A Chat with Lael Wilcox About Her 2021 Hope 1000 Win
Lael Wilcox was the first woman to cross the finish line at the 2021 Hope 1000. Following yesterday’s Hope 1000 coverage, here’s an interview with Lael after the race discussing the route, equipment, and what’s next. Find that alongside a beautiful gallery of photos from Rue…
Photos by Rugile Kaladyte (@rugilekaladyte)
The 1,000-kilometer Hope 1000 (mostly) wrapped up last week in Montreaux, Switzerland. Among 77 riders participating, 49 finished and 22 scratched, with the remainder still in the field at the time of this writing. With over 30,000 meters of climbing and a hearty dose of singletrack, the Hope 1000 is a tough course that was made even more challenging this year by the rain and extreme heat. As Lael Wilcox summed it up after her 2018 ride, “[it’s] like climbing Mount Everest every day for four days in a row.” Following Marin de Saint-Exupéry’s first place finish (03:16:56), Lael became the first woman to cross the finish line and took fifth place overall with a time of 4 days, 13 hours and 28 minutes (04:13:28). We caught up with Lael after the race to ask a few questions about her ride, the route, and what’s next. Read on for details alongside a beautiful photo gallery from Rue…
Why did you race the Hope 1000 for a second time?
After racing the Hope 1000 in 2018 and finishing second overall, I never thought I’d race it again. We had nearly perfect conditions and I only slept nine and a half hours for my four and a half day ride. I didn’t think I could do any better and it was so hard.
I really came back because of the race organizer, Willi Felix. Willi has put so much work into designing and maintaining this route and encouraging people to ride it. Him and his wife Yvonne have become dear friends. Rue and I came back to spend time with them and support the race. By riding it, I’m hoping to encourage more women to ride it as well. Rue was the official race photographer. Her images really inspire me and I hope others too.
Riding in Switzerland is like a dream. The Alps are exceptionally beautiful—jagged and snowy and pristine. The cows all have bells that harmonize with each other. Everyone seems happy and healthy with a true appreciation for nature. There’s high quality food and water everywhere. It’s really idyllic and it’s great to be back.
What was different this year from 2018?
The level of competition is much higher. In 2018, there were 40 racers at most. This year, it’s closer to 100. The top riders are sleeping less and pushing harder and there are more of them. I love seeing how the sport is developing and inspiring folks from different disciplines (road, MTB, triathalon, running, cyclocross). It’s really cool to see the different approaches—different bikes and equipment and strategies.
The weather was extremely challenging this time around. It was super hot the first day and then rainy with intermittent thunderstorms for the rest of it. A lot of the route climbs on dirt and paved roads and descends on singletrack. The trails were very muddy and slippery and hard to ride. In the end, I had to walk a lot of the descents.
What was your biggest challenge?
After ascending the final climb, the Col du Jaman, a thunderstorm began. It’s the only time in the race that I got truly cold. I had to descend in cold, wet conditions. One of the final trails is extremely Rooty and I had to walk the whole thing. That said, it was still super beautiful.
I had a much harder time descending than climbing. I lost a lot of time. I need to work on my technical skills and probably run more aggressive tires. Ultimately, I’m just really happy I didn’t crash or have any bad mechanicals.
What was your favorite stretch of the route?
This time around, it was La Tre eiffel, the first major pass just south of Interlaken. I rode it a week before the race with Willi and it was covered in snow. This time, due to the heatwave and rain, all the snow had melted. New wildflowers had sprung up. So many farmers, young and old, were out. I saw cows with sunflowers tied to their heads. At first, I thought it was just grass and then realized they were carefully arranged bouquets. It was pretty unreal.
Did you have a strategy for the race this year and did it change along the way?
I didn’t really start with a strategy, but I knew I wanted to both spend long days in the saddle and ride a faster pace than 2018. I figured I’d try to sleep at the same hiker hut on the first night as last time and that worked out. I got there at about 1:00 in the morning and decided to sleep for three hours to make sure I’d feel good for the next day. There were two hikers already camped. I tried not to make too much noise and slept in my sleeping bag on a patch of gravel. It definitely jammed into my back and I was pretty jealous of their plush sleeping pads. In the morning, one of the hikers woke up and asked what I was doing. I told him about the race. He said, “no time for breakfast?” And I told him I had to go. He gave me a Powerbar for the road and said it was good because it had protein, pretty dry, but easier to swallow with my Gnarly Nutrition Protein-Performance Greens shake. Mega protein!
On day two, the rain started and it kept raining on and off for the rest of the ride. I realized sleep would be really important to keep my head in a good place to keep facing the rain and slippery trails. From that point on, I slept four hours a night. This made my days really nice—I felt good and rode faster than in the past. I slept more than anyone else in at least the top seven. Several riders up front scratched from injuries and saddle sores—probably a by-product of the wet conditions.
I’m happy to say I felt really positive and good out there, despite all of the hardship.
How did your equipment fare? Would you change anything with your bike setup or do anything differently?
The rain was definitely tough on everything. My brakes howled. I slid out on a loose section of gravel and knocked my derailleur before the Grosse Scheidegg (near mile 380). My shifting was a bit off for the rest of the ride.
I loved having full suspension and I think that saved me from a lot of pain in the long run.
For such wet conditions, I’d definitely run more aggressive tires. If it had been dry, the Fleecer Ridges would’ve been perfect.
I only got cold on the last descent—maybe a pair of rain pants would’ve been nice. I thought about making a poncho out of a garbage bag, but I really didn’t want to stop. I was really happy with my clothing set up—that Gore-Tex jacket really works.
What’s next for you?
Rue and I will be in Montreux for the next day or so until Willi finishes. We go to Morzine, France on Monday for a Alp hut overnight with Komoot and we’ll fly back to Alaska on July 5th. Shortly after that, I’ll ride a time trial on the Trans Alaska Pipeline: 857 miles of mixed gravel and pavement from Deadhorse to Valdez. It’s super remote and super beautiful. The idea is to ride it as fast as I can. I have two and half weeks to recover before this event. I hope by then I’m feeling at the top of my game.
More on the Hope 1000
Make sure to dig into these videos and articles for more on this amazing race and route...
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