Last year, when Lael Wilcox discovered most of the students in her mom's third-grade class at Russian Jack Elementary did not own a bicycle, she organized her friends in the bike community and promptly fixed that. A few weeks later, with help from The Bicycle Shop and Off The Chain, a local bike co-op, 30-plus kids enjoyed the pleasure of pedaling bikes that were theirs.
Earlier this year, Lael and Cait Rodriguez, her friend and co-conspirator, initiated a mentorship program called Anchorage GRIT – Girls Riding Into Tomorrow. They outfitted 11 middle-school girls in Anchorage with bikes, taught them safe riding and fundamental repairs and exposed them to Anchorage's myriad trails. They also introduced the girls to remarkable role models like Holly Brooks, the Olympic nordic skier and Mount Marathon champion who's now a counselor and coach.
Lael embraces community, and also occasional competition – the 30-year-old East High graduate is a bad-ass biker.
Three years ago, she jumped into the Fireweed 400 and won the women's solo division. Two years ago, she crushed the women's record in the 2,745-mile Tour Divide, which follows the Continental Divide from Alberta to New Mexico. Last year, she seized the overall title in the 4,200-mile Trans Am Bike Race from Oregon to Virginia.
Oh, and Lael and her longtime partner, Nicholas Carman, have spent about half of each of the last nine years cherishing the world from the seats of their bicycles. They've toured North America, Eastern Europe, South Africa, the Middle East.
Lael pretty much leans in on life. She doesn't do gloomy. She revels in delight, stiff-arms despair. Merriment, not melancholy. Her mom, Dawn Wilcox, calls her "joyful.''
"Lael is always positive, a go-getter type of person,'' Rodriguez said. "You'd think a person would get tired, going like that, nonstop. But she just loves every moment of what she does.''
In an hour one afternoon earlier this week, over coffee, Lael spent roughly 55 minutes smiling and the other five laughing.
Lael, the third of Paul and Dawn's four children, grew up an exceptional soccer player and added cross country and track to her resume late in high school. The summer she graduated from East, in 2004, she jumped into the Mayor's Marathon and merely finished third among women.
"She was happy, but also really serious and focused,'' said Dawn, who now teaches at Campbell Elementary. "Even as a young child, (she had) that determined mindset.''
At the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, where Lael earned degrees in chemistry and French and also ran competitively, she met Nicholas at a dance party and thought he was just the coolest guy to hang with. The feeling was mutual. They've been inseparable since.
Nicholas was just getting into bikes about that time, and he gave Lael a bike, albeit a modest one.
"It was rickety, no brakes,'' Lael said with a laugh. "I had to use my feet to stop. I've never owned a car, so a bike was like a big vehicle upgrade. I love to walk, but it's slow.''
Better bikes followed. In Lael's senior year, she and Nicholas biked from Tacoma to Seattle to visit one of her sisters, and Lael discovered she loved touring.
"I instantly thought, 'If I can ride from Tacoma to Seattle, I can ride across the country,' " she said.
That fall, the blue-eyed couple biked from Boston to Montreal, then back down to Key West, Florida, where they found work riding pedicabs and saved money for their next adventure.
Working half the year to save money and touring the world on bikes the other half of the year became a lifestyle the couple coveted – explore the world, meet people, savor cultures, be together. It wasn't a light bulb-moment quest to avoid corporate grind or the confines of a cubicle. It just happened, organically.
"We don't have a story of a desk job and a revelation,'' Nicholas said.
And so they find temporary work and live a low-expense existence – they're living with Lael's folks this summer – to save money for the next trip. Lael has taught English in France, worked in restaurants. Nicholas has been a forklift operator, worked as a server. This summer, both are working at The Bicycle Shop – Nicholas works seven days a week and hasn't taken a day off since starting there in March.
The lifestyle suits them, Dawn said, scratches their itches of curiosity and discovery. Little wonder Lael's blog — laelwilcox.com — is called "Lael's Globe of Adventure." Nicholas' blog — gypsybytrade.wordpress.com — is subtitled, "Ridin' bikes and travelin' light.''
The couple has not yet dialed in their next adventure, but there will be one, starting in the fall. They plan to keep alternating between work and adventures as long as it's fun – and it has been a blast.
Nicholas said he and Lael are "investing in experiences.'' And Lael, no surprise, is always up for it.
"She's the type of person who almost never says 'no' to anything,'' Nicholas said.
They've found their bikes serve as connections, conversation starters that lure people wherever they travel. Strangers invite them into their homes, feed them, advise them on local routes and customs and cool places – and suddenly, they are no longer strangers. Lael said the couple has never endured a bad experience or scary encounter in their travels. And their adventures, having people open their homes and hearts, has fed their generosity.
Last year, Nicholas and Lael mapped an off-pavement bike-packing route for the Baja Divide, San Diego to San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, on the Baja peninsula, shared it and organized a group trip on the route earlier this year. Lael this spring also delivered the fastest known time for the 1,700-mile trip – 13 days, 11 hours – and the couple gave a presentation about the journey at The Bicycle Shop in March.
The presentation raised money for GRIT. Lael has also established a scholarship to fund a rider's journey on the Baja Divide – the first one went to Lavanya Pant, a woman who was born in India, has lived in Australia and currently teaches English in Tokyo. Lavanya, like Lael and Nicholas, is a citizen of the world.
"They're really caring people,'' Rodriguez said of Lael and Nicholas. "They've found something they love and they just want to share it.''
The idea for GRIT stems from that kindness. Lael and Rodriguez wanted to expose girls to the freedom and joy, and the confidence, that they get from biking. This spring, they selected 11 girls from Begich Middle School and Stellar Secondary School, based on nominations by teachers, mentored them and gave them bikes furnished by Specialized, a bike manufacturer.
Amei Gove, 13, who just finished seventh grade at Stellar, was intrigued.
"It sounded like a unique experience, and it felt like something new and exciting,'' Amei said.
She learned about bike safety, Anchorage's myriad trails and her capacity to complete difficult rides. She made new friends. And she met a mentor in Lael.
"I like that she was really encouraging to us, and she said that if there's things we can't do, it's OK to walk our bike,'' Amei said. "And she helped fix bikes. And, so, she was pretty cool.''
Even the one bummer that befell GRIT – five of the donated bikes were stolen from storage at Stellar in late April – turned beautiful. A story about the thefts served as a springboard to Good Samaritans, who promptly replaced the stolen bikes with new ones.
"Within minutes, people started calling me, to donate bikes, to donate money,'' Lael said. "People were so amazing.''
Just like her.