Lael Wilcox / [smiles]

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.

cyclespeak
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…

Lael
Yeahhh!

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.

[smiles]


Feature image chosen by Rue Kaladyte

All photography by Rue Kaladyte with kind permission of Lael Wilcox

Rapha Gone Racing – Unbound Gravel XL

Lael Rides Alaska