Long-distance endurance cyclist Lael Wilcox ’08 is an unexpected champion. Now, she’s helping to build a culture of adventure and perseverance among girls in Alaska.
Lael Wilcox pedaled into Deadhorse, a dusty industrial outpost on Alaska’s northern coast, at 6 a.m. on an early July day in 2017. Midsummer in the Arctic, the sun doesn’t set; it just skids along the horizon to the north before rebounding to make a wide halo across the sky. Lael had ridden through the night to the end of the state’s most northern highway—the “Haul Road”—the thoroughfare by which 18-wheelers (driven by the famed “ice road truckers” in winter) supply Alaska’s North Slope oil fields.
Having toured and raced across the world, Lael wanted to explore her own state. She took on the mission of riding all of Alaska’s major roads—some 4,000 miles. The ride to Deadhorse had taken Lael past Denali’s snowy peak, over the Brooks Range, and across Alaska’s coastal plain: 520 miles in three and a half days. Lael was tired and hungry. She walked into the low-slung Prudhoe Bay Hotel, where she took off her bicycle shoes and tucked into a $12 buffet of pancakes, hash browns, sausage, fruit, and coffee.
The Alaska Heart Lines project, as Lael calls it, has been a homecoming of sorts for this 31-year-old who has spent much of the last decade exploring the world from a bike saddle. Lael is a fourth-generation Alaskan, a rare thing in a place where more than half the population was born someplace else, fetched up in this huge state for a job, a military post, or an adventure. Her great-grandfather, a Lithuanian immigrant, settled in a rough little town wedged in the foothills of Alaska’s mighty Wrangell Mountains, where he opened a clothing store in 1916 and set out to convince men who traveled by dog team and spent their days mucking about for gold and copper that they were in need of fine menswear. And he succeeded.
With only one person per square mile in this state, Alaska’s roads feel like big, empty bike trails to Lael. She’s seen bears, moose, caribou, foxes, and a group of musk ox—like a herd of brown couches—on her rides. And she’s been welcomed everywhere. In the tiny community of Wiseman, where there’s no cellphone or electrical service, locals invited Lael to join a weekend-long folk festival where musicians huddled in a tent to escape the mosquitos, and a kind stranger provided a shower and a sandwich to go. In Nome, she pedaled by a massive offshore dredge, and gold miners invited her to join them for a beer. People have offered places to stay and return rides in cars, trucks, and airplanes. As she rides across this expansive state, she’s inspiring other people to get out and adventure by bringing “life to the map,” she says.
A rider to be reckoned with—by male and female cyclists alike—on long-distance races, Lael has been relentlessly athletic since she was a kid but didn’t take to cycling in earnest until she started commuting by bike to an off-campus waitressing job during her senior year at the University of Puget Sound. Then, because she didn’t have a car or bus fare, she pedaled 40 miles from Tacoma to visit her sister in Seattle. That ride convinced her she could cycle anywhere. And she wanted to.
After graduating with a B.S. in natural science with a double major in French literary studies in 2008, Lael headed out across the world. With her partner at the time, cyclist and blogger Nick Carman, she bike-toured 100,000 miles across Europe, Southern Africa, Baja California, and the Middle East. She pedaled past camels in Egypt and castles in Europe, sipped rakia with shepherds in the Balkans, and ate lamb with South African farmers. Cycling has become how she learns about the world. It is a vagabond lifestyle, and Lael picks up jobs here and there to save up for the next bike adventure.
During a three-month stint in the Middle East in 2015, Lael entered Israel’s Holyland Challenge, a 900-mile self-supported mountain bike race that ends on the shore of the Red Sea. She’d never done anything like it, and when she pulled up to the start, the first woman to ever enter the event, other competitors looked at her dubiously. She was wearing a baggy T-shirt to their streamlined biking jerseys, old running sneakers to their technical cycling shoes. But 24 hours into the race, she had a 25-mile lead, and ended up finishing in second place overall. Something had clicked for her: She could do this.
That summer, Lael walloped the women’s record on the Tour Divide, a devilishly rugged, 2,745-mile race that follows the spine of the Rockies from Canada to the U.S.-Mexico border, and requires as much vertical climb as if riders summited Mt. Everest from sea level seven times. And that was after riding 2,100 miles to the start in Banff, Alberta, from her parents’ gray split-level in Anchorage, her crash pad when she’s not on bike. Sharing the road with porcupine and dozens of bears along the way, she used the solitary ride as a way to get in shape—physically and mentally—for the race.
Despite suffering from a lung infection while on the Tour Divide route and detouring to pedal herself to an urgent care clinic, Lael came in sixth overall among more than 150 entrants. Her performance in the race attracted the attention of REI, Outside magazine, and Specialized, which now provides her with bikes.
There is nothing glamorous about these long endurance rides. Lael’s fingers go numb, and she gets so thirsty that she’ll drink out of any nearby puddle without treating. Her nose bleeds spontaneously. Races become a junk food binge out of convenience store hot cases. She travels extra light—without a sleeping bag because of the weight—shivering at night in an uninsulated sack. And the sleep deprivation is excruciating.
But once something clicks in Lael’s head to take on a challenge, she can’t shake it.