For Emily Chappell, the concept of the invisible peloton came about during the Transcontinental race in 2015 during an ascent of Mont Ventoux that was both literally and figuratively dark.
“It was not going very well,” she remembers. "I started the climb just absolutely knowing I did not have it in me, and having to come up with whatever mind games were going to get me up the mountain.”
Chappell, if you're unfamiliar, isn't the type of rider to shy away from a difficult climb. Beginning her cycling life as a bike courier, Chappell cycled from Wales to Japan in 2011, and across Iceland in 2014. Then in 2015, she found herself at the base of Ventoux.
To get through the climb she divided it into manageable, two-kilometre chunks, “I'll just ride two kilometres then I'll stop – do whatever I need to do, have a pee, have a cry, and then I'll do another two.”
To muster the strength for each section, Chappell enlisted her ‘invisible peloton.’ "For each two kilometres I divided, I decided to think about a woman who inspired me in whatever way that was. So I rode up the mountain kind of reciting this roll call of wonderful women,” she said.
"It's not just thinking about them and being inspired, it's also perhaps imagining you're with them, or thinking about interesting things about them to distract myself so I could forget about how hard it is.”
Since that night on Ventoux, Chappell went on to become the first woman to finish the following year’s edition of the Transcontinental race. She has also written about the invisible peloton in her memoir about her Transcontinental ride, Where There’s a Will, and the concept has taken on a life of its own. “People were saying, ‘me too’, or ‘you told me about this, and I've used it and it works,’” she says.
While Chappell imagined this group of inspiring female figures as a tool to get through one of the most challenging ultra cycling races in the world, last year, the concept took on a new life as the inspiration behind Rapha’s annual Women’s 100 ride. "I've been working with Rapha for about as long as the invisible peloton has existed,” Chappell – who was the main face of the campaign – says, “and we agreed that, as a concept, it worked really, really well.”
“I had half a moment's doubt about selling my intellectual property to a company,” says Chappell about the brand’s use of her invisible peloton concept, “And then thought: no. This fits, absolutely, it works really well for all parties. And it’s a really, really good use of the concept."
Since its inception in 2013, the Rapha Women’s 100 has been an annual celebration of women’s cycling, encouraging female cyclists all over the world to ride 100km on the same day. For the 2020 Women’s 100 Chappell and four other women – who Rapha described as ‘wildly inspiring women who stand tall in aid of diversity and inclusion within cycling communities and beyond’ – fronted the campaign; Shuhena Islam, Jools Walker, Kadeena Cox, and Lyndsey Fraine.
“Of course, last year, it was even more remote, because we were all in lockdown,” says Chappell. “Nobody had seen each other for ages, a lot of people are not riding with anyone. We are all more in need of knowing that there are people out there and really positively saying, ‘We're all here. We're all here for each other. I'm going to call on you, you're going to call on me we're all going to support each other, even though we're in different places.’”
Of the day of the Women’s 100 itself Chappell recalls: “It was actually completely magical and emotional. I didn't think it would be, but I went out and I ended up riding 100 miles that day and saw loads of people and rode past them and waved. But I also had this really really strong sense that I was going out with loads of other people all over the world.”
Social media confirmed that while she was physically riding alone, Chappell’s invisible peloton was numerous: “I stopped to look at Twitter and loads of people all over the place were out doing the Women's 100," she says. "It was surprisingly moving.
"I rode home at the end of day and it was dark and I just remember thinking ‘I’m coming in from a great big group bike ride where I didn't see anyone but they were there.’”
An invisible peloton, but a very real community of riders.