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An interview with Elise Chabbey — cycling’s ‘Florence Nightingale’

After competing in the 2012 Olympic Games as a kayaker, Chabbey decided to focus on her medical studies. Then, barely two years ago, she discovered cycling, and results came quickly.

As the world reels from the continued fallout of the coronavirus crisis, countless lives have been uprooted or destroyed, and our very existence called into question. It has affected every aspect of civilization including our own little world of cycling. Races big and small have been called off or postponed to no clear date, while cyclists themselves simply try to find alternative ways to train. But for one cyclist at least, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated her own career in medicine.

Swiss cyclist Elise Chabbey is a member of the prestigious Bigla-Katusha team. And like many of the world’s elite, she started the season focused on her main objectives— there was the Strade Bianche race and the classics, not to mention the Olympic Games and the world championships scheduled to be held in here native country this year.

For Chabbey, 2020 was a special year, one reserved for full-time cycling after completing her medical studies. But the coronavirus changed all of that in the space of a couple of weeks.

Chabbey was already a world class athlete in her first sport, kayaking. But after competing in the 2012 Olympic Games, Chabbey decided to focus on her medical studies. Kayaking soon became too complicated logistically and she focused on running for fitness. But then, barely two years ago, she discovered cycling. Results came quickly and just last year she finished on the podium in both the Swiss national road and time trial championships in addition to winning the climbing competition in La Course by Le Tour last July.

Elise Chabbey of Team Bigla -Katusha during the 30th Tour of Italy 2019
Elise Chabbey of Team Bigla-Katusha during the 30th Tour of Italy 2019. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

“I finished my studies last year but decided putting off being an intern for a year considering that the Olympics were coming up and the world championships were going to be in Switzerland this year,” she said in a telephone interview. “And I still felt like I have a lot of room to progress in cycling. I just figured that I can be a doctor all my life and I could certainly wait until I had obtained my objectives on the bike first.”

The year got off to a solid start as she finished in the top 20 overall at the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana in February. But as the coronavirus spread around the world, the 2020 cycling calendar was quickly called into question.

And soon enough Chabbey was called by her hospital, who was desperately in search of additional assistance. “At first they just asked if I could come in and help out, even for a week or two,” she said. “But there are just more and more cases and now, considering the current situation, I decided to stay.”

Like every cyclist around the world who is suddenly faced with a lack of racing options, not to mention numerous limitations for training, Chabbey is simply trying to maintain her fitness as best possible.

“I too was surprised at first at the gravity of the situation. At first I was very upset when they cancelled the Strade Bianche. I was really disappointed. But now I am at the hospital I understand just how serious the problem is. I do what I can to work out after work. Currently running or riding on home trainer is all I can do until the season starts again, but we have to accept that this year’s season is going to be like that. But this is bigger than sport and we have to accept the reality of the situation.”

But while the cycling season is suddenly on standby, Chabbey has turned the page quicker than most and is working 50-hour weeks at the University Hospital of Geneva. “I realized quickly that it really did me a lot of good to be at the hospital and doing something so that is so needed,” she said. “I can leave whenever I want but I quickly decided to stay. We have to accept the reality of the situation. This is bigger than sport and I feel like I am more useful here right now than if I were on my bike.”

But while Chabbey’s cycling career is on hold, she still remains hopeful that she can participate in some of her biggest objectives later in the year. “I’m still hoping to do the Olympics and certainly the world championships this year which are here in Switzerland (Aigle-Martigny). I know the circuit already and it suits me well.”

She clearly does not regret the sudden detour and she has embraced her new role in the hospital, but Chabbey is not ready to prematurely end her own cycling career. “I’ll come back to cycling as soon as I can,” she insists. “And I think I will be even more motivated to train and race once I can really get back to it.”