Dropped into the depths of depression by an unexpected divorce, our ambassador Mieke found solace in the saddle to get herself through it. She started her 'Powered by Me' challenge, and spent 2017 travelling everywhere she went on her own steam. That's right; no planes, trains or cars for a whole year.
The 8,615km (5,353 miles) that she covered as she travelled for business, for holidays and for weddings broke down into 6,239km by bike, 1,926km walking and 450km running. Halfway through, Mieke made a promise to herself that she 'would always seek ways to better herself, to push her boundaries in order for her to shape, break and build herself back up again'.
So, with new-found power in her thighs and well-earned resilience up her sleeve, Mieke set her sights on new adventure for 2018 and, this summer, pedalled away on her first ever solo adventure: three months cycling across Europe. There were highs and lows, of course, but pushing her limits by bike gave her further confidence in herself to overcome and the solace that she sought. 'She believed she could so she did'.
We caught up with her to find out how she got on.
Where did the idea first come from and how did it end up with a summer cycling tour?
An unexpected divorce left me feeling very helpless and led me down a path of depression, hopelessness and excessive drinking. I had never experienced mental ill-health before and frankly it was terrifying. After trying to find ways of recovering through counselling, speaking to friends and family and medication, I knew I needed to find a way of taking back control of my health above and beyond what I was already doing to make myself better.
I had been in my current job for just over 3 years and I didn't see any harm in asking for some unpaid leave. I felt I had nothing to lose. After they accepted 3-months (to my shock) I begun thinking about what to do! I knew I wanted it to be sport related of sorts and after speaking to a few friends I decided to go cycling in Europe solo, or bike packing as they call it! It was honestly such a relief to have the support from my employer at a very difficult time in my life and to also have a focus to work towards.
How did you plan your route?
I listed the countries I either wanted to go to because I'd never been before or had heard about friends or acquaintances cycling there. I knew I wanted to avoid getting a flight until the very end of the trip as I had had zero experience of taking apart a bike and taking it on a flight and I especially didn't trust myself that I had enough cycling nous to be able to put my bike back together again safely. So I simply plotted places I could catch boats easily between certain countries instead. I then printed off a Europe map (not to scale might I add!) and figured out which general direction of travel to go (mostly South East from Holland). Most of the planning was around the kit, safety and a few tips on the roads and the like in certain countries, simply by reading people's blogs and following them on social. By staying mostly in Europe I felt that if worse came to worse I could catch trains if I had to in countries and easily alter routes if I needed to for whatever reason.
Did you have to buy much new kit? Or could you roll with what you already had?
A little but thankfully not loads as this is where I spent the most time doing my research before leaving. Along the way I bought; an extra lock (just for peace of mind, I’m a Londoner after all), chamois cream, a backpack (I simply didn’t have enough room to properly stock up on food and water at a time) and one cycling top, a pair of socks and some casual trousers, mainly because my kit got so grubby very quickly and after packing no trousers I realised I got quite chilly sometimes!
Do you have a kit list?
Yes, you can see the full list here https://powered-by-me.com/2018/06/18/the-kit/
Is there anything that you wish you had taken with you? Is there anything that you wish you hadn't?
I really wish I’d taken a Go Pro and perhaps just one basic strap of a helmet holder. Not necessarily to wear the whole time but I found that I was limited by what I could take on my phone. I also spent a lot of time near or around water; during a scuba dive for example on a day off the bike and also swimming in the waterfalls of the Croatian national park, so it would have been awesome to get more footage. I also really wish I’d had space to throw in a pair of trainers. I really missed not wearing trainers and often found myself trying to do quite challenging hikes in flip flops which were the only spare pair of shoes I had other than my cycling shoes with cleats! There’s a bunch of stuff I don’t regret taking but I never used, things like emergency water purification tablets, an alarm, etc. Thankfully I didn’t need to use them but I know if I don’t take them next time, I’ll probably kick myself as I’ll then need it for something!
Did you have any fears before setting off on your trip? How did you overcome them?
Lots. I’d never solo travelled before in my life, let alone been on a bike solo trip. I was most scared of being on my own for that long and how I’d overcome challenges on my own, especially in countries where I couldn’t speak the language. I overcame them by simply ignoring these fears as I knew they wouldn’t help me! That said, I did make sure I was always as alert as I could be and to not be afraid of asking for help or quitting for whatever reason if I genuinely felt my safety was of concern. The more weeks passed and I overcome challenges here and there, my confidence grew and by the end I felt like there was no stopping me!
What was the highlight of the trip and any funny encounters?
It is really hard to pin point a highlight from the whole 3-months as I had a highlight almost daily. I'd say the best part of all was the complete freedom you feel when you're using a bike as transport. Not only does it do all sorts of wonders for you physically and mentally, but the speed which you travel means you honestly soak up each and every minute and sometimes each second. Sometimes it felt like I was completely intertwined with nature, living and breathing the forests and mountains I was cycling through. This type of freedom also allows you to take things at your own pace. You stop when you stop and hammer it when you're feeling strong. The flexibility of my journey also meant that I took time off when I wanted to either just recover a bit, do some cross training (like a scuba dive!) or just see an incredible sight (which there were many!).
An encounter I will never forget is when I stopped to have lunch in a beautiful fishing village called Cavtat in Croatia. The waiter that served me saw I had my bike and all the bags and realised I was touring. He asked me about my trip and was really interested about where I'd come from and where I was going. He said he was particularly interested because I was like a unique unicorn - purely on the basis that I was bike packing in Croatia and I was the first female bike packer he'd seen all summer!
Any grim points where felt like calling it a day?
Many. But they were often the ones that were the most character building. The worst was when I picked up a gastric bug. It was about 40 degrees that day and 70% humidity. I only had to cycle about 15km that day as I had planned to stop in Dubrovnik for 2 nights to do lots of sight seeing. It took me 6 hours to ride 15km because I had to stop about half a dozen times to throw up at the side of the rode. I was so sick I couldn't hold any water down, yet it was so hot that I was so incredibly thirsty. Often I was so spent that I couldn't sit up at the side of the road and just lay down. A few people stopped to help but it was so hard to communicate with them being so sick, especially if they didn't speak English. I was thankful people cared but all I wanted to do was crawl into a bed or even the sea (to cool down) and just close my eyes and for it to all go away. I just kept telling myself it would pass and I would look back on this day and laugh about how gross it all was! Thankfully it was just a 24-hour bug and did pass the next day. Despite being very weak I was past the worst of it!
What was the first thing you did when you came back to London?
Went to my local called The Angel in Bermondsey for a pint! I love my local and the incredible views out onto the Thames overlooking The Shard, Tower Bridge and Tower of London, I felt like I was a tourist again. I also threw my stuff in the washing machine straight away and had a nice long shower, two luxuries I missed very much while I was away.
What's the biggest change you will make going forwards?
To live a more simple and basic life. It was incredible humbling to exist with so little and it gave me a sense of mental freedom I'd never experienced before. It made me realise how cluttered (physically and mentally) my life back home was. I want to live by: memories NOT possessions. Simply spending my time and money creating memories over any physical, material item. OK I need stuff, we all do, but I don't need all this stuff in my life. This felt like a big shift to me as I'm not a massive consumer and often take bags to the charity shop, but I am going to try and apply more minimalism to my life wherever I can. I feel living simply will free up my mind more, make me feel calmer, more appreciate of what I have and hopefully mean I can spend more time and money on doing things!
Do you have any tips for solo cyclists?
Try to find a way of keeping in touch with people as you go, especially people close to you. I sent a drop pin to my mum every night before I went to bed, so she knew where I was and I also felt safer knowing someone knew where I was! Small things like that can make a big difference. Another tip is to try to find ways of making friends when you get lonely, because it’s a matter of when, not if, even if you like your own company. I did this by checking in to a hostel instead of say a camp site for the night, basically forcing me to talk to people even when I didn’t feel like it. It often led to questions about my trip and dinners and drinks with new friendly faces and always brightened up my day.
And finally, what is next on the agenda?
Maintaining my physical and mental health now that I feel I am in such a strong and better position than I was 6 months ago. For the time being I don't have any 'big' adventures in the pipeline but what I do know is that this trip has opened up my adventurous door which will undoubtedly mean more future adventures. I feel like this is just the start for me.
What a testimony to the power of pedalling. If you are feeling inspired, head over to Mieke's @poweredby_me Instagram page to follow her next adventures and get ideas for your own.