Doctor, ‘rookie’ racer, national champ: Elise Chabbey is living her best life
Elise Chabbey (Canyon-SRAM) has been knocking on the door all season. With four top-10 finishes, including second on the opening stage of the Vuelta a Burgos, it seemed like victory was only a matter of time for the 28-year-old. Sure enough, this past weekend, Chabbey took home her very first professional victory.
She did it as Swiss national champion on stage 1 of the inaugural women’s Tour de Suisse, beating former world champ Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) in a two-up sprint. It was, understandably, a proud moment.
“This shows you need to believe in yourself and just keep trying and trying,” she said on the Canyon-SRAM social media pages after her win. Unfortunately for Chabbey she crashed on the second and last stage and lost the general classification by a mere second to Deignan.
“If someone told me before the Tour de Suisse that I would finish in second place I would have taken it but when you have the lead and then lose it, your first reaction is disappointment,” she said. “Later I will remember the sprint I did yesterday and take confidence from it.”
Chabbey is always easy to spot. “It’s the only red jersey in the peloton,” she tells me with a smile. With all the purple going on in the women’s peloton her red Swiss national champion’s jersey stands out. This year Chabbey herself stands out too: both as a super-domestique on the Canyon-SRAM Classics team, and as a stage hunter.
Despite being 28, Chabbey is a rookie in the peloton. Her rise to the pro ranks was far from a conventional one as she spent her childhood in a completely different sport. She took part in the Olympic Games in London in 2012 in the qualifications for the women’s K1 slalom canoe/kayak event and came in 20th.
“Kayaking was a bit of a family affair and that’s how I ended up in a boat,” she recalls. “London was in the final year of high school and I was still super young. The Olympics are huge for a sport like kayaking and I didn’t cope well with the pressure.
“After the Olympics my parents wanted me to study. I chose medicine. That’s a super hard study and I had no time left anymore. I also didn’t want to do sports competitions anymore. I just wanted to enjoy life but after one year only I started to miss sports.
“I started trail running but after a while I got injured with a stress fracture to the hip. For days on end, I recovered on a cross trainer and it was so incredibly boring.”
Like so many before her, Chabbey turned to cycling as part of her recovery. She rode a small race in Switzerland where Thomas Campana, then manager of the Bigla team, spotted her and offered her a place on the team.
“At first I said no because I really didn’t want to go back to competitive sports,” she says. “He said I could finish my studies first. I wasn’t so serious with training and food at the beginning but he offered me a contract and in 2019 I joined.”
It was pretty clear from the start that Chabbey had talent. In 2019 she finished a very hard race program for a first-year pro with 35 race days including the Giro d’Italia (where she finished 27th), the tough Emakumeen Bira (where she was 24th), and a range of hilly one-day Women’s WorldTour races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Flèche Wallonne, La Course, Trofeo Binda, Amstel Gold Race, GP Plouay, and Strade Bianche. There was not one DNF on her results list that first year.
2020 started the same as 2019 for Chabbey. At the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana she helped Bigla-Katusha teammates Clara Koppenburg, Leah Thomas, and Marlen Reusser all finish inside the top five on GC. And then the pandemic hit.
“Everything got cancelled,” she recalls. “I struggled with the point of training when there was no goal to work towards. Also, this was so much bigger than cycling. I started working in a hospital as a doctor to help out and stayed active outside of work. This helped me keep sane and balance my mental health in these times.”
Chabbey is a doctor but, for now, she is a rider first and foremost. And that’s her plan for the foreseeable future. “I have time to work when I grow up,” she laughs. “I am now a bike rider who happens to be a doctor. That doesn’t set me apart from the rest and it doesn’t make me a better rider either. I feel I still have so much progress to make as an athlete. I am still a rookie.”
In 2020 the self-proclaimed rookie joined Women’s WorldTour team Canyon-SRAM.
“When Bigla stopped last year, it was so stressful,” she says. “I didn’t have any results to show and most teams were full. I was so grateful to join Canyon-SRAM. It’s one of the biggest teams and right from the start at the first training camp it felt like a family. The level of professionalism in this sport is so much higher than kayaking or trail running. The staff are amazing and the riders are all super nice.
“The team supports my style of aggressive racing too and I feel so confident here. It’s just crazy I get paid to ride my bike and get a massage. It’s just the best life I can have!”
On Canyon-SRAM Chabbey finds very experienced teammates like Hannah Barnes, Kasia Niewiadoma, and Tiffany Cromwell. “Tiffany knows all the races, all of them,” she says. “And it’s not only about the race course but also about what to wear in good and bad weather. I always check what she wears before a race so I am confident it’s the right choice. There was this one day in the Healthy Ageing Tour [in March in the Netherlands] where I had really bad hypothermia. Since that day Tiff also checks my clothes before a race.”
Chabbey won the national championships in Switzerland on the last day of her 2020 season. This year the championship will most likely be postponed as, three weeks before the event, no organizer or venue have been selected. Chabbey is not sad about this – she would love to have more time riding in her national champ’s jersey and on her matching bike.
Her next goal is the Giro Donne in July. The Livigno training camp she embarked on straight after the Vuelta a Burgos was only interrupted for the inaugural edition of the women’s Tour de Suisse where she won that first stage.
While Chabbey represented her country before at the Olympics, she wasn’t selected for the Swiss cycling team in Tokyo. With only 67 women eligible for the road race there is unfortunately no room for Chabbey.
“Switzerland only has one place for the time trial and the road race combined,” she explains. “Marlen [Reusser] won silver at the world time trial championships in Italy so she is the logical choice. In cycling we have so many more great events every year. It’s not like kayaking where there is one important race every four years.”
Chabbey’s heart and her talent are in the mountains. She grew up in Geneva in the French-speaking part of the country. Mountainous races is where she does best and her dream races are Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Amstel Gold Race.
For now, Chabbey still feels like a rookie. She’s got plenty of time to keep improving, and to win those big races. And she’s come so far already – in such a short time she’s already shown her versatility, her endurance, and her strength as a teammate. And now that she has that first win, many more are sure to come.