Photos by Rugile Kaladyte
Lael Wilcox is currently riding her bike from the Pearl Izumi headquarters in Colorado to Kansas where she will be racing in the Dirty Kanza XL (a mere 653 extra warm-up miles before a 350-mile race, no big deal, right?).
With the Dirty Kanza XL completed, Lael will turn her attention to the Tour Divide, a 2,750-mile route following the Continental Divide through the Rockies and ending in Mexico. Like all things Lael competes in, she plans to win.
The fastest female ITT record is 15 days, 10 hours and 59 minutes, held by none other than Lael herself, but this year she wants to try and beat the men's record of 13 days 22 hours, 51 minutes. The Tour Divide starts on June 14th, and with all the snow the mountains have been getting, the trails are likely to be in less-than-optimal condition. Whether or not the conditions allow her to break the overall record this year, she aims to be the first woman to ever win the Tour Divide outright.
Looking at Lael’s other accomplishments, including being the first woman and the first American to win Trans Am (2016), earning the course record of the Baja Divide route for both men and women, and becoming the second female to compete in the Navad 1000 bikepacking race, coming in 2nd place, there’s no doubt she is up for the challenge.
We caught up with Lael the day before she left Pearl Izumi headquarters.
It sounds like you've got a busy couple weeks ahead of you, riding from Pearl Izumi headquarters to the start of the Dirty Kanza XL and then competing. It's not the first time that you've ridden to the start of an ultra-endurance race. Why do you enjoy riding to the start of these races?Lael Wilcox:
I like riding to the start because then it gives me a chance to get used to my equipment. It's also just great training for the race and then also mental prep just for what I'm taking on. I feel like setting out for either a trip or a race is always kind of a scramble to get all the equipment ready at the last minute and then I'm like, "well if the scramble is before my preparation then that's great, because then while I'm out there just riding for myself I can kind of figure everything out, make sure everything works, make sure I'm happy with my whole set up." The racing I do is different, like the race this summer is Canada to Mexico, The Tour Divide, 2,750 miles. So I feel like a huge part of the prep for that is just time in the saddle.
On this ride to Dirty Kanza, I'll be riding probably about a hundred and twenty miles a day, so not huge distances. For the race, I'll try to average more like two hundred a day, so this is just consistent riding and getting used to the position of my bike, spending that time outside and getting into the zone I need for the race. And then at the end, I get to race the DKXL, which should be super fun. 350 miles self-supported. I've never raced Dirty Kanza, so I'm looking forward to kind of just seeing that whole scene. It sounds like this village erupts for the race and the town has doubled in population just for this weekend. A lot of the racing I do is really solo, everyone starts together but it's only like a hundred or two hundred people and then after two days you hardly see anybody. So for this, it will be more of kind of like a festive atmosphere.
It's kind of crazy to say, but 350 miles for you, like the Dirty Kanza XL, is actually a really short race, right?Lael Wilcox:
Exactly, this is one of the shorter things I'll do which is exciting in a few ways. One is that I'll only be out there for a day so I don't have to worry too much about all the sleep deprivation, like during the longer races. And then also, for most of the people taking on this race, it's the longest race they'll ever do, so they're coming from the opposite direction to me. It's cool to see people tackle these monster distances because it's just been so niche in the past.
With gravel endurance riding, more people are getting into it. They're just curious about what happens when they are out there for twenty-four hours or longer. It will be a cool experience for me to be biking that far with others. They might do it and feel like that was terrible and never do it again, but either way, it's cool that more people are giving it a try. It also raises the bar for the competition.
Do you have any expectations going into it, placement wise or you're just kind of doing it as a prep for the Tour Divide?Lael Wilcox:
Not at all, I mean I really don't know how I'm going to do, but I'm going to ride my best and just see what I can do and have some fun out there. Take risks and going hard at different times and also at the same time not worry about it because I don't feel the pressure to perform, I just want to be there and ride my best ride.
Will you be using the same bike for the Dirty Kanza XL as you'll be using for The Tour Divide?Lael Wilcox:
I don't think so. I'm going to ride to the start on the Tour Divide bike, just to feel this bike out make sure I'm happy with it, and then I'll probably race more of a gravel bike with like 38-millimeter tire. The bike I'm using for Tour Divide is a hardtail mountain bike with drop bars, and then a 2.2-inch tire. The Dirty Kanza bike is more of a gravel setup. But you know, I might just ride this bike to the start and realize I love it so much I want to race on it here too. It's basically just like a monster version of the gravel bike.
Could you tell me a little bit about The Tour Divide. How did you first hear about it? How did you get into it? What is it exactly?Lael Wilcox:
The Tour Divide is a 2,750-mile mountain bike race down the Rockies from Canada to Mexico. So the race actually follows the Continental Divide as closely as possible. It goes over something like fifty-three mountain passes, so it's just a ton of climbing. The race itself is self-supported meaning that you have to carry all your own equipment and you can't have any external help along the way.
I had toured parts of it before and then heard there's a race that goes off every year on the route. The record has gone from 25 days now down to under 14, and then the averages for that mean you have to ride two hundred miles a day for two weeks. You're on your own for finding your places to sleep, taking care of your bike, and all that combined is pretty impressive. And then it just crosses really beautiful country.
I've raced this once, and I actually rode it twice in 2015, but I haven't been back to it since. My initial goal was to beat the men's record which is 13 days 22 hours, but this year there's been so much snow through the Rockies that I think there should be pretty strong snowpack when the race is happening, so I don't think the times are actually going to be that fast. Which is kind of a bummer because it makes it a lot harder, but then it also makes it so much more of an adventurous race because you're dealing with these crazy conditions.
What's the technicality of The Tour Divide? How much are you on pavement versus singletrack versus dirt roads?Lael Wilcox:
It's less than five percent single track, it's probably like seventy percent dirt roads, and then the rest pavement I would think.
When you're in a race for that long, how do gauge how you're doing compared to your competitors if you don't really see them? How are you getting an idea of where they are on the route and how they're doing?Lael Wilcox:
The whole thing is tracked through this website called trackleaders.com
and everybody carries their own spot tracker. You leave your spot tracker on the entire race and then it will send a message every five minutes showing your location, so then people can just track your location relative to the other racers through the website. I don't usually actually watch it because then I feel that would just distract me from the race, but people will come out to the route and be like, "Hey I have news, so and so is 50 miles ahead of you," or "so and so is just coming right up on you" and then you'll kind of know where they are.
People will be out on the side of some dirt road in New Mexico, and I don't even know this person, and they'll ride with me for like an hour or whatever and then they will relay the information. They're so invested in the race. People stay up all night just tracking this. They are like, where are they? Thankfully I have friends and family who love tracking it because no matter what time of day or night, you're still moving forward, and then they'll go to sleep, sleep 8 hours and then wake up and, I'm a hundred or a hundred and fifty miles ahead of where I was when they went to bed. It's just totally zany, I'm still riding.
But you actually don't know, you can't know other riders' strategy either, so you just kind of have to ride on your own, make the best decisions you can, maybe take some risks, like ride through the night and catch somebody. But then when you catch them they are totally fresh and you're totally fried, so its a game of saving time and kind of trying to make big decisions and attacking when you feel up or when you feel like the time is right.
So how do you balance that? The sleep versus the moving forward?Lael Wilcox:
For something long like the Tour Divide, I'll sleep like four hours each night, and I'll kind of plan it. You start getting just so tired that you just want to sleep, and then I'll sleep earlier. I sleep usually only during dark hours because you always move forward slower in the dark. I'll go to sleep at 9 and set an alarm for 1 in the morning and then get up and start riding then. I mean, it kind of depends on where you are if there's a place to pull over, or if you have a destination in mind, but for me, it's like I can kind of sleep anywhere.
I don't mind just sleeping on the side of the road. Some people will plan more to make it to towns and stay at hotels so they can take a shower, but all that stuff takes time - checking into the hotel, showering, organizing everything, you can also get distracted. I find often that just staying outside on my own is actually the fastest way. But then, terrible weather could come in or something like that which then you have to find some kind of shelter. So all these little elements can come into play of the decisions you make and then all that becomes the overall result of the race.
So what are you carrying with you for The Tour Divide?Lael Wilcox:
Well, I haven't 100 percent made up my mind, but I'll definitely be carrying basic bivy. It's actually a paper barrier liner, kind of like just a very small synthetic bag, basically. And that will be my shelter. And then in the past, I've brought a lightweight sleeping bag, a freezing temp down bag that packs super small. This year I might actually bring down pants and down vest instead and just sleep in that, because I feel like then I could just jump out of my bivy and then just get right on my bike and start riding. I'm kind of nutty about sleeping, like what's going to be the fasted transition from sleeping to moving. I'm like, how can I cut that time?
Are you a gear nerd??Lael Wilcox:
For racing, I'm just really minimalistic. I get excited if I can get rid of stuff. If I could actually take a full bag off my bike, one of the bike packing bags, if I can just take it off and not bring it, I'm so thrilled. I just get so sick of looking at all this stuff. You just want your bike to ride like a normal bike. You don't want to be carrying around all this stuff. So I try to just keep it light and simple. And then I mean I've gone to the extreme where I've really regretted that. I've done a couple of long rides where I didn't bring any kind of sleeping bag or insulation and then I just froze out there, I'd be shaking on the ground. So that was definitely a mistake.
I spend so much time riding these bikes then inevitably I'll just be so sick of the bike by the end and sweating and bleeding into it for like two weeks and then I'm like, take this thing out of my sight. You know, I just can't stand it anymore.
And what about for like bike maintenance? What kind of gear do you have for your bike with you?Lael Wilcox:
Yeah for sure so I have a very small amount of really pretty essential stuff. A multi-tool, a chain breaker, quick links, a derailleur hanger, chain lube, and then a lot of stuff for tires so I'll have Seal-it, and then a tube, and tire plugs. Most of the time I'll carry a needle and thread in case I get a super big sidewall rip. For this race I'm actually running SRAM eTap electronic shifting so I'll carry a couple of extra batteries for that, and then the charger itself. I'll also have a valve core remover, an extra valve, you know all these little bits. Brake pads...
How do you charge all of your electronic devices that you're using?Lael Wilcox:
So I have a dynamo hub laced into my front wheel, and then that's set up to a light that also has the capacity for charging. So I carry like a power bank, an external cash battery that I can charge during the day while I'm riding, and then that I'll use to charge my phone and my GPS, and then also my shifting. So I'm actually getting the power back from the bike in a small way to keep my stuff going.
I've heard that you ride 20,000 miles a year. Is that accurate?Lael Wilcox:
Yeah, that is true from previous years. This year, I definitely didn't hit that. I went for a backpacking trip for a month. So that definitely reduced my overall bike mileage, which is a good thing, it was just nice break. But in the past, between the racing and the touring, I just end up riding just a ton of miles. I also ride everywhere I go as far as transportation too so it just adds up to a lot of miles.
What was your hiking trip? Did you just need a break from cycling?Lael Wilcox:
Totally, yeah I was hiking the Arizona Trail for the whole month of October and it was basically just like a mental refresh from all this riding. I came back from a couple races in Europe and I was like, I just want to be out there, not thinking about equipment, just kind of out doing something else. So that was really nice.
How long have you been racing now?Lael Wilcox:
Just since 2014 really was my first race, but I started touring in 2009. So I spent a lot of time just riding before I considered racing. So that was a cool way to come to it because I was just so accustomed to the lifestyle of living off the bike and then turning it into a race was basically just packing five days into one instead of touring. When you're touring you just spend more time out there and more time sleeping and doing other things and then when I'm racing it's like I'm just basically obsessively riding.
Do you have a regular job kind of for part of the year? Or how do you fund all of your riding?Lael Wilcox:
I used to work for restaurants and bars as a bartender, but now I'm working some with a guiding business, The Cyclist's Menu, so I actually just get paid to take people on bike rides which is awesome. And then I also have sponsors now just from you know, the racing I've done and then setting up some media projects and that is actually covering my life expenses, which are pretty low but really cool not to have to work a side job or restaurant, and just spend more time riding.
You're a minimalist at the races. Are you a minimalist in everyday life as well?Lael Wilcox:
Yeah, I mean it's like there are easy ways to not spend a lot of money. I don't have a car, I don't own a house, you know stuff like that. I'm basically paying for food and rent sometimes, but if I'm on the bike then I'm not paying rent, and then having your gear sponsored is a huge help.
What do you eat when you're like out on the bike for two weeks? I imagine you're not just eating bars right?Lael Wilcox:
No, that's the thing with the self-supported racing, we can only carry so much food from the start, and then you just have to buy food along the way. Usually it's just at gas stations. Especially on the Divide. There are some of these towns that have a real grocery store but some of them don't, so it's kind of finding whatever you can get. A lot of junk food like chips and chocolate milk and then anything that's fast and I can eat on the go, because I also don't stop to eat, I'll just eat on the bike.
I'll just be snacking on a burrito while I'm riding or something like that, so it ends up being like not great food. I mean, eating kind of becomes this weird thing, you have to eat 10,000 calories a day. It's a ridiculous amount of food so, I'm like looking at these chips just kind of depressed, like I don't want to eat this but it's all I have, and then I just keep eating. You have to eat like it's your job, and it sometimes feels like part of the endurance riding is an eating competition. Like you just can't stop eating or else you'll just die out there.
And what about drinking? How do you make sure you drink enough?Lael Wilcox:
Oh yeah, I'll just chug water, like a bottle or two in a go. And then pack a bottle or two anytime I find water. The Divide is good because there is tons of water there. I also don't filter my water, I just drink whatever I find. I'm like, that's going to save so much time not dealing with a filter, and I don't have to carry that equipment, so I'll just drink all of this water which is definitely risky but I've never had a problem. And it's also kind of liberating, you're like, screw it I can just drink this water. I don't have to worry about it, I'm just riding through nature and this beautiful place I'm just going to drink the water. I mean the whole thing is kind of this kind of manic, crazed form of riding and moving and trying to cover basic needs in constant motion.
So what's it like when you get back from event? Do you take off the week?Lael Wilcox:
I'm so dead. I mean like I'm so, so dead by the end of it. And then the recovery is really tough, really probably the worst part is sleep deprivation. Recovering from that is pretty awful. You just can't think straight and it takes a while, probably two to three weeks to recover. I mean that's probably my least favorite part of it, the recovery periods that are pretty essential. And you know a month goes by and I start getting excited about the next thing I can do. It's a tough recovery for sure.
Are one of those people who like sleeps four hours when you're not racing or are you kind of somebody who sleeps a lot?Lael Wilcox:
You know I don't need a ton of sleep to function, but I definitely feel like I'm really doing something good for myself when I get a lot of sleep. I definitely don't have a problem sleeping. I'm definitely not like a night person or somebody who just stays up all night or can't get to bed, but I just feel like I'm so excited about stuff I want to do, that I end up not sleeping that much, because I'm like, but I want to do this and this and then its like there's only so much time, you know.
I usually get 8 hours, 7 hours, 6, I don't know, somewhere in there. Not a ton but I try to get sleep because I feel like it keeps me healthy.
What's your favorite part about these ultra-endurance races that you've been doing?Lael Wilcox:
It's the land you get to see out there. I see 200 miles worth of terrain in a day. And then I'm there for all the sunrises and sunsets. All these cool moments of like looking out at, like you're riding your bike and you look out and see something that's just totally jaw-dropping. Like, wow I can't believe I'm here right now to see that. I never would be if I wasn't in this race setting. I love that. I mean another aspect of it just the big swings of highs and lows and emotions. That I don't love, but when it's good it's really good. So that can be cool to kind of have these experiences out there by yourself.
What's the craziest thing you've ever seen when you're in a big packing race?Lael Wilcox:
I've seen all kinds of animals out there. Not during a race, I'm trying to think if during a race if I've seen bears, but definitely on my own solo trips I've seen so many bears and moose and caribou. In Arizona, it was like Gila monsters and coyotes and all these birds and rabbits. It's like being out there with all the animals especially in the night when all the animals come out. It's so crazy just to be going through that. That can be really cool.
And watching weather come in, you can see the storms rolling in, that's kind of wild. If you weren't in a race you'd be like, okay I'm just going to go inside, because this is getting crazy but then you're in a race so you just have to go anyway.
What tips would you have for people who are considering either The Tour Divide, or a similar kind of ultra-endurance bike packing race?Lael Wilcox:
I would say make your own adventure ride, maybe something where you're pushing bigger miles than you would usually be. Get a cool route or a ride you want to do and then set yourself a time frame. So you set a route, set a time frame and then try to just go get it done. I feel like that's basically as exhilarating as being in a race, and maybe more so because it's actually something you really want to ride. So like maybe testing that out and seeing if you have a cool experience, and then transitioning that into a race and finding a right fit for what you want to do.
What do you have planned after The Tour Divide? What's you're next big goal?Lael Wilcox:
Right after The Tour Divide I'll probably take about a week off and then I'm heading to Kyrgyzstan in July and I'm doing a 1,000 mile bikepacking race in Kyrgyzstan in middle of August. It's called The Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan, it's super remote. I mean this race has like four checkpoints and there's nothing out there. So my idea is to go ahead and I'll still be ahead of time and I'll still be recovering from The Tour Divide, but be there with enough time to go ride this whole route at a touring pace before the race so I can get to know the country. Also, I feel like it'd be a shame if I went there and only spent like two weeks and left without really getting to know the place. So this way I'll have like time to tour and then also set up for this race in August. So I'm really looking forward to that.
What about your longevity in this sport? Do you still feel like you're getting better or is it hard on your body? What is your plan going forward in the sport?Lael Wilcox:
I don't really know. I kind of look at that year to year and I don't know how long I can keep doing this just because it's so physically demanding on everything. If your body is just not working, you really can't do it, and if you're not recovering you can't keep going so I don't know how long I'll be doing it. I feel like regardless of the racing, if I can I'll still just want to be doing these long rides.
At this point, I feel like I'm just getting better because I'm getting actually faster on the bike. For the past five years I've had the right mentality of saving time and knowing my equipment, but I've realized that I can actually keep a faster pace consistently and that I also can run off of less sleep, so I feel like I've just been improving.
Then I guess we'll see how long this lasts but I really don't have high expectations of doing it for that long just because I know it's so bad for you. Just not sleeping, and this kind of physical abuse, but at the same time I just love being out there, so I'm willing to deal with that.
I imagine there are not very many women in the races that you're doing. How do you think people look at you differently, and what is it like being a woman in some of these events?Lael Wilcox:
Oh yeah, I mean the first bike packing race I did was in Israel, I was the only woman, and they didn't think I was going to get through the first day. They were like, "she's a joke," but then the coolest part is when you do go out there as a woman and beat everybody they're just in total shock. They're like, how did that happen? All these guys work like professional athletes, and are big and strong and then I was out there in like a cotton T-shirt and I was winning. I love how that kind of changes people's perspective.
They start realizing it's not all about the equipment you have and it's not all about your physical body and how it looks. The results are what we are all going after and then you see they can come from such different people, so I love that. But it's definitely been something that I've dealt with. In the end, I've kind of proved myself and won these races, so people will think differently. When I first started there was a lot of negative talk and people telling you that you're not capable, and then if you just do it anyway, you can kind of change the way they think.
I have friends and other female riders that only look at racing in the women's category or going after the women's record, and you kind of have to broaden your perspective and try to race the whole field, and that's what I'm trying to do. With the results that I've gotten people are starting to realize, like yeah it's actually possible. Now we're seeing more women with stronger results which is really inspiring for me to just see other people doing it too - having the courage to take on the whole field.