As if cycling 4,000km across Europe wasn’t challenging enough, the entrants of the Transcontinental amateur cycling race attempt to complete it in the shortest number of days possible meaning sleep is snatched in bus stops, cafés and fields. The leaders get by on 20 minutes a day, Chappell feels indulgent taking an hour but still she obsesses over sleep ‘the way an anorexic obsesses about food, unable to think about anything but what I denied myself, constantly making plans I wouldn’t allow myself to carry out.’
Dropping out of the race on her first attempt, she ends up winning it a few years later but this is almost the least interesting part of the book. Instead what makes her account so compelling is her acute awareness of her inner emotional terrain. At the start of a race she relays her ‘body beginning to fizz with excitement, as if someone were opening bottles of champagne behind her rib cage’. Later she leaves her self-doubt behind like a ‘skin I’d sloughed off or a chrysalis I’d emerged from’.
But the vacillation returns, and she enters the now-familiar-to-her sobbing phase of a race – surprising this time with its sense of peace. ‘Nothing snapped or cracked or shattered. Instead it felt more like a melting; a gentle delicate collapse, like a body falling exhaustedly into sleep.’ To keep pedalling she imagines herself cycling in a peloton of everyone she knows, or breaks impossible-seeming inclines down into chunks and spends 30 minutes in the imaginary company of a woman she finds inspiring.
There’s beauty here too – the sensual joy of cycling under apricot skies that smell of lavender or the aesthetics of riding at dusk, the ‘discreetly spaced pools of light cast by people’s dynamos staggered up towards the sky as if mounting a ladder into the darkness’.
But, in the main, this is a book about modern-day courage. The guts and emotional mess of it. A reminder that you can be determined and irresolute, brave and absolutely broken, and how real courage can only exist in the presence of fear.