Lael Wilcox Returns to Colorado for CTR in Quest for Bikepacking Triple Crown
By Kath Agathon
August 8th, 2023--In the elite world of ultra-endurance bike racing where everyone who rides is automatically a badass just for doing it, Lael Wilcox is the queen of badassery.
How badass is the recently turned 37-year-old Wilcox? For this year’s Tour Divide, she rode over 4,000 miles from Tucson, Arizona, up the California coast, and landed in Banff, Alberta (where the race begins). Quite the warm-up for someone about to embark on a grueling 2,745-mile self-supported bike packing race along the Continental Divide.
Let’s pause for a moment and appreciate that feat. While most mortals fly or drive to the race beginning, she rode her bike.
Who does that? Who actually bikes across several states to Canada, only to turn back around and head south again? Wilcox, that’s who.
“I’m driven by dreams. When I see a long distance on a map, I want to push myself and ride it and see what happens,” said Wilcox.
This spring, she embarked on a self-described “challenge ride” and left Tucson on April 23 and arrived in Banff on June 23, logging in several thousand miles. While this wasn’t her first time riding to the Tour Divide race start (in 2015 she rode from her home in Anchorage, Alaska, to Banff) it’s an impressive feat considering that this year’s “warm-up” was nearly twice the distance.
In June, Wilcox took first place in the 2023 Tour Divide women’s category with a finish time of 16 days and 20 hours. While this was her fifth Tour Divide, this was her first time winning. Did the warm-up of 4,000 or so miles help her to win? I wondered. Were warm-up rides of several thousand miles the secret (albeit somewhat masochistic) sauce to winning the Tour Divide?
According to Wilcox, it was her elevated sleeping kit that may have been the secret sauce this time around. “You know, I rode to the start when I first raced it in 2015, but that was from Alaska. This time it was nearly twice as long from Arizona, so that was different,” she remarked.
“This year, I did bring a more substantial sleep kit. I had a better sleeping bag and a sleeping pad; kind of more stuff than I’ve ever brought before. It turned out to be great because I ended up getting pretty sick out there so it was good to have a bit more layers,” she continued as she calls me from the road on her way to Montana.
Known for her down-to-earth friendly vibes and infectious laugh, Wilcox is the most laid-back person you will ever talk to and she made me feel immediately comfortable.
No wonder she has legions of fans who practically swoon when her name is mentioned. Fans who can easily rattle off her accomplishments and gnarlier feats as easily as reciting multiplication tables. Or someone knows someone who hung out with her in the PNW and thought she was the nicest person ever or another acquaintance who knows her because Wilcox’s photojournalist wife, Rue Kaladyte, photographed her wedding.
Apparently, it’s Wilcox’s world, and we just live in it.
Right after she called, she warned that her voice was still raspy from her ride and that cell service might drop at any time. Impressed that she even took the time to do an interview, the warning prompted the most relaxed, yet perhaps quickest rapid-fire Q&A in my interview experience.
Wilcox talked about her Tour Divide win and her Triple Crown aspirations then shared her thoughts on more general topics. What popular subjects do ultra-endurance riders think about and discuss? The inevitable bike mechanicals and food. (If you want to know what her Spotify music playlist for epic rides is, click here).
The beginning of the “hardest for sure” Tour Divide was marked by seven days of severe rain and wind. The mud was so thick that the trails became nearly impassable and several bikes had to get rebuilt. During those times of struggle, Wilcox found that her uber sleep kit and her rain gear had become some of her most precious commodities.
In addition to the sleep kit, she listed her three most critical pieces of gear.
“This year was definitely the rain gear. It rained for the first seven days really, really strongly so there was a lot of rain, thunder, and lightning. Beyond that, I have a lot of electronics. Like I have electronic shifting, I have to charge my Wahoo, and I have my phone, so having a big power bank was super essential to keeping everything charged. The last thing I’ll say is that I have dynamo lighting that works out of my hub so I can speed through the night, so those three things are really important,” she said.
Despite having a trove of well-planned gear (her complete bike setup can be viewed here), Wilcox almost didn’t finish. The combination of thunderstorms and a brutal headwind took a severe toll on her lungs and throat, an experience she describes simply as “getting torched.” Dehydrated and vomiting, she had to stop and get an IV at New Mexico hospital.
After receiving treatment, she mustered enough strength to continue, and eventually win, the final leg with a 125-mile lead over second place Tour Divide women’s finisher, Katya Rakhmatulina. “I would say it was pretty bad ass this year that there were 29 women and non binary riders- the highest number ever! They really came out and rode strong. It was so cool to see so many women reach the finish, which is very different from previous years and I hope that number keeps growing!” remarked Wilcox.
While the combination of bad weather and health issues made this year’s Tour Divide the most difficult one she has undertaken, it was also the most rewarding: she won. The 2016 Trans Am Race champion and Tour Divide record holder (she set it on her own outside of the race in 2015), was now a Tour Divide champion as well.
After taking time off in July to do to the Colorado Trail with Kaladyte (her main goals were to “acclimate, practice pushing her bike, spend time outside and have some fun”), she will return to the Centennial State this month in her quest for the Triple Crown of Bikepacking (Tour Divide, Colorado Trail Race, and Arizona Trail Race).
Bikepacking Triple Crown
The Colorado Trail Race takes place August 13 and runs from Durango to Denver and follows the entire CTR route. “Of the three, the one I’m most excited for is the Colorado Trail Race. I’ve never raced it, I’ve toured most of it, and it is super, super beautiful!” exclaimed Wilcox.
“I just love Colorado in general; it’s such a great state! The race starts in Durango, so I’m looking forward to spending time there. I’m also going to visit my sponsor Osprey in Cortez, where they are building me a custom backpack for the Arizona Trail Race portion of the Triple Crown. Colorado is super beautiful and the people are so kind. So I’ve got a lot to look forward to,” she continued.
While Wilcox is exuberant about the Colorado Trail Race, she does not take the challenge of the grueling October 19 Arizona Trail Race lightly. “The hardest of the three is definitely the Arizona Trail Race. I’ve raced that before. It’s also the last one, so that will be the toughest of the three,” she said.
What could possibly make the Arizona Trail Race more challenging than the much longer and geographically diverse Tour Divide? Well, for starters, part of the Arizona Trail Race requires racers to carry their pack-laden bikes 26 miles through the Grand Canyon near the end of the race. How does one even train for that? You just do it, said Wilcox, who has carried her bike through the Grand Canyon three times. If there is an opportunity to practice doing it, then go, she urged.
“Basically if you know you have the opportunity to go somewhere to hike with a bike on your back it’s a huge help and I mean it really hurts. It’s a real haul; really hard and really awkward, but worth it!” she exclaimed. “At the end of it, you’re still in the Grand Canyon which I think is one of the most beautiful places on earth,” she added.
The worst mechanicals
All of the ultra-endurance races are self-supported, which means mechanicals will and often do happen. For someone like Wilcox, you have to imagine she’s experienced some pretty bad mechanicals during her storied career; anecdotes that only serve to enhance her legend. “Oh I’ve had several (bad mechanicals),” she laughed.
One time while riding the Trans Am, her seat post broke and she had to ride 50 miles while standing up until she could reach a bike shop to get a new one. Another occurred when she was racing abroad.
“During the French Divide, a guy crashed into me at mile 70 and ruined my rear wheel to where it wouldn’t even clear the frame. There were no bike shops for days and days. I couldn’t get it fixed so I just had to smash it straight into the sidewalk and it was super wobbly and janky for the rest of the ride for another 1,400 miles. It was crazy!” she exclaimed. “But I’ve never had any mechanical that has totally taken me out so I feel super grateful for that. Really, as long as you can keep air in your tires you can ride a broken bike for a really long time,” she continued
Gas station sustenance
If you’ve ever seen Wilcox’s 2019 film, I Just Want to Ride, you’ll recall a scene where the Tour Divide racers are going through a drive-thru at a Canadian McDonald’s. Can ultra-endurance racers eat junk food while racing? Is that recommended? I wondered.
“Oh, it’s basically an eating competition and you’re eating anything,” said Wilcox, who has had a “rough time” eating junk food, and has switched to eating more “real food, which is actually pretty good. You know if I ended up at a gas station and I’d be cooking frozen meals in the microwave like lasagna and pasta dishes and those were actually pretty good. But the best though, is ice cream. Always ice cream,” she said.
What gas station food to avoid? “Probably anything that comes out of that roller hot dog machine. So, you know, taquitos, hot dogs, corn dogs, especially if you pack them for later. One time I had an eggroll that came off of one of those things -(she pauses for dramatic effect)- Wow. Really bad!” she laughed.
For Wilcox, Colorado is a “super beautiful” place where the roads are smoother and the people are kind. “Every time I get to Colorado during the Tour Divide, I am so grateful to be there. This year, I had a huge reception of fans coming through Salida so that was really, really sweet. I also had some friends meet me in Steamboat Springs where I got my bike fully rebuilt. I have some great memories from there,” she concluded.
Hopefully, a win on her inaugural Colorado Trail Race later this month will make her memories of Colorado even sweeter.
Photo credits: Rue Kaladyte