Dreaming big: How one woman rode the Vuelta route before the pros
There is no three-week Grand Tour for female cyclists, yet it’s a challenge many have found a way to take on. We can look right back to 1924 when the “devil in a dress” Alfonsina Strada, entered under a man’s name and rode the Giro d’Italia. Just a couple of months ago 13 women rode the Tour de France route the day before the main event to draw attention to the lack of a race for women.
And now, amateur cyclist Monika Sattler has just finished riding every stage of the Vuelta a España. She set off early, in the hours before the men’s race, with the goal of spurring others to embrace their own adventure, no matter how seemingly impossible it is, by delivering a feat that would inspire.
We take a look at Sattler’s journey, from start to finish.
On the day before the start of the Vuelta a Espana, Monika Sattler sat and contemplated how many people told her she was biting off more than she could chew. It was the vast majority.
Ahead lay three weeks, 21 stages, more than 3,000 kilometers. She would climb over 40,000 metres. She would take on the entire route of the Vuelta a Espana — bar a few small sections of freeway she was unable to ride on — a few hours before the pro men did the same. There were so many things that could go wrong, that could cause the body or mind to give in. But that’s what made the whole thing worthwhile. She chose to focus not on how things might go wrong, but on how she could make things go right.
After months of preparation, planning, working out the logistics and drumming up support, she was ready to ride. To ride and show just what can happen when you dare to dream about taking on something that others may be all too quick to tell you is just not sensible, or even possible.
“You can make life exciting, make it an adventure, go for your challenges. No matter what happens you can never fail,” Sattler told Ella CyclingTips the day before setting out. “I’ve gained so much experience from the whole journey already and learnt so much … that it has already been a great life experience.”
Getting to that start line of that first stage individual time trial in Malaga was a journey in itself. But a Tour of Spain still lay ahead.
Week one: Stress and getting into the groove
The first week in one word was “stressful”, said Sattler. The riding, that was fine. “I mean if it is three degrees and raining or ridiculously hot, sure, it’s a shit day,” said Sattler. “But it’s not like that surprises me. It’s not the first time I’ve dealt with that.”
But there was more to this endeavour than keeping the pedals turning over.
Sattler said she had a fantastic crew of people that had given up their time to help out, with on-the-road and media support, but they had to find their rhythm as a team. “We had to figure each other out first, how can we work together best,” said Sattler. “So there were very much a lot of intense moments where it was really about, ‘OK how can we make this happen for three weeks.’”
She said that was the hardest part, but a few days in and things started working like clockwork.
“We got into the groove,” said Sattler. “In the first days I was worried that maybe we were too slow or too fast, then it all settled in and I could relax.”
After that, the first week flew by.
Week two: Climb upon climb
This was a tough week of riding, as the race route headed into mountainous territory on stage 9. It was the day Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) first pulled on the race leader’s red jersey that he would also be wearing on the final stage. It was always going to be a testing day for the GC contenders who were racing, and for Sattler who was riding the stage in the hours before.
She got just four hours of sleep. She had to get to complete the route before the professionals came through, which forced an early wake-up. Not the ideal preparation for a 200.8-kilometre stage with a first, second and third category climb, plus a summit finish on top of the HC-ranked Covatilla.
“I rode this by myself,” said Sattler. “I was sleep-deprived and it was a tough stage. That’s the only time when I saw the finish line that I kinda cried a little bit. I was so fatigued that day but I made it through.”
Even with that day of climbing down, there were many more to come. The toughest, said Sattler, was the Camperona on Stage 13.
“It was so steep that I was scared I’d fall off the bike and roll down the mountain,” said Sattler. “Because the road was so small, there were also not a lot of zigzagging options.”
The silver lining, if there was one, was that everything else began to feel easy in comparison.
“I got used to the extremes, so when I was faced with other tough climbs, I was just like ‘OK I’ve done it before, so I can do it again.’”
Week three: Acclimatised body, but oh how I need sleep
The body is capable of incredible transformation. Sattler rode into the final week with the accumulated fatigue of two tough weeks on the bike in her legs. Ahead lay a brutal stage 20 in Andorra with six summits. Yet things somehow felt easier.
The sleep deprivation was adding up, as riding before the professionals always meant early beginnings. But Sattler found that the body was far from fraying.
“For me, six hours of riding all of sudden didn’t seem like long anymore,” Sattler said. “There was never a moment where my body actually physically wanted to give up — it adjusted to it.”
But that didn’t mean there wasn’t some trepidation heading into the final mountainous stage in Andorra on the second last day. She’d trained there before, and knew the climbs. Sometimes knowing is worse than not knowing.
“I was worried that I would mentally break down because I was there two months ago to train and I knew all the climbs and I had very bad memories of them,” Sattler added. “I thought it would be really hard, but it wasn’t actually. It was so surprising, almost scary … it seemed too easy.”
With the final big mountainous day over, all Sattler now had to do was ride the easy last stage, and celebrate the completion of another one of life’s adventures.
Finished but still dreaming big
When we spoke to Sattler the day after she’d finished, she sounded remarkably composed and energised by a huge three weeks, rather than fatigued by it.
“I believed in myself right from the start so it’s not like I surprised myself … It’s more that I’m glad I was able to inspire people along the way,” she said. “And now I’m thinking about what’s ahead. What’s the next thing to keep going on with my mission?”
Does she have any ideas? Of course, the answer is yes.
Next on the agenda is a north-to-south ride in Japan, immersed in the food and culture along the way. And then: who knows? Anything is possible when you are prepared to dream big.