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Adventure, Cycle, Travel / April 2, 2017

The toughest ride of Lael Wilcox’s life

Written by: Jan Bennett

Bikepacking legend Lael Wilcox recently snagged the Fastest Known Time ride down Mexico’s 1,700-mile Baja Divide route. It was the most difficult ride that she has ever done.

Those are her words, not mine.

More than anyone else, Lael Wilcox knows how demanding the new Baja Divide route is. She created the route along with her boyfriend Nicholas Carman, so there’s no denying her first hand knowledge.

Most riders who have done the route thus far have found it taxing to cover an average of 40 miles a day. Attempting to squeeze four days of touring into a single day of riding? That’s just downright insane. But that’s exactly what Lael did to set the Fastest Known Time from Tecate to Plaza Mijares in San Jose del Cabo at 11 days, 13 hours, and 2 minutes.

Meet Lael Wilcox: the fastest woman in bike touring. Photo by Nicholaus Carman.

Lael's Specialized Fuse with Schwable 2.6" Nobby Nicks. Photo by Nicholas Carman.

Just how demanding is the route? Though she normally sleeps for only three or four hours a night during speed rides, Lael found herself needing around five hours of sleep each night in Baja. She stopped to sleep at 9 p.m. (instead of her usual midnight turn-in) each night—an adjustment she found necessary for a very demanding route.

Lael packed ultra-light for her blazing ride down the peninsula, which made 29” x 2.6” tires the ideal choice. These tires are narrower than the ones generally suggested for the Baja Divide, but were still able to float over sand and rocks with ease thanks to Lael’s low pack weight.

By her own admittance, Lael’s choice to go without a sleeping bag and only a bivy proved to be a mistake. Nights in the northern section of the route can get really cold—she actually stopped mid-route to buy a trashbag and set of sweatpants for those desert sleep-outs. 

The challenges of the terrain were exacerbated by logistics. With its relaxed pace and small towns, Baja doesn’t conform to the typical American schedule, making for very limited resupply options when on a race pace. Arriving in one town in the wee hours of the morning, Lael found herself having to sneak around just to find water.

Unlike on the Tour Divide, water is not readily available. Sometimes riders must travel more than 130 miles before coming to the next water source. That water source might only be a tienda that may not open up until after 10 a.m. the next morning.

Wilcox (and her bike) at the start of the route: The U.S.-Mexico border. Photo by Nicholas Carman.

Lael wading through one of the many river crossings while fans cheer her on. Photo by Nicholas Carman.

So will the Baja Divide turn out to be the next Tour Divide?

Lael doesn’t think so.

Why not? Mostly because it’s so incredibly physically demanding. When someone with Lael Wilcox’s palmarés says a route was the hardest she’s ever done and that she wouldn’t recommend it to anyone (this part, albeit, said with a snicker), it’s difficult to not take her at her word.

But Lael hopes to see others take on the challenge. After pushing herself to do the route in the fastest time possible, she hopes that others will be inspired to give it a go for themselves. This is what makes Lael so special. She lives to see more people out there pushing themselves outside of their comfort zones and enjoying new places on their bikes.

So what’s next? Lael is headed back to Anchorage to start on her Anchorage GRIT (Girls Riding Into Tomorrow) mentorship program, focusing on middle school aged girls in order to encourage more of them to get out on bicycles and explore. The Baja Divide Fastest Known Time ride was so strenuous that she plans to take a summer to restore her mind and body while exploring the paved roads of Alaska, all via bicycle, of course!

Have questions about the Baja Divide? About Lael Wilcox? Email them to us at [email protected]

about the author

Jan Bennett

An adventure seeker at her core, Jan Bennett has always been drawn to the outdoors and being active. Completing three different wilderness expeditions before graduating high school, Jan has always been at home in the wilderness. Even though she has a degree in Technology Management and a minor in Business, Jan took the leap and left corporate America in 2015 in order to persue her cycling passions. On any given day, you can find Jan in Dallas, Texas preparing her mind and body for the next outdoor adventure.

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