RAD Monika: First Woman Ever to Ride the Vuelta de España
Monika attempts what no other woman dared before: Cycling the 3300 km Vuelta de España. What gives her the guts to face this murderous challenge?
For a trip from Mallorca to Munich, I would take a plane, and so would you I guess. Not Monika Sattler, more commonly known as RAD Monika. She gets on her bike instead. She rode the 1,100 km in 5 days. And this doesn't even seem a big thing as compared to what else she's done in her career as a cyclist. The Haute Route Triple Crown, that was a real biggie - three ultra-tough mountainous routes adding up to 2,600 km and 60,000 m of climbing. She made it through. Ultra-endurance challenges seem to be her just her thing – and also what she calls "adventure riding."
The more I read about this woman the more I am in awe. We have arranged to meet for this AM interview, and hm… To tell you the truth, I am more of a yoga person believing in non-violence towards your own body. I am wary of these people who are so focused on their next ride or run or swim that they have no eyes for what surrounds them – these sinewy machines of steely muscles going for the winner's laurel with faces set and jaws compressed. And some such person I expect in my intimidated state of mind.
And here she is, coming up my driveway in a car(!). She wears a flowing dress with a summery floral print - and a big smile that wins me over at first sight. In the way she walks and takes my hand, I sense her physical power and an exceptional confidence. She's 32. What an attractive woman, I think. And also: 'beware of your own expectations!'
Apparently, with Monika there is no ice break. By the time we've taken our seats out on the terrace we are already deep in conversation about how she found her passion and her courage. Was she born into a family of cyclists and adventurers, I ask. "Not at all," she says. And here is the story she tells me:
"For me, with cycling it's like with everything else in life - it's about doing what I really want to do, about being faithful to myself."
As a child, Monika had a vision of herself as a grown-up woman, walking to the office in high heels and a posh business suit with an expensive laptop bag swinging at her side. Her idea was to go study in the US after high school, a wish her father - whom Monika lovingly describes as a straightforward person much in love with long-term plans and reason – refused to financially back up, pointing out to her that university was free in Germany, whereas it cost a fortune in America. Monika being Monika, she didn't take no for an answer and sent out applications for a full scholarship in volleyball.
"I wasn't even that good at it," she says with an almost apologetic smile. "They took me anyway." 'They' being South Carolina State, an almost all black university with a set of 3,500 black students of the tougher, metal-studded kind with grills and braids and the like. And she was one of 50 whites. She was discriminated, bullied, lonely. When she went home for Christmas after four months, she thought that was it. Her father made her go back and stay for the rest of the year, as planned. "It was my military camp" she says in retrospect.
"I learned that the things I had believed in weren't worth a penny. The only things that counted were believing in yourself, my family and the few real friends I had."
Monika seems not to be cut out for the in-between. From one of the lower-ranked universities (South Carolina State) in the US, she graduated from two of the highest with a M.A. from Bryant University (RI, USA) with a summa cum laude then Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
What she gained from those years? The knowledge that material things do not count, a deep-rooted trust in herself and her capability to cope with whatever challenges life threw at her plus her passion for cycling. She found it after dropping volleyball. "Four hours of training every day in South Carolina, and, I had enough of that!" She, then, did adventure racing instead, kayaking, trail running and cycling, all with navigating. "On one occasion," she recounts, "We were in the Florida swamps at two in the morning, and I asked, what are these red lights over there?' 'The eyes of alligators', they told me. 'Shouldn't we be a tiny bit worried about them?' I wondered. 'Oh, no', they said. 'It's too cold for them to move.'"
By that time, Monika had learned to listen to her heart in order to find out what she really wanted. Canoeing and running, I asked. "Nope. Adventure and cycling was it!"
Still, she went on to pursue her career – with brilliant prospects. A job at the World Bank, another at the International Monetary Fund then an offer to work for IBM as a management consultant, first in Switzerland then in Australia.
"I really did give the business world a try, but with every new experience I saw it more clearly - to be happy I had to find my own path in life!" So, one day, Monika quit her job, booked herself a flight and went to Malaga. Spain was going to be her fifth country to live in. When she arrived, she had one suitcase and a hotel booking for a night. No Spanish language skills. No friends. Why Malaga? She gives me a big, happy smile. "Because of the cycling, of course."
"Cycling is my life, but my message goes far beyond. It's about setting your own challenges, about doing what you like best, and doing it now."
This was the moment, RAD Monika was born – RAD as in Real, Adventurous and Daring, but also as in 'RADical' in the true Latin sense of 'back to the roots' of her very own essence. From now on, she follows her dream and does away the expectations of others. "And your father?" I ask.
"He is getting used to it," she grins and then corrects herself. "It's more than that, actually. He's my biggest support because I showed even him, the older generation he represents, that life is not about status and a nice job title but about enriching experiences that money cannot replace."
This is RAD Monika:
An adventure cyclist not shying away from the most difficult climbs, but wary of the dangers of downhill. "I much prefer to ride it safe and take a little longer than to spend the next six weeks in hospital!"
An exceptional athlete who doesn't believe in fixed training schedules or a special diet, but rather in soul food and fun.
"I love cycling. If you don't love it, don't do it!"
"And cycling is what brought you to Mallorca?" I ask.
"Absolutely. It's the best place for cycling in Europe if not the world." Monica regularly rides with a group of male cyclists, probably the fastest on the island. "Just short rides," she says, then laughs. "We are speaking about a minimum of 100, often 120 kilometers."
"Mallorca is a biker's paradise for a reason. It's beautiful and road conditions are perfect."
"What was your greatest success so far?" I ask, thinking about brutal alpine climbs and long distance rides. The longest she took was 700 kilometers!
Monika takes her time to mull this question over. "What I find really rewarding", she says, "is when people ask my advice and what I say makes a difference in their lives." She pauses. "I have two sisters, and one of them … well, the other day she called me, saying she realized she wanted to travel more. We had a long chat, and now she's about to go to Australia for four months. That's what I call a success."
Says a woman who made it through the Triple Crown, "I don't compare myself to others. I go for what I am comfortable with. If someone is faster I don't care. I am always glad for the winner.
Do I get this right? What drives Monika is not her ambition to win or to make it?
She grins. "Of course, I want to make it and I'm going to make it. Still, I am not a competitive person, it's more a competition against myself. Or rather, not 'against' – I am going 'with' my own limitations, always pushing at them, testing how far I can go. It's about the excitement, it's about going through hell and back and looking back and think: 'Wow! I made it!' I lose interest once I've done it, and move on."
The Vuelta to me does sound like hell. How on earth she can face it, I wonder. Twenty-one days on the road! The fierce heat in the south, and in the Pyrenees climbs so steep I wouldn't even want to push my bike up there. Getting up before daybreak, setting out just four hours before the pros to get maximum media attention for her RAD mission. "How can you manage to face it with a fresh mind every day, again and again and again?"
"I'm not going to face it alone," she says almost apologetically. "I have my support team. There will always be someone to keep me company. Riding long rides on my own, that's not my thing. It can get pretty tough, but as long as I have somebody to talk to I can do it."
"You actually talk on an uphill ride? You must be kidding!"
"No," she laughs. "I am famous for that. I can always talk, for hours on end. I don't lose my voice when I'm winded." She thinks for a while, then adds, "I also think it's a great way to see Spain. And I love to wear my signature red superwoman outfit."
"I can take a lot of suffering and hardship before I give up. But what I need is company. I need friends. That's what sees me through."
"Talking about support. How is your sponsorship situation?"
"Hm." She frowns. "I tried crowdfunding. I tried to interest big corporate sponsors." She sighs.
"Why do you think they backed out? Is it because you are a woman?" I think of Alfonsina Strada, the Italian cyclist who, in 1924, was at the start of the Giro d'Italia only because she had signed-up as "Alfonsin" and was thus mistaken for a man. That was almost a hundred years ago. Has nothing changed in this male-dominated sport?
"You want an honest answer?"
"I think nobody believes I will make it. Not even the pros think I will." Suddenly Monica laughs out loud. "But isn't that exactly what a challenge is about?"
"There are not many challenges left for me where I think, 'wow, I don't know if I'll make it. But that's what I seek. And frankly: the only person who needs to believe in me is myself."
"And after the Vuelta? What's up next? The Tour de France?"
"Oh, no," she says. "That would be the same challenge all over again. It has to be different. I've done long-distance rides, I've done serious climbs. What I'll do next is pack my string bag and ride through Japan from north to south, nothing to do with speed, but exploring the country, really learning about its culture. And also, what I've set my mind to is be a motivational speaker, reaching big audiences, making a difference in people's lives. It might not be cycling for them, it might be anything. I want to show people what is possible in life and tell them - just do it! If you don't like your life, change it. Don't wait around. Get out of your comfort zone and go for your dream!"
"When I set myself a challenge, I won't have others make my rules. I always make my own. I am the master of my challenge
When listening to Monika, I can't help thinking about my own life and the amount time I wasted thinking about the big jump without making it. But then, finally, I did start a new life in Mallorca and absolutely love it. My passion for writing and gardening and being in touch with the local and expat community – right now that's my RAD experience.
Thank you, Monika. You are an inspiration!
Riding The Vuelta cost's a lot of money! If you want to support Monika? Click here and support her on this epic journey!
And make sure to follow her on Strava to see how she is getting on!
Interview with RAD Monika on 13 August 2018
By Ulla Rahn-Huber
17 August, 2018