For those of you unfamiliar with the sport of ultra-endurance bikepacking, Lael Wilcox is an ultra-endurance racer who in 2016 won the Trans Am Bike Race— the most notable bikepacking race in the world— and currently holds the women’s Tour Divide record. She was the first American to win the Trans Am and set the overall course record with her time on the Baja Divide route in 2015.
Sarah Webb of Long Rode Home and I were lucky enough to interview Lael as an intro to Alpha: A Lone Rucksack Series showcasing incredible humans in the adventure realm.
Before you became a household name in bike racing, you traveled around the world on two wheels with your then partner. What was your biggest take-away from that epic bicycle tour?
I definitely don’t feel like a household name in bike racing, but I’m really grateful that I get to do what I love. For me, no time on the bike is wasted. It’s time to think, to breathe fresh air, to ride somewhere real, sometimes to challenge yourself, sometimes to unwind. It’s all valuable mentally and physically.
I feel like traveling by bike is the best and most fun way to learn about different places. Riding through countries, I immediately get so interested in the place, people, terrain, seasons and how they relate to their neighboring countries and to other places I’ve traveled. I’ve gotten to make friends all over the world, many of whom I’m still in touch with.
One take-away is that it’s really a lot more fun and easier to ride through places in the right season, when the weather is good and dry. After a few wet, cold experiences riding predominantly into headwinds, I’ve started paying a bit more attention to weather and wind patterns– you definitely can’t control the weather, but you can choose to travel in good weather windows and just hope for the best. Probably the biggest take-away was that no matter where we rode, people were open-hearted and helpful. We were invited into so many homes and shown so much kindness.
What’s something someone once said to you to make you want to prove them wrong?
I started ultra-distance riding while working at a restaurant in my hometown, Anchorage, Alaska in 2014. On my days off, I’d ride as far as I could with very little planning or gear. I borrowed my mom’s road bike for these rides. On the first, I took the train from Anchorage to Seward and rode 127 miles back in a day. A couple of weeks later, my mom was flying to Fairbanks for a work conference. I flew out with her and rode the 375 miles back to Anchorage in 2 ½ days, riding directly to an 8 hour bartending shift (arriving twenty minutes late). I loved these rides. They felt so liberating. It wasn’t a race, the challenge was entirely solo.
Back at work, I was scheming up another ride. Talking to one of my regulars, I said I wanted to ride to Valdez, a 300 mile ride, and maybe take the ferry back. The regular’s friend scoffed at me and point blank said I couldn’t do it. I explained how I’d already ridden from Seward and Fairbanks and 224 miles to Homer in a day. He waved me away and said there were too many hills and I’d never make it. That made my blood boil and I just walked away. Two weeks later, there was a 400 mile road race, a qualifier for the Race Across America. The course traveled from Sheep Mountain Lodge to Valdez and back. I entered the race, not entirely sure I could finish it. I finished in 27 hours, the first woman and second overall (by 12 minutes). The regular from work sent me an email to tell me I was such a badass. I thought about his naysaying friend and smiled.
As you look back on everything you’ve done over the past 10 years, what advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?
I’d tell myself not to be so hard on myself and keep doing what I love every day. If you’re happy with your days, you’re doing the right thing. I also probably should’ve spent more time pursuing my own passions by myself.
Has a bird ever flown into you while cycling?
Oh man! I can’t even imagine how terrifying that would be. I’ve never had a bird flying into me. However, during a time trial on the Arizona Trail last spring, birds kept landing on the trail in my path at night. I think they were attracted to my light. I had to be really careful not to run them over. It was really eerie. Their eyes looked red in the night.
While a lot has changed for women in adventure sports in the past five years, what are the biggest challenges we still face?
I feel like I’m still facing discrimination. Some people are doubting my accomplishments. They’re not saying specifically it’s because I’m a woman, but they make excuses for why I have success. This past year on the Tour Divide, I faced online criticism for documenting my ride while there was another male racing with a film crew (that wasn’t criticized). Some men are too guarded to be openly sexist, but I feel like that’s the source of the negativity.
What’s the best moment you’ve had while on your bike?
I’m really big on riding through sunrises and sunsets while racing. Those moments are so special. Riding through storms, seeing animals, those are moments that I’ll never forget. I really love spending time on my bike, so it’s hard for me to pick a specific moment.
What are some of the worst attacks you’ve faced as a high-profile female racer and how have you dealt with it?
Dealing with online negativity concerning last summer’s Tour Divide was pretty tough and it still hasn’t gone away. I was intending to race the Atlas Mountain Race in Morocco this February, I’d gone as far as registering for the race, paying my entry fee, booking plane tickets and setting up a media project before running into problems with the race director. After successfully working together during the Silk Road Mountain Race, the race director decided that Rue would not be allowed to shoot me during the race because it wasn’t fair to other racers. Rue is a professional photojournalist and my girlfriend. She was planning on documenting the race for GCN. The Atlas Mountain Race is fully sponsored and there will be at least 2 other media crews on course focusing on specific racers. In the end, I think the race director is disguising his own financial gain and control with “fairness”. Out of 155 solo riders, only six of them are women. That’s 3.8% of the entire field. I’ve decided I won’t enter a race that doesn’t encourage women to participate and share their stories– there are so many other great races and rides.
We’ve noticed in several of your past interviews, questions asked by men making assumptions there is equality in sports for men and women, reflecting a lack of awareness at the additional obstacles women have to overcome just to get to the start of the race. What advice do you have for these men to become more aware of these issues? What questions would you like to be asked in the future?
I feel like I’ve had a pretty good experience with interviews. My main concern is for women just getting into the sport. For some reason, cycling is kind of exclusive and discouraging, maybe because it’s a gear heavy sport. I really want everyone to feel included. If we’re pedaling, we’re all doing the same thing– one version of riding isn’t better than another. They’re more the same than different.
Often we’ve been labeled as ‘badass’ or ‘not like other girls’ in our respective adventure tours, is there anything you’d like to say to women out there who have grown up with this sort of mentality, viewing women in the adventure sports realm as an anomaly rather than as part of the collective group of athletes?
At this point, this labeling seems generally positive, so I’m okay with it. If anything, I’d encourage people to be bold and pursue their dreams– you never know what’ll come out of it. You don’t have to be like everyone else to find happiness. I know riding ultra-distance isn’t normal and I’m not recommending that everyone get into it. However, I do feel like everyone can enjoy riding a bike on some level– it feels like being a kid again.
Top three book/podcast recommendations?
I love listening to audiobooks while riding. My recent favorites are the Robert Galbraith (pseudonym for J.K. Rowling) crime series, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry and Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer. I’m always looking for new audiobooks. They help me stay up and alert through the nights while racing.
What’s your favorite dinosaur and why?
I don’t have one 🙂 I ran into a Gila Monster during my Arizona Trail time trial last spring and that seemed close enough. I love seeing animals on the trail.
Follow Lael on Instagram @laelwilcox