Elise Chabbey calls herself “adaptable” for many reasons. She begins her fourth year as a pro cyclist in 2021 with a two-year contract on a new team, Canyon-SRAM. The 27-year-old Olympian would like a chance to return to the Olympic Games, this time on a bicycle rather than a kayak.
She would also like to just focus on cycling for the full year, a departure from balancing medical school and pro cycling. When racing shut down abruptly last March due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Chabbey changed over to Dr. Chabbey, working 12-hour shifts over three months at University Hospital of Geneva.
Her switch from bike kit to lab coat and treating COVID-19 patients conjures visions of a pirouette-like transformation made famous by the fictional heroine “Wonder Woman”. But she is quite low-key about her skills and shifting gears quickly from bike to stethoscope.
“For me, it was just normal to do it. Races weren’t going to happen. I didn’t want to spend time inside just on the home trainer, and you don’t know, it didn’t make sense to me, just training for nothing maybe,” Chabbey told Cyclingnews about going to work at hospital when racing stopped in the spring.
“I wanted to take the risk that maybe I would not be as fit as the others, they would train for three months super hard. But for me, in my head I needed to do something like this. Everyone was at home at this moment, so I just did it.
“The first week I was with non-Covid patients, who came for general medicine. Then it all became a Covid hospital, and I was only with patients with Covid. All the time we were surrounded by very experienced people, so I was never stressed about it, or overwhelmed.”
Chabbey said she had a positive experience and learned a lot. “I learned that I am quite adaptable as a person. Sometimes it’s good not to think too much about it. I did not look at it to be impressed. Again, I was happy to do it.”
She put in six years of medical school in Switzerland, passing her final exams in October 2019, just two weeks before racing her first Giro Rosa in her opening season with Bigla Pro Cycling.
“I wanted to finish my studies. It was half studying, half training. It was my first year as a professional cyclist,” the Swiss rider said, who finished in the top 30 of the Giro Rosa GC and helped two teammates reach the podium of stage 8 that week. She then won the mountains classification at La Course by Le Tour de France and fifth overall in the Women’s Tour of Scotland.
Working as a professional athlete was nothing new for Chabbey, it was just a different sport. After representing Switzerland in the 2012 Olympic Games in K-1 canoe slalom (she finished 20th), Chabbey continued for a year as a pro rower.
Kayaking was just part of her DNA, enjoyed by her siblings, parents and grandparents. The move into medicine was partly inspired by one of her grandmothers, who trained as a dentist. The third career diagonal into cycling came about because of injury.
“After the Olympics, I had really bad results [in pro kayaking], and I was really bored with the sport. My parents wanted me to study something, so in 2014 I started to study medicine,” she said. “And then I had all the time to train in running. I quite liked it. I had good results. I did some races, but got injured. I had a fracture in the hip, like a [stress] fracture. So after that I could only cycle. So that’s how I started.”
After riding for recreation, then a few races with a small European team in 2018, she joined Bigla Pro Cycling, even though “I didn’t want to do professional sports again. I wanted a nice life. Then they [Bigla] said I could continue to study.”
New focus at Canyon-SRAM Racing
With confidence gained in the 2019 campaign at Bigla and the medical hiatus at the beginning of the 2020 campaign, Chabbey re-adapted to her cycling career without appearing to skip a beat.
“When I came back on the bike after all this [three months] I was super motivated. Back on the bike I was really happy. I had a good season, also. To have the freedom to do this was really good for me.”
Her first race back resulted in a silver medal in the Swiss individual time trial championships, one position better than 2019. She capped the year winning her first road race crown. And in between, Chabbey rode to support New Zealand teammate Mikayla Harvey as the team leader on the reinvented squad, which changed names to Equipe Paule Ka for the summer and folded by fall.
“I really like the Giro. In the first five days I was still in the top 10, so it was really good for me and the team supported me. Then I had a lot of crashes so it went bad,” Chabbey said, “but still I just kept going and I worked a lot for Miki [Mikayla Harvey]. She really had wonderful results for the team, fifth at the end. I’m really happy I could support her. Even if it was not for me at the end but just for her to get the results, so it was really good.”
This year Chabbey will ride with her first Women’s WorldTour team, Canyon-SRAM, which also brought on board Harvey and American Chloe Dygert, to boost an experienced roster.
“I am really happy to be on this team because it is one of the best teams for me. The staff is great, the riders are really nice. The first training camp was really a good experience for us,” Chabbey said after the week of training in January. “I think we have really good riders, like Miki, Kasia [Niewiadoma], and Chloe [Dygert]. I also think we have some opportunities, like in the breakaways. There’s good motivation to do something, our best.
“Last year I really didn’t have luck on my side, because I think I can have really good results but there was always something that happened to me, like a crash or a puncture or something. I think I can be among the best and I think this year it will happen.
“I can feel that I am always there, I just miss one little thing to be at the finish line with the top riders. I really like hard races, hilly races and climbing, but I’m not a true climber. I think my biggest strength is I never give up, I always give everything.”
While she would like to add another Olympic Games to her career, the Swiss federation only has one spot on the women’s team for Tokyo. Chabbey said that spot favors her friend Marlen Reusser, but she will give it her best try.
“Of course it would be super great to go again to the Olympics in another sport. I know that Marlen does not want to do the road race, she only wants to do the TT. I’m not really strong in the TT, I really love the road race. We’ll see what we can do.”
It is still not certain if the Olympic Games will proceed at the end of this summer, rescheduled and still defining protocols related to the pandemic. She wants to return to school for two more years of internal medicine studies to specialize in anesthesiology.
What is a clear for Chabbey in 2020 is she wants to put down the books and stethoscope for a while to “focus on cycling” for the first time in her career.
“I would really like to win one race with the Swiss jersey on the team, as Swiss national champion. I want to know a bit more about my teammates, have fun with them. Helping with a nice atmosphere on the team is the most important. Just be happy.”