Lael Wilcox talks Nutrition, Adventure Cycling, and the Joy of Riding

Jul 11th, 2022

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

Lael Wilcox is one of the world’s best endurance cyclists. She won the Trans Am Bike Race in 2016, set the Tour Divide’s women’s course record as an individual time trial in 2015, and set the overall course record on the Baja Divide Route. In 2022, she set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Arizona Trail. She is known for her prolific wins, as well as her inclusive approach to getting more women and girls riding bikes. I interviewed Lael — also a Gnarly Nutrition athlete —over the phone to chat about nutrition, adventure cycling, and the joy of riding. 

Laura:  Hi Lael! How are you and where have you been riding recently?

Lael: I’m in Spain and I just finished an endurance road race in Catalonia. Nine hundred miles with 80,000 feet of climbing, so I am pretty cooked. But it was all beautiful and I loved it. I’ve been here for about a month. First I had the Women’s Rally, which I wrote about for Adventure Cyclist — super excited to share that. And a couple of weeks later, I did this road race. Such a wonderful group of people puts it on. On Monday, I fly to Italy, and the next step is a race across the Balkans. So just trying to recover so I can give it my all. Summertime is so busy with events; there’s so much fun!

Laura: So this last ride you did was self-supported?

Lael: Yes. And it took four days, ten minutes. But fortunately, there’s delicious food here. It’s a lot different than riding in Alaska! I mostly ate Spanish tortillas: an egg and potato dish. It was really good.

Laura: What was that like, having to resupply on this race? Was it difficult to find food? Was it easy? 

Lael: It was really easy because there are so many small towns. And the hours are different here. They’re not open until late morning, and then they’re open pretty late at night. It’s kind of the schedule here. I never ran into a situation where I couldn’t get food. I was buying stuff in small markets and getting Spanish tortillas, and getting pints of ice cream and letting it melt. It was into the 90s, pretty hot, record-setting heat, and then on the final day, it was flooding. But I had so much fun, it was beautiful riding.

Laura: So you’re picking up food along the way, drinking melted ice cream…what did you eat before and after the race? 

Lael: I mean, you have to eat a lot. Especially afterward, people are pretty calorie deprived. But fortunately, the race ended in this beautiful town with lots of restaurants. There was pizza, Thai food – real food. I try to eat as healthy as I can and get rest. Europe is pretty easy for food. Along the way, I did carry Gnarly protein green shakes, which I’ve been doing since I started working with them a couple of years ago. It makes a lot of difference. For bikepacking you can only carry so much. So I just drink them until they run out and then I’m like okay, I better get some ice cream. 

Laura: Yes! I love your attitude toward this!

Lael: You’re eating on the bike, you’re trying to sleep, you’re just seeing this amazing scenery. And you know: these people are chasing me down. We actually had three women finish in the top eight, it was so cool. We all had so much fun. 

Laura: So, for anyone doing adventure cycling on self-supported rides – racing or recreational – they have to find food along the way. And a lot of times it’s just from gas stations. And in the United States that can be really slim pickings. 

Lael: Yeah, pretty grim. 

Laura: What are your recommendations for someone on that kind of ride? What would you look for?

Lael: You know, anything that looks appealing, just go for it. You need food and you need a lot of food, so you have to buy stuff you actually want to eat. And that’s different at different times for different people. In the past I’d drink a lot of milk and chocolate milk. Any kind of real food — a sandwich or a hot dog or a piece of pizza. Personally, I get pretty tired of sweet stuff early on, because a lot of sports food is sweet. So I’m often just looking for something savory. 

In the U.S. a lot of the food is pretty spread out. And then when you’re riding in Europe every town has a bakery! And you’re like, oh my god this is the good life! But that’s also part of the fun. For adventure riding, you get to try different food all over the world and it really gives you insight into the culture. What’s available, what’s open, what other people are doing. Like the Spanish culture, they all go out to eat at midnight, it’s crazy! But I think it’s fun to be a part of that. And if you’re hungry, you’re happy with whatever you find. 

Laura: And how about beverages and electrolytes? Do you have a plan for replacing electrolytes during a long ride?

Lael: I try to carry some drink powder, but there’s only so much you can bring. So I kind of ration it. And then in between, I supplement it with cokes or anything refreshing. And then really salty food. Amazing how far a bag of potato chips can get you!

Laura: So I’m hearing that you’re listening to your body, you’re adapting to whatever the situation is, and you’re just rolling with it. 

Lael: Yeah! I mean, you walk in and you’re like “What looks good?” And then the other piece of advice is, get more food than you think you need. Pack something to go, something that you’re going to want to eat later. 

Laura: So Lael, you’re one of the best ultra-endurance athletes in the world. And you’ve also spent a lot of energy getting other women and girls cycling. How did that part of cycling become important to you? How did you realize it was important to get more women out there?

Lael: I started dedicating more time to this around 2017. I had scouted this route down the Baja peninsula called the Baja Divide, and then I hosted my first women’s scholarship that fall. They would get all the equipment that they needed to ride Baja Divide, 1700 miles. I had around 200 applicants from all over the world telling me who they are and why they want to do this. And my motivation was that I would have loved to have had an opportunity like that! 

These opportunities are really motivating for people. They see something they can possibly do, they imagine themselves differently, and that gets them doing it. I met Ally Mabry that way, who is the lead designer for Adventure Cyclist — I met all these amazing women! 

And that changed the way I looked at everything. 

And then in addition to the scholarship, we had a group start that year, and I think like thirty other women showed up, just to ride. You know, they were like, “Well, I could still do it.” And that changed the way I looked at everything. 

The following spring I started Anchorage Grit, my girls’ cycling mentorship program. That’s a six-week program for eleven to fourteen-year-olds to build up to a weekend adventure ride. And I really did that because I didn’t start riding until I was 20, and I was like, well, what if I had done this when I was 12, I would have loved it! And kids, they’re just not exposed to that. At that age they really want to take on challenges, they really want to be independent and do their own thing, so it’s the perfect age to do that with them. They work hard, they improve quickly, and it gives them so much confidence. 

I did three years in Anchorage. This year was the fourth year in Anchorage but I was actually in Arizona so I started a program there. So we have two of them going now. And it’s amazing to see them grow up! From the first year I did it, now those girls are like seventeen! And a few of them have come back every year as student mentors. It’s so cool to see. 

So, I do these things because I have a huge passion for it but it’s also for a limited time. I only have, you know, a month and a half to do this and then that’s it. And the girls get to keep the bikes, so they can do their own rides with each other, they can do other bike programs, but I just don’t have the full time to dedicate to it. I just love spending a few weeks every year. And talking about food — it’s all about snacks for them! 

Laura: Yeah!

Lael, a white woman, leans across her handlebars while standing next to her bike and staring at the camera.
Lael finished her Alaska Pipeline FKT in 3 days and 18 hours. 
Rugile Kaladyte

Lael: It’s a snack break every half hour or 45 minutes! Kids get so mentally out of it when they’re doing something hard. They just kind of lose it! So I’m passing out cookies, or motivating them by saying we’re going to ride to ice cream — that’s what gets them through the ride! It totally works! So it’s like, any time you feel weird, just have a snack. I guarantee you’ll feel better. 

Laura: That’s good advice for any person, actually! 

Lael: It’s for everybody! If you feel like you’re going to have a meltdown, just have a snack. You’re gonna be fine!

Laura: I love that! And it’s interesting because I think in the United States, our culture pushes women to idolize thinness. And in endurance cycling, it’s clear that the top athletes come in a range of sizes. And the best athletes are the strongest, not the thinnest. 

Lael: You have to eat like it’s your job! That’s part of the sport, it’s eating. It’s a huge component. 

Laura: Yeah. And do you feel like the cultural pressure for women to be smaller and thinner might contribute to fewer women competing in the sport in the first place?

Lael: I’ve never really thought about that, but I feel like a lot of women just don’t even know it’s there. And I think that a lot of what I do — by taking videos and sharing stories or having scholarships or women’s rallies — is to show that this is even a possibility. Because I never heard of it growing up! I’d never seen anybody bike touring. I wanted to ride across the country when I was 20 or 21, and I’d never heard of anybody else doing it. I thought I was the first person to ever think of that! (laughs) 

There’s a great culture of biking out there, but if you’re not tapped into that, you’d never hear about it. I feel like a lot of where we’re at right now is just letting other women know they could do this. This is a possibility, this is a chance. It doesn’t have to be competitive or really goal-driven. It’s an adventure, it’s fun! You get to travel and spend time with people and see places. And that really should be for everybody. 

The main message is: what you look like does not indicate what you’re capable of.

But yeah, I feel like the body image stuff does come up over and over, and it’s something we should talk about. The main message is: what you look like does not indicate what you’re capable of. Especially with endurance competitions. Because I show up and people are like oh, who is that? I look totally normal. And I’m standing next to these super jacked dudes and they’re just looking down their noses at me, like, why are you standing there. And then at the end, I beat ‘um! 

Laura:  (yelling into the phone) Yeah! Yeah, you do! (then we both crack up)

Lael: Such a motivating part of the sport to me is to change peoples’ perceptions. And I feel like the more we do that, the more women will try. Because they think, oh, if she could do it, maybe I could do it too. Or even it doesn’t have to be girls, but it could be guys that feel like they’re not strong enough. And anybody who felt like they weren’t capable. They just need role models or examples of other people doing this stuff. So I just want everybody — if they want to — to just give it a go and see what happens. Because I think a lot of people will really surprise themselves. 

Laura: Yeah. And that’s something that you talked about in your TED talk recently. Which was phenomenal, by the way. 

Lael: Thank you, I worked really hard on that. 

Laura: It showed, it was such a good story and so well done! And the way you spoke about getting to that moment and deciding to win. And women don’t always have those role models and don’t always have that perception that they can make that choice. That seems like such an important part of that story. And one of the things that’s so striking to me when I hear your stories and read your writing, and see your videos — I feel like there’s been this narrative in sport, and especially cycling, where you have to “take people down” around you in order to win. And you’re not doing that! You’re doing the opposite and you’re still winning!

Lael: I know, but the thing is I’m not going to win forever. And that’s great, because more people should be trying it! They should come beat me! Of course, I want to do everything I can to keep doing my best and keep winning, but you have to want the best people to be out there getting good results because that’s what’s going to make the sport grow. And I think that’s exciting, and I want more women to do that. Because I feel like having more numbers makes a greater impression too. This past race, having three women instead of one in the top ten, that’s huge! Because if you’ve got just one woman, they could be an outlier. But three? Then it starts becoming really real. I’m a fan of that for the sport. And I don’t always want to race anyway. I just love riding in any capacity. But I am fascinated that women can really do well in these races. 

Laura: And what is your hope for the next generation of cyclists? What is your ideal situation for cycling as a sport, and how do you want women to approach it?

Lael: I just want the sport to grow, for more people to find joy in it. And I want it to become more like we’re relating to each other, we’re all doing the same thing. I feel like cycling can be so divided. Like, “You’re doing that, I’m not doing that, I’m doing this. I’m a mountain biker, you’re just a commuter.” But we’re all just riding bikes! So I hope we can start appreciating that more. Because it’s such a joy to ride! 

And I feel like any reason people get out there is just going to be an awesome part of their lives. That’s something I really want to share, especially with girls. Especially with middle school age because that’s when they stop participating in sports. I feel like cycling is such a great option because it’s generally not competitive. You can do it in groups, you can do it solo. It can actually be transportation. So I hope they can see that this is an opportunity. This is something they can do, that they can find some joy and confidence in. 

And that’s why I love doing the group program so much. Because some of these girls would never be riding bikes otherwise. And they love it — every kid loves to ride a bike. You just have to take the time to take them out there, because they’re probably not going to do it on their own. 

Laura: Absolutely. And what do the next few weeks look like for you? What cycling are you doing, and are you anticipating a lot more women in the rides coming up?

Lael: Yeah, I’m doing the Trans Balkan race starting next Friday. That route was developed by a woman. She and her partner are organizing the race. They’re Italian. The race goes across Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. So I’m going to go to her house — I’ve never met her — and then we’ll go to the start together. And actually, I’ve never done a race organized by a woman before, so this is my first! So it’s super cool! I’m super excited about that. 

The races I’m doing now, I’m really being more selective about races with positive race directors that really care about including more people from different backgrounds, especially more women to be there. Because it’s always less than ten percent of the field. 

So that’s the next race, and then after that, I go to Kenya for a gravel stage race. And then Iceland for another gravel stage race. So a lot of travel in beautiful places. I’m just so grateful I get to do what I love. 

Laura: That’s awesome. Wow. Well Lael, is there anything else you want to share about riding, about nutrition, about joy?

Lael: I guess the thing I would end with is just for people to keep it fun. All of riding and adventure riding can get scary at times or kind of overwhelming, but ultimately it should be fun. Do the thing you want to do, have fun, take breaks, go with friends, get an ice cream at the gas station, keep it light. Just appreciating that we get a chance to ride is huge. 

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