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The Invisible Peloton

In her toughest moments on the bike, Emily Chappell thinks about the women who inspire her. She imagines them riding along beside her, chivvying, challenging and encouraging her to keep going. This is her invisible peloton. Who will be in yours?

Rapha Emily Chappell - The Invisible Peloton

To conjure the collective spirit of the Women’s 100, we’ve enlisted ultra-endurance cyclist, writer and all-round riding inspiration Emily Chappell to introduce a simple concept she uses to keep riding, no matter what.

I wasn’t the first person to have a life-changing experience on Mont Ventoux. But when I propped my bike against its famous radio tower, on a dark windy night in 2015, I had no idea that what had gone through my head in the last three hours would still be resonating in my life – and other people’s – five years later.

I had arrived at the base of the mountain three days and 1,000km into the Transcontinental Race, limp with exhaustion. To attempt one of the world’s most notorious climbs in this state seemed straightforwardly impossible, but I lacked the energy to conjure up any alternative. I cried as I rode the first kilometre – then the idea came to me that would see me up this hill, and through countless other long dark nights on the bike.

Inspired by the race tactics of my friend Hannah, who had put them to good use in her first Ironman the previous day, I divided the Beast of Provence into 2km segments. (I couldn’t ride 21km uphill in my current state, but I could probably manage two.) As I rode each segment, I would think about a woman who inspires me, dedicating the climb to her, and calling on her strength to replace my own.

The wind battered and buffeted me as I hauled myself across Ventoux’s eerie scree slopes, and the lights of Provence’s villages sank ever further beneath me, as one woman after another played through my increasingly delirious brain. I began to understand that they were far more part of this experience than just momentary symbols of inspiration – that they had each, in their own way, brought me to this point.

As I thought about Juliana Buhring, I recalled the peculiar delight I had felt during our first ride together (from London to Edinburgh) the previous month. I had never before met another woman who was happy riding such distances, who carried on after night fell, and who didn’t mind that it sometimes hurt. Until that point I had felt I was the only one.

“I would think about a woman who inspires me, dedicating the climb to her, and calling on her strength to replace my own.”

When I thought about Sarah Outen, I remembered that, when I had wavered in the heat and headwinds of the Taklamakan Desert, I had often had her in mind, passing the same way a year before me. One of her strategies was to imagine everyone she knew and loved around her, the cyclists on bikes, the paddlers in their canoes, others walking or running alongside. My own imaginings weren’t so literal, but I recognised the same impulse. Somehow, other people made the struggle more bearable.

For a later segment, I thought about Jenny Graham, a friendly Scottish mountain biker I’d met recently, having first encountered her as a dot on a map, riding, pushing and carrying her bike over mountains and through rivers in the Highland Trail 500. She didn’t seem to think of herself as the hero everyone said she was, and I thought how unheroic that race must have felt, pushing through terrible weather, sometimes covering barely 30 miles in 12 hours.

I was still doing it, I reminded myself. As long as I kept moving forward, even if I had to walk, even if I stopped every few metres, I was still in this race, and I would make it to the top of the mountain no matter how long it took.

As I reached the final hairpins of the climb, gusts of wind shrieked around me like demons, and I noticed, distantly, that my limbs were shaking with exhaustion. I thought of Maria Leijerstam, grimacing through the pain as she pedalled up the 25% gradients of the Transantarctic mountain range on her way to the South Pole. I thought about Diana Nyad, who swam 102 miles from Cuba to Florida, succeeding on her fifth attempt at the age of 64, long after most people would have concluded that this was indeed impossible, and given up.

The following morning, after bivvying near the top of the mountain and descending at sunrise, I discovered that dozens – maybe hundreds – of people had been watching my tracker, willing me on. I had felt alone and forgotten, but in reality the invisible peloton had been reaching out to me, just as I was reaching out to them.

“My invisible peloton just became visible!” exclaimed a fellow rider as I drew level with her in the final stretches of Scotland’s fearsome Bealach na Ba. It was a year later, and already the idea had burst the banks of my own mind, and flooded into other people’s.

After talks I gave, women would tell me of their own difficult times on the bike, and relate how they’d called on an invisible peloton to help them through. Some, like Sarah, imagined fellow riders pedalling alongside them, and riding ahead to take the wind. Others invoked non-cyclists – their colleagues and friends, grandmothers and sisters; Malala Yousafzai, Marie Curie, Noor Inayat Khan. Many told me I was in it myself, or asked if I’d mind being recruited.

“I had felt alone and forgotten, but in reality the invisible peloton had been reaching out to me, just as I was reaching out to them.”

My own invisible peloton has taken on new shapes, and grown massively as I’ve met more and more cycling women. It’s hard to remember that, only five years ago, I felt like I was the only one.

Sometimes my invisible peloton waits on the street outside my house, chivvying me through my pre-ride reluctance, reminding me that I’ll always feel better once I’m in the saddle.

Sometimes it feels as though we’re in one of those long early stages of the Tour de France, with everyone rolling along together, amicably sharing their stories, and cutting in across each other’s tangents.

Sometimes the invisible peloton challenges me, as when I’m honking up an 18% gradient, remembering being dropped by Rickie Cotter or Ayesha McGowan, and straining desperately to catch them up.

I still mostly ride solo, but in times of hardship, I now know that I’m never alone. Who’s in your invisible peloton?

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