Book Review: Where There’s a Will

“Where There’s a Will” by Emily Chappell

A tale of adventure that might encourage you to try a longer ride and helps reflect on the nature of racing and sport.

The prologue sets the tone, the opening pages describe an episode during the Transcontinental race when the author is longing for sleep. She’s leaving Italy for Slovenia and catching a few winks here and there amid grass verges and woodland. Only it’s written up afresh, she’s not “tired” or “wrecked” but “falling into deep sleep so violently that it felt like dark claws were reaching up from the depths to snatch me under”. It grabs you, especially if you’ve half an interest on the Transcontinental, the ultra endurance race across Europe.

The Transcontinental is an imaginary race for most. It’s all too real for the organisers but participants spend months imagining the route via maps and routing software, revising packing lists and planning just where each item will be stowed. Once underway, online followers get the vicarious experience of “dot watching” and social media updates. For many this is enjoyable in itself but if you find yourself wondering what you’d out on the road then this book helps recount more personal experiences. It’s certainly not a manual full of tips, you won’t find a packing guide or nutritional advice. It’s very much the author’s experience of moments along the way but chances are Transcontinental fans will devour it.

Riders are alone but aware they’re being watched. The online audience does play on the mind of participants. Should their plan include venturing down a road that turns into gravel track which shrinks further into a narrow path, they’re often only too aware that social media and forums will be pouring over this route choice to determine if it’s genius or ruinous and Chappell recounts this but she’s out for the ride, sometimes deliberately choosing the scenic route even if it means more climbing or a detour. All the same the need to complete the course quickly means there’s no time to dwell on the scenery, it’s not a travelogue.

It’s autobiographical but covers a fixed period in the writer’s life, the build up to riding the Transcontinental for the first time and then again to finish as the fastest woman. One theme throughout is Mike Hall, the founder of the Transcontinental with Chappell describing their first uncomfortable but knowing encounter, then rides together as near neighbours in Wales – about an hour’s ride away but what’s that among ultra cyclists? – and then Hall’s death in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race and Chappell’s grief. This part felt almost intrusive for a few pages but if a quiet theme of the book is celebrating Mike Hall’s life then how his death was felt is going to be part of it too.

Chappell’s experience of ultra racing reminds me of George Sand’s demand, “Let me escape the deceitful and criminal illusion of happiness! Give me work, tiredness, pain and some enthusiasm.” Here the point is to keep riding and even the finish line of the Transatlantic isn’t always the end goal. To complete the race means confronting a void soon after, to “win” it as the fastest woman is underwhelming and even comes with unwanted expectations, she’s happier being the leader rather than the winner. Travelling is better than arriving although sometimes headwinds or hypoglycaemia make persuasive arguments in the moment. In endurance cycling there can be several finish lines, there might be a big finishing point but often the struggle is just to reach the next hairpin let alone the checkpoint days ahead.

This blog’s vocation is pro cycling but reading this helps reflect on sport. What fascinates with the Transcontinental and other endurance events, like the nascent gravel races in the US, is their simplicity and the way they invite everyone to have a go, maybe you’re not going to but you could. It’s open. By contrast pro cycling is a closed circuit and increasingly trying to double down on this with less space for small teams and TV coverage overlaid by power data which even many TV commentators aren’t qualified to talk about, let alone the audience. There’s still plenty of sport and drama but professional cycling is travelling away from adventure towards performance. The Transcontinental and other events are refreshing, or at least they are to read about instead of ride.

The Verdict
An enjoyable and readable adventure story, this isn’t a tale of absolute performance, more one woman’s rides over the course of a few years. One fear with writing up endurance cycling is there are only so many ways the author can convey their exhaustion as they toil to a destination but Chappell doesn’t present us with a daily diary that’s part thesaurus for “tired”, part calorie count. Instead it’s well written and the prose makes the story enjoyable. It’s no manual, don’t read for Transcon tips, instead it’s much more enthralling to get the highlights of the rides with tales of dawn breaking over mountain ridges and moments snatched riding across borders, all those moments that make rides, especially the longest ones, so memorable.

  • Note: an electronic copy of this book was sent free for review and the picture is theirs too

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25 thoughts on “Book Review: Where There’s a Will”

  1. I always enjoy reading these book reviews, thanks for doing them. Reading this one I had an impression some words were missing from the last two sentences of the next-to-last paragraph: “professional cycling is travelling away ? the adventure towards performance” and “The Transcontinental and other events are refreshing or at least ? to read about”.

  2. “…they invite everyone to have a go, maybe you’re not going to but you could. ” I think this perfectly describes a lot of the appeal of these kinds of events. Reminds me of the marketing for 4-wheel drive vehicles, the time-worn “Not that you would, but you could” as they show the proud owner veering off the clogged multi-lane highway in his/her Canyonero, bouncing over rocks and kicking up dust to get to work while the squares sit there, stuck in traffic.

  3. I actually know someone who has finished the Transcontinental race and at the top of the “classification”, to be honest I would not try this even if I was paid a 7 figure sum.

    @Larry T
    Every day I leave the squares stuck in traffic using my trusty Brompton and without kicking up dust 🙂

    • I shake my head each time an obnoxious motorist roars past as if I’m blocking their way and costing them precious time – and a few minutes later pass them as they sit at a stoplight, etc.
      My fave though was a guy who pulled up alongside and flashed some sort of badge. He demanded that we “pull over” right away! I just laughed and kept riding..and he kept driving, yelling out the window the entire time…until motorists behind started blowing their horns! Who was the one slowing down the traffic again? He finally sped off, waving his badge and cursing :=)

          • The thought never crossed my mind. When he flashed the badge I asked “Where’d you get that…out of a box of Cracker-Jacks?”
            I should probably be more careful with morons at the controls of motor vehicles as one of these idiots could easily just run me over, but when some obnoxious (or just careless) dolt comes close enough to scare me (which has to be pretty close, I’m not one of those who rides in fear, hugging the extreme edge of the pavement) that “fight or flight” thing kicks in and most of the time it’s the former rather than the latter.
            One time a motorist passed, pulled over, stopped and got out of his car after an altercation when I “adjusted” his right-side mirror for him as I passed him stuck in traffic. Various insults were traded and finally the guy says “If you weren’t so old I’d kick your a..!” which was pretty funny looking back on it 🙂

  4. A well written review which has made me want to read it myself . I take your point re pro cycling being what this blog is principally about but I do enjoy it when you occasionally take another direction, rather like the EF education first team going gravel racing, or doing the ThreePeaks cyclo cross.It reminds us that most of us started riding a bike because its fun and there’s a nice aesthetic to it that doesn’t have to include watts and strava and all the rest of it.

    • “It reminds us that most of us started riding a bike because its fun and there’s a nice aesthetic to it that doesn’t have to include watts and strava and all the rest of it.”
      Thank you – you just made my day 🙂
      OTOH I wonder if the pros getting involved in these everyman events will infect them with “watts and strava and all the rest of it”?

      • “OTOH I wonder if the pros getting involved in these everyman events will infect them with “watts and strava and all the rest of it”?”

        As if they aren’t already “infected”?

        • I was trying (surprise!) to be an optimist and go with the sentiment that these events were indeed somehow more “pure” as in sport vs business. OTOH I think they (as you point out) have already been polluted and it’ll only get worse when WT teams get involved. They say their desire is to promote these events and cycling in general but come on, it’s JV-MBA$ so I see it as little more than a way to be a big P-R fish in a small pond, which will only work until the rest of the big fish jump in.
          Will that make these better events? Who knows, but I wonder when/if a punter knocks one of the pros off his bike and the injury ruins the rest of the pro’s season, will they still think these are a good idea?

      • I get the distinct impression it’s opposite at the moment – the pros who have so far got involved in this kind of racing/riding (Morton, Phinney, Stetina etc) seem to be doing it to get away from “watts and strava and all the rest of it”…

        • They can enjoy getting away with it but a lot of the ride comes with a media crew in tow and part of the purpose of the ride is to showcase it on Instagram, it’s very different from the likes of Chappell and others who are out riding for the sake of it most of the time. Still, that’s the job of a pro compared to the amateurs (in the strict sense).

  5. An excellent review, thank you for drawing attention to her book, this is definitely one for the list.

    As for your own text, I did like
    “Travelling is better than arriving although sometimes headwinds or hypoglycaemia make persuasive arguments in the moment. ”

    Too true.

  6. Nice review.

    Yes, I think the challenge was how to write about events like the Transcontinental without overdoing how tired one is. I was concerned, because it such a brutal event – so beyond most people’s capabilities (certainly mine). But I think the writing is excellent and the subjects explored are interesting.

  7. I’m not a Twitterer but I’ve just been checking out Emily Chappell’s Twitter line and there’s some good stuff on there, including an audio link to a BBC interview which I’ll listen to later this evening.
    Thanks for the heads up Inrng.

  8. Rupert Guiness’ book about the Indian Pacific Wheel Race is an interesting variation in this theme, the first half is definitely “I was tired and I ate loads of crap…” before veering off into an entirely different and more human place.
    I’ll give this book a go, and would recommend Rupert’s book to anyone

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