Mieke Kröger at the Human Powered Health training camp in Portugal. Image credit: Human Powered Health/Tristan Cardew

From Cologne to Croatia: Mieke Kröger’s preparation for Vuelta a Burgos

The Olympic champion on leaving her comfort zone, taking the hard route, and becoming a Twitter meme.

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When I call Mieke Kröger she tells me she has spent the whole day sleeping. “I’m pretty tired,” she says, recalling how she woke up late and visited the beach on the Croatian coast where she is staying. 

It may sound like she is bunking off from training for a holiday, but the Olympic team pursuit champion has spent the week cycling from Cologne, Germany all the way to Croatia; over 1,347km and 16,040m. When we speak, she is debating whether to take the last leg of her journey, to Zagreb — where she will catch the train home — by bike or bus. 

“It will also be nice to just sleep in, go to the beach again, and take it easy, and then take the bus,” she considers, (and who would blame her?) but she is undecided: “It would just be for me, I guess, to prove it to myself, whatever there is to prove.”  

It is the mentality of an Olympic and World champion. Of a professional athlete who is used to striving to get the most out of herself. Mieke Kröger, though, is not your average professional cyclist.

Point-to-point

“I don’t like to call it bike packing, because bike packing is too cool for me now. I’m not that cool,” Kröger insists. She has done trips like this before, one through her home country, one from Germany to Prague, and one ill-fated attempt at a French trip before she got sick and had to abort the journey. It had been a while since her last adventure, however, “so it was in the back of my mind for a long time now,” she says. 

Kröger had a gap in her race schedule between the track cycling Nation Cup in Glasgow — where she won gold in the individual pursuit — and next week’s Vuelta a Burgos Feminas. “The plan was anyways like to build the endurance side again a little bit after the track Nations Cup in Glasgow,” she says.

Her original plan was to ride to the team service course in Girona to pick up some new tyres for her training wheels, which might have been the longest journey for a set of tyres in professional cycling history, “and then I looked at the weather forecast, and it said like two weeks of rain,” she says. So she switched her path towards Eastern Europe. 

Whatever her destination would be, she knew that she didn’t want to take the easy route. “Also on my way to Girona. I didn’t just want to go the flat route, like through France and done,” she says. “I wanted to tick off the Vosges you know, whether the Planche des Belles Filles is and stuff. I wanted to tick off the Alps, I would have just gone up Alpe d’Huez just to go down again. Just because I was there, I would have done that.”

Her route took her across the Alps anyway but, she says, “actually, it was not too spectacular.” 

Kroger’s bike. Photo: Mieke Kroger/Human Powered Health

Kröger tells me that her favourite leg of the trip was the penultimate day where she crossed Slovenia. “Actually, the straightest way would be through Udine in Italy, which would be like 90 kilometres. But I chose to take the hilly route with 3,000 metres of elevation. I also passed part of the route of the Giro d’Italia, they are going to ride that climb on May 27, I figured that out while I was there. 

The whole day was so beautiful. I started in Italy, rode through Slovenia and came back to Italy. I mean, steep , steep gradients, but just so beautiful. It was the day I took the most pictures and videos, because I was just so overwhelmed that I wanted to share it with everybody…and so much nature that seems to be untouched. Yeah, great roads. Very friendly people.” 

Soul searching 

In an article on her team’s website, Kröger described the trip as ‘”a journey into my inner self,” so what did she find?

“I mean, when you’re on your own for that many days, and just barely meeting anybody. And, you know, you got a lot of time to think about things,” she says. “I don’t know, did I figure something out? Maybe to approach people less anxious.” She describes how she often had reservations about speaking to strangers but, “in the end, like, four of five people you approach are very, very friendly and happy to help.”

As well as boosting her confidence in others, she also found confidence in herself and her ability to be self-reliant.

“I did bring a second pair of bib shorts, but only because my roommate wouldn’t have let me go without,” she says. “But in the end, I washed my bib shorts every day and I disinfected the chamois and stuff. So just, I just brought so little but I knew that if something goes wrong, I knew how to solve this problem. And that’s kind of a way I learned to trust me. Or to trust my abilities or my problem solving.” 

The meaning of a meme

For the uninitiated, Tweets that simply state Kröger’s name and nothing else are often found circling around cycling Twitter, in particular German cycling Twitter. Having seen this on multiple occasions but having never understood what it was for, I was looking forward to getting an answer from Krôger herself but, she says, “I don’t get it anyways. Don’t ask me what it’s all about. It is a thing.”

She directs me to a thread that is supposed to explain the meme’s origins but admits: “I read it like three times and I still don’t really get it.” 

Still, the fact that she doesn’t fully understand where it came from doesn’t stop her from embracing the support, “A friend of mine from school, he sent a picture of a lantern post in my hometown where there’s a sticker of me,” she says. “You know, they produce stickers and they stick them everywhere with my face on it and my name and whatever.”

“They’re just cool, wholesome people. The majority of them, I think.” 

On her way, her status as something of a Twitter meme got her a free stay at a fan’s house.  One of the ‘Mieke Kröger” Tweeters offered the 28-year-old a place to stay overnight in Germany. “I know a person who has the private contact of some of them,” she says. “So I asked him ‘hey, could you ask if anybody would have a room for me for a night in that time?’ And turns out one guy told his brother to leave his bed and sleep on the couch to give me the bed,” she says, laughing. 

“And he was very friendly and open minded and it was really a really nice experience.” 

She was soon glad to join some more familiar faces, however: “And then that was enough adventure. So then I cycled to Franziska Brauße, she is on the team pursuit squad with me. And then I cycled to Lisa Brennauer. And from then on, I was on my own.” 

Kroger with her team pursuit teammate and German national champion, Lisa Brennauer. Photo courtesy of Mieke Kröger/Human Powered Health

Kroger will line up at Vuelta a Burgos Feminas with her Human Powered Health teammates on the 19th. “That’s maybe one thing to take into account when I think about what to do tomorrow. Maybe I should really take the bus to recover properly for Burgos,” she says, as if realising for the first time. Clearly taking in what she has just achieved before thinking about getting back into the hustle and bustle of the peloton.  

“I just think everyone should do it at one point,” she says of her adventure.

Her advice to those who might want to? “Just be brave,” she says before backtracking on her choice of words. “Well, it’s nothing about being brave. It’s just, it seems like a big thing. You know, I cycled through Germany. Lisa Brennauer, she’s living close to the Alps, I arrived there and I looked at the mountains and I was so intimidated and also the weather wasn’t supposed to be good and stuff, but then just step by step once you’re on the bike, you know, you will conquer things. Just take it step-by-step.”