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Unsung heroes: Mieke Kröger on going from ‘lazy’ kid to world beater

The German rider was part of a dominating line-up that won the Olympic, European, and world team pursuit titles, but she describes herself as a ‘lazy’ child.

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This article is part of a series on VeloNews, highlighting some of the unsung heroes of the women’s peloton. 

Mieke Kröger was a self-confessed “lazy” kid.

While she used to cycle for transport, and occasionally on family holidays, the Olympic, European, and world team pursuit champion wasn’t overly interested in sports as a youngster.

It all changed one day when she asked her mother for a racing bike. Unconvinced by her daughter’s new passion, her mother told her to borrow one. The 15-year-old Kröger then went to her local club and fell in love with racing.

“I come from a family that has always been riding bikes to school to work and some bicycling, holidays, but never really with a competitive character. I was not that much into club sports, like football, I was just a lazy kid going to school and watching TV,” Kröger told VeloNews. “One day, I thought, ‘I want to race bike.’ Maybe it was because I saw someone on a race bike. I thought I could do that as well, so I asked my mom, and she said, ‘Hey, Mieke, that’s pretty expensive. I’m afraid you will not stick to it. So please ask at this club.’”

Also read: Unsung heroes: Alena Amialiusik on swapping gymnastics for cycling, growing up in Belarus

“My former primary school teacher was there, and I asked if I could join for a test ride or something. I was very nervous and excited because he used to be my teacher, but everything went well. I enjoyed it.”

Caught by the cycling bug, Kröger went off in search of a racing bike of her own and the kit to go with it. She wasn’t flush with cash so she had to do with what she could get her hands on, including knitted mittens from her mom and shoes that didn’t fit.

“I bought myself a race bike, a used one for 120 euros, with shoes that were a little too small, but it worked without the insoles,” she laughed. “I suffered through winter training. I always said no, my hands are not cold. But I was embarrassed that I didn’t really have gloves. I had some but those ones that were knitted by my mom. I’m surprised that my feet are still existing. I was so cold.

“They asked me, ‘Do you want to try racing?’ I never had racing in my mind, I always just wanted to ride the bike. But then I tried racing and they won my first race and when I caught fire. I was successful. I wasn’t that smart, but I was strong.”

Also read: Unsung heroes: Janneke Ensing on her love of food, becoming a nutritionist, retirement

Two years after she started racing, Kröger went to her first national championships. In her eagerness to compete, she ended up sitting in her skinsuit on a five-hour car ride. She went on to win the junior national time trial title and it kickstarted her path towards professionalism.

“I had the honor to participate in nationals for under 17. I did it with my road bike. We drove there and I was picked up by this primary school teacher at 5 am. I had my skinsuit on already. It was a five-hour drive or something. I had to take it off anyway because I had to pin the numbers on the back. Then it was the time trial nationals, just 10 kilometers out and back, and I came first.”

On top of the world

Kröger’s 2021 season is a world away from her start with too small shoes and a cheap second-hand bike. Along with her German teammates, she embarked on an unprecedented run, winning the Olympic, European, and world team pursuit titles in the space of three months.

Some of them also rode at the road world championships where they took the mixed relay title.

“We were just floating along the last part of the season. I don’t know it’s hard to describe but nothing could really stop us. We were just riding on a cloud.”

It seems strange to include Kröger — who will ride with Human Powered Health in 2022 — in the list of unsung heroes with her palmarès, but the 28-year-old is not celebrated nearly as much as her success should dictate.

Germany had been there or thereabouts in the team pursuit in recent years, rising to third at the 2020 world championships in Berlin. The team seemed destined for a strong medal performance at the Tokyo Olympics, but it was a change in the rider order that really lit the kindling for the team.

In their initial plans, each of the riders would do two laps and peel off before taking another turn on the front later in the ride. Kröger was struggling with that, so she suggested a change just over a month out from Tokyo.

“In June, during a track session, I asked the girls what do you think about me doing both my leads in one lead the team pursuit?” She said. “I never understood why I had problems with my second lead but maybe it’s just the way my body works. I asked the girls what if we just combine those two labs to like two times two laps into one time four laps.

“I think that’s when everything went off. It worked pretty well, and it has many benefits to the whole team and it gave us confidence. We still didn’t know what our times would be worth compared to the other nations but after the qualification, it just became better and better.”

The Tokyo Olympics were only the second time women were able to contest the four-kilometer team pursuit after it was introduced for Rio. For a long time, the women’s discipline featured three riders over three kilometers.

The world record set in Tokyo — the third time the team had broken the record in the event — was nearly a full six seconds quicker than the one set in Rio. Kröger is happy about the development of the discipline and she’s excited to see if the women can dip under the prestigious four-minute mark.

“It was a different discipline,” Kröger said of the 3km race. “It was time to have the same discipline as the men. Our national coach, after we did the very last word record, said, ‘Now you’ve broken my personal best I ever did with a team pursuit.’ He never told us what time the best time was. It’s really cool to see, and I wonder where the journey will take us. At one point, women will be able to break the four minutes mark.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.