“Keeping it real” on the Holyland Challenge, Israel, April 2015.
The HLC 2015 was Lael’s first bikepacking race and only her fourth bike race, after the Fireweed 400 road race across Alaska, a local hill climb up Hatcher’s Pass, and a fifty mile fatbike race in Anchorage called the Frosty Bottom. The Tour Divide is her fifth.
In the entire distance and duration of the Tour Divide, Lael never showered, never slept indoors, and only sat down to one meal, in Pie Town. Even at the Brush Mountain Lodge where she got wrapped up in an almost hour long conversation with the hospitable staff, she asked to take her blueberry pancakes to go. “Are you in a hurry”, asked the woman.
When we arrived in Israel from Sinai this spring, our plan was to follow the HLC track across the country, from south to north, then exit Israel by plane. Instead, we spent three months in Israel, riding circuits along the HLC track, in the Judaean Desert, in the Negev Desert, in the Golan Heights, in the suburban center, and in neighboring Jordan. We stayed long enough so that Lael could participate in the HLC, an event which is the cultural core of the Israeli bikepacking community, much inspired by the Tour Divide. Israelis were astounded at her performance in the event without clipless pedals, without padded shorts or cycling gloves, without a sleeping pad, and without much more than a pack full of sandwiches and a sleeping bag. The cotton t-shirt was also an anomaly in a culture obsessed with cycling kit and equipment. Her rusting steel frame and worn 8-speed drivetrain were incomprehensible to many. But that is what she had, that is what she had ridden for the last nine months through more than a dozen countries. In the week before the HLC we selected this novelty t-shirt from a suburban shopping center along the HLC track near Tiberias. This would be her race jersey for the HLC.
During the Tour Divide, Lael would call every day or two, usually while riding out of town. She was concerned about wasting time. In retrospect, I realized that she was so focused on the race she simply didn’t have the urge to report much to me. The ratio of how much I cared and worried about her to how much she wanted to call me was greatly imbalanced. I won’t hold it against her. We spend a lot of time together. Now that the race is done I’ve begun asking questions, and the answers I receive are incredible. We’ve toured together for over seven years. It thought I knew all of her secrets. But her secret solo dirtbag lifestyle is all her own.
In Sparwood on the first day, Lael ordered three foot long subs. She asked the Sandwich Artist to slice each footlong into four sections, and place each in a separate plastic bag. That way she could eat on the bike. She ate all of her meals on the bike in a similar fashion, a skill she developed on the Fireweed 400 last summer. After falling ill on the first night, walking up Galton Pass, and barely arriving in Eureka, she disposed of two footlong subs which she was unable to eat due to her condition. She wouldn’t consider another Subway sandwich along the route until Del Norte, where she packed a few sandwiches from the gas station for the ride up Indiana Pass to Platoro and Horca. She told me she hates the bread at Subway, “the bread is half baked”.
Asked which foods she preferred from the stops along the route, she clarified that she prioritized quick stops to ideal nutrition. The hot case in gas stations provided satisfying calories. She discovered that Fritos and cheese– packaged gas station cheddar and colby, or sliced orange American cheese, or even local cheese curds in Lima– packed well into her Revelate Gas Tank for easy access while riding. Now that’s a gas tank! She purchased Clif bars to augment the real food, which are now commonly available in American convenience stores. I’m sure there are a long list of food stories which will come out in time. I’d be surprised if she can remember half of what she ate.
She didn’t eat any candy. None. No gummy bears, peach rings, Mike and Ikes, Snickers, M&Ms. Near the end of the race, she started drinking some soda. Dry heat has a way of making you crave carbonation, sugar, and cold drinks. She mentioned that these drinks are packed with calories, which she’d be shoveling into her mouth one way or another. She always drinks as much water as possible when it is available, and packs as little as needed along the route. She relied upon tap water along the way, and frequently augmented that with untreated surface water when available to reduce the loaded weight of the bike, often using only a single water bottle. Her maximum capacity was about 4L, which she only used once when leaving Atlantic City at night. She used the bladder one other time when leaving Wamsutter, where she filled both water bottles and put an extra liter in the bladder. Riding towards the Colorado border, she ran out of water and went searching on a remote oil drill site, wandering into an office on a Sunday when no one was around. She found two half-liter water bottles, each with a few sips left. On the rest of the route water was not a challenge.
She drank coffee infrequently, only when it was convenient. Several times she pedaled out of town with a cup of coffee in her hand. She admits to consuming a 5 Hour Energy about once a day. She would pack it away for the morning. Rise, ride for a while, awake to the day naturally, then take it like a shot in the arm mid-morning and ride all day.
Her sleeping system consisted of a Western Mountaineering Summerlite sleeping bag and a Western Mountaineering HotSac, a VBL which doubles in this situation as an emergency bivy. This is equipment which she has been using for years. The sleeping bag has a busted zipper and the fabric is ragged and fragile. It has been repaired by hand in many places. On at least one night, she slept in her helmet, which she discovered was a comfortable solution to supporting her head and staying off the ground. She did not pack a sleeping pad.
On the coldest nights and mornings, she would wear all of her waterproof equipment to bed if needed. On the bike, this would help her warm up quickly. “Mornings are always slow”, she said, “but by the afternoon, you’ve already ridden a hundred miles and the weather is warm and you’re flying.”
The ride from Grants to Silver City is the longest section of the route without services– about 240 miles– except for the two pie shops in Pie Town. A store is several miles off route on the rural state highway, so not a worthwhile option to TD racers. Lael packed food for the ride to Silver City in Grants, expecting to miss business hours at the Pie-o-neer Cafe. As she rolled out of Pie Town Kathy yelled at her through the window to come back. She toured the kitchen and sat for two slices of pie and some leftover chicken pizza. Kathy’s husband Stanley reheated some coffee. Kathy packed several peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a banana for the road. Lael enjoyed a slice of peach pie and a slice of apple crumble.
Lael signed the TD pie registry, which will be billed to Salsa Cycles who sponsored each rider with two slices of pie, and noted Josh Kato’s name. I’d told her from Grants that he had won the race. Lael told Kathy. She was excited, and recounted how nice he was. Neil and Jay didn’t stop for pie, so Josh was the first rider to present his custom Salsa Cycles top cap for two free slices. Inside the cafe, Kathy asked to see the top cap. Josh went outside and removed it from his bicycle to prove to her that he was indeed a valid TD racer with the metal (and mettle) to prove it. Later that day, as photos of Josh and his top cap cycled through social media, a representative from Salsa Cycles called the Pie-o-neer Cafe to let them know that the racers don’t actually have to remove the top cap from the bike.
Exiting the Gila section of the route, turning onto the CDT, Lael ate her last handful of nuts from Grants and took her last sip of water. She would refill water near the end of the CDT section from a stream. She stopped at the McDonalds in Silver City at about 11:30PM with 128 miles left to the border. She packed 20 chicken nuggets, large fries, 8 cookies, a McDouble, and a french vanilla latte. She stopped at the gas station for a 5 Hour Energy and a few bars. Aside from this short stop in Silver City, she moved almost continuously from the road crossing at Highway 12 south of Pie Town, all the way to the border. That’s 275 miles.
At a gas station in Montana, a woman commented that Lael had “that windblown look”, referring to her hair. Thereafter, she kept her helmet on at all times.
Thirteen miles from the finish, a cat crossed the road. “It strutted”, with wide shoulders and pointy ears. Just when she thought this was a lackluster section of the route to an anticlimactic finish, she realized it was one of the most remote parts of the route, despite being on pavement. She saw one bear from Banff to Antelope Wells.
Lael Wilcox congratulates Joe Fox at the finish in Antelope Wells, NM, the least used border crossing between the USA and Mexico. Photos courtesy Monica Garcia. Top photo Nicholas Carman.