How did you get into ultracycling?
It was quite unconventional. I started out as a commuter in London and then took the big step to being a bike messenger. That was when I got used to being on the bike all the time. You don’t really think about whether or not to do it because it’s your job. I went on to do some long-distance tours, starting at 60 miles a day and the distance just got bigger and bigger. Racing was the next logical step.
But recently you’ve been struggling with your health.
I was part of a group following the Tour de France Femmes, and we were making a film about it for Canyon. Before that, I’d been leading a group doing the men’s Tour route. I was completely exhausted and I think I got Covid but I didn’t have time to be ill so I just kept going, which then led to a post-viral syndrome.
It’s cruel because it mimics the feelings of being unfit – shortness of breath, fatigue – and I kept wondering what was wrong with me. It was only after about five or six months of this that I realised I would really have to do things differently, which was a very sobering experience.
Chappell taking on the Col du Portet for Cyclist Camille McMillan
With racing, do you find yourself constantly chasing the next high after each event?
Towards the end of the Transcontinental I remember thinking, ‘What am I going to do next? How am I going to go bigger than this?’ But obviously you can’t keep going bigger indefinitely. It’s not sustainable and has diminishing returns. I had to get over the ‘what next’ feeling and I’ve started to notice the different windows that cycling gives me into the world and how valuable that is. For example, I was riding across Europe to places I’d already been in the Alps and really noticed the wildlife and the flowers in a way that I hadn’t done before.
It must be difficult to come back to reality after each event. How does it affect you?
It’s really hard going back. Life on the road isn’t easy but it’s very simple. Your only job is to keep moving forwards. When you finish, everyone tells you that you’re a hero but you’re so exhausted that you’re just a shadow of your former self. Then you go back to normal life and it’s really complicated. You’ve got deadlines and conflicting demands, and people are inherently complicated as well. Having done it a few times, I’m aware of the impact that it has on me, to have to reassimilate each time, and I’m not in a rush to do it again.
Can you talk us through the 2016 Transcontinental Race that you won?
While I was racing, I was daydreaming about winning. A helicopter would fly me back to London and I’d be greeted by the Queen – I have a big imagination. One image I clung onto was the winner’s jersey. There’s no big prize money for the TCR but you get a jersey with your name and time on it.
Then I won. We had a party and the presentation, and I got up there to take my jersey, put it on and it was too small. I was so embarrassed because I felt I had proved myself, the fat kid who used to skip PE, by winning this race, and when I got to the podium it felt like I shouldn’t be there. In my head I was thinking, ‘What a shame. How embarrassing for the race and the sponsors that someone who looks like me won.’
Do you think that there’s an assumption of what a winning cyclist should look like?
Society as a whole tells us that we are more valid the smaller we are. Anyone who takes themselves seriously as a cyclist will be thinking about their power-to-weight ratio so it’s all about dieting and being as light as possible. At my smallest I’m still stocky because that’s just my build. I’ve had my fair share of people giving me weight-loss advice, even on rides that I’m leading, and you do start to wonder. But it’s nonsense.
I’m alright now but only because I’ve reminded myself again and again that it’s rubbish. I focus on how my body performs, how strong it is. That’s what’s important. I think it would be better to change the world rather than our bodies, because it’s such a massive waste of time and energy and potential.
What do you think the pitfalls are when focussing too much on numbers?
People end up chasing their weight down and losing all of their power and resilience, ruining their health in the process. A lot of people are under-fuelling and, while they may be fast on the bike for a few years, over the course of their athletic career they can end up with osteoporosis, fertility issues, all sorts. Professional sport isn’t a healthy atmosphere for a lot of people and I don’t think it’s something we should all be trying to emulate.
What are you willing to sacrifice these days for cycling, for winning?
I am very clear on the fact that I have more to my life than cycling. I want to live a long and happy life, and I really value my mental health. That would be compromised if I woke up one day and decided I wanted to beat Annemiek van Vleuten up hills. I love watching people win the Tour de France, but if you look at the biographies coming out about these riders, a lot of them have died young or had terrible problems following their retirement. I will always watch the Tour but I will also try and remember that their lives aren’t perfect, they’ve had to sacrifice a lot and I don’t want to do that.