Not only did Lael Wilcox participate in the Tour Divide, she won it and set a new women’s record after riding over 2,000 miles from Anchorage Alaska to the Grand Depart in Banff. How are you feeling?

Pretty good. I fell on the last day of the TD, getting off of the CDT section before Pinos Altos, so my right knee is a little swollen and sore. Other than that, I feel great.

You started your tour by riding from Alaska to Banff. What made you want to do that?

I decided to race the Tour Divide while I was racing the Holy Land Challenge in Israel in April. We had a ticket booked to fly from Tel Aviv to Anchorage. I realized the timing was perfect. I could fly into Anchorage, put a bike together for the Tour Divide and then take off a week later to ride to the start. I’d never ridden or driven from Alaska to the continental US. It just seemed too great of a dream to pass up. In addition, during our nine month tour, we’d been riding lots of trail and not very much road. Most of the Divide consists of dirt roads, so I thought the ride down was a good opportunity for some road training.

How was that part of the journey?

It was awesome! The weather was unseasonably warm. I had lots of sun and 80 degree days. I saw about a hundred black bears (and even a white one) and camped out every night. I met great people along the way. The ride from Anchorage was actually more remote than the Tour Divide. There are a few hundred mile sections where I didn’t see any services. I generally resupplied at small stores or gas stations. I rode 100-130 miles a day for 19 days to cover the 2,100 mile stretch from Anchorage to Banff. I spent ten days in Canmoore resting before the start of TD. It worked out great.

lael wilcox
Leaving Anchorage. Photo: Nicholas Carman

You do a lot of long distance cycling year round, were you worried that would fatigue your TD run?

No. The more I ride, the stronger I get. I’m pretty tuned to my body. Most of the riding we do is sustainable.

How was the first week? We heard you had some respiratory issues. How did you overcome that?

I went out as hard as I could from the start. I was having a great time! During the first day, I started feeling my lungs burning. I figured they were just opening up and getting used to the elevation. In reality, I was actually fighting a nasty infection. In the evening, my breath shortened. I crossed a series of streams in the Canadian Flathead around midnight. It was pretty cold, but I was happy the night had cleared out, so I could sleep outside. I laid down around 1AM. By this point, I was gasping and wheezing. I couldn’t slow my breath enough to fall asleep, so a couple of hours later I got up to continue riding. I figured I’d get some cough syrup in Eureka and I’d be fine. I felt all right, but as the day progressed, my breath got worse and worse. I felt like I was breathing through a tiny coffee straw. I was trying as hard as I could, but no air was coming in. I had to climb three passes (Corbin, Cabin and Galton) before reaching the border at Roosville. By Galton Pass, my breath was so weak that I could no longer ride. I was slowly pushing my bike for five miles to the top. Close to the top of the pass, Rob from New Zealand caught me. He hopped off his bike, looked over at me and told me I was suffering. It was pretty apparent. From there, I cruised down to the border and struggled with the ten mile stretch from Roosville to Eureka. I called Nick along the way to tell him I was sick. I could hardly breathe enough to speak. He told me to lie down in a park in Eureka and take it an hour at a time. I really thought the race was over for me. I laid there for three or four hours, just focusing on my breath. Fortunately, I started coughing up loads of nasty bright green phlegm and I could breathe a little more easily. I called Nick back and told him I was feeling much better and that I planned to ride a few miles down the road, camp for the night and see how I felt in the morning. I bought Mucinex, Dayquil and several liters of juice and coconut water at the grocery store and headed out of town.

In the morning I felt much better. I had a great ride to Columbia Falls, but my breath declined through the afternoon. By the evening I was nearly in the same shape as I had been the night before– gasping and wheezing and hardly moving. I was making so many strange noises, I didn’t know if they were coming from me or the birds. By 9PM I was done. I pulled down a road marked “Private Property No Trespassing” and camped for the night. The mosquitoes were so bad, I had to huddle up in my sleeping bag and cinch the baffle tight. I felt like I was in a feather cave. I slept great.

The same thing happened the following day. I had an awesome ride over Richmond Peak, but was toasted by the time I made it to Ovando. I got a cheeseburger and fries to go from Ovando and camped down the road.

I called Nicholas from Lincoln the following morning. He suggested that I seek medical help. My condition didn’t seem to be improving. I rode 100 miles over three passes to get to Helena. In town, I rode two miles off track to go to the Urgent Care at St. Peter’s Hospital. The front desk attendant recommended that I go to the Emergency Room instead, because I struggled to speak when answering questions and signing in. I don’t have health care and knew that the Emergency Room would be more expensive, so I requested to be seen at the Urgent Care instead. The doctor took an x-ray of my chest because he suspected I had pneumonia. The x-ray came out clear. He gave me an extremely effective albuterol treatment and I felt much better. I got a prescription for an inhaler and antibiotics. I told him about the race. He said I would recover fastest if I rested, but he knows how athletes are and that I could go ahead and continue my race, but if I had any more serious problems I should seek medical help. I agreed.

I went to Walgreen’s to fill my prescription, Safeway to load up on probiotic drinks (Kombucha and Goodbelly) to combat the antibiotics, packed a bunch of chicken strips and headed out of Helena around 9PM. I felt so relieved from the doctor’s visit and so much better that I pushed over Lava Mountain in the dark and made it to Basin by 3AM. I slept for a couple of hours and got up to ride.

I felt great in the morning, getting up and over Fleecer Ridge by the afternoon and then declined again in the evening. I camped by a river and bad mosquitoes forced me back into my cave. Half an hour later I heard a voice call out “Lael?” I peeked out of my bivvy and saw a huge man standing over me. He was the owner of the High Country Lodge. He said they were just three miles down the road. He’d been tracking my SPOT and came to check on me because he thought I might have fallen in the river. I told him I couldn’t breathe, so I camped early. He said if I felt up to it, I could cruise downhill and sleep in a real bed. I said I was fine where I was. He said he hoped he’d see me in the morning for breakfast. It seemed very unlikely because I’d packed loads of food with the intention of pedaling straight through to Lima. I woke up in the night and saw a white fox hovering by my bike. I hollered the fox away. He kind of sassed me, staying close, but eventually scampered off. In the morning I looked into my framebag to find that the white fox had stolen all of my food besides a dry pack of potato rolls. He stole 12oz of salami, a large bag of fritos and 4 Probars. It was 107 miles to Lima. When I passed the High Country Lodge the owner was standing in the driveway, ready to take my picture. I hesitated. I really wanted to stay on the road. He told me his wife would fix me some breakfast and it would be quick and painless. I went for it. While I was waiting, I called Nicholas and told him I was still having trouble breathing. He asked how long I planned to continue if my condition didn’t improve. I told him my intention was to ride the Great Divide Route. If I didn’t start feeling better, I’d take a couple of days off and switch from racing the route to touring it.

I was able to ride strong that entire day, through the evening. I was so excited that I could breathe again! I didn’t have any serious health problems for the rest of the route and was able to pick up my mileage, despite lingering cold symptoms. Nicholas says I sounded like a chronic smoker.

Any other major hiccups along the way?

When I arrived in Pinedale, Wyoming I turned on my phone after resupplying at the grocery store. I had multiple text messages from Nick saying that I was off route and needed to go to the The Great Outdoor Shop in Pinedale. The owner of the shop helped me download the correct 2015 Tour Divide track.

I had downloaded the track in the middle of May before I left Anchorage to ride to Banff. I was unaware that the track had been updated after I left. I was off route for about ten miles around Union Pass, following what I now know is the old TD route. When I got to The Great Outdoor Shop, the staff welcomed me and the owner brought me upstairs to his apartment. He had already downloaded the 2015 track. The only problem was that the Garmin eTrex20 kept freezing every time I tried to load the track. I sat in the apartment for two hours, resetting the GPS, deleting the old track and trying to load the new one. The shop was pretty busy, so the owner would go downstairs to help a customer and then come back upstairs to check on me. Finally, he suggested that I try to load the track and then let the device sit for ten minutes and see if it would load. It worked! I was thrilled that I could keep racing. I packed up and hustled to Atlantic City. I arrived around 11:30PM. There was a rowdy party at the bar. They were blasting Lady Gaga, dancing and cleaning up a potluck. I filled water in the bathroom and headed into the Great Basin to camp.

I fought pretty nasty headwinds for the rest of Wyoming.

I got my bike serviced at Orange Peel in Steamboat Springs. I’d worn out my bottom bracket and it had started to creak. They did a fantastic job. They changed out my bottom bracket and brake pads and added sealant to my tires. I didn’t have any mechanical issues for the rest of the ride.

I had to stop in Horca, CO to resupply. When I toured this part of the route in 2012, there was a restaurant and a little store. This year, the store was under renovation, so I had to order food to go. They took an hour to make a couple of sandwiches and pancakes. I anxiously sat and sucked down buckets of Dr. Pepper while I waited. I have to say, the barbecue sandwich I got there was almost the best thing I tasted the entire trip– second only to Kathy’s pie in Pie Town– but it took forever.

I fell before Silver City at dusk, before my overnight ride to the border.

Lael Wilcox
Photo: Elizabeth Quinley, Abiquiu to Cuba on the Divide.

How much sleep were you averaging, did you get into a groove or was it pretty sporadic?

I wanted to sleep from midnight until 4AM every night. When I was sick, I had to sleep much more. When I felt better, I’d usually sleep four or five hours. The night before my final push to the end, I bedded down about 20 miles south of Pie Town around 10PM and set my alarm for 3AM. I woke up, packed up and rode two miles. My vision was blurry and I felt awful. I realized that if I didn’t get a little more sleep, I was going to have a really bad day. I pulled over and laid down on the side of the road. I kept my shoes and helmet on and slept for another three hours. When I woke up, I felt way better. I had slept for eight hours. That final rest gave me enough energy to push to the end. It was like I had slept for two nights in one go.

Did you know you were on pace to break Eszter’s record?

I rode 183 miles my first day before I got sick. After that, my mileage was pretty low. Once I crossed the Great Basin, I was ahead of the record for the rest of the race.

I don’t have a smartphone, so I couldn’t follow Trackleaders, check the weather, e-mail, etc. If I met people in town that were following the race, they’d tell me where I stood in relation to the record.

What was the most difficult section you had to endure?

I had trouble breathing for all of Montana. That was definitely the hardest section for me. I felt so limited.

Lael Wilcox
Shepherds in the valley of Valbona, Albania.

You raced the Holy Land Challenge and crushed it, what does the rest of your racing background consist of?

Those are my only two bikepacking race experiences and my fifth and sixth bike races ever. Other than that, I’ve raced a 400 mile road time trial called the Fireweed 400, a 50 mile fatbike race on snow called the Frosty Bottom, a couple of short course XC mountain bike races and a road hill climb.

I’ve always been a runner. I have done two marathons and two ultras, although I run almost every day because I love it, even when we are traveling by bike.

I spend most my time bike touring and just started racing because it looked fun. It is!

Did you know you would do so well on the Tour Divide, or what was your goal?

I had no idea how I’d do. My original plan was to go as hard as I could. If I blew up, I’d change the way I was riding. I was excited to race and put myself out there. My goal was to challenge myself and do my best.

Lael Wilcox
Photo: Nicholas Carman

What bike and components were you rocking?

Specialized Stumpjumper Carbon Expert World Cup with a Specialized Chisel carbon fork

SRAM XO1 11 speed

SRAM 36T direct mount chain ring.

SP PD-8X dynamo hub to a Supernova E3 Triple headlight and E3 Pro taillight

Syntace P6 Hi-Flex seatpost

XTR race pedals

Cannondale take-off saddle

Salsa Salt Flat handlebar with Ergon grips and aero bars

2.35 Schwalbe Racing Ralph front tire, to a Light Bicycle 35mm carbon rim

2.2 Specialized Fast Track rear tire, to the stock carbon Roval wheel

How about bags?

Custom Revelate Designs framebag, waterproof seatpack, a giant custom Jerry Can, along with a stock Revelate Designs Gas Tank.

Describe your sleep system.

I started with the Western Mountaineering Summerlite sleeping bag and Western Mountaineering Vapor Barrier Liner. I used the VBL as an emergency bivy. In Grants, NM I sent the sleeping bag home because the weather was much warmer and I’d torn a big hole in the bag the night before as I slept next to a barbed wire fence. I spent the final night sleeping in all of my clothes and the VBL. It was plenty warm.

How much water were you carrying?

I had a maximum capacity of 4 liters. I had a King Kage top cap, so I mounted a water bottle cage to my top cap and primarily drank out of that. I also had a bottle mounted to the underside of my down tube. I carried a 3 liter bladder for extra capacity, but only filled it twice– once in Atlantic City and once in Pie Town. Otherwise, I found plenty of surface water. I often only filled my top bottle. I’d stop when I’d see a stream, chug a bottle of water and fill one. I didn’t treat any of the water. I just drank it.

What was your daily food intake like?

I didn’t want to stop and wait for prepared food, so I mostly resupplied at gas stations. I’d load up on anything they had in the hot case– chicken strips, fried burritos, egg rolls, or anything else I could find. I found that fritos and cheese tasted almost like nachos, so I ate a lot of that. I probably ate about a hundred Clif bars. Whenever I stopped, I filled my bottles with juice or coconut water, kombucha and probiotic drinks if available. I packed nuts for long stretches as emergency food. I didn’t eat any candy, but by the end of the race, I was drinking a lot of soda.

The only meal I sat down to eat were the two slices of pie in Pie Town. Everything else, I’d take to go and eat on the bike. I’d dump chips or burritos directly into my Revelate Gas Tank and eat out of that. If I got off the bike to pee or change layers, I’d fill the Gas Tank with food and get back on the bike. In this way, I acted as my own aid station. I aimed to maximize my time on the bike. I figured any time I didn’t waste, could be spent riding or sleeping.

How awesome did it feel to finally touch the Mexican border?

I sprinted for the last eight miles of the route to the border. I actually rode all the way to the Mexican side of the border and the Mexican border guards gave me some pretty funny looks. I got off my bike and zoomed into my GPS screen to make sure it was the end. Sure enough, that’s it. It was kind of anti-climactic. I felt great, like I could ride forever. Then I stopped. Joe Fox was pretty close behind me and his dad was there waiting for him. We sat and talked. I took my shoes off. It started getting really hot. Then I felt tired. Joe came through. My friend, Monica Garcia, that lives in Silver City came to pick me up. Andres from Uruguay was a few hours behind and his girlfriend Cecilia was waiting for him to finish. We waited with her. She opened the back of her truck and we sat back there. We were tail-gating the Tour Divide! We sat in the back because it was shady, drank cold Coronas out of a cooler and laughed. Andres finished and we all hit the road.

When do you plan on hopping back on the bike?

I’m riding around town, but nothing serious for a little while. Apart from a swollen knee from my fall the last night, I feel pretty good. I think I’ll be good next week. I usually recover really quickly, to the point that I don’t often think about it.

You and Nicholas typically spend your winters in Alaska. Is that what you plan to do this year?

We hope to save money and go travel on the bikes as soon as we can. It usually takes five or six months to save enough to get back on the road. I work in a restaurant and Nick works in a bicycle shop. We work hard to fund our trips.

Anyone you’d like to thank? Nicholas has given me more support than I could ever imagine. While I was riding down from Anchorage and racing, he was working every day to save money for our next trip. He built my race bike and customized it so it worked perfectly for me. He taught me how to use the GPS. He gave me my first bike in 2006 and every bike after that. My parents for everything, always. Eric Parsons built fantastic custom bags. I was in and out of town in a week. He measured the bike’s dimensions on a Thursday and rode with me out of town the next Tuesday for the start of my trip. His shop is three blocks away from The Bicycle Shop where Nicholas works. Charles Tsai from Intelligent Design Cycles, who shipped an SP PD-8X dynamo hub to Israel before I raced the HLC. I’m happy to have reliable lighting. Mike, Chris and Ray at The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage, AK. They were immensely helpful in ordering my bike and providing shop space to prepare for the ride. The mechanics at Rebound Cycles in Canmore, AB for the great service before the race. Franz from Bell 2, John from the RV Park, Jeff in Jasper; Michelle, Les and Courtney in Canmore; Keith and Leslie in Banff, Mike McElveen, Elizabeth Quinley, Andy and Stella, Brent Hill, Greg Bosch, Kirsten from Brush Mountain Lodge, Montana High Country Lodge, Kathy from the Pie-o-Neer Cafe in Pie Town, the mechanics at Orange Peel in Steamboat, Monica Garcia, Lucas O’Laughlin, my doctor in Helena, Joe Fox, my friends in Israel, Alaska, and everywhere

9 Comments

  1. Mike Cohen

    Why should an outstanding athlete like Lael work in a restaurant for a living?
    Can’t Specialized sponsor her?

    • Charlie Bader

      If we all tipped her $50 each time we ate there, it wouldn’t take long for her to get back on the road.

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  3. Dana VanVoorhees

    I agree with Mike’s comment. I’ve ridden part of the Divide and know how difficult it is to ride day in and day out and I was at touring pace. What Lael did was mind blowing, not just because of her athleticism, but also the mental aspect to do those big mountain miles each day requires absolute discipline. I’d be curious to see if Lael will start mountain bike racing. The interview stated she thought it was fun. I think she would be an instant superstar! And the sponsors would certainly follow. She is strong and really impressed all of us fans out here who followed The Divide Race! What a fantastic performance!

  4. Tough as, disciplined, she should be sponsored. Great write up.

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