Racing or riding, it’s all part of Lael Wilcox’s ‘dream come true’
How does the 34-year-old fit it all in? By being thoroughly stoked on everything she does.
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I call Lael Wilcox one afternoon in late February because I know that, soon enough, she’ll be nearly impossible to reach.
As someone who’s very often on the move, both literally and figuratively, Wilcox has been hunkered down in Tucson for the past few months. We speak the day after the first meeting of the Tucson chapter of GRIT — the Girls Riding Into Tomorrow program that she started in Anchorage, Alaska four years ago.
The new Arizona chapter riffs off of the Anchorage program — it’s a bicycle mentorship program for middle school girls — but unlike in Alaska, the Tucson program pairs each girl up with her own mentor.
Wilcox is excited to see how it goes.
GRIT is one of multiple new chapters unfolding for Wilcox in Tucson; last fall, she and her wife, photojournalist Rugile Kaladyte, purchased a home in the northwest part of the city. It’s a bold statement for someone who hasn’t lived anywhere permanently since her adolescence in Anchorage.
Yet the roots that Wilcox wants to put down in Tucson in no way mean that she’s slowing down or staying planted. In fact, having a warm winter home base is just another part of her dream come true.
“There’s only so much racing you can do”
When I first met Wilcox in 2015, it was all about racing. Or rather, that’s the story that people wanted to hear. Wilcox had been bike touring around the world for years, but she was also gaining notoriety as a very fast ultra-distance bike racer. One who wasn’t afraid of sleeping on the side of the road in grizzly country, or more often, not sleeping. In fact, when I pitched a story about the creation of the Baja Divide, a route Wilcox and her ex-partner created in Mexico, the editor’s response was, ‘that sounds cool, but we’ll take a piece about Lael.’
Wilcox’s many accolades on the bike include the women’s course record on the Tour Divide, the overall win at the 2016 TransAm, two Unbound XL victories, and numerous podium finishes and course records at ultra-distance bike-packing races around the world.
Like all professional athletes, racing wasn’t really an option for Wilcox in 2020 and even part of 2021. I wonder if this time served as an off-ramp from competition for the 34-year-old. Since then, she and Kaladyte have collaborated on numerous projects that are less race-focused and more about creating welcoming cycling spaces for women, like the Lael Rides Alaska scholarship program.
Wilcox says that at this point, racing and non-competitive cycling projects “are about a 50/50 split. There’s only so much racing you can do.”
Yet Wilcox still likes to ride her bike fast and to push herself to see what records can be set or what personal milestones can be met. After GRIT concludes in Tucson in April, Wilcox will go on her first very fast ride of the season: an independent time trial of the Arizona Trail (AZT).
A record — or even a completion — of the AZT is something that has eluded Wilcox for years. She’s toured the entire 800-mile route (the trail runs north/south across the state of Arizona), and in 2015 started an ITT but had to quit because her asthma was acting up. In 2019, she completed an ITT of the popular 300-mile route that runs north from the Mexican border because there was too much snow on the northern sections of the trail.
“This will be my first time back for the full route,” she says. “And they’ve done some reroutes which have made the route harder and longer.”
This does not deter Wilcox — in fact, the reroutes work to her advantage.
“Because of that, they set new records on it in the fall which is exciting because I could try and beat the men’s record at this point,” she says. “I’m like, ‘oh man, that’s my goal.'”
Yet while Wilcox is scheming to break records, another part of her brain is occupied with how to make this experience — bike-packing the Arizona Trail — something that anyone could try. So, she’s decided to invite women to the ‘start line’ with her on April 7th.
No matter their destination, whether the northern terminus of the trail or Picket Post, 300 miles in, Wilcox thinks that a mass start of sorts might be comforting and motivating for women bike-packers.
“So many women are curious about the AZT but also super intimidated by it — it’s hard,” she said. “But it’d be fun to get more women out there. It’d be a very lo-fi event — camp out the night before, and then start your ride together, competitive or not.”
She’s even going to suggest a 140-mile distance to Tucson to make things even more accessible.
This type of women’s-focused, “lo-fi” event is what Wilcox and Kaladyte are working on when Wilcox isn’t racing. One of their favorite new projects of late are women’s bike-packing challenges.
Last year, around 25 women signed up for the inaugural event, which was a tour of the Torino-Nice Rally, a 700-kilometer mixed gravel, and tarmac ride through the Alps from Turin, Italy, to Nice, France. Like many ultra-distancing bike-packing routes, Torino-Nice does have an official grand depart every year for people who want to race it or tour it together, and it’s also available for anyone to tour, anytime.
For the women’s bike-packing challenge, Wilcox says there was a loose affiliation of the women involved — a group start and then communication via a WhatsApp group message — and the expectation that the route would be finished in a certain amount of time. Wilcox loved last year’s event so much that she’s hosting another one in Catalonia, Spain in May
“You take 50 women, a beautiful route, and it’s so fun,” she says. “Some have a lot of experience and some don’t, but 50 miles a day is definitely obtainable. The event is free. You just have to register for insurance and information, and you figure it out when you get there.”
A sponsorship to dream
Wilcox is a master of figuring things out when she gets there.
In the seven years that I’ve known her, she’s gone from casual, albeit fast, bike tourer in a cotton t-shirt and sneakers to a heavily-sponsored media darling. Does it create pressure or annoy her?
“Not at all,” she says.
“Basically I make a dream schedule and send it to my sponsors. It’s the opposite of being required to do specific races or events. I get to say ‘this is what I want to do.’ It’s not a negative at all.”
“And,” she adds, “I think because the stuff I do is so fringe that they’re like, ‘just keep doing your thing. You’re gonna go ride 3000 miles by yourself? Go right ahead.'”
Wilcox is sponsored by Specialized, SRAM, Rapha, Komoot, and Wahoo, among others, and it’s their support that allows her to do things as seemingly disparate as a 1,400km ultra road race in Spain (she’s doing that after the women’s bike-packing challenge) as well as support a girl’s cycling non-profit in Tucson.
Another freedom that financial and emotional support allows her is the ability to say yes to projects and events that inspire her and no to the ones that don’t. With countless invites to both well-known and obscure events every year, Wilcox can’t say yes to everything. Nor does she want to.
“I’m like, ‘let’s focus on the positive events,” she says. “Like this race in Spain. These people are like, ‘we want more people on bikes, more women on bikes.’ I want to help those guys out and be a part of what they’re doing.”
Part of Wilcox’s obligations to her sponsors is, of course, content creation, but she says even that — constantly being in front of the camera — doesn’t really bother her. Especially when the person behind the lens is Kaladyte.
In fact, it’s important to Wilcox that Rue be a part of the documentary team.
“I don’t want to have problems with that,” she says. “We’ve chosen races where the organizers are thrilled to have her there. It’s [the documenting] has just become a part of it. I like it because it’s like if we don’t document it, it’s like it never happened. But it’s definitely been an adjustment especially if it’s not just Rue. Like, there are three dudes with cameras and it’s like, ‘I’m just trying to get some potato chips.'”
Wilcox doesn’t have a lot of downtime (her choice), and as she lists all of her events and projects through June, it’s clear she’s only getting busier. But she is characteristically stoked and never once complains or mentions how much work she has to do.
“It’s probably more work for Rue,” she laughs. “Everyone wants photos. For me, it’s pretty easy. It’s like my dream come true.”