© Tristan Bogaard
For most of us, 100 miles on a bike is a very long way. For Lael Wilcox, ultra-endurance cyclist and Komoot ambassador, that’s barely a day’s racing. Long is Lael’s forte. The 35-year-old adventure cyclist’s endurance endeavours include winning – outright – the 4,400-mile 2016 Trans-Am race, which she finished in 18 days in 2016, and holding the women’s self-supported FKT for the 2745-mile Tour Divide, an off-road route following the Rocky Mountains from Banff in Canada to the Mexico border.
Whilst most people like to arrive rested for a record attempt, Lael chose to cycle 2100 miles from Anchorage in Alaska, her home state, to reach the Tour Divide start line in 2015. After developing bronchitis during her Tour Divide attempt, she rode herself to an emergency room mid-ride with the clock ticking and still broke the FKT record. Not satisfied with her new record time, however, Lael returned two weeks later to ride the 2745-mile route again, breaking her own record by a day and a half. Oh, and this time her warm-up was an 850-mile ride to the start line.
You might imagine someone with Lael’s talent having grown up riding, but the American only took up cycling in her early 20s, first to commute, then to explore the world. And by explore the world, I mean ride 150,000+ miles across 40 countries before she entered her first race.
More recently, in August this year, Lael led an all-women group on the self-supported Komoot Torino-Nice Rally, a 700K route through Italy and France, accumulating 15,000m of climbing over the week of riding. I got the chance to quiz Lael about this, and many other things, in the Q&A below.
Your journey into cycling started as a means to commute and explore the world. What is it about ultra-endurance cycling and racing that keeps you coming back for more?
It never gets old! Long distance cycling is my way to see the world, to learn about places, to connect with people, to learn about myself and to push my limits. I dream in long distance. I want to see what’s out there and how I’ll react. I love self-supported racing because it’s so unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen. Right now, I’m most interested in riding new places – touring them first with my wife, Rue, and then coming back to race. I’m hoping to participate in the Race Around Rwanda at the end of January.
Tell us about the women’s Torino-Nice Rally that you led earlier this year, and what it involved?
The Torino-Nice Rally is a 700km mixed gravel and tarmac route with 15,000 meters through the Italian and French Alps from Turin, Italy, to Nice, France. The route was designed by James Olsen, and there’s an event in the first week of September every year for riders from around the world. The intention is for everyone to finish in about a week. It’s not a race but an opportunity to take on this challenging route with other riders.
This year, with Gaby Thompson and Komoot, I helped organize a women’s bikepacking challenge on the route for the last weekend of September. Twenty-six of us rode the route self-supported, beginning in Turin on September 24th and finishing in Nice on October 1st. We leapfrogged one another along the way, sometimes camping and eating together, and all became great friends. We met up at the end for a finishers’ party at the Service Course in Nice. It’s an exceptionally beautiful route, a really great ride, and so much fun to take on with a group of women.
What were the high points of your Torino-Nice Rally experience?
The Torino-Nice Rally has ten significant climbs and many smaller Cols in between. It’s some of the most fun riding I’ve ever done. I really loved the Colle dell’ Assietta to the Col Agnel to Little Peru. I really loved the climbs. It was also my first time in Italy, and it’d be hard to beat the espresso. I really loved the whole experience – I loved every kilometre of riding and loved the company of the women. There’s great food along the way, and we had an even split of camping and staying in chalets and lodges. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. Komoot supported the event.
Is Komoot a tool you regularly use for your bikepacking adventures?
Absolutely! After the Torino-Nice Rally, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in England, and Komoot was an excellent tool for planning routes while there. It’s especially handy when you don’t know an area well and want to go on an adventure. I’d simply plug in start points and destinations, select “bike touring” mode, load the route onto my Wahoo BOLT and go for it. I really love not knowing exactly where I’m going but being able to rely on a Komoot route and GPS. In England, this routed me on quiet paved roads, bridleways and cycle paths. It was a lot of fun!
You’ve ridden some insane races, such as the Hope 1000, which has a staggering 98,000ft of climbing in around 632 miles. How do you prepare for an event like this?
I’m pretty much always riding. Before a race, if I have the time, I love to either tour the route in advance or ride to the start. This way, I get a chance to be out on my bike without the pressure of the race. I get to enjoy the route in a different way and prepare mentally and physically for the race. I test out my equipment and find resupply points. Particularly if I’m travelling far to race, like to Switzerland or Kyrgyzstan, I don’t want to just blow through the track once during the race. I want a deeper understanding of the place. Training feels pretty easy for me because every day I wake up and I just want to ride my bike. I also ride for transportation and travel, so that adds up to a lot of miles.
Most of your races and FKTs involve a high level of discomfort. What’s been the toughest race/ challenge from a mental perspective, and the toughest from a physical perspective?
Yeah, that’s totally true – self-supported ultra-distance racing relies on a lot of deprivation. In pursuit of riding fast and far, you have to cut sleep. You’re often eating fast food or resupplying at convenience stores. You’re wearing the same clothes for several days, sometimes even weeks. You’re sleeping on the ground and doing everything you can to move forward. Everything hurts, but the pain comes and goes.
Every race is challenging in different ways. The Trans Am, a 7,000km road race across the US, was extremely hard because it was a heatwave for the entire ride. It took me 18 days and 10 minutes and I won the overall, catching the first-place guy in the final night. I remember I had terrible knee pain for the first week and then it went away. Every morning, my saddle felt like it was on fire for the first 5 or 10 minutes, but then I’d get used to it again. It was just a whole lot of sitting and a lot of sleep deprivation. At times, it felt like it would never end.
The Hope 1000 is a physical beast. There is no easy way to climb 30,000 meters in 1,000km. Finding food during the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan was a challenge. I’d celebrate if a place had Snickers because it tasted so much more like real food than the fried bread and crackers I was mostly relying on. The Arizona Trail, an 800-mile hiking trail from Utah to the Mexican border, is extremely hard because the riding is so technical.
What keeps you going in these tough moments?
I tell myself that the pain won’t last forever. I check in with myself to see if I’m doing my best. Even if I feel terrible, if I’m trying my hardest, that’s all I can do. For the most part, I really enjoy being out there – seeing the natural beauty, spending time alone with my thoughts and pushing my physical limits.
Your cycling has taken you all over the world. Where have you enjoyed riding the most?
I really love riding in the mountains. I’m originally from Alaska and have ridden all of the roads in my home state (8,000km). It’s super remote and beautiful, and it’s really cool to see all of the wild animals out there. There are grizzly bears, black bears, moose, lynx, caribou, bald eagles, salmon, foxes, and many more. I loved riding in Kyrgyzstan. The mountains and valleys are stunning. The people are still nomadic and live in yurts in the summer to tend their herds. I recently rode in Iceland and would be hard-pressed to find a more dynamic and gorgeous spot. The light and weather are constantly changing. There are waterfalls and hot springs, active volcanoes and smoking geothermal spots. However, the wind is extremely challenging for riding. There’s always some kind of give and take, no matter where you go.
You come across as upbeat and easy-going in your interviews. Do you ever get nervous ahead of events or challenges?
I don’t really get nervous. I know it’s going to be hard, but I also know I’ll be out there for a long time and just have to make good decisions along the way and ride with everything I’ve got. I’m usually just really excited.
What’s your race attire of choice? And is it true that you don’t wear a chamois, even during ultra-long distances?
Yep, no chamois for me 🙂 I usually ride in cycling bibs or shorts with the chamois cut out. When I started, I raced in cotton t-shirts, then switched to merino. This year, I’ve been racing in Rapha jerseys— I love having the extra pockets and find their fit really comfortable. I always wear socks. I usually bring a down jacket, a rain jacket and rain pants with me— that way, I’m ready for any weather. I usually wear shoes that are a size larger than usual because my feet swell a bit.
Have you got any races, challenges, or adventures in the pipeline for 2022?
I’m hoping that my next big race is the Race Around Rwanda in January 2022. It’s 1100km mixed pavement and gravel with lots of climbing in “the land of 1000 hills”. There are gorillas there! I’d planned to go last year but had to cancel because of COVID. I really hope we can make it this year— to tour the route first with Rue and then race it.
What are your favourite items of kit, and who are you sponsored by right now?
I’m really grateful to have the best equipment. I ride Specialized bikes with SRAM components. I work with Wahoo, Rapha, Ergon, Komoot, Gnarly Nutrition, Rene Herse and Revelate Designs. I set my bikes up for comfort. Over long distances, the body experiences extreme fatigue and extra comfort keeps me riding faster and farther. This often means larger volume tires, more suspension, more hand positions, and a super comfy saddle.