The 2017 Adventurer of the Year was announced at ISPO on 30 January. The award went to the inspirational Swedish cycle-tourer, Fredrika Ek.
(Read more about the award and how it works here.)
Fredrika spent 1042 days on her bike, solo and unsupported, covering 51,000 kilometres across 45 different countries. In the process she raised €75,000 for Action Aid. I spoke to her at ISPO when she accepted her award.
How did the idea come about?
I’ve had crazy dreams since I was a kid, big and small. I consider myself motivated by curiosity. I found the bicycle as a way to explore this side of me in 2013, just in Europe. In 3 months I rode from Hungary to Spain. And I stopped because I was broke.
I felt like I had just had a taste of life! I got home and I already knew that I was going to do something. I wanted to ride, for a long time and far away. As I was at home trying to work and save up funds to travel with, I packaged for myself my dream - it would be to ride around the world in 1000 days.
What kind of work were you doing?
I come from northern Sweden so very stereotypically I was working in a forest nursery where you grow spruce and pine trees, taking care of baby Christmas trees! And I’ve played a lot of tennis in my life so I was working as a tennis coach in the evenings.
The strategy I had was if you work so much that you have no time to spend money, you can save instead! It’s not a long-term solution but I had my starting date already, so motivation was easy.
Did you pay for it all from your own money?
Yes. I just started cycling, it was what I wanted to do. With time I had more and more followers, so for the last part of it I had some gear sponsors.
How did the charity fundraising for Action Aid come about?
Being completely honest, the fundraising was a coincidence. I had my starting date, the trip started with my egoistic dream of what I wanted to experience.
But I had a year and a half at home, preparing, waiting. You pore over maps and you prepare your gear and all these things. It was a game of patience. Part of waiting was putting new things into the journey and the fundraiser was one of them. If I can do something good, when I’m doing to do it anyway, why not?
I chose Action Aid because their focus on human rights issues for women and girls is something I’m really passionate about myself. The biggest chunk of work I did for the fundraiser was before the trip. It was a great way to pass the time and see progress before I was actually in the saddle.
How did the fundraising work?
I set it up to be a distance-based fundraiser, where people and some companies said they would donate an amount per 10 kilometres that I rode. At that point I had zero kilometres. I don’t think most thought it would become that many. So this had been magical in so many ways.
For me it was the biggest drive to go forward. Sunny days are amazing, beautiful days are amazing. But in 1042 days you have some crappy ones as well. I didn't have to cycle for myself every day, because I knew one hour of riding could finance a child’s education or something like this. It was so important for my motivation to have this. And was a fun way for people to engage in the trip and follow along. To see these kilometres and what they turn into.
For myself the trip changed, it went from me just searching for nature experience and personal challenges to finding that the biggest experience was all these meetings with people. To actually get to take part in daily life in these places I had only heard of before. And to get to meet people I would never even have got close to if I’d come in any other way.
The bicycle is a humble transport, it’s a humble way of interacting with other people. In all societies we use the bicycle as to get around, so I’m just another girl in the village.
It's been difficult sometimes, because I’ve received so much help and support from all these people around the world. From our perspective they really have nothing to give, and still they received me and gave me everything. People were literally giving up their bed to make room for this smelly stranger.
Generally these are exactly the same people that the work of Action Aid goes towards. I had so much support from local women and children. So for me to make sense of everything, of receiving so much.... For me the fundraiser has been a way of finding a feeling of balance.
The people who supported the fundraiser, were they taken aback by how many kroner they had to pay in the end?
I tried to chunk it up a bit, so it didn’t feel like the insane amount of kilometres that it actually was. That was the set up from the start. Every 10,000 kilometres we were all going to chip in. And I did it too. I think that was also a good thing, we were all contributing.
But more and more, rather than fall off, people joined in. I was able to share the places and people I’d met, who were literally the people whose lives would be changed thanks to a stupid bike ride. The adventure was just made up, really nothing in itself. It’s been really nice that I got to live my dream, and have it became something for real.
How were you sharing the story?
Blog posts, facebook, instagram. Now coming home, interviews like this. Sharing has also been good also for me personally. I experienced all this alone, sometimes I feel like - if I’m the only personal who sees this, has it really happened? I just wrote my diaries endlessly.
It’s been fun to challenge prejudices, especially in some places where I knew the people at home were really worried for me. There were some places where they had the view that it was really dangerous for women… I also had this prejudice beforehand, and then I came there and felt really guilty.... I was so well taken care of. The world is amazing, people are amazing. It feels really important to show what it is really like.
So riskiest thing you encountered was traffic?
Of course, for sure it is. It one of the first questions I receive, always. About risk and fear and danger, often connected to me being a woman, and a solo woman. My experience has been that - being a woman alone - that has been my strongest card. You are part of the family before you’ve even entered the village. Rather than feeling like an easy victim, I feel like I’m not posing as a threat. That has given me the biggest experiences of my life.
I have stories of nasty encounters but my experience has been that people solve my problems. The worse moment was when I was hit by a car in Australia. The risk has always been the traffic.
I went around the world solo but these have been the three most social years of my life. You can unfold your paper map in any cafe in the world and immediately have friends. And the bell of my bike is just the right height for children. I was a rolling circus, a white girl alone on a bike.
How were you connecting to the internet?
Depending on the area, there are some pretty nasty internet censorships. In the Australian outback I was without a connection for a pretty long time. But mostly it was less of an issue than I expected.
My strategy was when I cross a border I try to get hold of some cash, then I buy a local SIM card. So instead of being one of those people always hunting for wifi I have a local connection. And then when I rest in a city or something, I can usually find something. It's also a nice thing not to be always connected.
How did you find out that you’d won the European Adventurer of the Year?
I didn’t know the award existed. Or ISPO either. I received a phone call a week ago, saying ‘what are you doing next week?’ I said ‘nothing’. Doing laundry maybe, because I still haven’t done that! They told me ‘you should come to Munich because you’ve won this thing’ and I said ‘what thing?’ So now I’m here. It's fun!
How do you feel about having won it?
It’s a big compliment, I think. Of course, it’s nice to have someone pat you on the back. But overall, it ties into coming home as a thing. In the last weeks people have said congratulations to me, as if this was the aim - to finish.
The whole thing for me was to make the trip so long that it would never finish. Looking at it now, I wish more people would have said congratulations when I started, because no one did. And my dream was, still is, to ride my bike around the world. It’s not to have done it.
It’s just two weeks, so I'm not sure how I feel bout it yet. But I’m overwhelming happy to be home with my family.
What comes now?
Who knows? The feeling when I started was I'll have the adventure of my life and then I’ll become an adult. Like I just have to get this out of my head, I never thought that this would be finished one day. I was working towards it for so long and then I was in it….
Now I have so many mixed emotions about this coming home thing. But I’m super excited too. I have the same feeling as when I finished that European ride, like I’ve just had a taste of it. I’ve been gone for 3 years now, but the feeling is still that I’ve just had a glimpse of that the world is and what it can be. The list of dreams is quite long at the moment.
I think I need to maybe hold back a little bit, to settle a little bit. I have so many diaries and photos, I want to see what I can make of this trip and what it will come to mean to me.
Your immediate priority is the ongoing Action Aid fundraiser?
Yes, I’m still working with the fundraiser. (You can donate to it here.) I want it to reach 1 million Swedish kroner (€100,000 euros). Just because I crossed this imaginary finish line made up a few years ago, doesn’t mean that all I’ve worked for just goes away.
The view, the funny encounters, it's all been amazing. But my perspective about this trip has really changed. The views have stopped now but the purpose is very clear, that doesn’t rely on me collecting kilometres. Now I’m looking forward to doing a lot of presentations and speaking and trying to share the experiences I’ve had and the lessons I’ve gotten. And keep collecting these funds.
I’ve gotten to visit some of the villages and some of the projects that are funded by this money. It's women and girls like this that kept me going ... when you actually dance with this girl or this woman and you know, this girl goes to school now, this woman owns her land now. It’s great for them but it builds on to the next generations.
You see the massive effect, small funds by our standards are just so life-changing for so many people. You can’t change statistics but you can change everything for some people. I am so grateful to so many people, who have none of my privileges and possibilities.
I was really proud when I started this trip because I made it myself and I went against a lot of norms in society, yada, yada. But you don't have to go that far from Sweden to realise the only reason I was doing this was because I was really lucky with the passport.
To me that has never been more obvious that when I met this two-day old girl, also Fredrika, in Guinea. She’s not going to ride her bike around the world. But with some luck, thanks to Action Aid, she can learn how to read.