Lael Wilcox: going the distance

Record-breaking ultra endurance rider Lael Wilcox talks to Rouleur about grizzly bears in Denali, burning out on racing, and the backlash of out-riding her male competition

The name Lael Wilcox is synonymous with ultra endurance bike racing. Her exploits in the discipline include breaking the women’s record on the 4,400km Tour Divide route in 2015, winning the 7,000km 2016 Trans Am Bike Race overall, and breaking both the men’s and women’s record on the Baja Divide route.  

The Alaskan came to the sport relatively late, at the age of 20, through commuting to work, but soon discovered she had a talent for long-distance cycling. While at college in Washington, she decided to visit her sister in Seattle — around 100km away. While the route wasn’t particularly challenging, or visually appealing, she was still captivated by the idea of travelling by bike, “I was so inspired by the fact that it was possible,” she says. 

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It was the start of a lifelong love of long-distance cycling,“I was like, ‘okay, if I can go to the next city, then I could go to the next city after that, and I could ride across the country,’” she says. Which is precisely what she went on to do, “I started travelling by bike, saving all my money so I could travel,” she says. “First in the US, in Alaska, my home state, then in Canada and Mexico and then I started going further, going to Europe, and then all over the world just looking for more beautiful places to go.”

Along the way, she moved her rides from the road to the dirt,“I realised that it was just a lot prettier, a lot more peaceful, less traffic.” It wasn’t long before she started riding across the world and entered her first event, “I was on a trip in Israel,” she says. “I'd been riding in the Middle East and entered my first bikepacking race and that was about a 1,400 km self-supported mountain bike race.” 

Despite being a self-proclaimed “terrible mountain biker” she was still fast. “I was the only woman and by the end of the first day, I was winning the whole race,” she says. “I was like, ‘well, I guess this is something I'm good at, something I like to do.’” 

She was more than 'good,' and after that first taste of ultra racing she was hooked, spending the next few years pursuing the discipline, and winning plenty along the way. Reflecting now, Wilcox realises that she may have taken on too many challenges in those early years, “When I first started racing, I really overdid it,” she says, adding that she raced around 9,000 miles in three months which, naturally, left her exhausted: “I couldn't complete sentences,” she recalls. “You kind of find your limits, and then take a step back and realise this should be fun.”

Since the pandemic put a stop to racing, Wilcox has been reflecting on her approach to cycling, “I think when I started doing this, I always thought, the further the distance, the better,” she says. “Now I'm like, it’s so much sacrifice to go further and further.” Now, she is keen to tackle shorter events, and ride for enjoyment rather than results. The paradox, however, is that ultra-distance is her forte. “If an event takes, 24 hours or less, I'm like, ‘yes,’” she says, “But then I know, if it's longer, I'll actually do better, that's my strength, as a rider.

“I’ve been trying to figure out a balance, but I'm not a very balanced person.”

For Wilcox, cycling has been a crucial respite from the mental challenges of lockdown. “In the last 12 months, cycling has become more of an outlet to just feel good every day,” she says. “If everything looks daunting, you're like, 'Okay, well, I can look forward to riding my bike at some point'.”

The past year has involved less travel and less competition for Wilcox. “I've raced a little bit, but that was never my primary focus anyway, the travel came first. And then racing is just like a fun version of that, a sped-up version of travel where you do like four days in one.”

When she isn’t smashing records and travelling the world, ‘sped-up’ or otherwise, Wilcox has been running a mentorship programme in her home town of Anchorage since 2016. The programme, for middle school girls, is called Anchorage GRIT (Girls Riding Into Tomorrow), and “aims to empower young women to safely and confidently ride bicycles in Anchorage and prepares them for a self-supported overnight bike adventure.” It was while working on this programme that she met her girlfriend, photojournalist Rugile (Rue) Kaladyte. 

At the time, despite Wilcox’s best attempts at asking Kaladyte to spend time with her outside of work, for the integrity of the project she refused. “She wouldn't even eat any of the snacks,” remembers Wilcox. Once the project was over, however, the two were able to spend time with each other and soon became a couple. After Kaladyte was laid off from the newspaper she worked for, the couple set off for Tucson Arizona where they worked at a pizza restaurant. There, she was “paid nothing. I mean, it was just terrible, very low pay, very low tips, but at least we got free pizza.”

It was during this time that brands started contacting Wilcox to capture video content of her bikepacking races. Luckily, she had a photojournalist and videographer close at hand in the form of Kaladyte.

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Apparel brand Pearl Izumi reached out to her and asked her if she was interested in producing videos. “I was like, ‘my girlfriend shoots video, we could just do this,’” she recalls. The brand was receptive to the idea of bringing Kaladyte on board. “That was my entrance to producing our own media, which was super cool.”

Kaladyte contributed to the filming of Wilcox racing the 2019 Tour Divide, a 4,425km route and one of the toughest bikepacking races in North America, which formed a short film entitled ‘I Just Want to Ride’. As the film shows, they also faced questions and criticism around Kaladyte’s presence during what is a self-supported event, despite the fact that she was not providing assistance. 

The accusation was, Wilcox says in the film, that “I’m seeing somebody that I care about out on the course and then the issue with this is that she will give me an emotional boost so I’ll feel better and then I’ll ride better.”

Kaladyte and the two other crew members were told to carry SPOT trackers at all times to ensure they were not interfering with Wilcox's ride. Wilcox was also the only rider asked not to use her phone. 

It’s difficult not to associate the backlash with the fact that Wilcox, as a female competitor, was threatening the overall race win. A film crew was also following a male racer who did not receive the same criticism.

Although she spends plenty of time outside of her home state at races and on various trips, Wilcox has strong ties to Alaska. Since 2014, she has undergone a project to ride every road in the state, something which sounds like an impossible undertaking however, “I realised there aren't that many roads in Alaska,” she says. “They're long. And they're super remote. You're lucky to see a gas station every 150km.” 

The project was one of the first that she and Kaladyte worked on together, with Wilcox intent on conveying the natural beauty of the wild and remote land to the world. “It's Alaska, it's my home, and it's so beautiful. I want everybody to see it. It's one of these last few really natural wild places,” says Wilcox. “If I tell them it's really great that only goes so far,” she adds, “but then if they see a picture of a grizzly bear in Denali the biggest mountain in North America  they're like, ‘oh, I have to go there.’” 

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Since the pandemic restricted travel, the pair returned to the project, in part because it was the only outlet available, but also to illustrate a point about ultra distance riding: “It doesn't have to be a race, you can just ride from your doorstep.” This notion has formed the basis of a scholarship for women in Alaska founded by Wilcox in which the recipient will be provided with everything they need to embark upon a 1,000km bikepacking route in the state. 

The scholarship drew 120 applicants, and Wilcox has a team of women helping her to decide who will be the eventual recipient. “They can advocate for the ones they like, because that helps me make a decision because it's so hard,” she says. “How do you decide when they're so different? The last time I ran this, the age range was 14 to 76 years old.” The recipient will be announced in April.

If a scholarship and a girls’ mentoring programme wasn’t enough, Wilcox also has plans to run a women’s bikepacking challenge later this year alongside her new sponsor, Rapha. The event  if it’s able to go ahead will take place in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, along a 500km route. “You ride your own pace, camp where you want to,” says Wilcox, “but the feeling of having more women out there, I think, makes them feel safer.”

“Because ultimately, I feel like anybody that's interested in this kind of thing, is capable of doing it as long as they get in some kind of physical shape and figure out what gear they actually need,” she says. “At some point, you just have to take the plunge and try it, and that's scary to a lot of people.”

Her hope is that through documenting her own bikepacking, both with Kaladyte's videos and through social media, she can encourage more women who might be interested but have reservations about safety or equipment, to realise that it’s possible.

“I feel like events, or storytelling like this, gives people a little more courage to do it. Which is cool, because then they can move on with their life.”