Markéta “Peggy” Marvanová is a Czech mountain biker specialising in adventure racing. At the age of just 18, she won the annual 1000 Miles race across the Czech Republic and Slovakia for the first time. Since, she has taken part in gruelling contests including The Tour Divide, which stretches across America. Markéta is also well-known as the lone female rider in the ranks of courier company Messenger in Prague. In this edition of Czech Life, we discuss the thrill of mountain bike racing, the outback, and much more.
“When I was 13 I was like other teens ad with a bunch of friends at school we started to smoke or we tried to get alcohol, the usual thing. The normal life of an adolescent; but when I was 15, I had a moment when I just told myself Stop it! I don’t want this and I wanted to change my life, to start doing sports and to be better. So I started cycling.”
Many people ride recreationally, that’s one thing, some people race, but extreme racing is something else altogether. When did you realize that extreme cycling was what attracted you the most?
“I met people who had crossed Greenland on bike. They gave me some information but what left the deepest impression were their photographs. They spent 30 days in the snow, against the wind, in snowstorms and finally, travelling in grass. I told myself I wanted to try something like that. So I began racing. First I signed up for 50 kilometres, then 100, then a 24-hour nonstop race, then 500 and then a thousand… It was always like ‘what now?’.” (laughs)
We’ll talk about some of the big races that you have done in a moment; gradually, did you have to train more and more? Four or five hours a day training?
“Something like that. Now, because of my job as a courier, I spend eight hours on the bike a day. Then, at the weekend, I ride again, with my boyfriend who is also a racer.”
What kind of a feeling is it for you when you are on the bike? Is it enjoyable? Is it a feeling of freedom?
“Freedom. Absolute freedom. You know, I love the bike. I don’t like it – I LOVE it! That’s it!”
I read that you won the 1000 Miles (Trans Czecho-Slovakia) which is held annually, from one end of the Czech Republic to the other end of Slovakia and vice-versa) a couple years ago when you were just over 18 years old. What was it like when you were at the starting line and you saw all these seasoned racers?
“You know, all staring, in their minds probably thinking what the hell?!! Is this some kind of a joke?”
"At the starting line, in their minds they were probably thinking what the hell?!!"
And then you won it.
“Yes. Thanks to my ‘engine’.”
What do you need to watch out for in such a tough race?
“I think the mental game is the most important one, what’s in your head. You have to master that. Of course, it isn’t easy to ride for 21 hours before resting so you have to be strong mentally.”
The 1000 Miles, is that race supported?
“It is unsupported.”
“Which means whatever you need, you have to take with you on your back, stuff for sleeping.”
So you are sleeping outside beneath the stars. Do you have a small pup tent?
“No. You sleep outside. There is no room for a tent, it would be too heavy.”
In any case, I imagine during the race you sleep very little, that you spend most of your time on the bike. What about food?
“There are stops where you can pick up food but you have to be careful with how much you eat and have to ration properly so that it lasts. You eat when you can, sleep very little, go without a shower for days…”
When you are in a race like the 1000 Miles do you have time to take in the scenery, the wilderness?
“Yes. That is the reason why I do it.”
When you won it, how much did you win by? How close was your nearest competitor?
“The second year I took part the difference was only one hour between me and second place. The first year, it was a whole day.”
So a bigger difference. You won the 1000 Miles back-to-back.
The race was founded by Jan Kopka, who some years back won the Iditarod, a grueling race across Alaska, the only Czech who has ever won it. I got to know him a little then – did you meet him after you won? Did you have a chance to grab a beer?
“I met him at the finish line the first year and… well before that, when I was 16, he was my hero: a Czech extreme cyclist. He won the Iditarod. That is awesome!! Later I met him many times and he gave me a lot of good advice about adventure racing. He helped me a lot and I hope I can say that he is like a second father to me. He is a really good guy.”
The Tour Divide is an incredible race: where does it begin and where does it end?
“It begins in Banff National Park in Canada and it ends on the border of New Mexico and Mexico in the United States.”
So a couple hundred kilometres…
"When I encountered the bear I was on the road and there was no one for a hundred miles. I was alone.”
(laughs) “Four thousand and five hundred.”
How long does it take to finish such a race?
“I reached the finish line after 21 days and nine hours…”
And how many minutes?
“Ten, I think. But I am not sure.”
How many people took part and how many finished the race?
“At the start there were about 160 riders and about 80 finished. I finished, I think, in 41st spot.”
Many, many of us have dreams of seeing America, at least by car… is there a better way?
“The bike, for sure. If you drive across, you spend 23 hours driving and then get out for an hour to walk around to see Nature. On the bike, I was in Nature 24 hours a day.”
Before you take part in such a race, do they give you advice how to handle encounters with large mammals, specifically, bears?
Because you encountered one. It’s scary enough, I imagine, if you meet a brown bear, a black bear, but you…
You told Czech TV that you talked to the bear, that you introduced yourself. How far away was the animal?
“About 50 metres from me on the road. I introduced myself. I felt I had to remain calm, relaxed, to not be scared. To just speak and show I am ok.”
So you said…
“I said I am Markéta, I live in the Czech Republic. And we looked at each other. In my mind, the moment felt like it lasted half an hour although in reality it was about five seconds. He just turned and went back to the woods.”
What state did this encounter take place in?
“It was in Montana on the fourth day of the race. I was on the road and there was no one for a hundred miles. No civilization. I was just alone.”
You work as a bicycle courier for a very well-known Czech company, Messenger – you are their lone female rider. How did that come together? I imagine that must be win-win for you: it is a job but also allows you to train to stay in shape…
“It’s cool. It’s a group of people, sports people and we understand each other. At work, though, I ride an old and heavy bike.”
"My work bike is heavy, about 16 kilograms. And then I have my racing bike. It is my baby and much more aggressive. It’s a dragon."
You don’t use your best bike…
“No. My work bike is heavy, about 16 kilograms, really heavy. And then I have my racing bike. It’s nice and light and made from carbon, and it is much more aggressive…”
In terms of the frame design, sharper angles…
“Yes. It’s my baby. It’s a dragon. When the weekend starts and I can get on it, it immediately makes me smile, it makes me so happy. It’s so fast.”