Mieke Kröger’s European adventure: Contemplating life, humanity, and nature on a solo road trip

The Olympic gold medalist is riding over 1,300k from her home in Germany to Zagreb, Croatia.

Photo: Mieke Kröger

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Slow down you crazy child, you’re so ambitious for a juvenile. But then if you’re so smart tell me,
why are you still so afraid? Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about? You better cool it off before you burn it out. You got so much to do and only so many hours in a day.

Those are the opening lyrics to Billy Joel’s song Vienna, and they were the words that were floating around in Mieke Kröger’s head as she rides solo from Cologne, Germany to Zagreb, Croatia.

The journey she’s taking is over 1,300k and while it is ostensibly about training for her next racing goals, there’s a personal aspect to it too. Passing through five countries along the way with few people to talk to while she’s on the bike, there’s plenty of time to ponder the world and her place within it.

Also read: Mieke Kröger on going from ‘lazy’ kid to world beater

“It really gives me a lot to think about. We’re so rushed but what are we running after?” Kröger told VeloNews in a call from Croatia, just under 200k shy of her final destination. “Doing this, it brings a lot of time to reflect on myself and the way I approach people. When I’m rushed, I don’t reflect on myself. I want to try to be less anxious when approaching strangers, to slow down sometimes, and in my usual training when I think ‘oh, this and that would be nice now,’ to just do it.

“I wonder what did I do as a child. We were just in our own world, and nobody was rushing. I want to get that back, but I don’t know if it’s possible. Maybe it’s just being adult.”

Mieke Kröger enjoying the ride
Mieke Kröger enjoying the ride (Photo: Mieke Kröger)

Trips like these can take months of planning, but Kröger’s decision to ride across Europe came almost at the last minute. She had a break from racing following the opening round of the track world cup in Glasgow at the end of April and she was looking for something a bit different.

At first, she considered riding toward the Human Powered Health base in Girona to pick up some new tires for her training bike, but that idea was put in the trash when she looked at the weather. Kröger then examined the weather forecast to the east of her native Germany and saw that it would be much better.

With a few weeks before she was set to race again at the Vuelta a Burgos, which starts on May 19, Kröger decided to follow her own advice and take the opportunity in front of her.

“I was longing or something else, then a training camp or just preparing at home. I mean, the weather is great at home, but I just couldn’t get my head around riding the same loops again. I’ve done this before and I felt like it’s time to do this again,” she said.

“I’m always thinking of destinations where I want to ride my bike to. For example, I want to ride my bike to Paris to have a croissant or something like that. Just stupid ideas. But there was never really the time or the weather to do so. I thought, hey, I do have the time in May, I can just go for it.”

It wasn't always sunny
It wasn’t always sunny (Photo: Mieke Kröger)

Taking the scenic route

The most direct route from Kröger’s home in Cologne to the Croatian capital of Zagreb is a little over 1,000k, but Kröger wasn’t trying to go from A to B in as quick a time as possible. She wanted to explore while she rode, and she picked a route that would take her past some beautiful vistas and added about 300k to her ride.

Why Zagreb, you may ask? Well, she could get a direct train back home from the city. It was as simple as that.

“I liked the idea of going towards Greece. That has been in my head before, but I never really planned anything. That route would also have passed Croatia but I only have this amount of time so I couldn’t go all the way to Greece, and then I just opened Kamoot and click start and finish point in there and it kind of went from there,” Kröger explained.

“I had a rough plan of the roads I was going I was going to do but I refined my plans every day and the reason to go to Zagreb it is only the train connection that gets me there. All the way from Zagreb to Germany, which is great.”

As one of the members of Germany’s world record-setting team pursuit squad, Kröger readily admits that she’s no mountain goat. However, she wanted to take the scenic route and that would involve some tough riding.

“I was actually riding through Slovenia on a climb that the Giro d’Italia will pass on May 27. It’s a very climby stage and the last big climb is the one I did as my second climb. I was making my own switchbacks because I should have put some smaller gears on my bike, I guess. But I managed,” she said.

“Climbing is not my specialty, I’m a super heavy human being, but I kind of do enjoy it. It was amazing. It was unbelievable. [Tuesday] was the best day but it was also the hardest day.”

Tired after a tough day riding through Slovenia
Tired after a tough day riding through Slovenia (Photo: Mieke Kröger)

At the beginning of the trip, Kröger felt as though she was still rushing, trying to get from place to place. However, she has eased into this freer way of riding, which has been helped by both her heart rate monitor and her power meter failing on her.

Now, it is all about enjoying the ride and there are no numbers to distract her.

“The battery of my heart rate monitor failed and didn’t replace it. So, I didn’t have a heart rate,” Kröger said. “Also, my power meter failed so one day I was doing 3000 Watts average and then the next day I was doing 70 Watts average, and now it failed completely. I think it needs a service.

“I actually liked it. It’s also helped me to not rush and not care about numbers and just pedal uphill and then just roll downhill it’s fine. Nobody will see it and I will just forget it. I don’t need to be efficient like I’m doing enough on this trip.”

Contemplating humanity

The 1,300k ride has been a journey of discovery for Kröger. While she’s very talkative in a one-to-one conversation, she can be shy and unsure around strangers.

Riding around Europe on her own has forced her to come out of her shell a little bit and become more comfortable doing things on her own.

“I was always a little anxious arriving at the accommodations and not knowing how the people are and if they are nice and like and coming there with my bike and not wearing proper shoes, but these Adidas slippers. But then realizing, especially in Italy and Slovenia, also here in Croatia, that people are just super friendly, kind of excited, and hospitable,” she said.

“In Slovenia, just before the border, a woman just looked at me and she was like, where do you come from? Where are you going? And she wished me a very safe journey. It’s just friendly and interesting people. There was a cyclist coming down a steep hill that I was grinding up and he just said ‘brava, brava,’ and things like that really makes the day.”

Enjoying a pizza after a long day of riding
Enjoying a pizza after a long day of riding (Photo: Mieke Kröger)

While there are those small interactions on the road, there is plenty of time for Kröger to get into her own head. It’s a chance to set the world to rights, even if it is just with herself.

“About the purpose of life and about humankind,” Kröger said when asked what she thinks about on long rides. “I was riding through a really big city and there were really steep gradients downhill through busy traffic and my brakes were so hot and squeaking and I felt in such a rush and such, with so much stress and people only thinking about their selves.

“It was just hot there because it’s all full of buildings, no trees, and no shade. I got out and I had to stop because I was so overwhelmed by that.

“On the other hand, there are days like [Tuesday] where I’m just riding through nature, and I can hear the birds. The nature looks kind of untouched. When I see houses that are abandoned, and trees and plants are just taking over it makes me think that humans can’t tame mother nature forever.”

Kröger took a rest day Thursday and has just one more long day of riding left Friday on her epic ride to Zagreb. Then, it’ll take her some 15 hours by train to get home again.

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