stories • happenings • adventures

June 2, 2016

Stars, Stripes and Speed: An Interview with Lael Wilcox

Posted by in Ambassadors

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I met up with Lael Wilcox last month in Anchorage, days before she started her trek to Astoria, Oregon for the start of the Trans Am. With the race just two days away, I feel confident that I’m not giving away any of her secrets. Whether that was by means of my own procrastination or that I actually didn’t want to let you know that she would be the lightest packing rider out there, I’ll let you be the judge.

We met early one morning at a local coffee shop. I figured I’d see Lael’s bike outside when I arrived. No bike, I’d beat her here. I went inside but spotted her at a table conversing with a friend, she’s from Anchorage, you find friends everywhere. She’s got her running shoes on. Of course she ran here I thought to myself, she is an endurance athlete. We get settled at a table and I realize I’d forgot my list of questions. Whoops. Luckily, Lael is the most down to earth person you’ll ever meet.

“Let’s just wing it,” she says…

H: It seems like the concept from riding from east coast to west coast made you pick this ride, is that why you chose the Trans Am?

L: For sure! I want to ride across the country! Nick and I were planning our first bike trip 8 years ago and we wanted to ride West to East. We were going to do it, ride across the country. But then.. we were totally broke. So we couldn’t do it. I was really disappointed and it was a real reality check. Instead we worked for the summer and by the end of the summer, September, October, it was too late to do the west to east ride. We flew to the east coast and ended up riding from Maine to Florida instead. I never got to ride across the country.

H: So there are a lot of places you haven’t been then, you haven’t been to all the states?

L: No I haven’t.. For this route, I have been to all the Western states but I’ve never been to Kansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, it will all be new. The route goes North, does some curvy stuff, but then you hit Kansas and it heads due east.

H: And you end in Virginia?

L: Yorktown, VA. It should be a nice route, It’s Adventure cycling’s first route so it’s kind of cool because it’s the 40th year of this route. They started off in 76’ with the Bikecentennial. They had thousands of people cross the country that summer. This year is the 40th anniversary so Adventure Cycling is putting on a big party in Missoula in July. After the race I’m going back there to be a speaker at the party and meet all the people who rode in 76’ that are now in their sixties.

H: It didn’t become a race until just a few years ago then (2014)?

L: Yeah, recently, people have been touring this route. This is the classic ride across America route. The race organizers are not associated with Adventure Cycling but he has invited anyone who wants to tour the route this summer to show up at the start of the race this summer so it can be a mass start. Which should be fun.

H: Julianna Buhring still holds the women’s record. From what I could tell, it kind of looked like she was the only female to finish the race (Correction: Franziska Hollender, only the second woman to compete in the race, also finished in 2014, so there are two).

L: Ever? Whoaaaa… That can’t be right.. What about last year?

H: No women finished in 2015. Only about 40 people raced it (Fact).

L: Well, who want’s to?! It’s really long (giggles)… “I’m not going to sign up for that,” you know? But last year at the divide there was 150 people, that was the 15th year of the race. This is the 3rd year, so it takes a while for it to catch on. But that is the funny thing about these races is that you’re racing but you don’t see anybody for a whole day… And then you do, off in the distance, you see a biker standing by the side of the road! I’M PASSING SOMEBODY! Another full day, you see somebody, maybe they’re having a water break or having a sandwich. You only pass people when they stop.

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H: The only way you know where you are in the race is by checking the leaderboard then?

L: And I never check because I don’t have a smartphone. So I don’t even know, you can pass people in their sleep. People will tell you if they’re really into it… “You’re like three hours behind this guy!”  Oh. great.

Julianna Buhring is racing RAAM (Race Across America) this year. Which made me think “Shit. Maybe I should just do that instead because I want to race somebody.” I thought about it because people have been kind of disparaging about the race (TransAm) saying “It’s not the real deal, RAAM is the real deal.” RAAM is weird. You have two vans follow you, and a medic, and it’s like $100,000 to do this race. Two full support vehicles with all these requirements. It’s a really expensive deal. I can eat gas station food and do this race for like $2000 bucks max, which is still a lot of money, but it’s on my own.

H: The TransAm is totally self supported. It looked like a lot of people stayed in hotels along the way.

L: That’s always something you can do. That’s not really my deal. Why would you bother if you’re only going to sleep for 4 hours. Plus, you waste time. Checking in.. showering.. Doing all this other stuff. I just want to sleep. I don’t care about the rest of it. Sleep is the thing that is the hardest to sacrifice. That’s the thing I miss the most. And that can get pretty frustrating. I feel like I am terrorizing my body for not sleeping because that’s the thing that will make me feel better and the most important thing to make me recover but you have to skip it if you want to be competitive.

H: What is your go to snack on the road?

L: Man, it changes because I get so burnt out from all the crap. For the first divide I was eating tons of Fritos and cheese. It’s all from the gas station so I’d be peeling individual packs of string cheese and then just dump the chips right into my bag. It’d be like cold nachos on the go. That was it. Oh man, or if I went to the store I’d get like bread rolls and cheese. I ended up eating a bunch of cliff bars and potato chips. I try not to have too many energy drinks, but I’d usually have one 5 hour energy in the morning. It’s like a little bump, it’d put me in a really good mood. Eating gets to be non-stop. You feel like you’re in an eating competition. It’s like.. This isn’t right. There’s nothing healthy about this whole race. It’s a weird reality. But it should be cool. What the heck, road race!

H: What are you packing?

L: Hopefully not much! I want to fit it all in the frame bag. I’ll probably bring rain pants, rain jacket, minimalist bivy. I probably won’t bring a sleeping bag this time. The tough part about that is that the western portion is cold. I might bring it for half and send it home, but i’d rather not. A spare tube. Pump. Probably a couple repair parts. Long Johns, top and bottom. That’s it.

I’m trying to think if I’m missing anything essential..There’s not a whole lot you actually need, especially for this since it’s on the road there are plenty of places to resupply. To get water, food and whatever else. I’ll have Dynamo lighting so that will be rad. I might bring a spare GPS and a spare battery for the electronic shifting. If the GPS fails then the race is over. I can’t follow the track. Done.

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H: Are you going to bring any other bags besides the frame bag?

L: Gas tank, Jerrycan… Oh, and my inhaler this time. I didn’t bring that for the AZT. Huge mistake.

H: What inspired you to start racing?

L: I got an injury, I injured my achilles and I couldn’t run which drove me crazy. It was frustrating and upsetting so I started road riding. I borrowed my mom’s road bike and I started doing all these destination rides. I took the train to Seward and I rode back. Then I rode to Homer. Every destination I could think of I’d ride to. Christina Grande was like, “You’ve been doing all this riding, want to race the Fireweed?” She brought it up a week before the race. I was like, “I dunno?” She said if you do it you have to have a support Jeep…but she was going to be my crew. Then the Wednesday before the race she showed up at my work, “You wanna do it? We’ve got to sign up tomorrow!” and I said, “Ok let’s do it!” So then we did it. And I was like, I don’t know what’s going to happen out there. It’s 400 miles. There’s a cut off time. You’ve just got to get it done. And then I did it and.. It was no. big. deal.

I was like ok, whatever, you just stay up all night and ride. And I felt fine. So after that I realized I could do this kind of thing. Then the next spring we were in Israel touring and there is this race there, the Holy Land Challenge, which is a 850 mile mountain bike race. We had been riding this route anyways and realized we were going to be there when the race happened so I was like, “ok, I think I’m going to do it.” I had this total junk bike, but I don’t care. I’m just going to do the race. I started racing and I was just killing everybody. I was the only girl. The youngest rider. The only American.

All these guys thought I was such a huge joke. I had running shoes. A junked, rusty, old bike with a dead fork. But I didn’t bring anything. I packed the lightest. The first day out I was like 25 miles ahead of the second guy. From day one. Since it was on Trackleaders, all the bikers in the country we’re like, “How did that happen?”. They’re on fancy bikes, and tough, and all this stuff… but it doesn’t actually matter for this kind of race. I just rode more consistently. I realized my body could recover and I could do this off of little sleep.

And then that race turned into a disaster. It rained and the surface turned into nasty cake mud. My third night out it had rained so hard that there was all this mud that was impassible. I had to trudge through and at 2AM I ended up sleeping in this emergency bivy under a tree. It was on a hill like this (slants hand: STEEP) I was in this little trash bag.. And I’d wake up and had rolled down the hill. I pushed my foot into my bike to straighten out and then I had to get up in the morning and keep hiking through the mud. That’s the deal with mountain bike races though, the conditions can just kill it. But that’s part of the race.

H: So what if the weather hits hard on the TransAm?

L: Well, it can’t really because it’s on the road, so no mud. But I have been thinking about that in the nights. What if the weather is total shit? That’s going to be really uncomfortable. But it won’t actually stop me, it will just be harder to proceed.

H: After this race are you going to try to enter one with direct competitors, like Julianna?

L: That’s the bummer about this stuff. The Divide this year has an awesome start list, all the best competitors are out there. Which makes me think maybe I should be doing that race but I already did that twice last summer. I’ve got to do something new, change it up. It would be nice to be actually competing with somebody. But I could go out there and somebody could be just awesome. People are going out to race so we’ll see.

Lael hits the road to Yorktown on June 4th along with 62 other solo competitors (this year’s race also includes pairs). You can keep an eye on her progress at Trackleaders. When Lael isn’t racing, she’s usually out riding with her partner Nick. You can read more about her adventures on her blog.

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Photos by Nicholas Carmen