A yelp snaps me out of my daze and I see her go down, off the side of the ledge. Running on instinct, I limp down the steep slope to the beach. She’s down and then she’s up.
Her mouth is caked with dirt and she’s covered in it.
“Are you sure? Did you hit your head?”
“My shoulder hurts a little, but I’m okay.”
Her eyes are huge, but she’s not crying. She’s almost laughing– out of embarrassment or shock.
“Let’s get you back up there.”
I pick up her bike. The bars are crooked, the left brake lever is broken clear off and one of her grips is cracked. She climbs the hill. By now, Alana has climbed down to the beach. She takes Nathalie’s bike out of my hands and pushes it up the hill. I do my best to keep my core rigid, using my legs to edge up to the trail.
We are riding single-track along Eklutna Lake back towards the trailhead– 55 miles into our 60 mile capstone campout. We’ve ridden from Anchorage to the wilderness including an 1800′ climb in 6 miles and two nights away from home. Nathalie, with her mouth full of dirt, is twelve years old. Alana is thirteen. Last weekend I fell off a bridge mountain biking and got an x-ray to discover that I’d broken two ribs. I am in an extraordinary amount of pain. I’m doing everything I can to be here for the girls and they are protecting me.
I give Nathalie a water bottle to rinse the dirt out of her mouth. Hobbs uses a multi-tool to straighten her bars and removes the broken lever and cable. And then she’s back on her bike, riding the trail.
Cait Rodriguez and I hatched GRIT during the group start of the Baja Divide in the spring of 2017. We were about 300 miles into a 1700 mile ride when Cait and her riding crew were fighting a bout of food poisoning. We took a night in a hotel to recuperate.
Cait and I got to talking. The year before, we’d worked together to source 35 used kids bikes for my mom’s low income 3rd grade class. I asked Cait if she wanted to do another project like that.
She replied, “Yeah, but I’d rather focus on girls– middle school or high school girls.”
Over the conversation, we decided it would be cool to take them on a multi-day bike trip. Where could you reasonably ride from Anchorage? I’d heard about this gorgeous cabin at the end of Eklutna Lake, the Serenity Falls forest service cabin. I started calculating distances and looking at roads. There’s a 20 mile bike path from East Anchorage past Eagle River to Birchwood. Then, neighborhood roads and a couple connectors to Mirror Lake, a half mile of highway riding and up the Eklutna Lake Road. Once you get to the Eklutna Lake, it’s 12 miles of trail riding along the lake, past the airstrip to the Serenity Falls cabin that backs into a glacier. The total distance to the cabin is 48 miles, but there’s no road access, so you have to ride at least 12 miles to get back to the trailhead– 60 miles in all. We could ride that over three days– leaving after school on Friday, spending the night near Mirror Lake, riding to the forest service cabin on Saturday and back to the trailhead on Sunday.
We had an end goal, but not a start. How do you prepare kids for this kind of distance? What age should we work with? How often will we meet? How much time do we need?
After hours of conversation, we came up with a six week biking mentorship program for 7th grade girls. We’d meet twice a week after school. Every session would be a ride to a lesson taught by a female expert. The main idea was to give the girls time on their bikes and to show them the trail systems around Anchorage. Along the way, we’d expose them to basic bicycle mechanics, mountain bike skills, first aid, route finding, yoga, packing for trips, and bag making. They’d also do some community service for Anchorage Parks & Rec. We’d host long rides every other Saturday.
We settled on six weeks because spring in Alaska is brief. The snow typically melts in April and school gets out mid May.
We had an age group, we had a goal, we had a time frame and we had structure. Now, we needed outside help– we needed volunteer women to serve as mentors and expert teachers. We needed girls to participate in the program. We needed bikes. We started sending emails from Mexico. We wrote all of our women biking friends in Anchorage, asking if they were interested in either being mentors or hosting lessons or if they knew any other women that might be interested. I wrote my mom and asked if she knew any principals at middle schools that might be interested in helping us set up this program. We definitely wanted to work with low income schools and we wanted the program to be entirely free for the participants. I wrote Specialized and asked if they’d send up bikes and helmets. Cait wrote BP and asked if we could use their Energy Center to host classes.
Emails came flooding back. So many women wanted to help in any way that they could. We got committed volunteers and references to others. Principals from Steller and Begich wrote back referring female teachers and counselors that could help us nominate girls for GRIT. Katie Sue from Specialized enthusiastically offered to send up ten bikes for the program and yes, the girls could keep them. Revelate Designs offered to hand make panniers because the frames are too small for a more typical bikepacking set up. Everything was coming together.
Then Lindsey from Bike Anchorage, the local commuting group stepped in.
“What about insurance?”
“What about insurance?”
Bike Anchorage adopted GRIT as their educational program. Under their umbrella, GRIT got insurance and non-profit status.
Cait hosted interest meetings at both of the schools. We were looking for five girls from each school. We ended up with five from Begich and six from Steller.
We hosted a parent-student meeting at The Bicycle Shop and the girls got on their bikes for the first time. Riding in the parking lot, they were squirrely and nervous.
Our next session was at the Trek Store for a basic mechanics lesson with Katie Spaulding– a ten mile ride to midtown. The snow had all but melted, so we rode the bike path and pushed a few slushy sections. The girls learned how to take their wheels off of their bikes and fix flat tires. We attempted to install our own racks with mixed success. A couple mounting points were stripped and mechanics from both The Bicycle Shop and the Trek store helped us re-tap the holes. We rode back to school.
GRIT has flown. Over three years, we’ve worked with 43 middle school girls. Yes, we’ve had our setbacks, but we’ve persevered and grown stronger and that’s part of the adventure. Year one, half of the bikes were stolen from one of the schools. The Anchorage community responded. Within a day of the theft, we had secured funding for replacement bikes and a budget for the following year.
There is no set curriculum or agenda for GRIT. It’s more about getting women and girls together to ride and building up to a weekend bike adventure. It’s about creating a community around facing challenges and encouraging one another. It’s about working hard and having fun and spending time moving outside.
I would love to see more GRIT programs spring up around the country. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be the best rider or the most outgoing or the most organized. You just have to be present and do your best. There will always be surprises and challenges. We have a diverse group of mentors and girls and that weaves together our strength.
Will these girls continue riding?
That’s not up to me. What I know is that Alana from year one set out and completed her own 1,000 mile ride in Alaska last summer as a 14 year old. This summer, she’ll ride the Pacific Coast from Seattle to San Diego– she starts next week. Katlyn from year two is planning her own 600 mile ride from Homer, AK to Fairbanks next summer and Taylor and Mackenzey from last year want to ride part of the way with her. These girls are all back as student mentors this year.
Sometimes I cross paths with former GRIT girls biking the greenway trails. We call out greetings and smile and wave. It heartens me to see them riding through life. This is the world I want to live in.
BIKEPACKHER is an ongoing mission to celebrate, recognize, and encourage more women to participate in cycling and bikepacking. We will tell the stories of women in bikepacking, we will share their adventures through writing, photography, video, rides and events, in hopes to encourage more women to participate in the sport we know and love. Help us make change now by sharing this article with a woman you know who has an interest in bikepacking or tag your next adventure #bikepackHER to inspire others and give more visibility to women in cycling.
Lael is based out of Anchorage, Alaska. In 2017, she was named “Bikepacker of the year” by Bikepacking.com. She holds the women’s records in the Tour Divide and the Trans Am Bike Race and is the second woman ever to complete the grueling Navad 1000 course through the Swiss Alps. She has ridden over 100,000 miles in 35 countries and there is so much more she wants to explore. As an advocate to get more women on bikes, her current favorite project is Anchorage GRIT, a middle school girls cycling mentorship program. This summer she is racing the Tour Divide and The Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan. Follow her adventures at laelwilcox.com and on Instagram @laelwilcox.