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.

Lael Wilcox ’08

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. 

That was the case when she entered the Trans Am Bike Race, a 4,300-mile, coast-to-coast marathon of misery and mettle, during the summer of 2016. Like the Tour Divide, the Trans Am is one of a handful of self-supported endurance cycling events across the globe where participants agree to be independent for the entire route. There are no checkpoints, no water stations, and no back-up vans. And there’s no purse. Cyclists enter for the sheer pleasure and pain of it. They keep pedaling mile after mile, day after day, fueled by a bewildering alchemy of determination, passion, and roadside food.

Lael’s warm-up for the Trans Am was about a 1,000-mile ride to Haines, Alaska, where she rolled her bike onto the state ferry. The race began in the seaside town of Astoria, Ore., and followed roads and small highways through 12 states to Yorktown, Va.

After the challenging, rugged track of the Tour Divide, the endless pavement of the Trans Am route left Lael bored. But she plugged along, stopping to sleep for three, four, or five hours a night, sometimes in a bivvy along the road, sometimes in a motel to power up the electronic shifters on her ultralight Specialized bike. She fueled up on gas station pizza and chocolate milk—aiming for 10,000 calories per day—which she consumed while pedaling. When it got hot, she dunked in roadside streams, shoes and all.

By Missouri, there was only one rider between Lael and the finish, an experienced road cyclist from Greece named Steffen Streich. As the riders pedaled into the Appalachian Mountains of western Virginia, the route became steep and remorselessly hilly. This was the kind of terrain that excited Lael—the challenge of it kept her alert. She pushed hard, and by the middle of the night 17 days after leaving Astoria, she was only 20 miles behind the leader.

That night, a mote of luck drifted into Lael’s headlight. It was Streich, riding toward her in the dark. After waking up from a catnap on the side of the road, he had begun cycling the course backwards in a delirium of fatigue. Almost instantaneously the two riders had equally portentous realizations: Streich comprehended that he could lose the race; Lael recognized that she could win it.

“We’ve been battling this for two weeks,” Lael remembers Streich saying to her, as they pedaled shoulder to shoulder along a dark road in rural Virginia. “Let’s just finish this together,” he suggested. But his proposal fell flat. “I was like, ‘No way! I get to race you!’” Lael says. She took off toward the first predawn rays. One hundred miles to the finish, she had dropped him.

The next morning, after pedaling through the night with only 30 minutes of sleep, Lael rode to the finish line in Yorktown. She arrived in 18 days and 10 minutes, clocking in two hours faster than Streich, hacking three days off the women’s record, and becoming the first woman to win an unsupported long-distance cycling race and one of the best endurance bicycle racers in the world.

•   •   •

“Excuse me, Lael,” the girl whispered. “I think I’m going to die.”

The quiet voice belonged to Amei Gove, a 13-year-old who, when not on her bike, typically had her head in a book. She was a participant in a bike mentorship program that Lael and friend and fellow cycling advocate Cait Rodriguez designed for middle school girls in Anchorage last year, six months after Lael’s Trans Am victory. The grand finale of the program was a 65-mile ride to a remote cabin at the edge of a glacier-blue lake where the girls and their leaders would spend the night to celebrate. The route took the group into the foothills of the Chugach Mountains, which flank Anchorage to the east, and included a steep, 1,800-foot climb.

The girls in the program had struggled to tackle small hills when they’d biked around Anchorage. During the final ride, they were faced with a small mountain.

But Amei—and all of the girls—kept going. They pedaled, they pushed, they stopped for swigs off their water bottles. On the huge hill, as with the rest of the program, there was nothing competitive. “They could ride as fast or as slow as they wanted,” Lael explained, “just as long as they stuck with it.” 

Lael and Cait named the bike mentorship program Anchorage GRIT (Girls Riding Into Tomorrow). While pedaling together along a 1,700-mile tour down through Baja, Mexico, the pair had imagined what they would have wanted to do when they were in middle school, that time when you’re sandwiched between childhood and adulthood, between aspirations and anxieties, between the world of play and the increasing awareness of the realities of life.

The goal of the six-week program was to get the girls riding safely and confidently around the city. Beyond that, Lael and Cait wanted to help the girls feel empowered to dream up their own adventures and make them happen. Participants came from Anchorage’s largest middle school, a low-income Title I school where a diverse student body speaks some 96 different languages, and from a magnet school that attracts kids from all over the city.

With corporate sponsorship and a little bit of fundraising, GRIT outfitted the girls with their own bicycles and  helmets that they’d be able to keep after the program ended. The group met two or three times each week for rides and special sessions on biking safety, bike maintenance, navigation, mountain biking, and stretching taught by a cadre of women experts, including an Olympic Nordic skier and a representative from a local cycling equipment company who helped the girls make their own bike bags. These women served as additional mentors, helping the girls see opportunities they’ll have as they grow up.

Through short rides and workshops after school, and longer rides on weekends, the girls learned how to negotiate weather, traffic, and routes that took them between trails and roads. They learned how to grease their chains and change a tire. And they made new friends, with girls who might never have crossed their paths otherwise.

Lael doesn’t stand like a champion. She hunches her lithe, 5-foot-7-inch frame slightly, in a typical getup of jeans, a T-shirt and Birkenstocks. Her short, chestnut hair flips over to the side, sometimes covering one of her eyes, which are blue as a noonday sky. “Ha!” she’ll often crack at the end of a sentence, chuckling at what she just said.

In GRIT, Lael is less a teacher than a fellow rider. She leads through enthusiasm, through friendship. “Lael is about one of the coolest women I’ve brought into my daughter’s life,” Joanne Parent, mother of one of the GRIT girls, said. “She believed in all the girls.”

Less than a month into the program, nearly half the bikes were stolen from a storage unit outside one of the  schools. The girls were devastated. Lael cried. 

Clearly, GRIT lessons went well beyond bicycles. “They got to see that sometimes things don’t work out, and that’s OK,” Lael said.

But Lael is the kind of person who looks at a water bottle as half full. “We’re not going to stop,” she thought. That afternoon, the bikeless girls walked to their GRIT meeting a mile away. And when word got out about the theft, people in Anchorage responded. Within a day, they’d raised $10,000 and had gotten offers from strangers to buy bikes for the girls. They replaced the bikes and still had a nest egg to expand GRIT the following spring. Lael and Cait plan to share the program with communities across Alaska to get as many girls out riding as possible.

A buzzword these days among parents, teachers, coaches, and CEOs, “grit” refers to a quality of perseverance, of stick-to-itiveness for reaching big goals. When it comes to success, researchers say, grit may be as important as talent and opportunity—maybe even more so.

When Lael is riding hard, she falls, she cries, she bleeds. “If I set out to do this,” Lael says about times when things get tough, “I’m going to finish.” Grit is about riding even when you think you can’t. It has nothing to do with not falling, and everything to do with getting back up again.

Among the GRIT girls, Natalie Buttner was notorious for falling. She fell when her bike hit ice, and she fell when it hit snow. She fell going uphill and going downhill.

Natalie had moved to Alaska from Connecticut a few months before GRIT started. She was nervous that first day in her new school. It felt so much bigger than her old one, where she’d left behind friends she’d known for years. And in the GRIT program, everyone seemed to be riding faster—and better—than Natalie.

“Falling is part of riding,” Lael explained to the girls. This champion cyclist has fallen off her own bike too many times to count. She flew tail over teakettle—an “endo” in cyclese—over her handlebars while riding in Baja when she hit a patch of sand at the bottom of a steep drop. The fall knocked her out and fractured a vertebra, but she was low on water so she kept riding to the next town. On an Anchorage route last spring, she slipped while pedaling across a narrow bridge and cracked two ribs. A week later she was rolling side by side with the GRIT girls on their culmination ride.

On the last day of the program, after Natalie had made the huge climb for the final night at the cabin, where the girls spent hours telling stories, laughing, and playing games, she fell on the ride back out to meet up with the parents. She slid 15 feet down a steep bank along the trail and was covered in sand. The impact broke off one of her brake levers. Grit filled her mouth. Her long blond hair splayed around her, Natalie lay on the dirt looking up at the concerned, helmeted faces above her. They were like a canopy of trees, with the huge, bright Alaskan sky behind them. Then she did just what Lael had shown her how to do. She got up and kept riding.


By Miranda Weiss
Published Feb. 1, 2018
Photos by Rugile Kaladyte

Miranda Weiss is a science and nature writer living in Homer, Alaska. Her natural history memoir, Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska, was a best-seller in the Pacific Northwest. She has a biology degree from Brown University and an M.F.A. from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The American Scholar, Alaska magazine, and elsewhere.