1×10: Lael Wilcox, Ultraendurance bikepacker, Co-founder of Anchorage GRIT

Welcome to 1×10, where we ask 1 inspiring human 10 questions about how they are using cycling as a force for good. Read on to meet Lael Wilcox, Ultraendurance bikepacker, Co-founder of Anchorage GRIT, and so much more! It is such an honor to interview her for this site. We all know (and if you don’t you better find out!) she’s one of the best ultraendurance riders around. For example, she rode TO Emporia, KS, FROM Lousiville, CO to race in the 2019 DKXL (Dirty Kanza 350 mile version) and won the women’s division by over 2 hours, coming in 6th overall. She hold’s the all-time women’s record for the Tour Divide (2,745 miles), with a time of 15 days, 1- hours and 59 minutes, in 2015. And most recently she just finished the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan, finishing second overall, completing the 1,700 KM’s in 7 days, 15 hours, and 23 minutes. While these feats are gargantuan, what drew me to her was seeing photos of her on these races ALWAYS with a huge smile on her face. And she also often posted about supporting efforts to get more girls out on bikes, providing scholarships for more women riders to do extended bikepacking trips, and other efforts, and I knew I would LOVE to feature her on this site. Read more to learn about how Lael fell in love with cycling, who she admires in the cycling world, how she’s using cycling as a force for good, and more in her 1×10 interview. All 📸 by Rugile Kaladyte (thank you!)

1. How / why did you fall in love with cycling?

I actually fell in love with cycling because of a running injury. Running was my first love– it felt so mind opening and exciting and lively. In the spring of 2014, I helped open a restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska. The restaurant had two floors and I was working 14 hour days going up and down the stairs. One evening, my ankle started feeling tighter and tighter and at the end of the shift, I lifted up my pant leg to find that my ankle was so swollen, I couldn’t see any of the bones. I knew I was in trouble. I rode home and put it in an ice bath for ten minutes. It was just as bad the following morning, but I had to go back to work. I asked to just work on the bottom floor, but it was too late. The damage was done. I dealt with the achilles injury for the next year. I still tried to run a bit (just making it worse) and then resorted to yoga and aqua jogging and cycling. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t run that on my days off, I’d ride as far as I could. On my first long ride, I got off work at midnight and rode down to the train station at 5am.  I took the train to Seward and rode 127 miles back to Anchorage– by far the longest I’d even ridden. It was euphoric to just be out on the bike all day in all kinds of weather. I borrowed my mom’s road bike, a carbon Specialized Ruby, by far the nicest bike I’d ever ridden. I didn’t have any bags, so I couldn’t carry anything. I started the ride at noon in a pair of corduroy pants and an old fleece. The sun was out and it was hot. I ditched my layers to ride in a t-shirt and shorts. Hours later, with fifty miles to go, I was riding into a headwind and freezing. I bought a cotton hooded sweatshirt at the Girdwood gas station. I got home around midnight, ate a bowl of ravioli and went to bed. Lying there, tired and content, I was happy. I was hooked. Within days, I was staring at maps of Alaska, looking for more places to ride. Anchorage is the biggest city in Alaska, it’s the heart, with roads like veins spreading to other towns and villages.

“I bought a cotton hooded sweatshirt at the Girdwood gas station. I got home around midnight, ate a bowl of ravioli and went to bed. Lying there, tired and content, I was happy. I was hooked.”

A couple weeks later, my mom was going to a teacher conference in Fairbanks. I wanted to go! I wanted to go and ride my bike back. My mom bought me a plane ticket for my birthday. We flew out at 5am and landed at 7. I put my bike together and started riding back. I had two and a half days to ride 372 miles. My plan was to ride 127 miles to the Denali Park Village and spend the night with a friend. The next day, I’d ride 166 miles to my parents’ A-Frame cabin in Willow. I’d finish the final 80 miles on the following day to get to an afternoon bartending shift just in time. I’d never consecutively ridden long days and everything took longer than expected. Near Cantwell, I rode into a fierce headwind and rain and watched the wind push the clouds away. I wore socks over my hands because I didn’t have any gloves. On the second night, at four in the morning in the twilight (Alaska summers are incredible) a moose jogged beside me in the ditch parallel to the road. It was extraordinary to feel so close to the weather and to nature. I arrived at the cabin at five in the morning, slept for three hours and was back on my bike. I made it back to Anchorage just in time for my work shift– actually maybe about fifteen minutes late, but who’s counting? I was totally fried physically and mentally, but in an odd way, it felt so good. I don’t think I was too good at my job that day.

Looking back at the map, I made a goal. Some day, I would ride all of the roads in Alaska. In the spring of 2017, I realized I had the time to do it. I began that June and through a series of trips, rode the entire road system, a total of 4,500 miles. I’d ride for a week or two and then come back to Anchorage to work at The Bicycle Shop for a week or two to fund my next trip. It was probably the most fun thing I’ve ever done. It wasn’t a race, so I could ride as long as I wanted with no pressure. I’d ride about 150 miles a day and stop to talk with people and ride until three in the morning and sleep until noon.

I arrived at the cabin at five in the morning, slept for three hours and was back on my bike. I made it back to Anchorage just in time for my work shift– actually maybe about fifteen minutes late, but who’s counting?”

2. Favorite Bike (that you own or covet)?

Erik Nohlin hand painted me a Specialized Epic HT with the full Great Divide route on it and Madeline Gulley built it up with a drop bar, Hope components and SRAM AXS electronic shifting. I love that bike!

3. What’s the most memorable ride you’ve done, and what happened?

I just finished the Silk Road Mountain Race, a 1,070 mile self-supported mountain bike race in Kyrgyzstan. The terrain was exceptional and remote and definitely life changing. It snowed 4 of the 7 days. I rode almost entirely solo with the occasional horseman as a riding companion. The passes were stark and snowy. There are hardly any trees in Kyrgyzstan. The sightlines and views were immense. It definitely brought my mind into a different headspace. I carried more gear than usual and I only got really cold once. I loved it.

“It definitely brought my mind into a different headspace.”

4. Who do you admire in the cycling world?

Danny Macaskill. I’m actually just really impressed with anyone that has really good bike handling skills because I don’t. I got into cycling pretty late in life and my technical abilities are pretty limited. Lately, I’m really impressed with Lachlan Morton. He’s getting into the bikepacking self-supported scene and I feel like he’s going to rip the lid off it. In addition, I feel like Kristof Allegaert doesn’t get enough credit. His endurance riding is mind blowing, but people outside of the scene don’t know his name.

5. Top tip for a new rider, or a cyclist about to take on a new challenge?

Try challenging yourself on your own terms first before entering a race. For instance, if you’re interested in endurance, set your own ride outside of competition and see how it goes. Guaranteed, you’ll learn a lot and make changes for the next ride. Also, I think it’s good to take a challenge on outside of pressure, that way, if something comes up and you can’t finish it doesn’t feel like a failure. It was more of an experiment in the first place.

“For instance, if you’re interested in endurance, set your own ride outside of competition and see how it goes.”

6. Favorite trend or innovation in cycling?

Disc brakes on all bikes.

7. What are you doing to use cycling as a force for good?

I run a girls program in my hometown Anchorage, Alaska every spring. We work with low income 7th grade girls (12-13 years old). Our first ride is 8 miles and over 6 weeks we build up to a 60 mile three day adventure ride from their school to a forest service cabin at the end of Lake Eklutna (basically the wilderness). Specialized sponsors the program and at the end, the girls get to keep their bikes. We’ve had three successful years and the older girls come back as student mentors for the younger ones. It’s amazing to see them improve and overcome big challenges. The final ride is definitely their biggest physical accomplishment.
I’ve also hosted a couple of women’s scholarships– one for the Baja Divide and one for an Alaskan Adventure. The main idea is to give a woman all of the tools (bike, bags, camping equipment, clothing nutrition, stipend) to complete their own bikepacking adventure.

“We’ve had three successful years and the older girls come back as student mentors for the younger ones. It’s amazing to see them improve and overcome big challenges.”

8. Thinking about the work you’re doing, what do you see as the potential change for people or the planet? If you are successful, what impact will you have?

My main effort is to encourage people to feel empowered to ride in any capacity. I focus a lot on women and girls because the sport is still dominated by men. It’s not about putting anyone down. It’s more about lifting people up. I am successful in getting more people on bikes and I’m pretty excited about that.

“It’s not about putting anyone down. It’s more about lifting people up.”

9. What’s your biggest challenge/obstacle to success?

Time– there’s just not enough of it 🙂

10. How can people help? Where can they learn more about your work?

Either start or be a part of local youth cycling programs. More kids on bikes = more people on bikes or at the minimum, more people compassionate towards cyclists.

“More kids on bikes = more people on bikes or at the minimum, more people compassionate towards cyclists.”

Lael Wilcox is an ultraendurance bikepacker, co-founder of Anchorage GRIT, and inspiration to so many (myself included). When not crushing ultraendurance events, you can find her cruising around her home of Anchorage, Alaska!

Edited by John Kim. When he’s not out for a ride, John uses his expertise in Corporate Social Responsibility to help companies do well by doing good. Find him at virtcyc@gmail.com or VirtCyc on twitter or instagram.

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