Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
A little-known racing novice just cycled her way into the top ranks of ultra-long-distance athletes by breaking the women’s record on the grueling Tour Divide trail this summer – twice.
Alaska native Lael Wilcox rode the 2,745-mile off-road race from Banff, Canada, to Antelope Wells, N.M., at the U.S.-Mexico border in June in 17 days, one hour and 51 minutes, besting the previous women’s record holder by two days.
Mapped over four years and approved by the Adventure Cycling Association in 1998, the Tour Divide is the grandfather of “bikepacking” tours that are now sprouting up worldwide. It traces a winding line through Alberta and British Columbia in Canada; then through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico over the Continental Divide. The route takes cyclists over the Rocky Mountains, through plains, pine forest and desert.
In New Mexico, the route runs through Abiquiu, Cuba and Grants in the north, then cuts through El Malpais National Monument, down to Pie Town and Silver City in the Gila National Forest, and finally through the desert of Hidalgo County to the Mexican border.
It’s billed as the world’s longest off-pavement cycling route.
Conditions on the trail are as extreme as the distance.
Cyclists climb nearly 200,000 feet during the course – nearly seven times the vertical climb from sea level to the peak of Mount Everest.
Wilcox broke the women’s record for the grueling race while riding with a case of bronchitis that made it hard to breathe. It was only her second long-distance “bikepacking” race ever. And by the time she started, she had already biked 2,100 miles from Anchorage to Banff, just because.
Braving stretches of hail and mud, Wilcox did it again this month and broke her own record by 39 hours when she powered to the finish in Antelope Wells last Sunday in 15 days, 10 hours and 59 minutes.
That made her the first rookie Tour Divide rider to ride as a veteran in the same season.
“I was curious to see how it would be to be out there all alone,” she said. “I wanted to ride the route being healthy.”
Riders have to rough it
Tour Divide riders carry a GPS tracker that guides them on the trail and marks their official time, no matter when they race. About 150 riders participated this summer, a number that has risen slowly but surely as the race – which began in the early 2000s as the project of a few dedicated adventure riders – grew to its present size and began incorporating tracking technology.
“The official race happens every June, but you can go after the record at any time of year,” Wilcox said.
Unlike the 2,087-mile Tour de France, where riders have entire teams providing food, water, shelter, massages and spare tires, Tour Divide riders must go it alone. If their bike breaks down, they fix it. With more than 100 miles between some watering holes, riders must carry the provisions they’ll need to pedal through. They camp by the roadside when no town is in sight.
“This is the truest form of cycling,” said Jamie Thomson, whose Bike House in Silver City provides shelter to Tour Divide riders. “There is no one to help you out. You are in the middle of nowhere dealing with grizzlies. You don’t know where your limits are. You will face them on that tour.”
Thomson, who raced the Tour Divide in 2009, has seen Wilcox in action.
“She is just a joyful rider,” he said. “That is what gives her an advantage over the folks who are angry with the trail. It’s all about how you tell yourself how to keep going.”
Wilcox may be new to bikepacking races but she and boyfriend Nicholas Carman, who blogs about their two-wheeled exploits, have spent years working just enough to pay for their bike-touring lifestyle, including a winter working in Albuquerque in a restaurant, at Two Wheel Drive bike shop and on Old Town Farm. They have ridden across Eastern Europe, South Africa and Israel.
What motivates Wilcox? A recently discovered competitive streak, she said, and curiosity. Easy to say when the sun is shining. But it’s a special mindset that allows her to push through even the toughest headwinds, the thickest mud, the driving rain.
“It’s like a moving meditation,” she said. “It comes and goes. Once things are going well, it’s super exciting, it feels like a huge boost. Sometimes, you have to wait out the bad stuff. It’s like bad weather; it’s not going to always be raining. It’s going to get better.”