Image: Selim Korycki
Anyone that’s even cycled a short distance in London will know that it’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s a myriad of winding roads, tricky one way streets, and other road users that are less than impressed that you’re sharing their territory. As a Londoner myself and familiar with the simultaneous feelings of happiness and fear that cycling in the city brings, I was so excited to speak to Emily Chappell, a London cycle courier and author of her new book, What Goes Around.
A love of cycling has seen Emily working as a cycle courier in London for a number of years as well as undertaking huge cycling endurance challenges. She spent two years cycling across Asia, starting in Wales and ending in Japan. Emily also cycled across Iceland and from Anchorage to Seattle in the US. Last year she attempted the infamously tough Transcontinental Race, an unsupported ride from Belgium to Istanbul.
I spoke to Emily about how she became a cycle courier and what it was about the job that kept her spinning around the city for years afterwards.
Image: Rob Bye
How did the idea of becoming a cycle courier even enter your mind?
I was a receptionist for a while and very quickly became aware of this mythological figure of the cycle courier. I used to watch the couriers go past my window and feel jealous because I wished I was out cycling too. Sometimes one would come to deliver something and I would just gaze at them and their bike! I remember having conversations with friends about it but I never thought I was that sort of person who would actually be a cycle courier. I got really into cycling during my masters and was gaining friends who cycled and that gave me the momentum to apply. It was being so in love with cycling, watching all these couriers going past and thinking ‘how much fun would that be?‘ that it became more of a reality to me.
What is about cycling that you love?
Cycling has opened up the world to me. I think riding around London whilst on a job allowed me to see so much more of how the world works. Cycling has made me realise more about what my place is in the world and where I could go.
What sort of perspective on the world of business did you gain from being a courier?
I learnt about how all the industries fit together and intersect and even that they exist. One interesting thing was seeing how they all fit together and also how they linked up with other parts of my life. There are a lot of people I was at uni with now working in these industries and I have a bit more of an understanding about what they do. This means I can talk to them after 10 years and be able to relate even though our lives have gone different ways. It’s like putting together a big four dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
How did you find navigating London?
You don’t get any geographical training when you become a courier. I think it’s assumed that you know your way around. You just have to rely on having a very well-thumbed A-Z and eventually you pick it up. I thought I knew London pretty well because I had cycled through it but I didn’t have the level of detail required when I started. You need to know all the names of all the streets and how they lead onto each other. What I normally did before was aim myself in the right direction and then stop and figure out where I was. It was a little bit tedious and it felt like it took so much time but eventually I learned it.
Do people treat you different as a cycle courier?
It is interesting how you get treated as a courier. For example on the weekend on my days off I could have my hair down and go to cross the road and a cab will slow down and let me pass. That wouldn’t happen if I was on my bike. I am used to flinching when I see cabbies and getting defensive and being prepared for them to not like me!
On one occasion I went to a hotel on Park Lane to deliver a package. I asked the concierge if I could use the loo and they said no. Then about a week later a friend was taking me for afternoon tea at the same hotel and I arrived in a little black dress and pearls. I was a little bit early so I asked very politely if they would mind if I used the bathroom and they were surprised that I would even ask. I was clearly still in courier mode and I don’t think they recognised me!
We all have bad days at work, what’s a bad day in the office for a courier?
There would be some days when you’re tempted to pull sickies but you would lose money and also it is quite obvious if its raining. The motivation could be hard sometimes as it’s very difficult being outside in the cold all day long as it really wears you down, emotionally and physically. You can get to the stage where you’re not only physically uncomfortable but you’re also crying or getting angry at really tiny things!
Taking a break whilst cycling through Asia. Image: Emily Chappell
Would you say this is a dangerous job?
When people say couriering is a high risk job I get defensive and want to say “no, you’ve just got to be really good at it, you understand the risks and you allow for them” but it is a really high risk job because obviously you could get hit by a car. Most couriers I know are so safety conscious and a lot of them are really nerdy about road safety and knowing the rules. There was a courier that was killed in 2012. He was older and had been doing it for twenty years and got hit by a bus. When you’ve been doing it for that long you’re probably good at it but no matter how experienced you are, it can still happen.
Did you have any near misses or scary moments?
Most crashes are not that serious. I’ve been knocked off loads of times and mostly someone gives you a bit of a bump and if you’re unlucky you might graze yourself or the bike might be a bit battered but usually you just land on the ground. Once it’s happened a few times you learn that you’ve always got to get their details because 10 minutes later, after the shock wears off you might realise there is something broken after all. Most of the time you just dust yourself off and get on with it. All the worst things that have happened to me have been completely my own fault. A month before I set off on a big ride in Asia I fell off on St James’ Street and bashed my left knee and was really worried about not being able to start my trip. I broke my hand once by setting off one morning and slipping before I’d even managed to clip my second foot in! So personal stupidity is possibly the biggest risk!
Are there any things about cycling in London that you love?
So many things. Seasonally spring and early autumn are my favourites. In spring you have a sense of hope and you’ve come out of winter, summer’s on its way but the plane trees haven’t started spewing yet. Autumn is lovely because it’s so beautiful as you watch the leaves start to turn and it cools down a bit. I like riding on a nice, bright day when the tarmac is dry and the traffic’s not too busy, bumping into friends and seeing people I know.
Do you have any favourite London bike routes?
I like the big, busy, fast ones. I used to love bombing down Lower and Upper Thames because you start at Parliament Square and you can go straight along. I once did Blackfriars Bridge to Canary Wharf in about ten minutes just because it was a good day on the road and the traffic was in my favour and you could get in between it. There’s a route from Mayfair through Soho into Covent Garden and straight onto Lincoln’s Inn field and I just like the fluency of it. I love the memories the routes have. Sometimes I will remember being 23 sitting on my bed looking at the maps. So much has happened to me in London and I’ve grown up so much and it’s all there as I ride around and remember things. On one road there is about 10 years worth of memories right from when I was this nervous university graduate to all the other things I’ve been. It’s like it’s my city.
Emily’s book, What Goes Around is a fantastic account about her life as a female cycle courier in London. You can also read more about her adventures in cycling around the world on her wonderful blog which has caused me to lose hours in my day. It’s worth the indulgence!