Ultra-endurance cyclist Lael Wilcox is home for the summer which can only mean one thing.
On Tuesday, Wilcox is embarking on another one of her grand Alaskan adventures. She’s riding an independent time trial for the fastest known time on the roads the parallel the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the oil pipeline that bisects the state from Deadhorse in the north to Valdez in the south. The 858-mile route is mixed gravel and pavement and includes 45,000 feet of climbing.
Wilcox has ridden her bike all over the world, from tours in the Balkans and Baja to ultra-endurance events in Europe and Israel. Most recently, she raced the Hope 1000, a 1,000km self-supported bikepacking race with 30,000 meters of climbing through the Swiss Alps. She completed the insanely vertiginous route in four days, 13 hours, and 28 minutes, becoming the first woman to finish and placing 5th overall.
Yet adventures in her home state of Alaska hold a special place in Wilcox’s heart.
“They’re the most remote,” she told VeloNews. “There’s nothing out there except big animals. The roads are also in really good shape because they’re service roads. In the summer, there’s endless daylight. It’s ideal for endurance racing, you almost never get tired. Sleepy anyway.”
Tired vs sleepy — it’s an important distinction in ultra-distance bikepacking. Wilcox hopes to complete the route in four or five days, and she’s budgeted up to four hours of sleep a night. She said that she slept that much in Switzerland during the Hope 1000 and it contributed to a much better ride.
“It’s nice to go into it with the thought that I will sleep,” she said. “It’s like, ‘that sounds nice!’ Sleep’s the reward. I’m also bringing a tent for the first time ever on a big ride.”
Wilcox will be carrying a Big Agnes Fly Creek ultralight tent in her standard kit of Revelate Designs framebags. For the pipeline ride, she’ll be on a Specialized Diverge, since the ride is split between pavement and smooth gravel.
Her strategy for the ride is really no different than usual, which is to ride fast and far and do everything she can, like eating, while on the bike. However, riding in Alaska presents some unique challenges in that regard.
While the route is almost entirely on highways — the Dalton, Steese, and Richardson — Wilcox says that towns with resupply options are basically nonexistent along the way.
In fact, the first opportunity to buy food at a restaurant will be 240 miles into the ride in Coldfoot, a town with a population of 10 (at the 2010 census) that primarily serves as a truck stop on the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay.
“I’m basically just riding as much as I can and hoping nothing goes wrong,” she said. “But I’m excited for that, too. In Switzerland you see a town every 10-15 miles, this is like, ‘I’ll see five the whole way.'”
Moving through Alaska’s wild contrasting landscapes by bike is one of Wilcox’s favorite ways to experience the state. This ride, which begins above the Arctic Circle where there are nearly 24 hours of daylight right now, will have her traveling through flat treeless tundra, climbing over the massive and ancient Brooks Range, and ending in a Pacific temperate rainforest.
“I’m really on my own,” she said. “Am I gonna see animals? It’s still exciting and also sorta grounding. This is where I’m from but it’s also the least hospitable place. I do really like that.”
Although Wilcox wants to set a fastest known time on the route, she’s not sure who — if anyone — she’s up against. However, this being Alaska, she’s certain someone has beat her to it.
“I’m sure when I put it up someone will tell me,” she said. “‘Oh, I did this in 1979 and I did it on an 8-speed.’ I’m sure someone has! Those stories should be resurrected. Who was that and what are they doing now?”
Follow Wilcox as she rides her own story, beginning on Tuesday, July 13 at 9:00 a.m. Alaska Daylight Time on trackleaders.com.