In the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan in 2019, a 1,050-mile self-supported race, Lael Wilcox was the only solo female to finish the race that year. She placed second overall with a time of 7 days, 15 hours, and 23 minutes. Photo by Rugile Kaladyte.
Lael Wilcox didn’t finish her bartending shift until midnight, but she still made it to the Anchorage train station by 5 a.m. the next morning, wearing a t-shirt and shorts and pushing the Ruby Elite road bike she borrowed from her mom.
This was summer 2014. Wilcox had been an avid runner until an Achilles injury stopped her, from running at least. She picked up cycling instead and it wasn’t long before she started wondering how far she could go, so, she figured she would try to ride as far as she possibly could. The road from Seward to Anchorage is 127 miles and includes two mountain passes, and she wasn’t sure she could ride it all in one go. A train, she figured, was the best way to get to Seward; once she started pedaling back to Anchorage, the road would be her only way home.
The train reached Seward around noon, and soon after, she began biking north. She rode past Kenai Lake, over Moose Pass, and over Turnagain Pass. Somewhere around Portage, about 78 miles into the ride, her mom called and offered to pick her up. Having brought along no other gear than the shirt and shorts she was wearing, Wilcox was, by this time, freezing. “I was just having so much fun, I didn’t even care,” she says. She politely told her mom she thought she would continue and try to get all the way back. She made a pit stop 11 miles down the road in Girdwood, to buy a cotton hoodie, and then she kept riding. There was no race, no time to beat, no clock, no competitors. Just the road and Alaska and Wilcox, powering herself onward. She loved it.
She made it back to Anchorage around midnight. She’d ridden 127 miles in 12 hours, and soon she was looking at a map of Alaska, wondering What else can I ride? She rode to Homer—224 miles—in one day. She flew to Fairbanks and rode back to Anchorage—361 miles—this time over a couple days.
Where else? Alaska is a huge state, but there really aren’t very many roads. “It kind of sparked this idea that someday I wanted to ride all the roads in Alaska,” she says.
“She always liked to push herself,” Wilcox’s mom, Dawn, says. “Even when she was a little girl.”
The Wilcox family was an outdoorsy clan, always out hiking or skiing. Lael was active in sports, always competitive and pushing herself to play. Soccer was her primary sport, but she also ran cross country and played basketball. The very first time Wilcox shot a basketball was at a winter camp, and she wouldn’t stop shooting until she made 100 baskets.
Though endurance cycling was never her goal, Wilcox’s grit and perseverance positioned her to be a phenom. Her first race she did on a whim. She was traveling and cycling with her then boyfriend when their travels lined up with the 860-mile Holy Land Challenge across Israel. Wilcox was the only woman racing, and she came in second. After that, Dawn says, Lael realized that she might be pretty good at endurance cycling. Since that first race, she’s had a stratospheric rise in the bikepacking world.
She started summer 2019 by riding from Louisville, Colorado, to the Dirty Kanza race that started in Emporia, Kansas. The route tagged on 653 miles of riding before she competed in a 338-mile race over gravel roads with 15,000 feet of climbing. She finished the DKXL race in less than 24 hours in sixth place overall and the first woman. Next she raced the Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile race that follows the Great Divide from Banff, Alberta, to the U.S./Mexico border. That was the fourth time Wilcox rode the Tour Divide; the first time, in 2015, she shattered the women’s record. She holds an unofficial record time of 15 days, 10 hours, and 59 minutes. Her third race last summer was the Silk Mountain Road Race in Kyrgyzstan, a 1,050-mile route with 100,000 feet of climbing. She finished that race second overall, after seven days, 15 hours, and 23 minutes.
In just five years, Wilcox has gone from someone who had never competed in a long-distance bike race to holding a steady spot among the very best endurance cyclists on the planet.
Cait Rodriguez, a friend and cycling companion who knew Wilcox before she became a competitive rider, puts it this way, “Lael’s superpower, if I had to guess, is her mental attitude in sports. She’s just so positive and she has the long game mental capacity. And I think it just clicked for her.”
But that positivity and ever-present smile isn’t a superpower. It wasn’t something bestowed on Wilcox through a spider bite or birth on an alien planet. When Wilcox is riding for days on end, she has enjoyable hours, but she also has painful hours where every turn of the wheel feels like a slog. “My focus lately has been trying to stay positive through it all, which is getting easier and easier to do,” she says. During those hard hours when everything hurts, Wilcox checks in with herself. Is she doing the best she can? As long as the answer is yes, she just keeps going.
Riding around Alaska
In the spring of 2017, Wilcox was facing a wide-open summer with no races and no obligations besides her job at The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage. This was the perfect time for her to ride Alaska’s roads. She approached her boss with the idea. He agreed to let her take time off and ride as much she wanted, then work at the shop in between rides. “Which was a huge gift. He gave me so much flexibility,” she says.
Wilcox used The MILEPOST® as her guide for what constituted an Alaskan road. She would plan a route, tear out pages, and set off pedaling. Chunk by chunk, she crossed off all the roads on mainland Alaska, averaging 150 miles a day for a summer total of about 4,500 miles.
She flew to Nome and rode each of the three roads that stretch like 75-mile spokes from a central Nome hub. She cycled the Taylor Highway, a stretch of road only open from April to October that ends at the Yukon River in the historic mining town of Eagle. Occasionally, she would pass a small road that wasn’t listed and turn down it to discover where it led.
She had no GPS and no schedule. Thanks to the endless days of Alaskan summer, she had no restrictions on when she needed to ride, so sometimes she would ride until three in the morning, pitch her tent, sleep until noon, then start pedaling again. Once, riding through the night outside Willow, a bull moose trotted in a drainage alongside the road, keeping pace with Wilcox for several miles.
The rule was that she had to ride all the roads in Alaska, but she didn’t need to ride them twice. So whenever she reached a destination, she would set about figuring out how to get a quick ride in the other direction. “That was half the fun,” she says. “The creative way back.” She hitchhiked with tourists and rode a four-wheeler. She loaded her bike on a floatplane once and caught a ride south from Deadhorse with a trucker.
“The world opens its arms to Lael,” Dawn says. “She’s so fun to be around that people just want to help her. Wherever she goes she has a group of people who just flock to her and help her. She’s very grateful, so it’s not like she ever expects anything.”
The very first trip Wilcox made that summer was a week-long journey covering more than a thousand miles from Anchorage to Deadhorse, including a trip over Hatcher Pass and a detour to ride the Denali Park Road. She’d never been farther north than Fox (just north of Fairbanks), so everything on the Dalton Highway was a new experience. The terrain was mountainous and there were few resources, but it was beautiful.
She was riding through Wiseman during the community’s Fourth of July celebration, which consisted of folk music and a cluster of tents to protect people from mosquitos. Wilcox stopped to check it out. People fed her. They let her take a shower. But she didn’t stay for more than an hour. She didn’t feel pressure, she simply wanted to ride and ride and ride. “I feel this desire to just keep going,” she says.
For the last few years, Wilcox has garnered enough sponsorships to ride full time. She spends most of her year traveling, riding, and racing. For a few months over winter, she guides week-long cycling trips through southern Arizona. No more hustling in restaurants or negotiating time off for cycling trips. “It’s cool because I can dream up more projects. Not only racing and my own rides, but hosting the girls’ program, women’s scholarships, and thinking of more ways to encourage people to do what I do,” she says.
The girls’ program Wilcox helps run is called Anchorage GRIT (Girls Riding Into Tomorrow.) She dreamed up the project a few years back during a trip with Rodriguez. For six weeks each spring, the women lead seventh-grade girls on cycling trips every day after school. The rides are to and from visits that expose the girls to female professionals in the Anchorage area. Each cohort culminates with a 60-mile, three-day adventure ride to Eklutna Lake.
A few years ago, Wilcox organized a scholarship for women who were cycling around Alaska. The winning entry was a duo of young ladies who rode bikes from town to town and blogged about climate change.
Wilcox says she never thought bike riding would turn into a career, but now that it has, she’s enjoying it as much as she can. She loves getting to see the world from the seat of a bicycle. “I feel like I’m planning more now than I ever have. I have more or less the next six months planned out which is kind of a lot for me. It’s normally more like two months. We’ll just see how it goes,” she says. “I’ll keep riding as long as it’s fun and I like it. If that changes, I’ll just find something else.”