Divide and Conquer

Lael Wilcox is the fastest female bikepacker around

We are stuck inside the frozen wrinkles of our sleeping bags, waiting for the sun to crest the poppy-studded southern California hills so we can start boiling water for coffee, when Lael Wilcox and her partner, Nick Carman, start arguing about her sleeping pad.

Carman thinks that Wilcox should get a new one since hers is toddler-sized and–in her words–“flaccid,” but she’s trying to convince him she’ll be fine. “It’s only a month,” she protests. “I’ll just get a Mexican blanket in Tecate.” “It’s a month, Lael, that’s the point,” says Carman, matter-of-factly. They discuss a bit further, and it’s clear that the back-and-forth is one of their rituals, that this isn’t really a “yes” or “no” decision but rather the opportunity for Wilcox to come to Carman’s conclusion on her own: She’ll be happier with a new pad.

Wilcox’s willingness to go without a sleeping pad for another month of exploratory bikepacking in Baja (she’d already been down there for two months routing the newly published Baja Divide course), where nighttime temperatures dip into the 40s, is an important part of the story; or rather, it’s illustrative of how Lael-who-lives-on-a-bike became Lael-the-reallyfuckingfastbikepackingracer (who, after the events are done, goes right back to being Lael-who-lives-on-a-bike).

Lael Wilcox
Wilcox and Carmen refueling.

You can’t jump straight into the Lael-the-racer story without dusting off a globe and tracing your finger along the East and West coasts of America, hopping across the pond to Eastern Europe, dipping down to South Africa and then back up to Cairo and Jerusalem. It’s apropos that Carman named Wilcox’s blog “Lael’s Globe of Adventure” when he set it up for her–the couple have laid down their bikes and set up temporary shelter from Albuquerque to Albania.

Wilcox, 29, took her first steps in Anchorage, Alaska where, she says, her childhood was totally normal. “Not a hippie at all. My dad’s a lawyer and my mom’s a teacher.” At 16, she left the Last Frontier on an exchange program.

“I wanted to go somewhere where they played soccer, like South America, ‘cause I was really into soccer,” she says. “But I signed up so late–it was like two months before I was supposed to leave–that none of those places were left, so they sent me to Denmark.”

The absence of soccer and the lack of communication–“For the first four months, I didn’t exchange a single word with my host father”–meant that Wilcox had to find other ways to fill her time. It was in Denmark, she says, that she discovered long-distance running. She also found an English-language shelf, packed with classics, in the local library. With running giving her body a purpose and the familiarity of language buffering her from loneliness, Wilcox learned to like being alone. A lot.

“I had never really spent much time alone because I have three siblings, so there was always someone around,” she says. “But I actually really like it, and it was easy for me.”

Lael Wilcox

Wilcox brought this newfound discovery of how much she enjoyed being alone, outside, and when she moved home to the U.S., she kept at it on the cross-country team at the University of Puget Sound. At this point, riding bikes was a way to get around (Wilcox never got a driver’s license in high school: “I was in Denmark, remember? And, my sister or friends all had licenses, so it just didn’t seem that important.”) until she met Carman.

“When I met Lael I had just gotten into bikes in a major way,” he says. “She’s pretty much been with me during my entire adult bike obsession.”

A self-taught mechanic and well-respected resource on what bike you can ride where (answer: almost any bike, almost anywhere), Carman’s first gift to Wilcox was an old red fixed-gear that he found in the attic. The couple soon went on their first big ride together (to Seattle from Tacoma because they couldn’t scrape together the bus fare to go visit Wilcox’s sister) and came home so empowered that they decided to save up and pare down and begin the next chapter of their life on bikes.

After Wilcox graduated, she and Carman worked in Anchorage for a summer (if they have a home base, this is it: Carman works stints at the local bike shop while Wilcox waits tables, gigs that have served them in other places, as well) and in the fall embarked on their first extended bike tour. They rode down the Eastern seaboard, narrowly avoiding the advent of winter before landing in Key West, Florida, where they shared a house with a Hemingway-obsessed Frenchman and drove pedi-cabs while winter stormed on up north. When Wilcox was kindly asked to resign from pedi-cabbing (for transporting more than the allotted number of customers), she and Carman took their tip money and headed west.

Fast-forward seven years and a few continents, and Wilcox is at the start of the Holy Land Challenge bikepacking race in Israel, with a frame bag full of sandwiches, a sleeping bag and a bivy. She’s wearing a cotton t-shirt, spandex running shorts and running shoes. She’s on a steel hardtail with beat-to-hell shifters, standing out in a sea of (male) kits and carbon. The other racers may have thought they knew something she didn’t, but the truth was, Carman and Wilcox had already toured the route multiple times, which is why she showed up in the first place.

Wilcox found herself 6th place on the first day, and as the day turned toward nightfall, and as the other guys stopped to resupply, eat and camp relatively early, Wilcox, said Carman, kept trucking until 1 a.m. and ended up 30 miles ahead of everyone else.

“They didn’t have the tenacity to do what she was doing. She knew what she wanted to do, which was not stop at all, which is why she packed all those sandwiches, never get off the route, didn’t stop to eat, didn’t stop to resupply.

“I did stop to eat!” she interrupts, “every time I ate, I sat down and ate.”

So even with sit-down meals, Wilcox finished the day way ahead of everybody else. A few days later, the race would be cancelled due to impenetrably muddy trails, but some form of victory was already hers.

“I had said that if the HLC went well, then I’d race the Tour Divide,” says Wilcox.

When I asked Wilcox how she heard about the Divide, she was gentle with me.

“We rode it,” she says.

Carman, on the other hand, was not so forgiving.

“Hear about it? It’s what we’ve been doing with our lives!”

I had forgotten: Lael-the-racer is the offspring of Lael-who-lives-on-a-bike, the shared DNA between them born from a comfort level with a lifestyle most people aren’t familiar with–sleeping on the side of the road, eating what’s in the hot case at gas stations, and going on runs and doing yoga–even when riding 50-plus miles a day. This stuff translates.

“I don’t feel bad during a race,” says Wilcox. “I feel good, and I’m not nervous beforehand, which helps a lot. But I’ve been around people who are lined up for a race and they look like they’re about to die, and that’s terrible, that level of expectation and standard. Some people can’t even show up to the start line. And even people with these long races, they do all this planning and preparation and never even start. Which is fine, but, fuck. Just go on a bike trip.”

After she got home from Israel and before the start of the 2015 Tour Divide, Wilcox took another bike trip. She rode from her childhood home in Anchorage to Banff, Canada, on roughly 2,100 miles of desolate highway.

“You gotta get to the start line somehow, and that’s they way I wanna get there,” Wilcox says. “I like the idea of it, and I like doing it, and I think it’s good preparation for the race, mentally and physically. Good to practice with my gear, good to see the connection between the two places.”

The ride from Alaska to Canada probably was good preparation for the race, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Wilcox from getting horribly sick within days of starting. The disconnect between her legs–strong and willing–and her chest–suffocating and on fire– was first frustrating and then worrisome. After a day that involved climbing four mountain passes, Wilcox rode 2 miles off-course to an urgent care in Helena, Montana. Fortunately, she was the only patient there, and even more importantly, they didn’t send her to the emergency room.

“I’m sitting there, waiting in the little gown, watching the clock. It was like listening to elevator music,” she says. “The doctor was like, ‘So when does the race start again?’ and I was like, ‘It’s still happening … and I’m still watching that clock.”

For most people, new diagnoses of bronchitis and asthma would have meant packing it in. For Wilcox, it was just something she had to take care of before getting back on the bike. While her experience touring is certainly fundamental to her ability to navigate the infrastructure of bikepacking races more easily than the weekend warrior, Wilcox reserves a different mindset for competitive events.

“Racing is an event that’s just happening then and there,” she says. “You show up, you do what you do, everything is happening within a certain frame, everybody committed to that time and place and then you see how it goes. And then at the end you just get results. No stories or excuses or manipulation, it’s just results. You gotta put your best effort forward, but shit’s gonna happen along the way.”

So, after a trip to Walgreens for prescriptions and a quick food resupply, Wilcox’s toptube bag became a medicine cabinet and she rode until 2:30 a.m., then hiked up ‘Lava Mountain’ to regain her position as the lead female (Wilcox eventually won the race and set a new women’s record).

Lael Wilcox

Wilcox knows that what she’s capable of in a bikepacking race is unique. Some people have called her a freak, someone who has a genetic mutation. Carman believes that it’s primarily the couple’s life on bikes–coupled with hard work and skill–that has led Wilcox to succeed. Her theory is more nuanced.

“I think it’s a combination,” Wilcox says. “I’m a bit of a freak, and it’s the experience. Because I ride 150 miles and then keep riding to 200. So at some point my body doesn’t fall apart and it doesn’t fall apart 10 days down the road when I’ve been doing this over and over and over. So there’s a combination of great experience, high urgency–which is what I would say for me is feeling like I want to continue and need to continue and know how to continue–so it’s like a trained level of ‘I know what it takes to make it keep going and my body just doesn’t go to shit day after day.’”

Back in Chula Vista, California, after coffee and Patsy Cline, we pack up our bikes to find the REI that’s a few miles from the field where we camped. With an hour or so to kill before it opens, we set up shop in the food court, under a large sign that says “Wi-fi Area,” Carman gets out his laptop, camera and GPS to plug in, and Wilcox strips down to her sports bra. She grabs the iPhone off of Carman’s handlebars and gives him a knowing look. One hour, he says. You have to come back and get a sleeping pad.

And with that, she’s off on her daily run, weaving through the parked cars, headed back toward the singletrack where we slept and the route we’ll later take to the Mexican border. She’d keep running towards Tecate if it weren’t for the fact that on the bike, she can go even farther.

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