Brodie Chapman: Mountain biker, courier, university student and hitch-hiker to WorldTour pro

Since reaching the women's WorldTour in her late twenties, FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope's Aussie one-off has been making a name for herself in the Classics. Laura Fletcher spoke to Brodie Chapman for Rouleur 20.6 to find out about her journey to the top

She walked into the press room at the Tour Down Under in January 2018, full of confidence, her bleached blonde hair tucked under a flat brimmed hat, all black clothing standing out under the blazing Adelaide sun. “Hey, we haven’t met, I’m Brodie and I’m just here covering the bike race.” 

During our nice chat – women in the press room are a tiny minority – she said she was working for Cycling Tips and racing in the Sun Tour a few weeks later. I cynically thought: what will a journalist possibly achieve in a pro stage race?

She only went and won it. But then, Brodie is much more than your average hack. “I’d only done NRS [top-level Australian] races, I’d gone to TDU and couldn't get a ride,” she says. “I rode the men’s kermesse and local crits, I beat the other women in those and was taking pictures of the pro bikes before the start of the stages. And I was thinking it was so cool and wondering if I could race against them. It’s funny looking back, I was a bit nervous.”

Chapman grew up in the aptly named village of Mount Glorious, an hour west of Brisbane, with wild snakes and freedom on her backdoor: “I suppose I’m just a product of my environment. When I lived in an area where mountain biking was really accessible, I was riding trails with the group I was hanging out with and downhilling with the shop I was working in. That’s all they did, so that’s all I did.”

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Technically she is a “former mountain biker”, just like Cadel Evans , Floyd Landis and Peter Sagan. But with her, we can discard that hideous tag spouted by commentators when a rider with an off-road background descends (no quicker or better than anyone else) or hops onto a kerb (like everyone else can). As useless as calling them a former young person or a person who had dinner last night.

Chapman at the Tour of Flanders 2022 (Image: Getty)

The reality is that Brodie Mae Chapman is no “former” anything, but an energy bomb with a rare and admirable curiosity for living all that is out there to be lived. A world traveller, considerate, adventurous, self-aware and creative, she is both a product of a small community in the Australian bush and an influencer who isn't even aware of the fact.

She was similarly in the dark about her potential. As a teenager, she worked as a bike courier during the week, racing mountain bikes one day, then road the next. After finishing third in the state championships, she “brushed off” the idea of committing to tarmac and skinny tyres.

“I thought it was such a niche to be a female professional road cyclist, it didn't seem viable. I only knew of Marianne Vos and in my head, I hadn’t even really reached national road series level. Why would I stand out and persist if I wasn’t sure if it was even a thing to be a female pro?”

It was while studying at the University of Queensland that she realised her talent. “I had a good result at the Uni Games. I thought ‘if I can do this off the back of not having any intention to succeed or knowledge of the sport… when you do something new and do well at it, you want to do it again. If I’d come dead last, perhaps I would have thought road cycling sucks.”

On a university exchange to Germany, going from rural Queensland to the nightclubs of Berlin, the world opened up to Chapman and showed her cycling - a process which usually happens in reverse. When she was working in a bike shop whose other staff were into road riding, she hit it well and she hit it hard: “They’d be like ‘hey we’re doing a bunch ride tomorrow, do you want to come along?’ I suppose that’s the seed of it and because I like riding all sorts of bikes, I would just say yes to all of those things.”

The thirst for exploration ingrained, her early adventures in Europe were not, unlike many, in the bubble of sport. Her first time hitch-hiking in France was unforgettable: “I had to get from a ski resort to Toulouse and the bus cost something ridiculous like €20 which is a lot when you’re 21. So I thought as long as I don’t get in the car with a single old man, I’ll be fine – and the first car that pulled over was a single old man.

“I’m like ‘sure, good vibes.’ He only speaks French and I don’t speak any French. There was only one road, he turned off onto a track to a farm and I thought ‘okay, this is where I die, I fucked up, I’ll have to gouge his eyes out.’ And he was looking really happy and just wanted to show me his sled dogs.

“Then we went to Toulouse and he bought me lunch. I was all for taking the free things at that stage in life. Although, like all women pro cyclists, I still have to steal from buffets. Maybe Covid has killed that concept off though.”

For Brodie, the path to the women’s WorldTour wasn’t fast and vertical. “When I got onto this NRS team, Holden Cycling [in 2018], that was basically pro to me. I got free kit, a free bike, they cooked dinner for me: I thought it was amazing. I wanted to suss out where I stood, see how I went at that level, but I had no point of reference. I raced maybe two or three races with them, had a good time, but then got a really bad injury and when I was coming back from that, I really wasn’t interested in officially training, doing turbo trainer sessions or setting goals. I just wanted to ride, hang with friends and go out on my fixie. That was kind of unconventional and didn't fit with the team’s approach.”

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“I knew that I definitely had the commitment I needed as an athlete, but I was maybe thinking that a pure focus on road wasn’t for me. I wasn’t getting paid, I was having to take days off work to race, and if I could still mountain bike then why would I not? And I was okay with that but the team implied that I had to be more focused.” 

“I thought I’d give racing in America a go so I emailed a bunch of crit teams there but they were all like, ‘you don’t really have any experience or results, sorry.’”

Sixth place at the national road race in 2018 catapulted Chapman from the fringe domestic scene to the women’s WorldTour. It garnered her a spot on the Australian national team for the Herald Sun Tour.  An unexpected overall win there delivered her a contract at Tibco, a team that competes mainly in the US, where she won the 2019 Tour of the Gila.

Chapman on the attack at Dwars door Vlaanderen (Image: Getty)

It was a clandestine meeting at the Women's Tour in June 2019 that took Chapman to the next level. In a hidden library that could have easily been a set for Harry Potter, Brodie and compatriot Lauren Kitchen met, sowing the seeds for a move to FDJ in 2020: “They were so interested in me as a person, and the trust that came from how I raced. In my spirit.”

Even now, embracing cycling as a whole rather than any one discipline is a core element of her life. When Strade Bianche was postponed in March, she instead rode a gravel race near her Girona home, rolling out of town on a frosty morning with a bunch of middle-aged men, kicking their asses on timed sectors and enjoying a beer afterwards. Because it was bikes. And Brodie does bikes. 

We met up afterwards at the rural Catalan brewery that was hosting the post-race refuelling. “Can we jump in the car for a second?” Brodie asked me. “I think I dropped my wallet at my last nature break.” Cool as a cucumber, we detoured quickly through the farmlands and villages, found the deserted byway and, luckily, the wallet. 

For professional athletes, it’s difficult to find the balance between health and happiness, focus and freedom. It’s not a set marker for everyone and the process alone can take a few years of full-time racing to achieve. For 29-year-old Chapman, who arrived on the international racing scene later than most, the knowledge, lifestyle and wellbeing all have their own shape.

“I guess I have the same imposter syndrome that most people have. Sometimes I’m in a situation where I question why am I here, but I squashed that and just focus on doing what I can to make today or this task successful. But yeah, I can wonder if I know what I’m doing and wonder if I’m the only athlete doing that. And what do they do if they have a day when they don’t want to train – do they even have those days?”

“I’ve actually learned a lot from some of the young riders on the team. Some of the basic stuff, the routine at a race, even how to pin a number on properly, that you don’t need to put your kit on hours before – I’d be driving to and from races in my kit. And also how to let the race outcome just go, not dwell on it, to mentally move quickly onto the next one. 

“Maybe racing in Australia I felt I had just one race, one chance to do something and I gave too much mental energy to the aftermath. Whereas as a pro in Europe there is so much racing you can just reflect and there’s another race soon. So having less of an all-or-nothing attitude is what I’ve learned from the other girls. 

“And I think I can bring a sense of less seriousness. I know racing is a serious business, and we love the excitement and unpredictability of it but sometimes when you’ve been in the system for a long time you’re going through the motions. I can be excited just about being there and ‘hey, who knows what can happen? Let’s try to win.’ I’m like a 29-year-old junior racer!”

Chapman after the Tour of Flanders 2022 (Image: Thomas Mahuex)

It’s 3pm on a blustery March day. My phone dings: “Just rolling into town, coffee?” I peel my eyes away from my laptop screen, put on trainers and a coat and head out the door. I get there after Brodie, her helmet taking up the spare chair, gloves and warmers cast aside. My flat white is waiting, her oat milk latte and acai bowl appear as I’m sitting down.

“I became a vegan around 2008 in high school,” she says. “I researched the animal industry and found that it was incredibly inhumane and unsustainable. When I started I didn’t know much about what to eat and when. At my first NRS race I was still buying a muesli bar at the servo. And I guess I have to eat so much to get enough calories in, people are like ‘you’re really eating all that rice yourself, and a block of tofu?’ It’s usually other people who freak out – like if one meal has no protein, they don’t see it as just one meal out of hundreds that month.”

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With the first half of this year’s racing calendar scuppered, Chapman is eager to sink her teeth into a full European season. Granted, she started her campaign with FDJ in style, picking up a win at Race Torquay in late January. It came after a spate of cancelled flights for her team-mates and directors saw them arrive only hours before the first stage of the women’s Tour Down Under, causing a fraught and jet-lagged debut. Her quick turnaround, with a daring late attack and solo win, quickly showed her new bosses her ability to overcome adversity. 

Chapman herself doesn’t see anything special in her journey: It just seems like a normal way to grow up as a young girl in Australia. Although most people in a pro sport context haven’t had the same kind of life experience.”

And now, if she was hitchhiking across France and met the old guy again? “He would probably be well impressed with how much French I’ve learned.”

Cover image: Thomas Maheux