Photo: Wooter Roosenboom
German-born Monika Sattler (aka RAD Monika) is on a mission to inspire more people, especially women, to take up cycling. Her plan: to be the first woman in history to ride the entire course of this summer’s professional road cycling race, the Vuelta a España – one of cycling’s toughest Grand Tours – just hours ahead of the pro cyclists. The brutal 3300km route is designed to test even the most seasoned of professional riders and includes 21 days on the bike, notoriously difficult climbs and the searing heat of a Spanish summer. Phew!
I caught up with Monika over the phone from her home in Mallorca, Spain, to chat about her cycling background, her brief stint as a pro cyclist, and how she’s preparing for her record-breaking Vuelta Ride challenge.
Monika, can you tell me a bit about your background and cycling experience?
I’m originally from Germany, and after high school I went to the States for nine years to get a university degree and also because I wanted to become a pro cyclist. After trying pro cycling, I realised it wasn’t for me and went back to a normal job as a management consultant for IBM, living in Switzerland and then Australia. But I realised cycling is my passion, along with being outdoors and everything that goes with it. I realised that instead of trying to figure out what job to do, I should just create my own job.
So, one year and four months ago, I quit my job. I looked at the map and I decided to move from Australia to Malaga, Spain. I’d never been to Malaga before, didn’t speak any Spanish, didn’t know anyone. I had a six-week rental car and one night’s stay at a hotel, and that was basically my planning for the entire move. And my only goal at that point was to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew it had to be cycling, so I tried a lot of different things. I also did a lot of the two types of cycling I like the most: ultra-endurance challenges, and adventure cycling – taking a small bag, and sleeping in a hotel where I end up.
Tell me about how your philosophy of living ‘RAD’?
I realised my story appealed to quite a lot of people, especially the part about quitting my job and following my dream. People ask me about how they can change their life, and it’s such a rewarding feeling. Helping others to create their own path has actually become a mission. ‘Live RAD’ is my philosophy – live ‘Real, Adventurous and Daring’. Be yourself, create your own path and go for your adventure. Dare to do it. So now I do motivational speaking and life coaching, all around that topic.
Where did the idea to ride the Vuelta come from?
My mission is to show that everything is possible. I decided a Grand Tour would be a great way to spread my message. A lot of people have already done the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, but the Vuelta, I feel, is still a small little sister. The Vuelta Ride is part of this concept of going outside, exploring the world, being bold and doing something which maybe feels like an insurmountable challenge.
I’m going to be making a documentary out of it to inspire people, especially women. I’ve lived now in five countries and no matter where I’m riding, I’m always in the minority as the only woman.
What will the Vuelta Ride involve?
I’ll be riding the exact same route of the Vuelta a España, the professional cycling race: 3300km of cycling, 21 stages and two rest days in the middle, all around Spain.
Watching the Vuelta last year, it looked tougher than the Tour de France!
Yes, it seems like they (the organisers) are actually looking for the toughest climbs, and this year there will be at least one climb that has an average of 15% gradient – an average!
You’re setting off just hours before the pro riders, is that right?
Exactly, hours before. The reason I’m doing that is for the media attention. I want to clarify that the Vuelta Ride is not my personal challenge – the success of the project comes when people are really inspired and want to be a part of it, not from me having completing it. Of course, I want to complete it, but it’s more about getting my message out there. I’m crowd-funding currently and I have to fund the trip, but it’s not so much that I specifically want to do this, I just want to do something crazy so that my message to inspire more cyclists is heard.
Given you’re cycling the same morning, could the pro cyclists overtake you during the ride?
Yes. Of course, the goal is that they’re not passing me, but in case they do, I’ll keep going afterwards.
You also have to contend with punishing Spanish heat during your ride…
Yes – in August you can expect temperatures of 40-degrees. I’ve ridden in Australia in the heat [so have experience riding in hot weather], but it’s going to be tough, either way.
You’re cycling huge distances with major climbs at the height of summer – what will be the most challenging aspect of your Vuelta Ride experience?
You know, the most challenging aspect will be not so much the riding itself. It’s about what’s happening right now – creating the media interest and getting the money together to be able to do it. Creating the documentary and all the logistics and documentation. That’s the most challenging.
How are you preparing physically for the Vuelta Ride?
I’m preparing for the Vuelta Ride by cycling 1100km from Mallorca to Munich by myself, because the best way to train for something like this is by cycling day in, day out. Long miles. But I can’t do it too many times because I don’t want to get myself mentally fatigued – I want to be fresh. I set off next week, so two months beforehand, and it should take 7 days. Doing that, along with a couple of other events I’ve just done back-to-back, will be my preparation for the Vuelta.
Is your ride to Munich from Spain all planned out?
I have no idea how I actually get from Mallorca to Munich. I’m not planning anything, I just start riding and hopefully heading north. And that’s the thing with life – sometimes you don’t know what’s ahead of you, but you just have to keep going and see where it goes. Taking that initial step is the scariest, because you wonder – should I go, shouldn’t I go? By doing things like this, it helps build your confidence in going into the unknown.
The cool story is that when I’m riding from Mallorca to Munich, I will be visiting children’s hospitals along the way. I want to show that my challenge might be 1100km but other people have their own challenges.
Do you have days when the public can join you and ride along?
You can join me wherever and whenever you want! Just show up and cycle with me, or you can go through the Tour operator I’m working with, Grand Tours Projects, to have everything organised.
You’re a fan of adventure cycling aren’t you?
Yes. I like adventure cycling! Last year, I cycled 600km through Spain from Madrid south to Malaga, and I didn’t take anything with me but a little drawstring bag. I didn’t even have my shoes, I had just shorts, a t-shirt and two inner tubes.
Where did you stay?
In hotels. I’m not a camping person – I like to be ultra-light. I don’t want to be weighed down with all the baggage. I like my sleep! That’s why I stay in hotels.
Tell me about the Haute Route Triple Crown event that you did last year – 60,000m of climbing?!
Haute Route is a cycling event company and they put on cycling sportives for amateurs, but high-end in that they’re very tough. One ride would be 900km and 20,000m of climbing. And if you’re doing three of them back-to-back, it’s known as the Haute Route Triple Crown. I did that last year, and signed up to that one day before, actually. It became 2600km and 60,000m of climbing because it was all in the mountains. The first was in the Pyrenees, the second the French Alps and the third one in the Italian Alps…
What were the highs and lows of three weeks of such intense cycling?
I had a lot of highs and a lot of lows. The first low was on day 12 when one of the rides was 180km and 4500m of climbing – three major climbs in the French Alps. I didn’t sleep well the day before, and was so mentally fatigued, I thought I couldn’t make it. But I found someone who I could talk to for the entire eight hours of the ride and I made it through. The lows were really trying to recover each day and to get up every morning at 6am to say to myself: I’m ready to cycle 160+km. That will also be the big challenge every morning of the Vuelta Ride, where I’ll be getting up even earlier as we want to start before the pros. Being excited for every day and going there with a good mindset will be the challenge.
Was the Haute Route Triple Crown a good learning experience for the Vuelta?
Yes, definitely. I learned a lot of lessons that will help for the Vuelta Ride. I learnt that the healthier I eat, the worse I feel! My body wants easily digestible food. The other thing is that I’m very much a social person – I need people around me to ride those kind of challenges. So it would be great to have people joining me for the Vuelta.
How does the Vuelta compare to the Triple Crown? Are they similar in elevation?
The Haute Route is all in the mountains actually – so no flat stage. The Vuelta has flat stages, long – and probably boring – flat stages of 200km or so. In general, the Vuelta is almost 500km longer and I’ll be dealing with pretty bad heat in the south for the first week. And then the steep mountains in the north. But what I’m hoping is that the crowds get to know me. Because I would love to wear my super-woman dress, and have them recognise me.
What’s your current training look like – is it mostly long, hilly rides in Mallorca?
Not at all. I ride with a group of guys – I think it’s one of the fastest rides here in Mallorca. It’s about enjoying it. Riding long rides day in, day out, on my own is not my thing. If the guys go for 200km, I join them. But on a day-to-day basis it’s more about shorter, snappier rides – but when I say shorter, they’re still 120km! [laughs]. It seems like in Mallorca, there’s nothing shorter than 100km!
When you have low moments in a cycling event or a challenge, how do you get through them?
Sometimes, it’s by almost taking myself mentally out of my own body; I tell myself: OK Monika, you’re just riding that extra amount of miles ahead of you, and in 2 hours everything looks different. If you give up now, how does that look tomorrow? You might as well keep going. It’s about mentally not playing with your mind but having a rational conversation with yourself. Other things I’d maybe do is eat a donut or have a Coke [as a treat]. Sometimes, mentally, that helps a lot.
Going back to your stint as a pro cyclist, why wasn’t it for you?
Because I’m not aggressive enough. I realised later on that I do like competitions – I like giving my best – but I don’t take pleasure winning against others. For me, it’s about competing against myself and my own challenge. You had to elbow quite a lot and really show yourself in the peloton, and I’m more like, ‘Okay, you want to go ahead? Okay, go ahead. Oh, and you also want to go ahead? Okay, go ahead’ [laughs] so I didn’t go anywhere [laughs]. So that was the main part. I’d consider myself more social – I’m not aggressive. And then, of course, the high chance of crashing on top of that.
Did you have any bad crashes as a pro cyclist?
I had nothing in races but two big crashes in training. Once I broke my neck, actually. I crashed onto my face on the pavement. I pretty much suck at descending, but I think to myself, I’d rather take ten minutes longer than everyone else but know that I don’t have to be in the hospital for six weeks! That’s why I feel like it doesn’t matter what other people are doing around me – whether they’re slower or faster. It’s more about what I feel comfortable with. And I think that goes for life in general – don’t compare yourself with others because you don’t know what their history is, just know your strengths and weaknesses, and focus on that. That’s in your control.
You’re raising money for the Vuelta Ride – I’m guessing all the support and logistics is expensive?
Yes, that’s right. To be quite open, I have to raise €20,000 for this project. Half of that goes into the logistics of it. The other half will be for creating the documentary about what the ride is all about.
What kind of support will you receive during the ride?
I’m going through a tour operator, Grand Tours Project. They’ll follow [and support] me on the road, look after my safety because I’m getting up so early, and things like that. Hotels, transportation.
What will you eat for breakfast during the Vuelta Ride?
Something easily digestible, but it will depend on the day. If it’s early in the morning and already 40-degrees, then probably something like fruit, but I have a sweet tooth so there might be a croissant in there too at some point!
Living in Spain, what are your favourite Spanish cycling destinations/rides?
Well, it’s not really a secret but Mallorca is pretty sweet. Malaga is also very nice for riding, and Girona is also really nice. But I feel like Mallorca is the most ‘Spain’ to me, which sounds funny because there’s a lot of tourism here, but I feel like where I live in Mallorca it’s very pretty, I have the mountains to ride, it’s mostly nice weather…
What are your favourite items of kit for cycling?
I’m sponsored by Gobik, which is a Spanish cycling company, but I chose to go with them because they’re very good. So all of my kit is Gobik and I love it. I’ve just ridden the Mallorca 312 – which is 312km here in Mallorca – and I had no issues. Nothing. And I don’t use chamois cream at all, because the shorts are so good.
I also ride a Scott bike. I’m sponsored by Scott. It always sounds like I just endorse the brands that I’m sponsored by, but it started the other way round – that I liked the brand so much we started a partnership. I wouldn’t ride a bike if I didn’t enjoy the brand!
I’m also sponsored by Shimano and Powerbar. And I’m an ambassador for Haute Route. And Cycling Friendly, a website and service for when you’re looking to find out how many kilometres a climb is in Spain, or you’re looking for a hotel that’s suitable for cyclists. It’s a really a cool site, especially if you’re into data. It will help me with the Vuelta ride in August, definitely.
How are you feeling about the Vuelta Ride?
Since I’ve started the crowd-funding, this has been the biggest weight on my shoulders. So until I’m at the start line, knowing somebody is supporting me, I can’t even think about the actual ride.
To support Monika’s crowd-funding, you can donate here.
To follow Monika’s cycling adventures and upcoming Vuelta Ride you can follow her via social media on www.instagram.com/rad_monika and www.twitter.com/rad_monika or by visiting her website, www.radmonika.com and www.thevueltaride.com.