Lael Wilcox is lighting the world on fire with her mind-blowing success at long-distance mountain biking. Having recently spent nearly a year abroad on bike-packing adventures through Israel, South Africa and Eastern Europe, the 28-year-old East High School graduate made waste of the Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile mountain bike race down the Continental Divide from Banff, Alberta, Canada, to Antelope Wells, N. Mex., on the Mexican border. Her time of 17 days, 1 hour and 51 minutes set a new record, formerly held by Eszter Horanyi of Colorado, by more than two days.
Even more impressive is that Wilcox rode 2,160 miles from her hometown of Anchorage to the beginning of the Tour Divide in 19 days. Wilcox averaged over 100 miles per day to reach Banff in time for a weeklong recovery prior to the start of the race. Wilcox rode an astonishing 4,905 miles from her departure from Anchorage on May 15 to her finish in Antelope Wells on June 29.
“I had such a great ride, I had so much fun,” Wilcox said of her prologue down the Alaska Highway. “I had good weather all the way from Anchorage. It was sunny and nice every day so that was incredible.”
But the ride wasn’t perfect. Wilcox had a mechanical that was nearly a show stopper on the remote Cassiar Highway where services are few and far between for motorists, much less cyclists.
“I had a lot of different things happen on the way down. There is this heliskiing lodge and they had an air compressor. I blew my tire off the rim using it. The tire was totally deformed, out of service. I’m at this remote lodge and there’s no way I can get a tire here. Just then the guy that owned the lodge rolled up on his Kona 29er full suspension bike and I thought, ‘That’s my only chance!’”
Wilcox pleaded: “The only thing that’s going to work is if you give me your tire. Please, I’ll give you $100.”
The lodge owner didn’t care much about Wilcox’s crumpled 100-dollar bill, so he loaned it to her anyway.
“I had agreed to leave his tire at a bike shop miles down the highway where I would buy a slick to replace my blown tire. As I was leaving the shop he showed up. He was kind of a grumpy guy, but he was excited that I’d made it to the shop to buy a new tire.”
There were other fearful moments such as the section of highway between Prince Rupert and Prince George where several young women were reported to have been abducted.
“I pictured these young women being taken. I was on this stretch of road for three days,” Wilcox said. “I was so creeped out. I was ready to be done with it. That was the toughest thing that I encountered. I’d see these signs of young girls gone missing – that girl kind of looks like me.”
Wilcox said she normally isn’t afraid to be on her own in remote areas.
“It was a lot of alone time, every day with all of my thoughts. I wouldn’t see people for an entire day.”
Although there were over 150 entrants in the Tour Divide, Wilcox saw little of them. That could be because she was chasing a group of six guys just out of reach ahead of her. Others were far behind leaving Wilcox once again with her own thoughts.
“On the first day I went out super hard,” she said. “I could feel my lungs burning and I thought maybe I was feeling the elevation. I kept riding till 1 a.m. and I pulled over to sleep a couple of hours. I was gasping. I couldn’t get any air like I was breathing through a little straw. Through the next day it got progressively worse.”
Wilcox suffered bronchitis that persisted for over five days. Fatigue forced her to walk several passes and to take sleep breaks longer than expected.
“On the third pass before the border I couldn’t even ride. I had to get off my bike and push for about five miles. I was hunched over and pushing really slow. I thought, ‘This is the end of the race. I can’t do this.’ ”
Wilcox rode over three passes and 100 miles to get medical attention at an urgent care clinic in Helena, Mont.
“I got albuterol and antibiotics. I was feeling way better and pushed through the night to catch back up to the women’s record,” she said.
Wilcox recovered from her illness while riding the bike.
“Every day I felt that I was going to have to quit,” she said. “The record was so close and I was going to stay to it as close as I can.I started doing a lot more miles and I didn’t have to sleep quite as much. I started having much more fun. When you’re feeling miserable that’s not much fun. I don’t think I could’ve finished if I felt that the entire way.”
Wilcox is comfortable in her own skin in the outdoors, carrying minimal gear and just enough equipment in case of emergencies.
“I had plenty of stuff,” she said. “The compromise I made was my warmest layers were also my rain gear. If it was either cold or raining I could put everything on and that was warm enough. Sometimes I would wake up cold but in a way that helps because you have to get up and get moving anyway. It was a kind of an alarm. I had a down vest and all the tools to fix my bike. Sealant, tube, patch kit, derailleur hanger. You have to keep yourself moving on the road. I didn’t have any mechanical problems in the race.”
Existing on a steady diet of gas station rations and fast food, Wilcox constantly shoveled in the calories. Deep-fried burritos, chicken strips and Fritos were the mainstays on her menu. Most times she carried only a water bottle, relying on surface water to replenish. There was only one time that she pulled out a 3-liter bladder to get her through the dry stretches.
“Every chance I got I’d fill my bottles up with juice,” she said. “I ate all my meals except one while riding. I didn’t take much water because I’d fill up one regular bike bottle. I must have an iron stomach. I traveled the entire year abroad and I’d drink the water there without treating it.”
If you were to see Wilcox ride you would see a woman with pure joy on her face, with a beaming smile that could melt the coldest of hearts. Part of that joy stems from being in the moment, on the bike – but also from the prospect of future bike-packing adventures.
I asked Wilcox what’s next and she laughed heartily and said, “I’ve got to get a job! I haven’t worked in a year!”
She and her partner, Nick Carman, earn enough to finance their biking adventures, calling Anchorage home base until they can once again pedal to infinity.