Lael Wilcox Interview | Cycle Touring, Gravel Riding, Bikepacking & Beyond - Outdoors Magic

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Lael Wilcox Interview | Cycle Touring, Gravel Riding, Bikepacking & Beyond

In-between riding the Oregon Outback and the Hope 1000, we catch up with ultra-endurance bike rider and racer Lael Wilcox to discuss all things cycling, bikepacking and more

From winning the Trans Am Bike Race in 2016, to setting the women’s course record for the Tour Divide in 2015, Lael Wilcox’s list of long-distance cycling achievements is both awe-inspiring and ever-expanding. 

Earlier this year, Lael placed fifth in the Hope 1000 (first out of the women), having only recently completed the UNBOUND gravel race at the beginning of June. To put this into perspective, the Hope 1000 is a 1000km self-supported mountain bike race in the Swiss Alps with a whopping 30,000m of climbing. That’s over three times the elevation of Everest… and all after finishing UNBOUND’s 358 miles in the Flint Hills of Emporia, Kansas.

Photo: Rapha

Well known as one of the best ultra-endurance cyclists in the world, Lael started out in endurance cycling by touring around her home country of Alaska at the age of 20. One of her early projects was to set up the ‘Lael Rides Alaska’ femme-trans-women’s scholarship in Alaska and she also established a cycling mentorship in her hometown of Anchorage called GRIT (Girls Riding Into Tomorrow). This program aims to give young girls in Alaska the opportunity to ride bikes and learn new skills, culminating in a three-day bikepacking trip into the Alaskan countryside. 

In the midst of all this adventuring (including joining the exclusive Rapha roster in January), we caught up with Lael to discuss her favourite cycling races, her thoughts on UK riding and what the future holds for 2021.  

How was your tour of the Oregon Outback? I’ve heard rattlesnakes
are common in that part of the world…

We had a great time on the Oregon Outback – both for the tour and the time trial. For the tour, the first couple of days were hot and sunny. Then a winter storm rolled in, and it snowed for the last four days. It was too cold for rattlesnakes!  

“Riding bikes is the best way to see the world and get to know people.”

For my time trial, it was freezing at the start at 5am, but warmed up nicely over the day – probably the perfect time of year to ride as the summers get really hot.  

Generally, there are three big challenges on this route. Firstly, the soil is very loose and soft, so it’s quite a grind. Secondly, the wind near Hood River can be really intense and often changes directions (it’s most famous for windsurfing and kite boarding). And thirdly, the route passes through the high desert and water is very limited.  

You seem to be cycling non-stop, whether that’s racing or simply bikepacking in your down time. What is the biggest motivating factor to live your life this way?

I love spending time on my bike! Touring, racing, commuting and riding for fun are all different. I don’t know how to drive and have never owned a car. The bicycle is my main vehicle. I love competition, but also love touring because it allows me to spend more time in a place, interact with others and learn. Riding bikes is the best way to see the world and get to know people. I’m endlessly motivated to continue – there are always new places to go and races to compete in.

Photo: Rugile Kaladyte
Photo: Rapha

Is there a favourite route that you’ve cycled so far?

I just got back to Switzerland a couple of days ago to race the Hope 1000. It’s a 1000km self-supported mountain bike race in the Swiss Alps with 30,000 meters of climbing. I last raced it in 2018 and the route was extremely challenging and gorgeous. I’m so excited to be back. The race starts on June 19.  

Related: 6 of the Best Mountain Biking Routes In Valais
Related: Best Bikepacking Events UK & Ireland

I did a project a few years back where I rode all of the major roads in Alaska (about 8,000km). It’s so wild up there and it’s so far north that it’s almost never dark in the summer. It’s an incredible feeling to ride through the night in daylight. It’s also an amazing place to see wildlife – moose, bears, caribou, lynx, muskox, bald eagles.  

In 2019, I raced the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan, and Rue (my wife) and I got to tour the route before the race. What a beautiful place! It’s mostly high elevation (above 3000 meters) and people are still nomadic there. They put up yurts in high valleys in the summer for the horses and cattle. They mostly still ride horses. The mountain passes are massive – sometimes climbing 2500 meters in one go. We loved it there.  

Are there any places on your bucket list that you’re hoping to cycle in the future?

So many! I’ve wanted to ride in Georgia (the country) for years. There are mountains above 5000 meters, it has an ancient wine and bread culture, and even has its own alphabet. It looks like an absolutely stunning place. It’s so steep it might be better for walking than riding, but I think I’d want a bike there too. It also seems best to go in the summer – with such high mountains the weather is very temperamental.  

I’ve always wanted to ride the Torino Nice Rally – it just looks like a lot of fun. We hope to ride in New Zealand and Australia too. I’ve heard great things.  

Really, I’d love to ride anywhere with mountains.  


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A post shared by Lael Wilcox (@laelwilcox)

Likewise, are there any races you’re just dying to compete in?

I was supposed to ride the Race Around Rwanda, known as the “Land of 1000 hills”, last January but had to cancel our trip because of COVID. I hope we can make it happen in the next couple of years. 

Badlands in Spain looks like fun. I’d love to ride the Oregon Timber Trail. Any race with a beautiful route and lots of climbing is good for me –  it’s a great way to see the world.  

I read online that you’ve even been cycling in Scotland. How was that? How does the terrain and climate compare with other places you’ve cycled in?

It was fantastic! We got really lucky with the weather – it was actually sunny! We were there for the Dukes Weekender in Aberfoyle and got to spend time with Lee Craigie, Jenny Graham and Rachael Walker. I’d love to go back for more riding. I’ve heard really great things about the Highland Trail 550 and the Badger Divide.  

Related: Best Bikepacking Routes UK

Do you have a favourite place in the UK to cycle?

I haven’t gotten to spend too much time riding in the UK. We went a few years ago for a weekend in Hope Valley in the Peak District and had a total blast. We’d like to go back this August or September, weather permitting.  

What has been the most challenging aspect of your cycling career so far?

Initially, it was really hard to get the support of sponsors. Even after breaking the women’s record on the Tour Divide twice in 2015 and outright winning the Trans Am in 2016, I was still working full time in restaurants and bike shops to pay for my racing and travel. Media and storytelling play a big role in the work that I do. If I share stories about my rides, I have the ability to inspire more people to get out there and ride themselves. The tricky part is that I can’t be the rider and take photos of myself (and I’m not a good photographer). I’m so lucky to have Rue. She’s the love of my life and she’s also a very talented photographer. It’s really great that we can work together. 

“I’m extremely motivated to encourage more women and girls to ride.”

Since we’ve made videos together, we’ve gotten more support from different sponsors and that’s helped us transition from working other jobs to focusing on cycling and bike-related projects. This also gives me more freedom to organise GRIT (my girls’ cycling mentorship program) and host women’s scholarships. I’m extremely motivated to encourage more women and girls to ride. It’s not something I knew was an option when I was young and I’m so glad I stumbled upon it.  

And what has been the most joyous/rewarding?

I love being out there – all the beautiful places I get to see. I love pushing my limits. I love riding with Rue. I love meeting other bikepackers around the world that are passionate about the sport and encouraging others. I love how unpredictable it all is.  

What bike are you currently riding, and would you recommend it?

I rode the Oregon Outback and Unbound XL on a Specialized Epic Hardtail with Easton dropbars and SRAM AXS shifting. I love that bike. I first built it up for the Tour Divide in 2019. It’s a monster gravel bike.  

For the Hope 1000, I’m riding a Specialized Epic EVO. The last time I raced it, I was on a hardtail. I’m really excited to have full suspension and have more fun on the descents. 

“It’s an incredible feeling to ride through the night in daylight.”

I’d definitely recommend both of these bikes. Over longer distances, you cover a diversity of terrain. I tend to prioritize comfort (suspension, wider volume tires, more hand positions) because your body takes such a beating over time. If I’m in less pain, I ride faster.  

What is your must-have essential kit item?

Clothing is very important. Over long distances with sleep deprivation, it’s harder to regulate my body temperature. I always bring a good rain jacket and usually bring a down jacket as well. If I get too cold, I lose all of my energy, so I try to run a little warm.  

(As a side note, check out our bikepacking guide for more info on essential kit items for two-wheeled adventures)

Do you have any big cycling heroes?

I’m really inspired by Kait Boyle. She is the top female ultra-distance single track racer and has the capacity to beat all of the guys. She also does tons of work for mountain bike advocacy and land management.  

I love what Lachlan Morton is doing in the sport – both racing at the pro level and taking on huge bikepacking challenges.  

I’ve always been inspired by Lee Craigie and Jenny Graham and the Adventure Syndicate. Rachael Walker is an incredible organiser and rider and I’d love to do more with her too. 

What can we expect from you in the future?

There’ll be a video about my Unbound XL by Rapha – should be out in the next month or so. Rue shot a video about the Oregon Outback for GCN+. I’m riding a time trial on the Trans Alaska Pipeline (1380km from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska on a mix of gravel and pavement) in early July.  

I’ll be organizing another GRIT (girls riding into tomorrow) mentorship program in Tucson, Arizona this fall.  

It’s going to be a fun mix of rides, races and projects. 

Lastly, I’d just like to thank you for what you have done for both women and queer people in the cycling world. It’s honestly inspirational. And good luck in the 2021 Tour Divide!

Thank you! I’d really like to ride a time trial on the Tour Divide this August to try to break the overall record (13 days, 22 hours, 51 minutes), but it all depends on if the Canadian Border opens. It’s been closed for a year and a half. The route begins in Banff, Alberta, Canada, so we have to be able to cross the border to attempt an official record.  


For more info:


Main Photo: Rugile Kaladyte



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