High Miles And Heartbreak: A Story Of Ultra Endurance CyclingPlay
When Lael Wilcox pulled up at the starting line of the coast-to-coast Trans Am Bike Race in June of 2016, she was surrounded by impressive athletes, men and women.
"They're all tall and fit. They all have bike kit on. I'm wearing a cotton T-shirt, like usual," Lael recalls. "I tucked my T-shirt into my spandex shorts to be more aerodynamic. I was, kind of, like, 'OK, get serious.' "
Setting The Bar High
About 90 people rolled out of the starting line, beginning their 4,228 mile journey from Oregon to Virginia. The best of them expected to get across the country in 17 days or so.
"I just started hammering," Lael says. "I was just, like, 'Whoosh! Take off!' "
Lael’s boyfriend, Nicholas Carmen, followed her pace online. He’s her biggest supporter and kind of her de facto coach.
"So, there's lots of talent in the first two days. And then, after the third day, it looks like the way the race is gonna look the rest of the time," he says.
After that third day, Lael was holding strong between third and fifth place, which sounds pretty good. But she had set the bar super high for herself.
"I was, kind of, bummed out," she says. "I was, like, 'What the hell am I doing? These guys are killing me.' "
An Australian woman and a German guy were staying steady in the lead.
"I just took it for granted that it was going to be easy, and it was not," Lael says.
"Did you think she was going to win?" I ask Nicholas.
"Um, not really," he says. "But it’s kind of a long game."
Lael hung in the long game long enough for the Australian to fall behind. That left her and the German, Steffen Streich, heading into the final days.
"He kept asking people — he was, like, 'Where is she? How far back is she?' " Lael says. "He had to know, because he knew I was coming after him."
Steffen slept less and less each night, trying to keep his lead. But by the last night, Lael had cut it to 20 miles. She slept for 30 minutes in a bush on the side of the road.
"I was, like, 'OK, this is it. I'm going,' " she recalls. "Chased a caffeine pill with a 5-hour Energy, and I'm, like, 'I'm on it. I’m getting Steffen.' "
The Trans Am had never been won by a woman. And neither had any other major self-supported race. So Lael’s run on the leader wasn’t just important for her, but for the whole sport.
It Began...With A Bike
For some of the people in the Trans Am, racing is their whole world. But Lael came to this sport in a very different way. It all started back in college, when Nicholas gave her her first bike.
"So we met, I guess, 10 years ago, almost 11 years ago," she says. "We started riding together. Nick is really the reason I started riding bikes at all."
"It was just like this huge idea," she says. "I never knew anybody did that, but I was, like, 'This is so cool.' We could just ride — if we rode like this every day, day after day, we would just cross the country on bikes."
After Lael graduated, they decided to do exactly that.
"But we didn't have any money," she says. "Like, zero money."
They worked for the summer to save up and then started their first trip that fall. They rode down along the entire East Coast.
"And it was awesome," Lael says. "We were chasing the fall colors all the way down."
That started a six-year migratory cycle. They’d do odd jobs for a few months in one place, saving money. Then they’d travel for a few months. They went all over the world that way.
"You'd learn the street names and the local hangouts, and you'd make new friends, and you'd just understand local culture," Nicholas says. "And whether that was a new language or just, kind of, a new place, you'd truly understand it."
They toured the Middle East, Africa, the U.S. and Mexico.
"And what we've achieved is happiness," Nicholas says. "That's our measure of success."
"In the Western world, where people are increasingly unhappy — " I say.
"Increasingly wealthy and increasingly unhappy. And no amount of money will buy happiness," Nicholas says. "But even still, people make that mistake all the time, because they chase something and they don't find it. We found relative health and happiness in riding bicycles and not making a lot of money."
'A Woman In The Front Of The Pack'
The happiness seemed like it could go on as long as they wanted. But then Lael began wanting to test herself in new ways. While they were in Israel, she heard about the Holyland Challenge, an almost 1,000 mile race across the country. Lael was the only woman to enter and the youngest rider.
"People just looked at me like I wasn't even going to be able to finish the first day," she says. "They're, kind of, like, 'What is she doing here?' "
At the end of the first day, she was 25 miles ahead of everyone.
"People just went crazy, because they couldn't believe there was a woman in the front of the pack," she says. "It was just, like, this big deal."
Lael didn’t win, but obviously people took notice. Then she did another big race and, even though she had bronchitis, she beat the women’s record.
And that brings us back to the 2016 Trans Am. Lael was racing Steffen for the lead, but she’d still never won a race.
So, she woke up on that final morning and popped that caffeine pill.
What Lael didn’t know is that at almost that exact same moment, Steffen woke up, too. He was ahead by 20 miles. But he started pedaling the wrong way.
"It’s 3:00 a.m. We're in this town called Bumpass, Virginia. It's, like, a nothing town," Lael says. "And I see this light coming towards me. And I was like, 'What the hell is going on here? Who is this?' "
It was Steffen, headed right at her.
Fatigue is such a big part of ultra distance racing that it’s not uncommon for a rider to wake up groggy and go the wrong way. When Steffen saw Lael, he turned around and immediately started following her.
"I just started riding as fast as I could," Lael says. "I was, like, 'Wah!' Going crazy."
They rode neck and neck for 5 or 6 miles. But then, Lael lost Steffen completely. She cruised in first to the finish, where Nicholas and a crowd of people were waiting.
"I finished, they put out like a little camping chair for me to sit in, take my shoes off, tell my story about the final night," Lael says. "Because everybody was, like, 'What the hell happened out there?' And it was awesome."
Up until then, many people said a woman couldn’t win a race like this.
"Bull----. If you beat 'em, you beat 'em," Lael says. "That's what happens. And then everybody has to change the way they think."
"Lael isn't the fastest rider you or I have ever seen, but somehow, at the end of 4,300 miles, she finishes ahead of 70 other people," Nicholas says.
"Could you beat Lael?" I ask him.
"No comment," Nicholas says. "Lael says no, and I don't really care."
Both of them do agree on this: Nick would win in a short race. But Lael has a kind of super-freak power. She can ride hundreds of miles every day with little sleep and just keep going.
Racing Takes Its Toll
I met Lael last March in San José del Cabo. That’s way down on the southern tip of the Baja peninsula in Mexico. She was setting what’s called a "Fastest Known Time" of the peninsula. Basically racing against herself.
There were a few people waiting for her with a toilet paper finish line. They sprayed her with Tecates when she crossed.
I’ve never seen in my life anyone look as stiff as she did when she stepped off that bike. She moved slow, like her joints didn’t work right.
I gave her some time to rest and then met her and Nicholas in their motel room a few days later. It was a tiny room, one of the cheaper ones you could get in town, but clean and neat. Their bikes took up all the free space.
Nicholas had a row of wine bottles stowed next to the bed. He grabbed a bottle and opened it, because Lael’s hands still were still numb from the ride. All the bouncing of the dirt roads had done something weird to her nerve endings.
I was expecting to find someone stoked on their new career. But less than 10 minutes into the interview, she said something about racing that totally threw me. She said she thinks she’s done. That she's accomplished all she wanted to. I was so confused.
"It's, like, this racing, you don't stop for anything," she says. "You don't talk to anybody, you don't learn anything. You just hammer through as quickly as you can."
For six years, all Lael and Nicholas did was work and tour. But then three years ago, the racing started. And they haven’t toured since. I realized, Nicholas was really bummed.
"I’d like to continue traveling at some point in the future," he says. "I'd like to think that she wants to put the racing behind her at some point — try not to impress too much on her, but I think that she wants to."
"'Try not to impress too much on me' — he says, like, every day that he hates the racing," Lael says with a laugh. "I understand, though. It just, like, takes everything. It’s all-consuming."
Competitive sports aren’t Nicholas’ thing, but he’s still proud of Lael.
"I'm extraordinarily proud of it, and I'm excited that she does it. And I'm excited that she does anything that excites her and makes her happy," he says.
But he got into biking for the touring.
"One is very different from the other. One is to encourage people to travel and to speak another language and eat food, and the other is do something at a distance as fast as you can," he says.
I started getting invested in the whole thing, wanting them to resolve it. I asked Nicholas if maybe the answer wasn’t for him to pick up racing, too.
"No, I don't have interest in racing at all," he says. "It doesn't make any sense to me."
"He could be a great racer if he wanted to," Lael says. "He doesn't want to race."
"What’s the point, even if I could?" Nicholas says. "The question is, why would anybody want to do that? Not why wouldn't I want to do that, but why would anybody want to?"
"Yeah, good question. Why would anybody want to do that?" Lael responds.
"You're the outlier, not me," Nicholas says.
"I know. I'm the outlier," Lael says. "And I — my purpose, my focus is I do it because I can, and I can win."
Nicholas, it seemed, would never get racing.
Lael, on the other hand...she seemed really torn. Racing has brought her very little money and it wrecks her body. Touring, though, has this kind of soul-satisfying quality. But then again, she's got a physical genius for the racing, and that’s tough to let go.
Getting Back On The Bike
I walked outside. It was nearing sundown in the square.
And then I let this project sit. I had interviewed Lael and Nicholas in their motel room last March, and when I finally came back to this, I knew I had to check in with them. I went to Nicholas’s blog and read an entry from August:
By some twisted miracle, Lael has gone her own direction without me and I’ll never understand it ... Nearly eleven years of my life — most of which we lived at a vigorous pace where every hour is saturated in new experiences — seem to have vaporized.
Nicholas did the only thing he knew how to do. He got on a bike and started touring again.
It’s impossible to quantify the metrics of why any two people split. But something Lael had said in the motel room stuck with me. She set these big, unattainable goals for herself in every race.
"I want to shoot for the stars every time," she told me. "I'm always trying harder, or I'm always going for bigger miles. But then, the result is that I'm not going to attain my goal. It's, like, my goals are bigger than just winning."
In the end, Lael just couldn’t shake that urge. I called her up a few weeks ago, and she said there are still records she wants to break. In fact, she’s planning on racing again this summer.
This segment aired on January 6, 2018.