With 85% of the route off-road, Badlands is an unsupported, ultracycling gravel challenge that rewards self-sufficiency. So what happens if things take an unexpected turn under the searing sun of Andalusia?
Cristina Sanser had taken a whole year to prepare before rolling up to the September startline. But finding herself riding through a beautiful but unforgiving landscape, she needed to find the inner strength to stop and say enough.
Why Badlands? I suppose I should start by explaining that I’ve only been riding a bike for four years—and only consistently for a year and a half. With the whole Covid situation, I had to work from home and everything was so boring with no travelling allowed. My friends and I saw the Badlands documentary from last year and when the bars once again opened, we went for a drink and decided why not?
The year I spent training for it, in the back of mind I was doubting whether I would ever be ready. I’m pretty fit but everyone taking part in the challenge is super strong and I’m still working my way up the ladder in terms of technical ability. So in the end, I decided to just treat it as a holiday. I would sign up and whether I finished the race or not, this would be an excuse to visit another part of Spain and have some fun.
I was riding – unofficially – as a team. We entered two as a pair and one more as an individual but the plan was to ride together. Freya had recently moved to Girona from the UK and is super strong with a racing background—very much a mentor to me and really helpful advising on things like bike gearing and clothing. My other friend, Laura, is a sports scientist and cycling coach and my pre-race level of fitness was all due to her help and encouragement.
I was fully aware that we were facing certain metrics—the distance, the terrain, the allowed time window of six days. But we’d prepared well with a first training block that built up an endurance base, a second block with a higher intensity and then a third which combined elements of both. Quite a commitment when working office hours in a demanding role.
In terms of a bike and equipment, budget played a part in the decisions we made. Everything is so expensive but fortunately I managed to upgrade to a BMC URS gravel bike—the geometry works better for me and it gives me more confidence if the surface is poor. And all of these different strands of preparation came together on a test ride in the Pyrenees—lots of climbing, super technical sections and sleeping outside. Mentally, we’d been planning this for so long that it felt settled in my brain. So I suppose, in a sense, I was prepared to suffer. To suffer a lot.
Perhaps inevitably, the closer we got to the start date the more our nerves began to build. I’d never raced before – ever – so the thoughts going through my head involved what would happen if I crashed in the first ten kilometres. Or maybe I wouldn’t be able to unclip and everyone would see me and laugh. And in hindsight it was a mistake to book a hotel outside of Granada’s city centre. We walked a lot before Badlands got underway but then we walked a lot during the race too.
Attending a rider briefing a couple of days before the start, we got to talk to people who had already raced Trans-Pyrenees and the previous year’s Badlands. Very simply, this proved to be super motivating and I left the briefing feeling that, yes, I could do this.
Race day arrived with Laura waking to a painful wisdom tooth. Typically, she cast aside any thoughts of not riding in the time it took to take some paracetamol and we rolled up at a park area to set off as a bunch. Riding amongst all the other competitors during the first 20 km, I was close to tears. What was I doing with all these super strong and experienced riders? But we’d spent 12 months preparing for this moment and that thought carried me through those initial nerves.
Climbing upwards and upwards, the gravel trails gradually became more technical and on some sections we were jumping on and off the bike. But even though the heat was intense and the riding hard, the first day was fun. I even have a picture of me smiling.
With the sun setting in the sky, we rolled into the village of Gorafe. My friends and l felt tired but seeing all the other competitors who’d also chosen this location to snatch a few hours rest gave us an emotional lift. We grabbed some food and then laid out our mats and sleeping bags on the roadside to sleep. Three hours later we woke up – not to say that I actually slept with all the night time noises – and got underway again to hit the desert before sunrise.
This proved to be truly an amazing experience. Very technical – especially descending with bike lights – but it felt like an epic adventure. Approaching another small village, we stopped briefly for a couple of quick coffees before continuing. But even though we’d refilled all our bidons and hydration packs, we eventually began to run short of water and needed to ration how much we drank despite the intense heat.
Freya had pushed on ahead – she’s such a strong rider – as the landscape gradually changed from gravel to sand. Really technical to ride but we’d managed to maintain a good race position and our spirits were up. And then, without warning, I crashed. Maybe because I was dehydrated – my Wahoo was reading 49°C – but my front wheel hit a soft patch of sand and I lost control. A silly mistake rather than a tragic accident but I hit my head when the bike went over. Taking a moment to gather my senses, all the good feelings that had buoyed our progress so far seemed to evaporate into the cloudless sky. Climbing back on my bike, for the next couple of hours I was dizzy and disorientated—cresting every rise with the expectation of a village and water but finding only barren nothingness.
Catching up with Laura at the end of a long and draining climb, I discovered her crying. And Laura never cries. A true lover of nature and always happiest in the mountains, seeing her upset made me realise that our race was starting to fall apart. Then Laura’s mum called to ask if Freya was still with us—she’d been dot watching and could see she was off route. I immediately called Freya and thankfully she answered. She’d taken a wrong turn and then had to backtrack – uphill – to regain the route. We’d already booked a hotel earlier that morning so we agreed to meet there and decide what to do. What she didn’t tell us over the call was that she’d been continually vomiting due to dehydration.
We now had a strong headwind and 25 km of super technical riding between us and the hotel. More walking than riding, it felt an impossible task and by then we’d run out of water. But somehow we managed to keep moving until we finally reached the hotel to be greeted by Freya. She’d cooked food for us – such an angel – and when we began to feel more comfortable we talked about our options.
The next day was 140 km with no stops for food or water. Food had never really been an issue but the availability of water in this scorching heat was a real concern. And what Freya and I hadn’t realised – because she didn’t want to burden us – was that Laura now had an infection in her tooth and had exhausted her supply of paracetamol. Weighing up these different factors, we all felt the same and decided to stop.
Will I return to race Badlands again? Looking back from the comfort of home, there’s a part of me that still questions whether we should have continued. I feel tears begin to well-up when I think of all that preparation and how we’d pictured ourselves finishing. But we made the decision together and we cried together.
Sometimes things are just out of your control and it would have been foolhardy to continue with Laura suffering and in pain. And I do recognise that mentally I’m very strong. Who knew – even if we didn’t finish – that I would find myself rolling up to the start line of Badlands? That I’d be happy to sleep in the street? And being able to say enough and accepting that it was the right decision—that proved far harder and took more strength than continuing to ride.
Take even the most cursory glance at Lael Wilcox’s social media feed and the one constancy is her smile. Wide enough to crease the cheeks and crinkle the eyes, this ultra-distance racer and bikepacker exudes a love of riding bikes that proves infectious. To such an extent that hearing Lael enthusiastically describe her incredible exploits crossing countries and continents and you just can’t help smiling back.
But not every ride or race ends as Lael originally determined it might. And this year’s Tour Divide proved the exception to the rule in leaving tears rolling down her face as raging wildfires forced Lael to abandon her record attempt.
A few days after scratching from the Tour Divide, Lael sat down to talk about managing adversity, finding a sense of joy in the outdoors and how, ultimately, love makes every day feel special.
cyclespeak Can I start by asking how you are? I saw images of the smoke from the Tour Divide and it didn’t look good.
Lael I knew beforehand about the wildfires but it didn’t hit me until I was riding just how serious it would be as far as the air quality. It looked and felt like the apocalypse—the end of the world. So, yes, it was sad that I had to stop my ride. But getting into the thick of it, I realised that I simply couldn’t carry on. It was the only choice I could make.
cyclespeak I can only imagine how difficult it was to call it a day.
Lael More than that, it was just so depressing seeing these places ravaged by fires and the effect this is having on the communities that live there and the wildlife too.
cyclespeak Speaking of wildlife, I believe you bumped into a mountain lion?
Lael It was incredible. I’d always thought it was super rare to see them because they’re so hyper aware of people and other animals. And then coming up a climb, my bike lights reflected off this pair of eyes and I stopped, thinking it was a raccoon or something. But then I made out the outline of the mountain lion’s body and its tail.
cyclespeak So quite a surprise?
Lael It was midnight, I was already sleep-deprived and really motivated to get to this small town where I knew I could sleep in the church. So I’m thinking, oh dear, now what am I supposed to do?
cyclespeak And what did you decide?
Lael Not knowing how they usually behave, I weighed up whether it might attack me if I tried to get past. So I just stood still and started talking to it—trying to convey the idea that I wasn’t menacing by telling it I just wanted to get by. I could hear some other sounds which I think were its cubs and as I slowly began to move along the path, the mountain lion came out from the trees and was walking in front of me along the trail for 10 minutes or so before disappearing off into the bushes and leaving me to ride down the hill. But it didn’t end there. A little further on there was another animal on the trail in front of me and my bike light picked out this white stripe along its back. And I’m like, that’s a skunk and I’m going to get sprayed! Fortunately it darted off to one side but there’s me thinking, what next [laughs]?
cyclespeak All this excitement after a hard day’s riding.
Lael I finally got to the town but I didn’t know where the church was. I turned on my phone to look it up but of course there wasn’t any cell reception. Then I passed an old covered wagon – kind of a tourist town display – and I’m thinking I can always sleep in that but then I saw the church. I pushed my bike inside, it’s warm and there’s power outlets and a bathroom. What else do you need [smiles]?
cyclespeak I’m surprised you were able to unwind enough to sleep.
Lael After riding 170 miles that day, it was quite a night. But that’s what makes it exciting. So many unknowns and everyday is packed full of these obstacles that you quickly forget about because you’re so focused on getting where you’re going.
cyclespeak You already hold the women’s Tour Divide record* which you set in 2015. And on this attempt you were aiming to beat the overall record set by the late Mike Hall in 2016. For such a mammoth undertaking, is mental preparation just as important as the physical?
*Lael covered the 4,418 km in 15 days, 10 hours and 59 minutes.
Lael For me, the main thing is wrapping your head around the need to maintain a level of urgency for two weeks. Because when you get tired, are you going to have that drive to keep pushing forward? If the weather’s bad or you’re in pain – maybe you see a mountain lion [smiles] – all these different things can crack at you and potentially slow your progress.
cyclespeak So what’s the secret to maintaining your momentum?
Lael You just need to ride the best that you can through these moments until they pass—that’s the most important thing. In a sense, more important than speed. Speed plays into it but if you only ride 15 hours a day, realistically it doesn’t matter how fast you travel because you’re not going to have the record. It’s just not possible.
cyclespeak Your smile – on and off the bike – is so recognisably a part of your outward persona. And I was wondering whether the positivity that you radiate is a key to your success? Because I watched your film with Rapha that shows you racing this year’s Unbound Gravel XL – 358 self-supported miles that you covered in under 27 hours – and you never looked like you weren’t having fun.
Lael I definitely ride better and stronger if I feel good. And I feel good most of the time because I’m actually doing something I enjoy. Of course there are moments of hardship but, looking at the overall picture, even if it’s hard, even if it hurts, I’d still rather be there, trying to achieve my best result.
cyclespeak And it’s like you said, these issues rarely last forever?
Lael We all have negative thoughts—I’m not fast enough, strong enough, this isn’t working. But it doesn’t help you ride better. So I’ve learnt over time to just not get into that downward spiral of negativity. To find the positives in those moments until it starts to get better again.
cyclespeak I’m guessing it helps if you’re naturally positive. A glass half-full kind of person?
Lael I do think that’s my natural state when I’m moving outside. And I just extended that feeling to a 24 hour race and then a 2 week race. Still connecting to the same joy that comes from riding my bike.
cyclespeak That’s an interesting choice of word: joy.
Lael I feel that’s the greatest gift we have as humans—getting to experience places and cultures, terrain and weather. And for the most part, it’s all free. Which is why I find these wildfires so devastating because it steals that away from us.
cyclespeak As we’re speaking about positivity, can you talk me through your decision to scratch on the Tour Divide? How you manage these situations when circumstances are beyond your control?
Lael Scratching from this year’s Tour Divide definitely hit me hard. I felt I was doing well and even though there was a lot of smoke, it was manageable. But then it got to a point where it wasn’t. Crossing this one city of Butte in Montana, I was riding towards a massive wildfire – smoke and flames – and in that half an hour I could hear myself start to wheeze and feel my lungs labouring. At that moment, I did feel incredibly sad and started crying as I was riding my bike. Because I knew I had to stop and I just hate giving up. But as we’ve already talked about, part of this racing is overcoming barriers or challenges and sometimes it’s out of your hands.
cyclespeak Over the past year and a bit, we’ve witnessed a wave of individuals re-engaging with the outdoors—possibly prompted by a desire to stay local and enjoy the fresh air.
Lael I feel that’s one of the best outcomes from the pandemic. People realising that this is something they can do, that makes them feel better and helps them process the other, potentially hard aspects of their lives. And it doesn’t have to be riding the Tour Divide. It can be engaging with the outdoors in any way that’s real to them. Going just that little bit further than they’ve been before and how empowering that can feel.
cyclespeak For me, lockdown encouraged me to ride from my doorstep and rediscover my immediate environment.
Lael I went back to Alaska where I’m from. I’d done a project in 2017 where I cycled all the major roads—something like seven or eight thousand kilometres. Some of these routes were pretty remote and I saw animals and mountains and not a lot of people out there. But I did that alone and I’ve since thought how nice it would be to revisit this trip but make a film with my now-wife Rue. I’d told her about these places and she shoots photographs and video so that’s what we did.
cyclespeak Your relationship with riding started out as transport. You commuted to your job at a brewery when you were 20 and it went from there. So now, after all those years and thousands of kilometres, when you see a bike leaning up against a wall, how does it speak to you on an emotional level?
Lael I’ve never learned to drive a car and the bike is a huge upgrade in transportation from walking. Easier to carry equipment and it’s such a simple machine that you probably won’t break down. And it’s also part of our culture—you’re a kid, you learn how to ride a bike and that offers your first real taste of freedom. You can now go further, easier, faster. And that immediateness of hopping on a bike offers such a sense of liberation. I still feel that way every time I ride my bike.
cyclespeak I can see how it can extend your horizon—allowing you to journey through the landscape because you can go that little bit further than if you were walking. Something you do on a multiple-thousands-of-kilometres scale?
Lael But that’s just me compressing more into less time. And people should ride the way they want to. I sometimes get criticised for not taking enough time to stop and appreciate the view [smiles].
cyclespeak I think humankind is rather too fond of passing opinions when it really doesn’t materially matter to them.But advice can be useful so I wanted to ask what you’d say to someone contemplating taking up cycling?
Lael To ride somewhere real.
Lael Ride your errands, commute around town, ride to your friend’s house. That way you’re actually riding for a reason. And if you want to build up your distance, take a bus or a train and ride home. Because that way, the closer you get, the more familiar it feels when you’re beginning to feel a little tired.
cyclespeak The races you take part in, by their very nature, offer plenty of thinking time in the saddle. What kind of thoughts enter your head or are you too focused on the task at hand?
Lael I just let my mind go free and think whatever I want. My first two times riding the Tour Divide, I also rode from Alaska to the start…
cyclespeak I love that. Because the Tour Divide at 4,418 km just isn’t long enough [laughs].
Lael At that time, I only had a flip-phone so no music or podcasts. So I was there, alone, riding for weeks at a time—making my own decisions, being whoever I wanted to be. Since then and after racing thousands and thousands of kilometres, I like to listen to audio books. Riding through the night, you can get really engaged in a story [smiles].
cyclespeak In the Rapha film, you mentioned that night time can be tough. Do you thrive on these aspects of adversity or does discipline and the promise of dawn light see you through?
Lael I always look forward to the sun coming up. In the dark, it’s just harder to be alert and ride fast. You can’t see as well and that’s when you feel tired. Especially when it’s cold, there’s an instinct to just stop and sleep.
cyclespeak Which is what the vast majority of the human race does at night time.
Lael The strategy I use on races like the Tour Divide is that, if I feel tired, I’ll just stop and sleep for four hours and then wake up and carry on—even if it’s the middle of the night. Because regardless of when you sleep, you have to ride in the dark at some point to cover the miles.
cyclespeak A little bit of a segue but you mentioned your now-wife Rue. You recently got married…
cyclespeak Your wedding sounded really wonderful—I love the idea of the scooters.
Lael I’m just happier than I’ve ever been before. I’ve always loved spending time outdoors on my bike but now I have Rue with me for the rest of my life so every day is good.
cyclespeak The pictures you share on Instagram of you with Rue are incredibly life affirming.
Lael Rue rides but she also shoots so we can do projects together. What a gift—it’s just amazing.
cyclespeak Whenever I talk to bike racers or industry creatives such as photographers and filmmakers, I sometimes get a sense that they’re never satisfied. They’re always looking to go faster, to take a better photograph or try another film edit. Where do you sit in saying to yourself, ‘Job well done?’
Lael I think if I give it my best effort – and I’ll know if I have or not – then I do have a sense of satisfaction. And with ultra-distance racing, you have a lot of time. So maybe you don’t feel great but you’re still moving so that’s your best effort at that particular moment. And then a few hours later you feel great so you pick up the pace. At the end and regardless of my finish, if I tried my hardest then I’m happy.
cyclespeak And when things are out of your control like this year’s Tour Divide?
Lael If something goes wrong – a mechanical or I get sick or unforeseen circumstances like the fires – then I have a reason to go back and give it another go [smiles].
cyclespeak I mentioned how riding a bike started out purely as transport to get to work…
Lael I was commuting and then bike touring and then ultra-distance racing—frustrated because I was working two jobs to pay for these things.
cyclespeak I do wonder how much of that drive and determination influences your current success?
Lael I suppose it shows that I’m doing something I really, really want. Otherwise I would’ve just given it up because I spent years doing that. Working 12 hours a day and worrying when I’d get to ride my bike. Or when I’d get to sleep [laughs].
cyclespeak The way you ride, the distances you cover, the results you enjoy—do you feel a sense of responsibility that you’re a public face flying the flag for female participation in bike racing?
Lael It all adds to my level of motivation. That I can race against the men and go for the overall. In other disciplines of cycling, that just isn’t possible. Women and men are competing in completely different categories but in bike packing, we all get to line up together and whoever gets to the finish first, wins. I find that super exciting and motivating because I want to be the winner and I know it’s possible. And it’s not just about pure power or speed—there are so many other aspects like recovery and efficiency that come into play. How you feel on Day 10, how you react to seeing a mountain lion [laughs].
cyclespeak I’m guessing you also need to minimise the chance of mechanicals during the race?
Lael The thing with ultra-distance is that everything breaks or falls apart—your bike and your body. So I want to start out with both myself and my bike in great condition because I know that by the end of it, we’ll be trashed.
cyclespeak I suppose over time you get to know what works and what doesn’t?
Lael My gear choices are mostly for comfort. Going into a race, I’m very aware that at some point I’ll be experiencing a lot of pain so maybe I’ll pick a larger tyre, a fork with more travel or figure out a range of hand positions. Basically, what’s going to keep me happy on the bike for the longest. You want to pack light but what do you actually need?
cyclespeak You’re constantly on the move with your racing schedule so I wanted to ask about your concept of home?
Lael That’s definitely Rue. Just spending time with her wherever we go—being together. We’re currently living in Tucson, Arizona, and thinking of buying a house. I’m 35 and never thought it would be something that I’d want to do but it would be a nice place to spend time in the winter.
cyclespeak Can I ask why Tucson?
Lael It has great winter weather and beautiful mountains. It’s pretty inexpensive and you can ride up Mount Lemmon to over 9,000 ft—from saguaro cactus to pine forest in a 20 mile ride.
cyclespeak And it would be good to have a base for storing bikes?
Lael I love to change them because I spend so much intense time on one bike that I want to ride something completely different. If I’ve raced my mountain bike, I want to ride road. If I’m racing road, then I want to ride a full suspension mountain bike. Swapping between them puts my brain in a different place and keeps me motivated.
cyclespeak Looking forward, do you have a five year, five month or five day plan?
Lael Somewhere in between? Two months is pretty good [laughs].
cyclespeak Is that your comfort zone?
Lael It’s enough time to puzzle things together.
cyclespeak And the best thing about being Lael Wilcox?
Lael I’m very fortunate that I pretty much get to do exactly what I want, every single day. And I’m so grateful for that. I wake up and if I want to go for a bike ride, I go for a bike ride. I just get to follow my dreams and I can’t believe that’s my life.
In a year that has seen many of us adapt how we ride in the face of unforeseen circumstances, a new plan was needed when Kirsti Ruud woke to snowfall on the first morning of a bikepacking trip in her native Norway. But rather than any lingering sense of disappointment, the adverse weather conditions ultimately led to an experience that was not only breathtakingly beautiful but underlined the return on embracing the fickleness of forecasts.
Along with her companions Sindre Grønli and Øyvind Brenne Nordengen, the group decided on two separate rides in place of their planned overnight stop. Routes that would take them into the six biggest national parks in Norway and a landscape devoid of cars and buildings—a true wilderness of river valleys and mountain ridges, threaded through by the gravel roads they were riding.
Looking back on this experience, Kirsti reflects on the reasons she rides, how it can be rewarding to brave the elements and why the occasional challenge helps build resilience for when the randomness of life derails your best intentions.
Until 2018, I rode seriously. It was all about competition. I combined a little job here and there with my training but then I accepted a full-time position with the National Cycling Federation. I was getting more interested in working with cyclists than being a cyclist myself and the project I lead involves helping recovering drug addicts integrate back into society through cycling.
So in place of a training plan, travelling and exploring have been more a part of my summers and falls for the last two years. When I can, I cycle the hour and a half each way to work. If the weather is good, there’s no reason to sit in a car stuck in traffic. And because I’ve been working from home due to the pandemic, this year I’ve been cycling more than ever—enjoying riding my bike as much as I can within the restrictions.
After I stopped competing, I hadn’t ridden for months when I was invited to go to Iceland with Rapha. The trip was pretty amazing and it gave me a taste for different kinds of riding. So I asked them to let me know when the next big trip was planned and to count me in. George Marshall – the photographer on the Iceland shoot – had kept in touch, and he contacted me with this plan to ride in the north of Norway. But then he couldn’t come over because of Covid and my friend Marius Nilsen was invited to do the photography. He lives further north than Oslo and works for the National Parks.
The idea was a two day ride with an overnight stop at a mountain hut. That’s how we like to do things – carrying everything we need on our bikes. It’s what makes it a trip. And we’d come prepared with stud tyres in case there was any ice. Usually I don’t use these until December – even with regular tyres, riding in snow isn’t a problem – but we weren’t sure whether it was going to be a mixture of rain and snow and wanted to be sure we didn’t ruin our trip by crashing
But as we left Oslo to drive north, it began to snow really heavily. It was forecast but not that much. Going to bed thinking it would melt the next day, we woke to find 15cm of fresh snow. Figuring that we wouldn’t be able to get over to the cabin before it got dark but still wanting to ride, we came up with a new plan of a different route for each day.
Setting off after breakfast, I was excited. I think the worst part of the year can be the fall when it’s dark and a little gloomy. Because you can’t really tell the different textures from each other. But with the snowfall, the whole day was lit up and the mountains just looked so beautiful. The alternative would have been rain and fog.
Before every trip, I’m kind of worried about my shape. Hoping that I’ll have a good day and not really struggle that much. But even though we had a lot of wind – 17 metres per second which is enough to blow your bike over – we were all happy and laughing and just going with the flow. The light was amazing when we reached the top of a mountain and we just stood there, looking out over the landscape below, as the sun slowly sank behind the horizon.
I think the best rides I’ve had are when we’ve spontaneously come up with an idea. If you plan too much and then the weather is bad, it can be so disappointing. It can take the charm away and it’s best not to be too uptight about how your ride will be. It’s OK to let go of plans and just get out there and ride. To go far or go short—to not really know where you’ll end up.
When I was competing, I had to ride regardless of the weather. Telling your trainer that you can’t go out because it’s raining and 5°C just isn’t an option. Now that I don’t have to ride, I do appreciate the good days when it’s warm and sunny. But you can enjoy amazing experiences because of the weather. If you have the right kit, then you’re able to embrace changing and unpredictable conditions. And I do need some challenges once in a while where you feel like you’re struggling because you kind of come out stronger at the other end.
So I ride now because I want to ride. It’s my free time. My quiet time. An opportunity to reflect on things, for solving problems, to get out any frustration. Just being out on my bike gives me the space I need and I come back feeling like a weight has been lifted. It’s such an important aspect of the way I choose to live my life.