LOTS OF PEOPLE ride bikes to work, to school, or to the grocery store. But few put the kind of miles that Lael Wilcox does. For the past three years, she’s pedaled 20,000 miles every 12 months. Lael is the first to admit that such mileage is “kind of insane.”
Lael is an ultra-endurance bike racer. She’s set new course records on the nearly 3,000 mile long Tour Divide race. As a warm up, she rode to the race start in Banff, Alberta, Canada from her home in Anchorage, Alaska, another 2,100 miles away. And she beat out everyone—men and women—at the 2016 Trans-Am race, a 4,000-plus-mile push across the continental US.
In 2016, Lael Wilcox won the 4,200-mile Trans Am race outright, beating both men and women. That cemented her status as the best cyclist in the world at riding incredibly long distances. But what makes a seemingly mellow person push to the edge of exhaustion for thousands of miles, battling other riders to see who can sleep less and ride more? Lael’s life is one of movement. The Anchorage native didn’t start endurance racing until 2015, but within two years she’d won both the 4,200-mile Trans Am race and the 2,745-mile Tour Divide. She set the first fastest known time on—the Baja Divide, a 1,700-mile route through Baja California. In 2017, she co-founded a program called GRIT (Girls Riding Into Tomorrow), a six-week course to teach Anchorage middle-schoolers about biking.
Lael didn’t set out to be a racer. For more than eight years, she traveled with her boyfriend Nicholas Carman, whom she met while studying French literature at the University of Puget Sound. Nick gave her a fixie so she could ride the four miles to work. One day, when she couldn’t afford the $3 bus fare to visit her sister in Seattle, she rode there—45 miles—instead. Once Lael had finished, she was certain she could ride anywhere. So she did: She and Nick rode down the East Coast, and traveled the world on bikes, crossing Africa, the Middle East, and North America. They lived like that, riding until money ran out, working until they could afford to leave again. They were happy. When you’re Lael Wilcox, every minute represents either progress or a missed opportunity. The thought of wasting time agitates her.
When she’s not traveling, Lael sells bikes at the Bicycle Shop in Anchorage. It’s the oldest bike shop in Alaska, built in 1964, and still caters to families and kids, in addition to adventure cyclists. “She’s super good at selling bikes,” her coworker Christina Grande says. “Sometimes people ask, ‘Do you ride?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah.’ You’d never even know that you’re talking with someone amazing. And she keeps busy. You never have to remind her. She always has to move around, restocking or doing the dishes.” In quiet moments, Lael does planks in the shoe section.
Lael holds the record for The Great Divide
first published in Bicycling & Wired