For adventure bikepacking advice, ask Lael Wilcox. From the 2750 mile Tour Divide race – an MTB event that follows the US continental divide, to the 1120 mile Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan, she’s at home picking her way off-road through big, remote landscapes on a bike.
Given her propensity for going big on her goals and cycling routes, you might be surprised to read that Lael’s inner compass is not inherently functional. In fact, for the first years of her cycling life, the route planning was always outsourced to someone else. Her initial adventures by bike through Africa and South America were done with her partner, who was in charge of navigation. ‘I have a horrible sense of direction – I even get lost inside buildings,’ she claims.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way, so when Lael decided that she wanted to give the Holy Land self-supported bikepacking race a go in 2015, she figured it out. She hopped on the GPS bandwagon and hasn’t looked back since. In fact, she’s looked determinedly forward, adding different tech to her kit to ensure her rides are the best they can be. These days Lael uses komoot, a route-planning and navigation app, to configure her rides:
‘I went on my first long komoot planned ride over Christmas in 2017. I made a 311-mile route from Tucson, Arizona to Pie Town, New Mexico — a point to point trip. I didn’t look too closely at the route before riding it and was surprised to ride through the Salt River Canyon — which is so beautiful! Komoot has given me the ability and confidence to ride places I’d never expect or plan. It’s so much fun.’
I love riding a route before a race because I get to know it more intimately. I love experiencing the same terrain multiple times because every time is different
After five years as a pro-ultra-endurance rider, Lael loves riding her bike more than ever.
Her riding CV now includes big races like the Trans Am [a 4200-mile coast to coast road race], the Navad 1000 [a 621-mile ride that includes 100,000 feet of climbing over Swiss passes], and pioneering new routes like the Baja Divide.
She has also earned a name for herself as one of very few riders who ride to the start line. In 2019 she recce’d the Silk Road Mountain Race [in Central Asia] route before the event, rode 650 miles to the start of Dirty Kanza XL, and once made the journey from her home in Alaska to the start of the 2100-mile Tour Divide in Banff by bike. To Lael, time on the bike is invaluable to her success. Riding to races allows her to get her head in the game, test her kit, and let her body adapt to long days in the saddle. And when it comes to adventure, her quirk for riding routes before the official race doubles the fun.
‘I love riding a route before a race because I get to know it more intimately. I love experiencing the same terrain multiple times because every time is different— I’ll see a different section at a different time of day or in a different season, and can have a very different experience. For example, [my partner] Rue and I toured the Silk Road Mountain Race route last summer in July and most days it was 38°C. When I raced it in August, it snowed half of the days and the sub-zero night time temperatures were a totally different experience. But I really enjoyed both.’
Ultra-endurance queen Wilcox sums it up neatly: ‘I love to ride and I love to race and if I get to do both, I feel like there’s no compromise’.
Clearly she’s not letting a poor sense of direction stop her. And if route-planning and navigation are your own weak points, that shouldn’t stop you either.