Lael Wilcox is one of the best known names in women’s cycling. She has won or set records on countless ultra endurance routes over the last ten years.
I was so honored to get to sit down with Lael to chat about her plans for a 2024 Around The World record attempt, her women’s rallies, what it’s like being the recipient of so much criticism online, and much more.
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Stuff We Discuss In This Episode
- Lael’s plan for attempting a cycling record around the world, including route planning and challenges.
- Her experiences with online criticism and its effect on her.
- Thoughts on being a female role model in cycling and encouraging more women to participate.
- Tips and advice for women interested in starting bikepacking or racing.
- How she’s developed mental toughness and dealing with discomfort in races.
- Discussion on avoiding burnout and addressing health issues like sleep deprivation in long races.
- Why Lael prefers bib shorts and what she does with the chamois.
Connect With Lael
More Episodes You Might Enjoy
- Bikepacking For Beginners With Laura Heiner
- A Bikepacking Adventure Thru Pakistan, India, and Nepal With Eliza Sampey
- Adventure Cycling & Cartooning With Tegan Phillips
About The Host
Kristen Bonkoski is the founder and owner of Femme Cyclist.
An avid cyclist for a few decades now, she took to cycling during her late teen years — a time when she needed something to help boost her self-esteem and confidence.
Mission accomplished, the sport has become an important part of her life. Kristen’s favorite disciplines are mountain biking and bike commuting, although you can also find her cranking out a century on her road bike and touring with her husband and son. If it has to do with two wheels, she enjoys doing it.
Kristen is a certified USA Cycling coach, and she runs Rascal Rides, a website about biking with kids.
Full Interview Transcript
Transcript has been edited for clarity.
Kristen: Lael, it’s great to have you here today. Many of our listeners probably know who you are, but for those who don’t or are new to cycling, could you introduce yourself?
Lael: Absolutely, Kristen. I’m Lael Wilcox, originally from Anchorage, Alaska, now living in Tucson, Arizona. I’m an ultra-endurance cyclist, participating in races across countries and soon, around the world. My races are typically self-supported, involving days or weeks of continuous riding while managing my own food and lodging needs.
Kristen: You’ve mentioned your big plan for 2024. Could you share more about that?
Lael: I’m thrilled to share that I’m aiming for the around-the-world cycling record. It’s a massive undertaking, requiring a self-planned route of at least 18,000 miles, heading either east or west, and crossing two antipodal points – for me, that will be New Zealand and Spain. My wife recently got me a couple of globes to help visualize this dream. The journey involves commercial flights between continents. It’s a dream I’ve had since my cross-US race in 2016. With a wide-open schedule next summer and a passion for cycling every day, I’ve decided to go for it, starting this May in Chicago.
Kristen: Will this being the longest race you’ve ever done change your logistics or daily routine?
Lael: Definitely. My longest race before this was 18 days across the US, sleeping about five hours a night. For this race, I plan to sleep five to six hours a night with more frequent maintenance stops. There’s more planning involved, like scheduling bike services, booking plane tickets in advance, and staying in hotels every few nights for charging and rest. My goal is 110 days, averaging 163 miles a day. This gives me some leeway for unexpected events. The current women’s record is 124 days, and I aim to beat that by at least two weeks. It’s about setting lofty goals, striving for them, and understanding what’s possible.
Kristen: Are there any areas or sections of your journey that make you nervous?
Lael: Not really nervous, more so excited, especially about exploring new places. I’m looking forward to riding across Turkey to Georgia. Georgia fascinates me with its high mountains, unique alphabet, and cultural origins of bread and wine. Southeast Asia is also on the list, like riding from Bangkok to Singapore. The logistical aspects, like ensuring my bike arrives safely and dealing with potential breakdowns, can be a bit worrisome. But these challenges are just part of the adventure.
Kristen: Will you carry more spare parts than usual?
Lael: Not really, but I need to be aware of where the nearest bike shops are, especially in remote areas. The key is to keep riding, even if the bike is not in perfect condition, until I can get it fixed. Worrying about every possible problem isn’t helpful, but being prepared is essential.
Kristen: And your wife will be accompanying you, right?
Lael: Yes, she’ll be traveling by car to document my ride. In Europe and Asia, she’ll likely have someone to drive while she focuses on filming. In places like Australia, New Zealand, and North America, the roads are more straightforward, so she might manage on her own.
Kristen: You’re well-known in the ultra-endurance cycling community. What sets you apart?
Lael: I think it’s been a combination of factors. I’ve been in this sport for almost a decade, and being a woman who has won significant races like the TransAmerica has certainly helped. Making videos about my rides has also connected me with people. They see someone of average height and size accomplishing these feats and think, “If she can, maybe I can too.” It’s about encouraging others to face their fears and try new challenges. I want to inspire, especially women, to believe in their strength and capability. It’s not about suffering or being miserable; it’s about exploring what’s possible and not being afraid to try. Seeing women participate and grow in confidence through these experiences is incredibly rewarding. I believe in being kind and tough simultaneously, and I think that resonates with people both in and outside of cycling. It’s about taking this mindset into all aspects of life, giving yourself the chance to try new things, and being okay with the uncertainty of the outcome.
Kristen: You’ve been a lightning rod for criticism and mean comments. Has this affected your joy in biking or pursuing your goals?
Lael: While it hasn’t taken away my joy in biking, it definitely hurts. It’s tough being the subject of unfounded accusations and rumors. The online space has grown with people quick to criticize without face-to-face interaction, which feels cowardly. My approach has been to focus on the positive and avoid negative spaces. Despite many uplifting comments, it’s human nature to dwell on the negative ones. But, I’ve learned to let it go. The more exposure you get, the more criticism follows, and I understand that not everyone will be happy.
Kristen: Do you think some criticism, particularly from men, is due to gatekeeping in the ultra-endurance community?
Lael: Yes, a lot of it feels extremely sexist. What’s more hurtful is when it comes from women in the community. It’s disheartening when we’re already few in number. I see men in similar roles not facing the same scrutiny. I believe in sharing stories rather than tearing others down, but the inconsistency in treatment is evident. The goal of my videos is to encourage more people, especially women, to try these challenges. When women in the sport get attacked, it sends a discouraging message, but I don’t believe adding more negativity is the solution.
Kristen: Have there been women who have lifted you up in this journey?
Lael: Absolutely! There are many women who have inspired me, like moms who balance family and their passion for cycling. Direct human interactions, like going on rides or bikepacking trips, truly change lives and culture. I organize women’s bikepacking rallies to foster this community spirit. It’s about transforming individual lives and empowering them to become leaders in their communities.
Kristen: Could you tell us a bit about the women’s bikepacking rallies you organize?
Lael: Sure! We organize rallies where we cover about four hundred miles over eight days, primarily in mountainous regions. We’ve hosted five in Europe and one in Tucson. The rallies attract 50 to 70 women of all ages, ranging from 19 to 70 years old. We provide a route, a start time, a pre-ride dinner, and a finishers party. The participants choose their daily distance, sleeping spots, and riding companions. The rallies are non-competitive and focus on the experience of being out there. The growth has been tremendous, from 21 participants in the first year to over 1600 applicants for a rally in Slovenia. We keep the groups small, especially as the routes often pass through remote towns. The presence of a large group of women cyclists is still a rare and exciting sight in many of these places.
Kristen: That’s incredible. In my experience with a women’s bikepacking group in Idaho, we’ve seen similar reactions in small towns. It’s quite a sight for the locals!
Lael: Exactly, it’s an exhilarating experience for everyone involved. Seeing a group of women cyclists is still unusual and it’s exciting for people we meet along the way.
Kristen: What advice would you give to a woman interested in bikepacking or bikepack racing?
Lael: For beginners, I recommend starting with an overnight trip. Choose a destination, pack your bike, navigate, sleep out, and return. This helps build confidence and familiarizes you with the essentials. For those with more experience, choose a route that truly inspires you. The desire to explore and experience beauty is crucial, as it keeps you motivated during challenging moments. It’s important to pick something that matches your effort and enthusiasm.
Kristen: Do you think mental toughness is natural for you, or have you developed it over time?
Lael: I believe I’ve become mentally tougher over time. Dealing with discomfort, like extreme cold, becomes more manageable with experience. I’ve learned to be less reactive to pain and discomfort, recognizing these as familiar challenges. I’ve always been driven, but now I’m less hard on myself, even though I might put myself in tougher situations.
Kristen: How do you manage to ride so many miles without getting burnt out?
Lael: I’ve definitely experienced burnout, but my tolerance has increased. I keep coming back to it because I love being outdoors, exploring beautiful places, and creating rich memories. There’s a kind of selective memory for the pain, similar to forgetting how bad it is to be swarmed by mosquitoes once you’re away from it.
Kristen: What about the health aspects, like sleep deprivation and extreme physical exertion?
Lael: Being outdoors and cycling is healthy, but pushing your body to extreme limits isn’t. Sleep deprivation, especially in races where you go days without proper rest, is probably the worst aspect. I’ve realized that races that take a week or more are better because they necessitate sleep. Lack of sleep affects decision-making and physical well-being, so even a short rest can be beneficial for performance.
Kristen: One common concern among women is discomfort from sitting on a bike for extended periods. Any advice on that?
Lael: It varies from person to person, but I don’t use a chamois and have a comfortable saddle. Standing up frequently and moving around on the bike helps. It’s important to keep trying different shorts, saddles, and positions until you find what works. Gradually increasing riding time before a big event also helps in building tolerance.
Kristen: I read that you cut the chamois out of your shorts. Do you still do that?
Lael: Yes, I still do. I prefer bibs with shoulder straps rather than a waist strap, so I just cut the chamois out.
Kristen: Your approach inspired me to try that as well. I’ve never liked riding with chamois, and cutting it out was a revelation.
Lael: It’s especially useful for bikepacking. When you’re out day after day, a dirty chamois that can’t be washed and dried properly becomes a problem. Cutting it out simplifies things a lot.
Kristen: Absolutely. Before I ask my final questions, where can people follow your journey? And do you have any sponsors you’d like to mention?
Lael: You can find a bunch of my videos on YouTube by searching my name, and I’m also on Instagram. I’m fortunate to do this as a job and have been sponsored since 2018. I’m currently sponsored by Specialized, Wahoo, and Rapha. For my around-the-world trip, I’ll have a tracking page up, and I hope people will join me for parts of the ride. My route in North America is set, so it would be great to have folks ride along with me.
Kristen: That sounds fantastic. What bike or bikes are you currently riding?
Lael: I’m heading to Alaska next week for the Iditarod, so I’ll be on a fat bike, a Corvus, an Alaskan brand, to acclimate for the race. I’ve been in sunny Arizona, so I need to adjust to the cold and snow. Besides that, I mostly ride specialized road and mountain bikes. I enjoy mixing it up – long rides, trail riding, and road cycling. No downhill stuff for me, though.
Kristen: What’s your favorite place to ride?
Lael: There are so many incredible places. Alaska, my home state, is always special because of its unique beauty. Last year, we had a rally in the Canary Islands, which was like being in Jurassic Park. The islands are so diverse – some volcanic, some lush and green. Connecting the islands by ferry was fantastic. I also love riding in places with mountains, like Switzerland and Italy, for both the stunning scenery and the delicious food. Kyrgyzstan was another standout for its breathtaking Alpine views. Essentially, I’m happiest anywhere with expansive, mountainous vistas.
Kristen: Your answer might change after your around-the-world trip next year!
Lael: Absolutely, I’m sure it will!
Kristen: Finally, what do you love most about riding your bike?
Lael: The most thrilling part is the start – that first pedal stroke, moving from indoors to outdoors, or rolling out of the tent. It’s exhilarating to feel the wind as you begin a journey. Riding during the most beautiful times, like sunrise or sunset, is extraordinary. These moments feel like stolen time, when the world is typically asleep or busy, and you’re there to witness something magical. Those experiences are truly special.
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