Chapman on Flanders breakthrough: ‘I was just having the time of my life’
The Australian recounts her journey from broom wagon to breakaway at the Tour of Flanders.
The Australian recounts her journey from broom wagon to breakaway at the Tour of Flanders.
Four years ago, Simone Giuliani began her own CyclingTips interview with Brodie Chapman by stating upfront that she could not possibly remain unbiased towards her subject, with whom she worked. Back then, Chapman was a 26-year-old unknown Australian talent who had just announced herself to the cycling world by winning the overall at the Herald Sun Tour.
I, too, must confess to not being entirely impartial when it comes to the FDJ rider, who I consider a friend. Watching her animate the Tour of Flanders last Sunday would have been exciting as a fan – the domestique being given the chance to race at the pointy end of a Classic – but even more so for knowing Brodie personally.
She’s hard not to like. Easy-going, funny, confident without being arrogant, her enthusiasm for the sport is infectious – but she never takes it, or herself, too seriously.
“It’s really a game, cycling’s a big game. It’s not real life,” she says, sitting on the rug in my living room in Girona.
Chapman might have come into road racing late, but cycling was a big part of her life for a good while before that. “I was living in Australia, working in the bike industry, pretty much living my life for bikes. And I raced mountain bikes and had a bit of fun and raced crits,” she tells me (Simone’s article details the full extent of her exploits, about which she is very modest when speaking to me).
Becoming a professional cyclist, though, was never really on her radar. After a good result at a state championship, she remembers being asked by her dad if she wanted to make cycling her career: “And I was like ‘haha, there aren’t women pros.’ I mean, maybe there is, but it’s like the nichest of niche things. Maybe Marianne Vos gets paid, and that’s it.”
She might have scoffed back then, but in 2018, after racing to sixth at the national championships, she earned a place on the national team to race the UCI 2.2 Herald Sun Tour. After taking a solo win on the first stage, Chapman held enough of an advantage over none other than Annemiek van Vleuten to take the GC after the second stage, a time trial. There and then, she was approached by UCI Team Tibco SVB, “They were like, ‘do you want to be a pro?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, f—, that’s pretty awesome.’”
Soon after, Chapman moved to Girona – where she still lives – and based herself there while racing all over Europe and the US with Tibco. A series of consistent results got her a second year on the team and even better results the following year, including a stage at the Tour de Femin, caught the eye of the bigger teams who were on the cusp of forming the first batch of Women’s WorldTeams.
A few options presented themselves, but she eventually settled on FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope after speaking with team manager Stephen Delcourt.
“He’s very innovative and has this very strong passion for women’s cycling,” she says. “And he really wanted to build a team with the right personalities, which I think is really important. And he still holds to that, he wants the right people to work together.”
Chapman signed the contract with FDJ at the end of 2019, meaning her first season with the team was thwarted by the pandemic. Between that, and travelling back and forth from Australia plus the stress of vying for Olympic selection, Chapman describes 2020 as “a super stressful year for me” but, with characteristic pragmatism, she concedes, “I’m not unique in that scenario.”
In her fifth season as a pro, Chapman is still learning the ropes and goes into every race with an open mind. It helps that she simply loves to race, “because you can always learn something,” she says. “I certainly always have a role to play in every race that I can feel satisfied with. It’s not like, ‘oh I can’t win De Panne so I don’t want to do it.’ I’m like, ‘Shit, maybe I can learn more about echelons and get pummeled by the wind and come out better at riding in the wind.’”
“I know that I came to the sport as a pretty strong rider, but that kind of experience and that fight you have on the road, the only way you can get better at that is racing. Nothing you can do in training can ever amount to just that dogged fight in a race.”
Which is how Chapman ended up at the front of the Tour of Flanders.
The Australian wasn’t originally on the roster for the race, but with teammates sidelined with illness, she received the call up.
Having missed one of her goal races in Strade Bianche after getting COVID, (“super devo”) as well as Opening Weekend for the same reason, she says, “I was just like, ‘I want to race, put me in any race. I don’t care if it’s De Panne or if it’s Flanders.’”
It is a race that Chapman has participated in every year of her career so far and so serves as a yardstick for her progress through the ranks, but also a marker of her dogged determination to succeed. “Each year in my head I’ve gotten through the Tour of Flanders a little bit further through the race,” she says.
In her first one, in 2018 “I was just fully deer in headlights,” she says. With rain pouring down, and a crash before the Muur meaning she had to switch bikes with her teammate she describes it as: “A massive mess. It was like a Renaissance painting.”
Determined to race up the climb, she ploughed on but, “eventually the sag wagon, or whatever it’s called, came along, and they were like, ‘get in’. And I’m like, ‘no I want to finish the race’. And they’re like, ‘you have to get in.’
“Here’s this poor little Conti rider, soaked to the nines whose legs are bleeding, and they’re like ‘get in the bus’ and I’m like, ‘no’, and eventually they forced me to get in. And it was the saddest place. Oh my god. It was all these girls who’ve crashed out of the race who are soaking wet. I was hysterical, I was sobbing so hard, and some other girl was crying and the bus driver gave us Easter candy.”
Chapman realised just how far she had to go when the bus had to stop to let Anna van der Breggen, who was leading the race, go by.
“So I’m sitting in the bus just like crying cold, probably [with] wee dripping down my leg. And then Anna van der Breggen goes past just like a vision and we’re in the bus like ‘that’s where the front of the race is, and this is where my race is,’” she recalls.
The following year, Chapman set out to rectify that experience, and “I got to some other point in the race. Maybe it was after the Taaienberg or something, probably just like hanging on for dear life.”
In 2020, her first year with FDJ, Chapman had a team role to play: “I think I got to the bottom of the Kruisberg and delivered, you know, our leader to that location. And that was me done. I’d already probably come on and off a few times.”
Last year, she made it just that bit further, the Kanarieberg, before getting dropped. But, with trademark tenacity, she then fought to get back again to help her teammates. She made it to the bottom of the Kwaremont, about which she was “stoked”.
This year, however, Chapman found herself “much further through the race than expected.”
It was the women’s peloton’s first time racing up the fabled Koppenberg on which Chapman found her technical skills coming in handy.
“There were people almost coming to a stop in front of me,” she says. “And I was like, ‘okay, I need to just pick a gap and accelerate through it.’ And to be honest, I was thinking of some of the hardest mountain bike races I’ve ever done.”
She got into a move just after the Taaienberg which came back together, but later on, on the Kwaremont, she was the only rider able to follow the wheel of Marlen Reusser (SD Worx), and the two got a gap.
“I was like ‘far out, this is hard racing,’” she exclaims. “But for sure the crowds and the people revving chainsaws and stuff and screaming at you and it kind of smells like weed and it kind of smells like beer and you’re like, ‘Yeah.’ I was just having the time of my life. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m leading Flanders on the Kwaremont this probably will never happen again.’
“I was like, ‘Soak it up. Also, hold the wheel.’”
In the run-in to the line she found herself in the second group of three with Marlen Reusser sitting on and herself and Kasia Niewiadoma “ just riding our little hearts out.” After a third group, including two of her teammates, caught them, she eventually finished ninth.
It was an impressive performance, a standout ride from someone whose race is usually sacrificed to domestique duty. It can be a thankless role, especially from an outsider’s perspective as fans rarely get to see the work that Chapman and Co. put in early on in a race.
“I have felt stitched up by that before,” she says.
“I have worked really hard in other races and been up the road. But you don’t see it because it hasn’t been on TV. Or the breakaway I got in was caught as the live stream started, or it’s just a race that’s not on TV, and you only see the results. So I know that I’m strong. And I know, I have the ability to go again and again, and again. This is just probably the first time in such a prestigious race that it’s been obvious.”
Has Flanders given her the confidence to take on a leadership role in the future?
“Maybe the team will give me more of a chance to go deeper into the race, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have the same role,” she says. “I would love to try and win a race one day, but I want to be confident in myself that I can do it.
“As a team, we want a team result. That’s why I do road cycling, not an individual sport.”
Chapman’s enthusiasm for racing extends beyond herself or her team’s endeavours.
“I have people I’m fans of in the peloton,” she says. The riders she most admires are those she can relate to, women who came into the sport late but have found success through hard work and perseverance.
“You get inspired by, you know, people you can potentially see yourself in. So if I see a woman in her 30s, who came to the sport late and got paid pebbles for the first five years, I’m like, ‘if they can do that, then I can too,'” she says. “And then hopefully super younger girls looking at me and being like, ‘Wow, if I could be like the street rat bike courier, I can make it to the WorldTour too.’
“The challenges you face going into a WorldTour race for the first time are the same as an 18 year old as to a 28 year old. You know, it’s still crazy and overwhelming and fast and chaotic and stuff like that.”
She cites the podium of stage 3 of the 2021 Ladies Tour of Norway, which featured Annemiek van Vleuten (then 38), Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (then 34), and Mavi Garcia (then 37).
“I was like, ‘wow, I’m like a baby,'” she says.
“It was actually really inspiring.”
At the other end of the age range, she also has a favourite team (presumably with the exception of her own) in Valcar Travel & Service.
“It seems like they’re super happy to develop really good riders, and then are happy to see them take the next step to the World Tour,” she says.
“I love it when they do get a result because I’m like, yeah, you girls are ride or die together. From what I see. This is totally just me being a cycling fan within the peloton. They’re probably my favourite team.”
Her unbridled enthusiasm for her sport stems from the fact that she sees the whole endeavour as “just fun.”
“At the end of the day, I’m like, ‘Man, how long am I going to have this career for?’ I don’t know, I want to say like five more years or 10 more years, but you don’t know what can happen. You can’t predict the future,” Chapman says. “So it’s actually crazy that this is my job. And that I can do this and entertain people and ride my bike and travel the world. It’s incredible what I get to do because I ride my bike really well. Can’t forget that.”