Saying she wanted an “epic” experience shared with other Canadians, Olympian Clara Hughes embarked on a 12,000-kilometre journey Friday to raise awareness about mental health.

Clara’s Big Ride, a part of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign to end the stigma surrounding mental illness, got rolling in Toronto.

After months of training, Hughes began her planned 110-day bicycle journey to 95 communities and more than 80 schools across Canada on Friday.

“I wanted it to be epic,” she told reporters. “I felt like we needed something epic for people to really connect to and riding across and around Canada is epic.”

Before hitting the road, Hughes briefly addressed a crowd of supporters at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Square.

“It’s time we stop ignoring the struggle and start talking about it,” she said.

Hughes’ first stop will be Hamilton, Ont., and she plans to end her journey on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Canada Day.

Along with a team of support riders that includes her husband, Peter Guzman, Hughes will cycle west to Victoria, north to Iqaluit and east to St. John’s, N.L., rolling into big and small cities along the way.

“This is like a 110-day big moment of my life and I hope Canada’s life and I’m excited that the big ride is finally rolling today,” Hughes told CTV’s Canada AM Friday.

“The biggest goal is to have a positive effect on trying to help break down the walls of stigma when it comes to mental health and really connect Canadian youth to this conversation.”

Hughes, one of Canada’s most celebrated athletes who won multiple Olympic medals in cycling and speed skating, has openly discussed her battle with depression.

She said Friday that she wants others to realize they don’t have to hide their struggles. There has been a big shift in acceptance and understanding of mental health issues in Canada, she said.

“I cannot be the only one and I’m not the only one trying to make a difference,” Hughes said.

“We have a long way to go but the shift is starting to happen.

“I hope we leave a legacy when we’re not there…that people realize they don’t need a Big Ride to come to town to have an event that focuses on mental health.”

Hughes said she’s prepared to handle any wintry weather she may encounter on her journey. She joked that, if necessary, she’ll cycle in her hotel room to make up for lost kilometres.  

“We’ll just make it work, no matter what,” she said. “I’m from Winnipeg. What’s a little winter storm?”

You can follow Hughes’ journey here, and make a donation to a mental health organization in your community.

CTV News is owned by Bell Media.