An Interview with Lael Wilcox after the 2019 Silk Road Mountain Race
Lael Wilcox placed second and was the first woman to cross the finish at this year’s 1,700-kilometer PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race. We had the chance to catch up with her just after the race to ask a few questions about the route, her gear, and the people she met along the way…
Lael Wilcox was the first woman to finish the 2019 PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race, taking second place overall, and setting a new women’s record with an incredible time of 7 days, 15 hours, and 23 minutes (7:15:23). We had the chance to sit down with Lael after the ride and ask her a few questions about her experience among the people and terrain in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan Mountains. Here’s the full interview. The questions are from the BIKEPACKING.com team and the answers were transcribed from an audio recording taken shortly after Lael rolled across the finish line…
What was the toughest aspect of the course?
Probably the exposure. There was some pretty wild weather out there. I think it snowed four days out of seven and a lot of hail. There’s not a lot of cover, so it really was about being mentally tough enough to go directly toward the storm and to see if it was going to clear out or how it was going to work out. I often did that. I’d be going up a pass and it looked pretty bad and then I’d get up there and it was fine, but then a storm would roll in immediately after I descended. So, I think the exposure was probably the toughest factor because the race is at such high elevation. I don’t know where we topped out, but I think it was around 13,500 feet. Otherwise, there was limited food. But I didn’t worry too much about that, though. I just ate a lot of Snickers bars and a lot of fried bread. There’s plenty of water everywhere, which is good. I never really stopped to eat, but I did eat at all the checkpoints. It was nice to have hot prepared food there. I really needed it.
What were your favorite sections of the route?
I hadn’t pre-ridden that final pass, and it was really, really hard. But it also might be one of the coolest parts. The valley before that pass was really beautiful. Big trees are rare in Kyrgyzstan. Lots of open fresh water and not a lot of people. I think it’s a national park, so it’s protected. There were still a couple of yurts, but hardly any relative to some other areas. Getting up the pass was a huge challenge because the road was really washed out. There were tons of switchbacks that I just had to push over and it wasn’t very rideable, but it was magnificent up there. Really wild, really remote. I also love the climb out of Beatov, it’s exceptional. Most of the route was rideable, which I was grateful for. And the terrain was pretty varied, which I really liked. Probably my least favorite parts were the river crossings. They just sketched me out, but that’s part of it, I guess.
How many river crossings do you think you encountered along the route?
Serious river crossings? Probably only five or so. But a lot of smaller water. I brought my own sandals for that purpose, and then I had those pedals that are half platform, half clipless. There’d be a stream, then a little riding in between them, then another stream, so I could just wear the sandals, then ride the platforms and keep them on. That worked great. It’s kind of a weird solution, but it ended up saving my feet a lot of pain!
Give us a couple snapshots of the people you met along the way. Any interesting interactions that stand out?
I think some of the funniest interactions I had were with the Kyrgyz horsemen. One was when I was going up Arabel Pass toward checkpoint three. There was this guy who I’m sure had been drinking vodka all day with his friend. They started yelling at me from their yurt, which happened all the time. People would often try to signal me over or just have a conversation, but I would just smile and wave.
Ten minutes later, I heard the same guy guy riding up behind me on his horse. We were still climbing up this river valley and he had a rope that he was trying to give to me, over and over, to tow me up the mountain. I just had to say, no, no, no, smiling and not smiling. Then he pulled out a smaller rope, like that’s going to make a difference, and said, “How about this one?” Finally, we get to the switchbacks, and he changed his tactic from asking me to take the rope to just cheering for me. Ke kept saying “Molidets, Molidets!” which means you clever one, or you good one. Or like “Roshi!” and “Davai, davai, davai!” He’d keep cycling through these three words. And then when we got to the switchbacks he disappeared, and I assumed he must have gone back to his yurt.
But he’d gone up this steep back trail up the mountainside and was waiting for me at the top, yelling cheering me on as I was pushing up the switchbacks. It got crazier and crazier, he was clapping his hands and then he got off his horse and came over and kissed me on the cheeks. He had a huge smile, big gold teeth on the top and no bottom teeth. He asked me my name, and he was just so blown away. Then he was telling me that with his horse it only takes him five minutes to get up the mountain. It took me about an hour. He was pretty cool. It was so funny.
I had another guy on horseback asking for a cigarette. Then he pulled out this gallon jug that looked like a gas can, but it was white. He was pointing at it and his horse, and making hand gestures of milking his horse. It was horse milk. He was trying to get me to drink it, “Just a little, just a little.” Then he did the little gesture of spoon to mouth, asking me to come to his yurt to eat. I said no thank you, and then he just waved and rode away. This would happen every day. A guy from a yurt would come over and do the spoon to mouth, which is really sweet, but I don’t want to stop right now. I just have to keep going, so I’d just sit on my bike and eat a snickers. No horse milk.
Were there any specific moments of pure bliss along the ride?
I was having fun every day. I would sleep until around 2:00 in the morning and wake up and ride in the dark. A couple hours in I’d start feeling amazing. My legs felt fresh every day, and it was incredible to feel fresh, to feel like I had good legs, and be riding through this landscapes. I was alone almost all the time, apart from horsemen riding up to me or little kids running out to say “hello!” and putting their hands out for a high five. But really I was alone and didn’t ride with anybody during the entire race, at all. I don’t think I’ve ever had that. Usually I ride for an hour or so with somebody at some point, but not this time.
Did you enjoy all the time spent alone?
Yeah, I loved it, actually. It was great. You know, it can be nice to chit chat with people, but it kind of goes toward that people are accusing me of getting emotional boosts from contact with others. But I actually cherish this alone time and it also helps me stay mentally focused and maintain my own pace. I rode faster in this race than any other race, consistently. I slept a little more but rode a little faster, in general. There is some really steep climbing where you’re just not riding fast anyway, but I maintained a better pace than usual, which felt really good.
More generally, I was just happy when the sun came out each day. When it was sunny I just felt so fortunate that I was catching it at the right time, because it could be so shitty at other times. Like when I was going up Arabel Pass, it was a perfect blue day and these mountains with snowy peaks looked incredible, like they’re not real, like they’re on steroids or something. I can’t believe I’m here, and this is Kyrgyzstan. Who would know that that is here? It’s perfect for riding.
How much and how often did you sleep?
I was sleeping four or four and a half hours most of the nights. To start, I didn’t want to sleep at all. I’d wake up after two hours and want to get up and go. But I had to talk myself down, to lie there for another two hours, regardless of if I slept or not. Mentally, I knew I’d be much sharper if I got four hours, which is kind of the line of “good” sleep. Two nights before the finish I slept for two hours, from 8:30-10:30 at night. I got up a couple hours after sunset and I woke up out in a sky full of shimmering stars. I could see the Milky Way and it looked incredible. It was a really cool moment. And then the final night, I really wanted to get off the mountain before sunset. I was right at the top at sunset with a washed out, terrible road going down the other side. So I lay down with my helmet and wet shoes on and set a timer for 8.5 minutes and then got up and pushed on. It actually made a huge difference. I felt so much better after. Of course, when I woke up I thought, “Maybe just another half an hour…” but I knew I had to get it done and wanted to be down at the finish by the lake.
What’d you use for a sleep system?
I had a sturdy sleep system. I used a Big Agnes lightweight down sleeping bag rated to under freezing, a Therm-a-Rest mini inflatable pad, a Mountain Laurel Designs bivvy, and down pants and a down jacket. I was set. I mean, I could have slept in zero degree weather in that, happily. I was never that cold and didn’t even have to bundle up. I could leave the sleeping bag partially unzipped and I was so happy with all that stuff. For a race system I usually don’t bring that much, but it’s still very light and it was awesome. All this stuff is so refined now and weighs almost nothing. I rode in the down jacket and pants all the time. It feels like a super lightweight sweatsuit. For big descents, I would just throw them on so I wouldn’t lose my heat. I feel like if I can maintain a stable body temperature I can ride more consistently.
You may have been one of the only people drinking water without filtering it. Tell us about that.
Yeah, I just drank it. There were a couple times when I knew it wasn’t ideal as there was often cow shit or horse shit nearby, but I’ve done it before and been fine. So, I just did it again. I do that for the Tour Divide, too. I do it for every race. Filtering water is just too time consuming. It’s a risk, but there are a lot of risks we’re taking out here. It’s just one of them.
Talk a bit about the bike you chose for this race.
My bike was awesome, holy cow, I loved it. Super solid. It’s an aluminum Specialized Fuse with an aero bar and Ergon grips with bar ends, so my hands are actually in pretty good shape. Even with the 30T ring and a 10-50T cassette, I used the easiest gear quite a bit while crawling up those steep, steep climbs. With the Hope brakes I felt in control. It just all rode great and was a fun bike to ride. Like a real mountain bike. No weight weenie stuff about it. I ran 2.3” tires, which are bigger than usual. I didn’t pump them up the entire race, just let the pressure go increasingly lower. By the end of the race, riding over big rocks it felt great. I just didn’t care.
I’m using this new Revelate seat pack that’s super rigid and waterproof. I can leave my down clothes in there and not have to worry about them. I just feel like gear is getting better and better. I had these little neoprene gloves and socks, which are kind of nasty, smell weird, and fit weird, like a wetsuit. But they keep you warm and I’m really happy I brought them. I also sized up my shoes for extra room, which was a great idea since my feet always swell. Then I could put on the neoprene socks with wet feet and they’d still be warm. I carefully thought out all the gear I brought and was pretty happy with everything. I think I used everything except my repair equipment, which I thankfully didn’t need.
I didn’t have any major problems, either. An elastic strap on top of my seat pack that snapped. It was holding my extra shoes, but that was it. I think my handlebars are a little crooked because I crashed and I didn’t want to stop and straighten them. So I was kind of riding a little cock-eyed. The crash happened with like a day and a half to go, but I wasn’t going to stop. “I can still ride this bike with crooked handlebars.” I would just try not to look at them. The bike still felt normal, but when you looked down it kind of made you dizzy. Oh, and I lost a water bottle, but that didn’t matter. I only needed one; there was water everywhere.
Is there anything you’d change about your bike or kit?
The only thing I’d change is to get a carbon frame instead of aluminum. That said, I still really liked the ride. It felt good. I’m riding the aluminum Fuse because I had one three or four years ago. At that time, Specialized didn’t offer the Fuse with a carbon frame, only aluminum. But I love the bike. It’s designed around the 27.5+ platform, but I’ve been riding it for the past three years with 29” tires, which gives you more mud clearance and it feels more like a mountain bike than my Specialized Epic, which is more of a race hardtail. The reach is longer. I could fit two feed bags under the aero bars and my knees wouldn’t run into them. I could put stuff in different places, which was kind of nice, like a liter of Coke on one side and a liter of Fanta on the other. The Epic is a lot tighter and there isn’t room for all that stuff. This is kind of like a Jeep. I’m surprised how much I enjoyed it. Every time I do a long race like this I get more of a feeling for the bike over the time. In some races I fall more in love with the bike, and after some races I never want to see it again. This one’s a take-anywhere bike.
I feel like hardtails have been getting a bad reputation in recent years. Everybody thinks a gravel bike is so much better. But in most cases, if you’re thinking about getting a gravel bike, you should probably get a hardtail, because you can take it a little bit farther. In this race, with chunky dirt roads and big rocks, a hardtail will suit you well. A full-suspension bike would work as well, but it’s harder to pack. You don’t have room for a full frame bag. And often they will have a dropper post, so you can’t have a normal seat pack. A hardtail is really functional.
Overall, I was really happy with it. I’ve spent so much time on the Fuse, including the Baja Divide, the Arizona Trail, the Colorado Trail, and tons of touring. But having a new one with a new SRAM drivetrain and Hope brakes, I realized this bike really rocks. I think frame material gets talked about too much. Carbon, titanium, steel… nobody is talking about aluminum. I want to ride the most unpopular frame material, I guess. But when I think about it, I’m super happy about it because this is the bike that most people can afford. The base Specialized Fuse is $2,000 and comes with 1×12 Eagle, solid disc brakes, a Rockshox Reba. The build is sweet for that money. Of course, I changed some of these things, like adding a dynamo hub, Hope components, and other things, but you can actually just buy the stock bike and it’s awesome. I’m really grateful that Specialized sends me these bikes and is open to my ideas for what I’m using the bikes for, even if I use them differently than how they’re intended to be ridden. The Epic is meant for hour-long races and I raced it on the 2,700-mile Tour Divide. Obviously, that’s not their market, in general.
Any problems with your gear or anything you wish you’d brought along?
I was really happy with everything I had. The first day it snowed a ton and my hands got really cold, but that was the only time I was dreaming of big mountaineering mittens. I saw some at a gear shop in Bishkek that were the size of a sleeping bag and I was imagining myself riding with those on, just so happy. Also, my helmet kind of dug into my forehead, which hurt. But no, everything else was great. Wool socks, for sure, because my feet got wet all the time. And I can’t say enough good stuff about that down suit. I also had full rain pants and a jacket and I’d often wear the down suit under them, which made a bomber all-weather outfit that was really good for descending. Even waking up in temperatures so cold that my water bottles were frozen, I’d wear that for the first few hours and feel very good. I think I had everything that I could have wanted. It was pretty ideal.
Is there anyone that you’d like to thank?
Yeah, I’d really like to thank Rachael Walker from Hope. We told her that I wanted to race the first edition of the Silk Road Mountain Race last year, but I ended up racing the French Divide instead because of a timing conflict. So, I couldn’t go last year, but she got in touch in the fall and asked what I thought about going out for the Silk Road Mountain Race this year instead with Hope as my sponsor, covering some of my expenses. It was great because initially I wasn’t thinking about participating, given all the costs associated with getting over to Kyrgyzstan to race. The costs felt prohibitive, but her asking to help as a sponsor convinced me that I definitely wanted to do it. I’d seen photos and videos from Kyrgyzstan and it looked so exceptional and different, so I’m really glad this was made possible. I feel pretty fortunate, and it all happened because of Rachael from Hope.
I also really want to thank Specialized for sending the Fuse. And SRAM has been super helpful with getting me set up with drivetrains for my bikes, like the eTAP AXS kit that I used for the Tour Divide, which was incredible. I didn’t want to bring it to Kyrgyzstan, though, as I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to charge it.
And Revelate, of course. The frame bag on the Fuse was originally made for the Epic, but it fit the Fuse perfectly, so there you go. And Pearl Izumi is so supportive of any project. Anything I want to do, they’re like, “Okay, how can we make that happen?” They’re simply open to ideas and they really care. It’s great to have sponsors who really care about what I’m doing. I feel really fortunate about that. Lastly, Komoot, who was the official navigation sponsor of the Silk Road Mountain Race.
We’ve gotten a lot of comments about the situation between you and Jay Petervary, and many people are wondering what the dynamic was like between you two. Is there anything you’d like to say about this?
Leading up to the race, I was a little apprehensive about seeing Jay and competing in the same race with him. I would never wish for anybody to lose a sponsor. Jay and I were friends in the past. I’ve actually spent a week with him at the Cyclist’s Menu and seen him at different races. We were always on friendly terms, would talk a lot, and I felt like we had a lot in common. There aren’t a lot of people out there who ride the same style that we do. People like that you can often really relate to.
But I’ve run into a couple problems with him in the past. Before the first edition of the Silk Road Mountain Race, I planned to come over and tour the route beforehand because I wanted to see and experience it on those terms. And Jay was adamant it would give me such an unfair advantage, and I absolutely could not do it. I told him he could do it, too. Anybody can come ride it. We got over that and were friends again.
Before the Tour Divide he got extremely upset about the possibility of a media project, which is kind of interesting considering there have been at least five videos about the Tour Divide, if not more. He said it was against the ethics and culture of bikepacking racing, and the Tour Divide specifically. But my intention was to create media that’s encouraging to others because I didn’t have anyone telling me that I could go do this stuff. It’s available to everyone. You don’t have to qualify. You don’t have to be sponsored. You can just show up. I love that. There’s no entry fee, no prize money, nobody telling you what you can and can’t do. It’s just about your results. People are still trying to discredit me, which is incredible. I’m running a tracker and a Garmin. I suppose some people just can’t accept that I can accomplish what I do.
In the end, our interactions haven’t been 100% positive, and we’re not buddies, which is how it goes, I suppose. I always try my hardest to make things work and to appreciate what people are contributing to the scene. I think Jay is inspiring people to ride. He rides with a lot of heart, and he always finishes races, no matter what. I really admire that. But I also have to protect myself. I’ve been dealing with a lot of attacks this summer, from a lot of people who’ve been trying to knock me down for whatever reason.
I’m a little surprised by the attacks because all I’m trying to do is be positive and encouraging to others. I ride my bike because I love it, and I feel lucky to make a life out of it. I do receive sponsorship, which I’m really grateful for. Other people might feel that’s unfair, which might be the motivation for them to come after me. But it takes a lot of hard work. I’ve been working at this for 13 years, first working at restaurants to make money to fund my trips. Now I don’t have to do that and it’s amazing, but there’s no road map to making this happen. And I know that it could all go away in a minute, it could all be gone, but it’s been a good run. Ultimately, I guess I just have to choose to ignore the negativity.
What’s next on your calendar?
I’m racing the Spirit World 100, which is a 100-mile gravel race hosted by the Cyclist’s Menu in Patagonia, Arizona, on November 9th. I’m going to both work the event and race it. The riding is so good down there and it’s so fun. They have some really funny surprises in store for that race, too.
I also want to do a time trial on the Arizona Trail soon, the full 750-mile course. And I’m planning on racing the Tour Divide either as an individual time trial or in the race next June (with no media at all, by the way). I’ve been talking with Kaitlyn Boyle about possibly racing the Colorado Trail or racing her on the Arizona Trail. She’s the best female ultra-distance singletrack racer in the world, I think. She’s totally going to kick my ass, but I kind of want that opportunity because I want people to know how good she is, too. She’s incredible!
Otherwise, I’m flying to Scotland shortly for a bikepacking weekend with Hope. Then I’ll be at the Bikepacking Summit in Georgia. I want to try and ride Trans-North Georgia while I’m down there, just to see it. The places that riding is taking me always make me dream of different things I can include along the way to get to know places better. Riding is such a cool way to make that happen.
Finally, any last things you want to add?
I want to thank the Silk Road Mountain Race organization. They pulled off a really good event. The checkpoints were super cool and the route is awesome. I also have to thank Joe Cruz for putting together the Tian Shan Traverse Route that a big piece of the race follows. I just can’t believe people like him can find these amazing roads just by looking at a map. It turned out to be exceptional riding. It was cool to have checkpoints, I’ve never had a race with that. It makes it a little more social because you have to go in and talk with someone for a few minutes and maybe get some food. It helps break up the race. I’d love if more races had checkpoints, though they’re probably not going to because it requires so much work. It’s really pleasant, though, because instead of being own head for a week, they help to break it up every few days.
I think the media team is doing a fantastic job with the race, too, just to share this incredible place. I wish there was media like this for other races because people want to know and are so curious. I can’t believe people spend so much time watching dots, it’s insane! It’s painstaking, all you’re doing is watching this dot, refreshing and seeing if it went anywhere?! It’s great that the media team can add to that with photos, videos, and a podcast. I think it’s really cool and is a big part of how they got 140 people to fly to Kyrgyzstan for a race. They work they’re doing makes a big difference.
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