Anchorage’s Lael Wilcox faced more than her fair share of challenges on the way to winning the 2023 Tour Divide women’s race. The 36-year-old endurance cyclist arrived in Antelope Wells, New Mexico, around 3 a.m. local time Monday after riding through the night to finish with a time of 16 days and 20 hours.
Wilcox finished with a 125-mile cushion over Katya Rakhmatulina, who came in second place the next day with a finish time of 17 days, 8 hours and 48 minutes.
This was her fifth time competing in the race that begins in Banff, Alberta, and ends at the U.S.-Mexico border in Antelope Wells, but it marked her first time winning the grand depart, which is the mass start race that takes place every summer.
Wilcox was the first woman to finish the race in 2015 with what appeared to be a record time of 17 days, 1 hour and 51 minutes, but she was disqualified for riding an old track. She went back later that summer and rode the race by herself as a time trial, setting a record for finishing in 15 days, 10 hours and 59 minutes. That mark still stands. She was disqualified again in 2019, and had to stop early in 2021.
“It feels great,” Wilcox said. “I’ve been going after this for eight years, and can finally say I won it.”
In 2015, the course had been changed by about 10 miles, but she said she didn’t receive the notification from an organizer. Wilcox famously rode 2,140 miles from Anchorage to Alberta for the start of the race. Back then, she was still using a flip phone and didn’t get great cell reception while riding through trails and mountain ranges.
“Since it was an old track, I could still officially break the record, but was out of that year’s race,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox said the 2023 race was “the hardest for sure” because of what she had to endure and overcome along the way, including “a health scare and some pretty crazy weather.”
“The first seven days, it rained in thunderstorms every single day, and then it created this really nasty, almost impassable mud that pretty much wrecked everyone’s bike,” she said. “Everyone had to go to bike shops to get their bikes fully rebuilt.”
Even when the rain stopped, the challenges persisted — this time, in the form of a “pretty consistent strong headwind coming out of the south.”
“That’s what really killed my lungs,” she said with a raspy voice that still hasn’t recovered. “Just breathing that dry, hot, dusty air. After a day of it, I just totally lost my voice and was struggling to breathe.”
A couple of days later, she woke up severely dehydrated and throwing up while in New Mexico where there wasn’t much water and very few services. At that point, Wilcox was afraid that she might have to quit but didn’t.
“I rode myself to a hospital, got an IV, and then felt quite a bit better, so I was able to continue and finish the race,” she said. “I was just so happy I didn’t have to quit. It was pretty tough.”
Before the weather became a debilitating factor, Wilcox was on pace to break her record set back in August 2015. However, due to the muddy conditions, her progress was slowed significantly, and she was no longer at a record-setting pace.
“On those days, usually we’re riding some 10, 12 or maybe 15 miles an hour,” she said. “In the mud, you’re hardly walking a mile an hour. To do that for like 12 hours, you really don’t make it very far.”
Wilcox, who is from Anchorage but now lives in Arizona, was a full day ahead of her record time at that point in the race and had to watch that work evaporate. That didn’t matter to her in the grand scope.
“I was super driven to finish just so I don’t have that kind of on my shoulders,” Wilcox said. “I had to dig a lot deeper than I usually do just to kind of overcome all these circumstances. I feel like I gave it my all and I feel really good about that.”
Setting sights on a grander prize
At 2,700 miles long, the Tour Divide is one of the longest races that Wilcox has participated in during her eight-year racing career — and the one she has ridden the most. The longest race she has ridden is the Trans Am, which stretches 4,200 miles across the United States from the West Coast to the East.
The Colorado Trail Race in August is 500 miles of singletrack trail in August, and the Arizona Trail Race 800 is in October.
On average, it usually takes her a couple of weeks to recover from a race, and she has a fun recovery plan in store for this upcoming weekend.
“I’m heading back up to Montana, and I’m going to be guiding a stretch of the route that I just raced on an e-bike,” Wilcox said. “It should be a fun way to be outside and kind of spinning my legs but not working too hard.”