03/14/2014 01:17 EDT | Updated 05/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Olympian Hughes sets out from Toronto for 'Clara's Big Ride' for Bell Let's Talk

TORONTO - When the darkness threatened to envelop Clara Hughes, the six-time Olympic medallist sought solace on her bike.

Hughes climbed on her bike again Friday for what she called the most important ride of her life. The retired athlete, who is known almost as much as a tireless advocate for mental health awareness as she is an Olympic champion, set off on Clara's Big Ride — a 110-day journey around Canada to promote conversation about mental health.

"This is bigger than anything I've ever done or ever will do," Hughes said. "And the best part about it is it's not about me. I'm using the bike as a vehicle to bring the mental health conversation and then using every community event that we visit, every school, to really elevate the people in the community, the students to give them a voice, give them the platform.

"It's so different from sport because this is not about me. It is actually what motivates me to do this."

The 41-year-old Hughes, who has been vocal about her battle with depression, won Olympic medals in both cycling and long-track speedskating, and when she retired from competitive sports after the 2012 London Olympics and suddenly found herself with more time on her hands, a cross-country bike ride seemed the perfect vehicle for her cause.

"Over the years, I've done a lot of bike touring as well as my racing, and there's a curiosity when you roll into town and roll out of town. Where have you come from? Where are you going?" Hughes said. "And I wanted it to be epic. I felt like we need something epic for people to really connect to, and riding across and around Canada is epic.

"This is a massive country and I just feel like maybe we can show also the importance of movement, of being active, whatever it is. Going for a walk, riding your bike. That's a big part of my mental health practice, so I also wanted to show that."

The Winnipeg native, accompanied by her husband Peter Guzman, will cover 12,000 kilometres and visit 95 communities, eventually reaching Ottawa on July 1, Canada Day.

Hughes, the spokesperson for Bell Let's Talk, set off from a lunchtime ceremony at Maple Leaf Square, wearing blue cycling suit, black tuque, and her trademark megawatt smile.

"Today, I woke up and thought 'It's game time. Let's go.' And I'm ready. And this is the best day of my life, that I get to start this journey. I can't wait for this to unfold," Hughes said.

Hughes slipped into severe depression after winning two bronze cycling medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and for nearly a year she hid her sombre secret behind her wide smile. She initially thought it was simply post-Olympic letdown, and believed she'd get over it. But she found herself sleeping away the days, and crying uncontrollably when she was awake. She gained between 15 and 20 pounds.

More than a decade later, Hughes has become one of the most vocal advocates for erasing the stigma around mental illness as the spokesperson for Bell Let's Talk Day.

"I do feel there's a shift (in the discussion around mental illness)," she said. "Has it changed? No. The shift has started to happen in the last number of years and I think the (Let's Talk) campaign is a big part of it. And that's why I had the idea of when I finally did quit, I had all this time on my hands. . . what more can I do? And that's where this ride kind of stemmed from."

Hughes and her husband plan to cover about 150 kilometres a day. They'll be accompanied by a Greyhound bus carrying support staff and supplies. A rotating group of cyclists will ride with them. There were about 100 that set off from Toronto to Hamilton for Day 1 on Friday.

"I think it's going to be really different," Hughes said, comparing her Big Ride to her days of competing. "It's funny, the other day I woke up and had a big cinnamon roll and coffee for breakfast, and I was just like: I would never do this if I was getting ready for a race.

"Get to relax a little more. And there's no finish line, I'm not sprinting, there's no race. The race is just getting the message to as many people, connecting to as many people, and I really like that. Because I don't have to go hard either. So it's different in terms of intensity as well, obviously.

"And I'm loving life after sport. I'm a proud recreational athlete, and this is part of my recreation is riding my bike."

Asked about her own health, Hughes said she's "doing very well" but admitted it was a big transition into life after sport.

"One of the things even doing this ride whenever I have something big in my life, I worry about after, because that's when things start getting dark and difficult," she said.

Hughes speaks regularly with a psychologist she's worked with since her last year training in Calgary, and will have that outlet during the ride if she needs it.

She's although thankful for the support of her husband.

"He's trained for many Olympics kind of in the shadows but with me, he's been a force behind me," she said. "But this is the first time we've done everything together and spent so much time together, and it's going really well. He's so excited. He's the kind of person who never ever quits what he starts. So even if disaster strikes and whatever, and this ride doesn't finish, Peter will be out there on his own, finishing in Ottawa on Canada Day, so I've got great partners."

Mental health issues in sport made headlines again this week when Terry Trafford, a 20-year-old from Toronto and a forward for the Ontario Hockey League's Saginaw Spirit, committed suicide.

Hughes spoke about meeting Olympic speedskating champion Stefan Groothuis last month at the Sochi Olympics. The Dutch gold medallist was on the brink of suicide a year ago.

"He's been talking about what that was like to go through that dark period and depression and to come back, and to say 'This gold medal represents that there is light to go to. Don't give up.'

"So there are so many athletes that are starting to come out and talk about their experience with mental illness, and the stress, anxiety. . .Athletes are not immune to it, but also athletes are not superhuman and need support. I always tell that to athletes, make sure you're getting the help you need."

Along with her two Olympic bronze medals in cycling, Hughes won four winter Olympic medals in speedskating — one gold, one silver, and two bronze. Her six medals ties her with speedskater Cindy Klassen as the most decorated Canadian Olympians.