1 year ago by Oskar Scarsbrook

Out in the open – climbing high with Marit Raaijmakers

How hiking helps the Dutch rider in body and mind

“The only way that people notice that you’re a cyclist when you’re hiking is by your tan lines.”

Whether it’s daring attacks pushing it up the Koppenberg, flying around a velodrome or seeking out new mountain trails, Marit Raaijmakers has a keen sense of adventure. Join the Dutch rider on a rest day in Andorra during her preparation for the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwfit, as she shares her favorite pastime off two wheels, hiking. 

“Of course, training on the bike comes first, but I hike on my rest days because it’s a little bit different,” Raaijmakers explains. “It’s still activity and I need that on rest days because when I do absolutely nothing I will have a poor night of sleep, or I feel restless. I have to do something, so hiking is a very good alternative.” 

The journey doesn’t start on foot, but rather via a ski lift, suspended above Andorre Arcalis and looking down at the twisting road that was made famous by the Tour de France stage-winning ascents of Jan Ullrich in 1997, Brice Feillu in 2009 and Tom Dumoulin in 2016. Such is the circus of a grand tour stage, many who attended on those days probably never even realized the real beauty of the area was a mere 700 meters away, further up the mountain.  

Unlike Dumoulin’s ascent six years prior, the day of the hike is blessed with good conditions and Raaijmakers soon hits her stride up the hill. The destination is a circuit hike around three mountain lakes all above 2,300m, known as Estany de Tristaina (Lakes of Tristaina).

"I love to simply do nothing but walking and watching and listening,” Raaijmakers says of the peace and tranquility found so easily up above the hustle and bustle of one's regular life. 

Cresting the hill up to the lake vista, the tight nature of the mountain ring of Port de l’Albeille, Pic de Tristaina and Port de Tristainai makes you realize why this tiny country – which can fit into the Netherlands 89 times over – was so inhospitable to the marauding Moors in the 8th Century. Emperor Charlemagne’s liberation of the principality was the last time it played host to a battle, more than a millennium ago.

Raaijmakers then ascends a little higher out of the bowl, up a scree slope to scratch the climbing itch, and seeks out a good view of the valley, at which point the benefit of hiking to an athlete’s mindset becomes obvious. 

"It’s not about what you’re looking at it’s what you see," she says. "Some people just see a beautiful postcard image other people see the story nature tells. The vegetation, substrate, animals, and shape of mountains tell you a lot about the past and present of the place you're in."

When you’re in the middle of nature, especially in the mountains, the vastness of your surroundings coupled with the stillness of the environment very quickly overwhelms your senses, until you can only really be present in the moment. Without even realizing it, all other worries are put on the back-burner, in this regard hiking is possibly the easiest form of mindfulness

It’s a sentiment echoed by Raaijmakers, pausing for a snack mid-hike, perched on a rock above the inter-connecting lakes. 

“I like to be outside, to walk around in nature. It’s just me and I like the quietness about it,” she says. “It’s easy on the mind when your thoughts are the only thing that’s talking to you.”

The peace of the environment is punctuated by the distant ringing of bells hung around the necks of a band of local Percheron horses.

“I really like it when the only thing you see for a day are cows or horses or rabbits or a beautiful waterfall, but mostly you have no phone network up high, which I like.”  

Raaijmakers is not alone in her love of lonesome pursuits. More than 1,500km away, Mieke Kröger is having a similar experience in the high mountains of Germany.

“I enjoy hiking, it feels like meditation,” the Olympic gold medalist says. “Once I find my speed, I get lost in my steps and my head stops talking. I did the last hiking trip not to become physically fit, but to give my head a break from racing life,” she adds.

The photo Mieke Kröger sends from her hike.

Ever the athlete, Raaijmakers is sure-footed as she descends the slopes back toward home. Another pause, this time at the edge of the biggest of the trio of lakes, Estany de Més Amunt for a quick dip and cool off in its waters. 

This is when the recovery and cross-training benefits of hiking also become clear. At well above 2,000m, altitude is working in Raaijmakers' favor, boosting the red blood cell count and allowing for greater oxygen flow that in turn enhances heart functionality and muscle performance. 

When you’re in the mountains you are truly present in the moment, the easiest form of mindfulness. 

“It’s still physical activity and it’s also really good for your bones and the smaller muscles that you don’t use as much in a dynamic movement like bike riding,” Raaijmakers explains. “Normally there’s only training for your big muscles, but walking is more for the smaller muscles and the bones and a little bit of stability.”

Disconnected is connected and there are other deeper benefits to this pursuit. This minimalistic exercise lets you focus on the moment, keeping your mind sharp, increasing creativity and building friendships as you take a breath and put one foot in front of the other. 

"I like to hike off the trails at some point," Raaijmakers says echoing a similar idea. "To see places not a lot of people have been before and to also find a spot for a break. Some food, reading, napping. A nap a day keeps fatigue away."

A more accessible rest day activity, Raaijmakers says simply, “Sometimes I just don’t feel like putting on all my kit and preparing my bike for just one hour, and it’s really nice to not wear your cycling kit for one day.”

A quick recovery dip in the largest of the three lakes.

Rejuvenated by the fresh lake temperatures, it is time for the descent back down the mountain, this time skipping the ski lift for some added exploration. Living on a farm, Raaijmakers is something of a horticulturist, picking the wide variety of flowers growing on the banks of Estany Primer, as well as trying to catch a frog that has leapt out of the water and pointing out the tadpoles – or ‘kikkervisje’ – that call it home.

As the trails wind downwards, providing a stunning view into the valley towards El Serrat, there is time for one last treat of the day, a fresh bidon top-up in a cascading segment waterfall. A final blast of tangible, physical freshness to accompany the day's deep mental refreshment. 

Marit's hiking toolkit

> 25L Scicon sports bag
> A water bottle
> Food (more than I need)
> Warm/dry/rain clothes
> Small first aid package
> Camera
> Book
> Sunblock