long as possible. Last two toilet breaks had me in tears. Oh the terrible burning of saddle sores. #TCR2015 It appeared Juliana, now a long way ahead of me, was having a tough time of it. During my sporadic Macdonalds breaks (probably a lot less sporadic than hers) I […]

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Transcontinental: On the right track

For the first twelve hours of the ride (race, it’s a race, Chappell), I barely stopped smiling. Because, after all, cycling along quiet roads through the cool night air, with no human company beyond some occasional twinkling red lights ahead of me, is one of the things I love most in the world. Excellent photograph by Schollaert Xavier […]

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Transcontinental: The Start Line

Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start. And it was a very good start. I had been slightly mournful, I think, that I hadn’t got my act together to enter this race in one of the years it set off from London. It would have been surreal, and rather magical, […]

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A brief update

You’re probably wondering how it went, aren’t you? Unless you were following my Twitter account, in which case you’ll know that I pulled out on Day 8, after ending up in hospital in Ljubljana with mysterious chest pains. They turned out to be nothing fatal, and although I didn’t end up finishing the race, what I […]

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Time for the Transcontinental

“I’ll be following your dot!” is what everyone keeps saying to me at the moment. They mean the dot on the map, showing where my Spot tracker, me and my bike (assuming we’re all together) are at any given moment during the Transcontinental Race. Here’s a link to the map, if you’re interested. You can […]

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