Emily Chappell: Finding My Happy Place on the Road
Emily Chappell tells us about finding her happy place on the road through Greece during TCRNo4 and how cycling long distances is when she feels safest, most comfortable, and most capable of taking on the world – despite the fact that this is effectively the opposite of what society tells us about solo adventuring.
The border guard must have wondered why I was smiling. I had decided against trying to explain myself to her, knowing that no matter how fluent her English, or how eloquent my descriptions of mountain sunrises and unfurling gravel, I would never be able to make her understand the growing exhilaration I’d felt as I shrugged off the chill of the night, and pedalled into a new country.
This was my second border crossing of the morning, I realized, as I pedalled away into the bright Greek countryside, trying to recall the misery I’d felt as I huddled in a Macedonian petrol station a few hours earlier, my body stiff with the chill that had rolled off Lake Ohrid as dawn broke. An hour or two before that I had crept out of a hotel on a mountain pass in Albania, and rolled downhill towards the lake, exchanging barely a nod with the muffled men who loomed out of their darkened kiosk to check my passport.
All of this now felt as distant as if it had happened on last year’s summer holiday. The frigid morning air of Macedonia, and the quiet darkness of Albania, had already settled in alongside distant memories like the Croatian coastline, the Alps, and the torchlit cobblestones of Geraardsbergen, where this race had started, eleven days ago.
It was too hard to hold onto the memories, let alone to convince myself that they had any connection to where I found myself now, so I let them blow away behind me, and charged on into the gathering heat. Above me the sky was a brilliant blue, and beneath my tyres the road, smooth and unresisting, seemed to usher me forward towards the end of the race.
But Canakkale – the ferry, the finish line, the people I’d see there – felt as distant and abstract as my memories of that morning. Even when I tried to relive one of several finish-line fantasies I had created on my long ride across Europe, it kept dancing away from me. The people I imagined were cardboard cut-outs of themselves. The triumph of finishing sat at a slight distance from me. None of it seemed very relevant to where I was now.
So I returned to the present moment, and instead marvelled at how contented I felt racing along this quiet Greek road, admiring the green-and-gold fields that stretched away on either side, and enjoying the strength in my legs that I hadn’t expected to be there after almost two weeks of racing.
Very little of this was how I’d imagined, because you don’t expect to feel strong and happy when you’re most of the way through a 4,000km race, during which you’ve ridden as far as you could every day, before collapsing in the corner of a field, for as little sleep as you can get away with. I cast my mind back to my first big bike trip – a more traditional tour across Asia, with panniers, and luxuries such as a tent and reading material. Just as with this race, I had assumed that I would be frightened and in pain for significant parts of the journey, and felt almost embarrassed when it turned out to be not only easy and fun, but a daily routine easily as satisfying as any I’d had at home. I hadn’t wanted it to end, and I spun out the trip for far longer than was necessarily good for me, my finances and my mental health.
And I felt the same about the moment I was in now. I knew, somewhere in my mind, that it wouldn’t last, because I was now intimately acquainted with the natural ebb and flow of a long bike ride, where a morning of feeling invincible is often followed by an afternoon of feeling utterly defeated. Perhaps it was this knowledge itself that comforted me. I knew what was to come. I knew the flavour and shape of the misery that would doubtless await me when exhaustion closed in a few hours into the afternoon. And I also knew that it was finite, that I had navigated it countless times before, so would survive this time as well.
This moment held no fear for me, I suddenly realised – and how often had I experienced that? Back at home, no matter how well life was going in general, I was never immune from the worries and fears – the towering sense of dread – that would cluster at the edge of my awareness, waiting to pounce on me in moments of tiredness or self-doubt. My to do list was always longer than I could manage, and included frightening things like deadlines, and tax returns, and tasks I didn’t know how I was going to complete.
But out here on the road it was all very simple. I had to keep riding. I could do that. And when I couldn’t I would sleep, and I could do that too. The periods of misery were based on nothing more sinister than tiredness, and having ridden through exhaustion numerous times, I had no doubt that I could do so once more.
How strange, I thought, that the world had tried so hard to convince me not to do this, telling me that it would be frightening and painful, not to mention extremely dangerous for a solo woman – and that I had in fact ended up feeling safer and more relaxed than I ever did at home. I didn’t want to go back to real life. I had found my happy place.
A pang of hunger flickered through my stomach, and I lifted my head to scan the landscape, noticing with satisfaction that a small town was draped over the top of the next hill. That would do for lunch. The air was hot and dry, and flowed readily in and out of my lungs. My legs quickened, and I felt the old familiar pleasure of muscular strength converting into forward motion. The finish line was still too far off to trouble me, and all I had to do for now was keep going. The smell of cooking onions floated towards me as I neared the top of the hill. All was right with the world.
Emily Chappell’s latest book, Where There’s A Will, which chronicles her long-distance bike racing journey and what inspired it, is available now from your local bookshop.