Lael Wilcox bikes alone across U.S. in 18 days
June 27, 2016 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Last week, Lael Wilcox demolished the field at the Trans Am Bike Race, a 4400-mile unsupported trek from Oregon to Virginia ("unsupported" means she had to carry all of her own supplies). Wilcox shattered the old women's record by three days and became the first woman and first American to win the race.
Wilcox crossed the line after averaging 235 miles per day for 18 days, sleeping just three to five hours per night. Despite her incredible performance, her win was promptly met with derision on Facebook by men who assumed she must have cheated. [Jezebel spoke to Wilcox] on Saturday about the ride, about her detractors, and what it’s like to crush a race previously dominated by men.
posted by Etrigan (35 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Last year she beat the women's record on the Tour Divide on her rookie outing, with bronchitis.

The race started in Banff. Wilcox lives in Anchorage. She cycled from Anchorage to the start.

"But before the Divide, you figured you’d just do a 2,100-mile prologue. Doesn’t that seem like a bad idea?"
'Everyone told me, “That’s too much,” and “Don’t do it. Just take the ferry.”'
posted by morganw at 11:38 AM on June 27, 2016 [11 favorites]


235 miles/day. Loaded. HOLY CRAP. Brava to her!
posted by suelac at 11:38 AM on June 27, 2016


Oh fuck you, men.

Also, from the comments of the Jezebel story:

Samuel Cheuvront, a research physiologist for the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, agreed. “I can’t think of any reason why men would have an advantage over women at these lengths,” he said. “At distances over 2,000 miles, you are negating the benefit that males have due to increased muscle mass and aerobic capacity.”

Cheuvront was quick to point out that in long-distance swimming events measuring more than 20 kilometers, women consistently outperform men. In part, this is based on the increased buoyancy that women have, which comes from a higher body fat percentage.

This would not be an asset on land as it is in water, but Cheuvront sees two competitive advantages that women may have, especially in a self-supported effort where water may be scarce and where the athlete is constantly at a caloric deficit. First, they generally have smaller frames, which decrease heat production and produce less water loss. The second reason is that women have higher estrogen levels, which give them the potential for greater use of more abundant body fat stores.

posted by Huck500 at 11:40 AM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


OK, not fully loaded: her entire setup weighted 35 lbs, which is hella light for a tour. Looks like she had almost nothing on the bike, and in her interview she says she stayed in motels for at least half of it. Dumping the camping gear really lightens the load.

Which is a wise strategic choice and I celebrate her badassitude!
posted by suelac at 11:47 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


That's an amazing time, and amazing feat. But it always struck me that these feats of endurance can't be healthy. 2 weeks with only 3-5 hours of sleep combined with pushing your body to the maximum for the rest of that time? That has to be damaging to the brain.
posted by dis_integration at 11:51 AM on June 27, 2016


wtf, this finished just down the road from me and I never heard about it? i literally could have ridden my bike there.
posted by indubitable at 12:07 PM on June 27, 2016


235 miles/day

Holy crap, fully loaded or not. Looking at those times for Race Across America, Pete Penseyres made it 3,107 miles in an intense 8 days 09 h 47 min, for about 369 miles per day, but that's with a full support crew, not carrying any extra weight. His average speed (15.40 mph) from that 1986 race was only bested by Christoph Strasser, first in 2013 at 15.68 mph, then he beat himself at 16.42 mph the next year.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:08 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


i literally could have ridden my bike there.

That doesn't narrow it down much, given who else rode their bikes there.
posted by Etrigan at 12:11 PM on June 27, 2016 [27 favorites]


Last year she beat the women's record on the Tour Divide on her rookie outing, with bronchitis

She actually raced the Tour Divide—which is 2700 miles long—twice last year; once in June for the mass start event, setting the women's course record, and then again in August as an individual time trial, because she thought she could improve on her time (which she did). She is unbelievably good.
posted by enn at 12:20 PM on June 27, 2016 [7 favorites]


I wouldn't want to drive across the United States in eighteen days, never mind bicycle. I'm impressed.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:25 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


That has to be damaging to the brain.

From a profile of long-distance cyclist Jure Robic: "The last days are marked by hallucinations: bears, wolves, and aliens prowl the roadside; asphalt cracks rearrange themselves into coded messages. Occasionally, Robic leaps from his bike to square off with shadowy figures that turn out to be mailboxes. In a 2004 race, he turned to see himself pursued by a howling band of black-bearded men on horseback. 'Mujahedeen, shooting at me,' he explains. 'So I ride faster.'"

Sounds perfectly healthy to me.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:33 PM on June 27, 2016 [18 favorites]


I highly recommand the Radiolab episode Limits of the Body.
posted by gwint at 1:13 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


Whoa! Was just talking about the Race Across America with our kids last night. We're prepping to do the much, much more modest Tour de Tahoe with our 15 year old this fall, and he's totally going to crush his old parents. Utterly and completely.

Reading this I have nothing but respect for her as an athlete and all around badass. In her fearlessness and refusal to accept limits imposed by others she reminds me of the late Göran Kropp.
posted by mosk at 1:41 PM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Those rules are crazy. No private resupply is probably even crazier than the grueling pace she kept up. Wow. Kudos to her. She's nuts.
posted by GuyZero at 2:09 PM on June 27, 2016


Let's see, if I take my top speed for a 2 hr ride, and her daily distance travelled, I could certainly keep up for 1/12th of 1/18th of this event.
posted by zippy at 2:46 PM on June 27, 2016


Of course she must have cheated; no male rider has ever accomplished what she did without performance-enhancing drugs, a multi-vehicle support entourage and a gasoline-powered backup motor. Men win because men cheat.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:04 PM on June 27, 2016


I highly recommand the Radiolab episode Limits of the Body.

And the documentary it mentions, Bicycle Dreams.
posted by klausman at 3:39 PM on June 27, 2016


I am in awe of the badassery. And her flip off of the idiot who somehow thought he was entitled to win despite his massive fuck up in judgement.
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 4:22 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Wow. Just. Wow.
posted by Annika Cicada at 4:23 PM on June 27, 2016


I've done a little bit of distance cycling myself, and hell yes, this is impressive. Your body can betray you in so many ways when you're trying to maintain that level of output for days on end. Or even one day.

Back in 1985, Wayne Phillips convinced the RAAM organizers to let him ride the race self-supported. He was hit by a truck and rendered a quadriplegic. They didn't allow self-supported riders after that. So I was a little surprised to learn there's a transcontinental race where everyone is self-supported.
posted by adamrice at 4:32 PM on June 27, 2016


I recently enjoyed watching the 2015 movie Inspired to Ride about the first, 2014 Trans Am event. Feature-length, may still be on Netflix. 45 started, 25 finished ... Juliana Buhring among them.
posted by Twang at 5:08 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've never ridden 235 miles in one day. I doubt I've ever ridden 50 miles in one day, for that matter. To do that day after day is crazy. Good for her that she has found this thing that she is incredibly good at, and even better than she is beating everyone, not just in a segregated class.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:37 PM on June 27, 2016


Lael is an absolute beast.

Australian rookie Sarah Hammond led the pack for the first 5 or so days (ended up in 5th place, I think). So, for most of the race two of the top 4 have been women!

As opposed to the RAAM (Race Across America), the Transam is fully self-supported — people aren't even allowed to draft, so people riding close together are side-by-side. The level of self-policing involved in this race (with no entry fee and no prize money) is generally excellent, and all riders are tracked obsessively by "dot watchers" online.
posted by flippant at 8:21 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is a super crazy achievement. I've done quite a bit of "ultra" self-supported cycling but this is wayyy next level. I felt completely dead at the end of Paris Brest Paris - 770 miles in 84 hours (~3 days). I can imagine doing the miles, I can't imagine dealing with the sleep deprivation. Even as an experienced long distance cyclist 235 miles would take me ~16-20 hours/day? If I stopped as little as possible, and I'm not slow. I think I read she was averaging 4/hours sleep a night? I would mentally fall apart before the end of the first week.

To do this you would have to have 18 perfect days in a row, with nothing major going wrong (shit always goes wrong at these distances without support), and you would somehow have to not go insane while solving those problems, on no sleep, scavenging calories from gas stations and whatever else you find, AND always keep moving... it is pretty crazy to think about.

There is actually a long history of women being involved in this kind of self-supported cycling, which is obviously not the case for racing. "Audax" or "randonneuring" has always been more egalitarian and inclusive without segregating riders by either sex or age. Here's an article (PDF link) from Bicycle Quarterly on some other women badasses with some great photos.

The Transcontinental Race (London to Istanbul) starts next month and it is the same, there will be men and women out there doing the same course under the same time limits. Can't wait to watch some dots.

There are generally no prizes for this kind of cycling. You just have to truly love riding and be able to convince yourself to do ever-longer distances. It's a crazy sport.
posted by bradbane at 9:53 PM on June 27, 2016 [8 favorites]


Of course she must have cheated; no male rider has ever accomplished what she did without performance-enhancing drugs, a multi-vehicle support entourage and a gasoline-powered backup motor. Men win because men cheat.

That's a little flippant considering this recent high-profile infraction. People cheat at stuff. People.

Congrats to Lael. I've done a few of these types of rides.
Fun stuff.
posted by alex_skazat at 10:40 PM on June 27, 2016


Wilcox shattered the old women's record

I read the first linked article wondering when they were going to say how old she is. It wasn't until I read all the comments here that I realized we're talking about the women's record that existed previously.
posted by scratch at 5:02 AM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Not only has Wilcox won the race, but two more women are also currently holding top ten positions. It’s big leap ahead from last year’s race when there were no female solo finishers.
Cool. Is this just a coincidence, or has something changed this year -- fairer access to training facilities and/or qualifying events, an improvement in sponsorship for women, etc?

(The sleep deprivation is the most impressive to me; I start hallucinating after about 72h without sleep. 18 days on a maximum of 3-4 hours per night sounds hellish on its own, even without the insane physical demands of the race. Wow.)
posted by metaBugs at 8:28 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Cool. Is this just a coincidence, or has something changed this year -- fairer access to training facilities and/or qualifying events, an improvement in sponsorship for women, etc?

This isn't the Olympics - there's no training facilities (you train by riding your bike), qualifying events (anyone may enter), and I don't believe Lael has a sponsor that cuts her a check that she lives off of.

These races are just about grit.

I think her partner helps out by like, tuning her bike and being a generally supportive awesome person.
posted by alex_skazat at 9:10 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Of course she must have cheated; no male rider has ever accomplished what she did without performance-enhancing drugs, a multi-vehicle support entourage and a gasoline-powered backup motor. Men win because men cheat.

Sorry what? This is a completely different cycling tradition than typical racing. There are no sponsors, no prizes, no qualifiers, no professionals, and no support. It is a race, to be sure, but in this little weirdo corner of cycling it is far more about love of the sport and testing yourself than "winning". Which is not to diminish her achievement - obviously the people at the front are trying to be the first to finish - just that it is very, very different than having a support car follow some professional, sponsored bros for a 60 mile stage race while they all try to beat each other by a few seconds and are working in teams. Apples and oranges. The competition is not the #1 focus here, it is more about the adventure of it and the grit required.

A lot of people are giving the #2 guy shit for offering to ride with her to the end. IMO that was not inappropriate, it was an offer of solidarity and sportsmanship that is very much in the spirit of this particular kind of cycling. This isn't a race in the way Le Tour is.

There's a 60+ year old woman in my club who rode the PBP 1200k last year. About 150 miles from the finish it was raining and a rider in front of her slipped and fell and they both went down. Even though she broke her wrist in the fall, she helped the other guy out, made sure he got an ambulance called, and then fucking rode to the finish one handed.

Her time was terrible, she barely made the last cutoff. The people at the front of the ride had finished days before while she was still out on the course. However it's her story that gets told, she's the legend that will get whispered about over beers for years to come, not the "winners".
posted by bradbane at 9:43 AM on June 28, 2016 [8 favorites]


I was curious about her setup and routine. This article is kind of thin, but has some of those details.
posted by adamrice at 4:43 PM on June 28, 2016


Interesting article. I wonder if she had a net calcium loss during the race - I've heard people can actually sweat out so much calcium that they end up losing bone density. Electrolytes typically boos sodium and potassium but apparently it's harder to replenish calcium? Anyway it would be fascinating to see a before & after medical workup on these racers.
posted by GuyZero at 5:02 PM on June 28, 2016


This is flat-out amazing. I've been marveling at Mike Hall's record-breaking Tour Divide run that just finished last week (Banff to Mexico along the Continental Divide, with 200,000+ vertical feet of climbing) but Wilcox' record is equally impressive if not moreso.
posted by carsonb at 4:04 PM on July 1, 2016


Heck of an achievement but given the extreme toll it must take on the body, I wonder if it's not unlike an addiction for athletes to keep doing this kind of thing.
posted by AFABulous at 6:59 PM on July 2, 2016


I'm not saying you're wrong, but I think reducing it to one word like that—especially when the word is such a negative one— doesn't really explain what's happening.
posted by carsonb at 6:10 AM on July 3, 2016


Sure, that's why I said "I wonder if it's not unlike" instead of "it is."
posted by AFABulous at 2:17 PM on July 3, 2016


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