I’ll be honest. Since writing my own books about long-distance cycling, I have steered clear of other books about long-distance cycling. That’s certainly an error on my part as there are, without doubt, some great books out there. The reason I shy away from diving into new books by Mark Beaumont, Tim Moore and the like is that I don’t want to spend my time comparing their style and quality with my own style and quality. I’m terrified, frankly, that I might not fare well. My current pile of reading is skewed towards the theme of Japan – Hokkaido Highway Blues being top of that list – with one or two other books thrown in for good measure. Seashaken Houses, for example, that I bought on the ferry back from northern Spain in September. (It’s about lighthouses should you be interested.)
Occasionally I am sent a book to review by publishers. I’m happy to feature them on CyclingEurope.org and on social media but rarely read them. I don’t pass judgement as to their quality but am willing to publish an extract if one is available. This is what happened when Profile Books sent me a book by Emily Chappell called Where There’s A Will:
But then, last weekend, I picked up the book and started to read. By the time I had finished the first chapter, I was gripped and, come Monday evening, I had read the book from cover to cover. It’s worth noting that I have been reading Seashaken Houses for over two months and Hokkaido Highway Blues since the spring. (It’s also worth noting that The Rough Guide to Japan and Be More Japan are also competing for my reading time. As is the latest issue of Private Eye…)
“In 2015 Emily Chappell embarked on a formidable new bike race: The Transcontinental. 4,000km across Europe, unassisted, in the shortest time possible.
On her first attempt she made it only halfway, waking up suddenly on her back in a field, floored by the physical and mental exertion.
A year later she entered the race again – and won.
Where There’s a Will takes us into Emily Chappell’s race, grinding up mountain passes and charging down the other side; snatching twenty minutes’ sleep on the outskirts of a village before jumping back on the bike to surge ahead for another day; feeding in bursts and navigating on the go. We experience the crippling self-doubt of the ultra distance racer, the confusing intensity of winning and the desperation of losing a dear friend who understood all of this.”The blurb…
Clearly Emily’s style of long-distance cycling is world away from my own. If you are looking for a leisurely jaunt that meanders from one small town to the next with a few big cities thrown in for good measure, you’ll be disappointed. This is brutal stuff. It’s uncomfortable, sweaty, dirty, visceral. It’s also, in places, painful – both physically and emotionally – and no glossy advert for the experience of embarking upon a race such as The Transcontinental. Unless, that is, brutal, uncomfortable, sweaty, dirty, visceral and painful cycling is your thing.
Fortunately for the reader, it is Emily Chappell’s thing and she has conjured up a memorable and riveting account of her life as she attempts, fails, attempts again and finally succeeds in her ambition to be the fastest woman to cross the European continent in The Transcontinental race. Her determination is admirable, but so is her willingness to open up to the reader about her emotional fragility. No more so than when her good friend and fellow long-distance cyclist Mike Hall is killed during a race across Australia in 2017. Indeed if you are not aware of what is to come, you may wonder what can possibly fill the final third of the book after she triumphs in The Transcontinental. It’s a testament to the quality of Chappell’s writing that she is able to provide a compelling tale even after the narrative of the main race is set aside.
As a result of reading the book, I won’t be signing up for The Transcontinental anytime soon (although I dare say some might be tempted). I will, however, make a point of complaining a little less when it’s cold and wet outside and I happen to find myself cycling up a long hill in the dark.
“There are a lot of parallels between writing a book and cycling across a continent. Both are difficult, interminable , and yet immensely rewarding.”Emily Chappell, Where There’s A Will