My Vuelta España Challenge
Monika Sattler is on a mission to complete every single kilometre of the gruelling 21-day, 3,271km Vuelta España ride hours before the professionals (in a super hero suit). Here, we find out how she trains for a feat like this and what motivates her to take it on in the first place…
If ever there was a woman who encapsulates the expression ‘appetite for life,’ it’s Monika Sattler. Her skin boasts the effervescent glow that comes from a life spent almost permanently on two wheels; she’s bursting with energy, gesticulating wildly as she discusses her mission, and she bounces up and down in her chair as she tells me about her ambitions for the future. Then there’s her actual appetite. This girl can eat.
My first meeting with Monika is in a hotel reception in Girona. It’s 7.30pm and as soon as she greets me, she apologises for being super hungry and suggests we move our chat to a tapas bar next door. Never one to stand in the way of a woman and her food, I duly accept and we relocate our chat.
Now, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this request, except that we’re about to go for a three-course dinner at 8.30pm… and she only finished a lunch at 4pm, which consisted of a tuna salad, rice salad, chicken salad, some pasta and sauce and another salad.
To the average cyclist, this may seem like a decent amount of food, but Monika is no average cyclist. She’s training to take on the iconic Vuelta Espania (August 25-September 16) - a 3271.4km ride over 21 days – that she'll complete in a superhero suit. Crucially, she is doing it hours before the professional male riders and will, if successful, set a Guinness World Record for being the first woman in history to ride every kilometre of The Vuelta a España on the same day as the professionals.
To get her ready for this enormous ride, she’s just finished the Ride Across Portugal - an 800km ride over 10,000metres in 5days - and her metabolism is on fire.
While she orders a chicken salad with a chicken and rice chaser, I fire up the laptop, order a sparkling water and we begin…
So, Monika, tell us about your Vuelta challenge…
A year ago I was a management consultant for IBM and I quit my job. I decided to give up my career and do something completely different because I wasn’t happy.
It was scary taking that leap. I was afraid of the potential insecurity and instability, but now I realise it was the best decision of my own life.
Learning from that experience, I want to inspire others to push themselves and take on their own challenge. And to do that, I need to do something scary, right?
So, I’m riding every single kilometre of the Vuelta Espania hours before the professionals. Exactly the same mileage, every single day.
The reason I’m doing it is to inspire others, and especially women, to ride bikes, go outside and challenge themselves.
The Vuelta is the little sister of the Giro Italia and hasn’t actually been done before by a woman, so by doing this I’ll be setting a record for it - which I didn’t actually realise when I set out.
I was struck by something you just said then. So, you were sat at your job - like many of us - in your grey office at IBM… What was it that finally motivated you to chuck it all in and are you suggesting we should all give up our jobs and ride the world?
There were moments when I‘d be sitting in my office on the 12th floor and looking down, and I would see a cyclist ride by and think, fuck, I actually want to be out there doing that.
The best moments of my life have always been on my bike and I realised that I don’t want to waste 10 hours of my day sat there when I should be pursuing my passion.
Now, I’m definitely not saying that everyone should quit their job. Far from it. More that people should create their own path. Maybe your job is your passion, maybe it’s something else. But whatever you do, instead of following the rat race or the norm, you should do your own thing, look within yourself and follow what’s right for you. That’s what I want to inspire other people to do.
What did your parents say when you jacked in IBM?
I worked for the World Bank, I worked for the IMG, then I was a management consultant for IBM, so I had this perfect career trajectory, and my dad was very much behind that.
I tried to set off on a new path multiple times. There were a lot of ups and downs and failures, then I’d go back to the tried and tested path again.
My dad followed that journey with me and came to realise that there is nothing that makes me quite as happy as when I’m riding my bike. When I finally decided to quit my job this last time, he was the biggest supporter of all.
How do you prepare your body physically for something like this?
I’ve done the Haute Route triple Crown before. That’s a 2650km in three weeks, with 62,000m of climbing. I was the only female last year doing that – 21 people started and I think 11 finished. So, I’ve done something similar already and that was good training mentally.
Just recently I did the Ride Across Portugal, which is 800km in 5 days. And I’m now doing Mallorca to Munich, which is a minimum of 1500km, by myself, visiting children’s cancer hospitals along the way.
So, I’m mainly undertaking progressively bigger challenges to get me to August, but once I hit July I’ll rest until the big one, taking a mental and physical break.
People often say that you need to get miles and miles and miles in, but I disagree. Yes, you have to get yourself ready, but only very selectively. You can’t overdo it, because then you are already mentally and physically fatigued for the ride. You want to stay fresh and excited, so rest is equally important in the run up.
Do you do yoga or other cardio?
I do go to the gym, but that’s mainly for upper body and having fun. Mainly it’s about riding my bike and enjoying it.
I think it’s dangerous for me if I start to see the Vuelta ride as a responsibility. Weirdly, I don’t think too much about the ride itself. I don’t even know some of the route.
I know that it will be fucking steep and super hot, but right now it’s about enjoying the process and not getting tired of the preparation for it.
How much sleep do you get?
Currently I’m having a big lack of sleep, so I get six or seven hours, but I should be getting eight.
Off topic slightly, I recently had a stomach issue where I couldn’t even ride for 20 kilometres. At that point I thought I was going to have to pull out of the Vuelta because it was so bad.
I was told to stop drinking coffee and switched to green tea. I don’t know if you are some kinda coffee addict [that’s a vigorous nod from @EditorWelton], but I definitely was, and going from five cups to nothing was pretty tough.
I have to say that it was the best thing ever. I don’t have those ups and downs in terms of energy and, weirdly, I don’t need as much sleep. Obviously I was forced to kick the coffee habit, but it was the best thing.
We pause for ten minutes while Monika eats her first two dinners of the evening, then resume our chat…
How do you prepare your body in terms of nutrition for something like this?
I am quite unusual because I don’t like to eat during the ride, which means I eat a lot beforehand and afterwards, and my portions are very extreme.
I made a big mistake when I did the Haute Route triple Crown as I’d try to eat really healthily, just eating salad. I was then surprised when I couldn’t ride the next day. Or, I’d indulge in pizza and ice cream every day.
For Ride Across Portugal, I decided I should eat a more balanced diet, so I went for things like chicken plus rice plus salad. I don’t worry about how much carbohydrate I’m eating and eat a lot of pasta and stuff.
The other big change is that I don’t eat sugar any more and even avoid fruit (except for first thing in the morning). Yet again, this stops my energy ups and downs. It also regulates my hunger. I found that the more sugar I eat, the more hungry I am, so I avoid it all together
When I just did the the ride across Portugal, I didn’t have any gels or any power bars, mainly because I am avoiding the sugar and don’t believe in all the additives.
I try to ignore the marketing campaigns that say you have to eat special bars and isotonic drinks. You can get all the nutrients you need from real food.
How do you prepare yourself mentally for something like this?
Mainly, I try not to think too much about the ride itself. But sometimes I will create movies in my head of the worst case scenarios - how much it hurts, how tired I am, how I gotta go through another stage.
By putting myself into that position of how I might feel and going through those emotions, it helps me feel mentally prepared.
What are your three luxury items when packing for a feat like this?
My green tea. I drink a litre in a morning. And that’s about it. I'm not really attached to stuff. I prefer ideas and personalities to stuff.
Back to your Vuelta challenge, you say that you’ll be riding the same route as the pro’s, hours before them. How are you engineering that?
When I say I will be riding hours beforehand, this will probably mean I’ll need to start at 3am. If I still don’t make it and they pass me, I will just ride after them to get it done.
As part of this challenge, I also want to get people joining me on different stages so that they complete their own challenge. You don’t have to ride 3000+km. It might be the fact that you are riding your first ever 100km, but if I inspire you to get out there and do it, that will make me happy.
The best cycling tip you could share?
The food thing. You don’t have to eat all that crap. Also, the best thing you can do is listen to your body and what your body is trying to tell you. Eat when it tells you, rather than when the power or heart rate monitor tells you.
What’s the best advice ever given
I am a big fan of quotations and my favourites usually centre around the idea that if you want to do something, you have to get out there and do it…
As the clock ticks round to 8.25pm, we finish up and head off to dinner, where Monika eats two pasta starters and two main courses. She abstains from dessert as she’s avoiding sugar and jets off for bed so that she can get up at 6am to fly back to Mallorca in prep for her Mallorca to Munich ride.
We can’t wait to follow Monica’s Vuelta adventure, but can’t help thinking that she’s actually doing so much more than just inspiring other women to get out there and ride. Surely, by riding the Vuelta ahead of the male professionals, she’s making a statement about the fact that women should have their own professional event, using the same courses, the same infrastructure and the same crowds as the men’s event.