Many people in their lifetime have probably come across the famous quote said to be coined by intellectuals such as Mark Twain and Confucius: “Find a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” And while it's a phrase most people would have heard, it is one that is often not a reality for many. But for Lael Wilcox, this is her reality – a true passion for what she does, felt every single day.
She radiates this zealousness, even through the computer screen. Her smile is contagious as she talks so enthusiastically about her job as an ultra-endurance bike rider and racer and the meaningful work she is trying to accomplish on two wheels. It would be hard to be in any sort of bad mood after speaking to Wilcox for five minutes. She makes you want to get on your bike and see where the road will take you. This is certainly the motto she lives by anyway, and one she has carried with her since she first started riding.
Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Wilcox was 20 years old when she first started cycling. Having never owned a car, she used to walk everywhere but was fed up with the amount of time it was taking to get around, so in searching for a quicker alternative she found the bike. “I was borrowing a bike that was super huge, and I remember I had to go down a big hill to get to work and then ride back up to get home. I thought 'this was horrible, why would anybody do this'?” Wilcox reflected, amused by her naivety of where her career would end up going.
“That was my start. But I quickly came to realise how simple I could travel and how far I could go. I started riding to the next city and then I thought, ‘Well, if I can do that, then maybe I could ride across the country?’” she added, clear that fear has never held her back from jumping into the unknown. Within a few months of cycling longer and longer distances, she set off on her first trip down the east coast of the US for three months, working at the endpoint to save enough money to continue her travels and do it all over again. And the more she travelled, the more routes she needed, so found a clever way to quickly make the routes she needed to follow. But then one route led to another, and an opportunity arose to complete one of the routes at the same time of an actual race.
“I started to learn about bikepacking races and at first, I was not thinking about racing, but I was using their routes as my own travel routes because I thought if somebody has made this for a race, it’s probably pretty good,” she explained. “I was cycling around Israel, about eight years ago, and I realised I would still be in the country when the race [Holyland Challenge] was happening. My thinking was, this is a really cool route, I’m enjoying myself, so I will just enter this race and see how it goes. I had no expectations. I didn’t even know if I could finish it. It was on a mountain bike too and I am not a mountain biker, so I thought I would just show up and see. I was the only woman and I was in a cotton t-shirt and running shoes.
“By the end of the first day, I was winning the race and I really loved it. It was like all of a sudden, instead of just pedalling to the next town, I was super excited to be competing. I never expected that. It was invigorating,” she beamed as she recalled the thrill she felt in that first ultra-cycling race. The many boundary-pushing aspects that have become synonymous with ultra-distance races like this, such as sleeping on the side of the road for barely 10 minutes to cycling throughout the night, might put some people off, but for Wilcox, she thrived off these aspects, and from the first experience of racing, a whole new world opened its doors to her.
“After that race, my idea was to go back to Alaska and then ride down through Canada to the start of the Tour Divide,” she said. “Then I would race the Tour Divide down to Mexico, and that was exactly what I did. It was a dream trip.”
Wilcox not only went on to complete the Tour Divide for the first time (after riding hundreds of miles from Alaska), but she broke the then women’s world record by more than two days, completing the 2,745-mile race in 15 days, 10 hours and 59 minutes. In 2023, she lined up for the enduring Tour Divide race once again, her fifth time completing the epic race across America. It is a race distance only few will accomplish in their lifetime, let alone complete the race five times. Wilcox has competed and often won the women’s category many times since her debut race; Badlands, Migration Gravel Race, Trans Balkan Race, Baja Divide, Navad 1000, Arizona Trail 800, Kromvojoj, and the list goes on.
Looking at her life now, Wilcox could never imagine being a doctor, a career her parents thought she would achieve after her studies. “It’s a lot of time inside,” she laughed. “I really respect it, but I think I would look out the window wishing I was outside.”
She touches upon the fact that her parents have always been very supportive of her and her three siblings, never pushing them into things they didn’t want to do or did not enjoy, and instead, letting them find their own paths. She thinks this is why she has continued to enjoy this “strange” career she has because her parents saw how much she was enjoying it and let her pursue this dream. In the end, she has found so much more than just a job and a means of travel.
“At first, it was a question of whether this was possible for me, and that was what gripped me,” Wilcox said. “All of that started it for me and now I can’t believe I get to say this is my job. I never thought I would be a professional cyclist. I feel so grateful for that.
“This year, I am going after the around the world record and I think that it is good also to find something that is new because that somewhat scares me. It doesn’t feel possible. It is a thought that keeps me up at night thinking, what if my bike breaks? What if this goes wrong? It’s hard to wrap my head around.”
But this is also what Wilcox says pushes her to achieve these things – the adrenaline running through her body as she aims for such a monumental task. She is aiming to beat the current women’s record, held by Jenny Graham, by two days, completing the around the world trip in 110 days. “I’ve been dreaming of doing this since 2016,” she added, when asked why has she chosen this year to go with the big record. “It's now the right time."
While racing and completing such long distances on her bike is the main thing she loves to do, there is also another element now she is getting to enjoy – sharing her passion. Wilcox runs two initiatives aimed at two different social groups: women and young girls. For women, she partnered up with the navigation and route planning app Komoot in 2021 to hold the Women’s Rally, an adventure cycling event open to women, non-binary and trans riders who want to take on a big adventure in a supportive group, ultimately breaking down barriers in adventure cycling by making it more accessible and less daunting.
2023 Komoot Women's Rally
“The first one we ran had like 20 women, and it was a lot of friends who I had asked to come along,” Wilcox stated. “Then, last year’s one, which we did in Slovenia, we had over 1,600 applicants. I know the sport has grown for men and women, but seeing that growth in women wanting to go on adventures is amazing.”
She then encourages young girls to explore the outdoors from a young age through her Tucson GRIT programme, which has been running since 2017. It is a mentorship program that sees students aged between 11 and 13 build up for six weeks before cycling and camping out at the end. Wilcox feels it is extremely important to get young people outside, especially now with phones and social media. She added: “If they are on a bike, they can’t have their phones in their hands. Instead, they are outside, looking around and talking to somebody in person. They don’t have to be great athletes either. I think that is what is so great about bikepacking, at any age, you don’t have to be an athlete, just somebody with the desire to take on a challenge.”
And Wilcox is proof of just that. Starting at 20 as a way to get to work, she was by no means an athlete, but she had a desire to explore the world we live in and found no better way to do that than on a bike. Now she’s preparing for an around the world trip in May for four months and has inspired many people across the world to take that step, be curious about adventure, dive right in and just enjoy it – even if it is just to the next town along.
Before she heads off on a three-hour training ride, she finishes with: “I am at this point now where I am 37, but I am still excited every day to just be out there. It is still so much fun.”