Last week, Lael Wilcox became the first woman to win the Trans Am Bike Race, a grueling, 4,200-mile slog that takes cyclists from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia. In addition to offering no prizes, the race is totally unsupported, meaning the participants are responsible for carrying everything they need—from food to camping equipment—for the duration of the ride.
Wilcox crossed the line after averaging 235 miles per day for 18 days, sleeping just three to five hours per night. Despite her incredible performance, her win was promptly met with derision on Facebook by men who assumed she must have cheated. We spoke on Saturday about the ride, about her detractors, and what it’s like to crush a race previously dominated by men.
First of all, congratulations. That is such an incredible accomplishment. I can’t even imagine riding that far.
Thank you! Yeah, it was really long!
How did you feel at the end?
I was so happy to be done. Oh man. It’s like this saga. It’s like Lord of the Rings out there. You’re just going forever. And then to see the end in sight and finish...and I caught the leader, which was really exciting. I was really excited to be done.
You’ve done—and won—long rides before.
I’ve done a lot of long rides, and I raced the Tour Divide last summer. It takes about the same time, but mileage-wise, it’s shorter, because it’s mountain biking. But this is just a lot of miles to take on. You really have to be consistent in your riding. Every day you have to give it your full effort and get as much done as you can, or you’ll kinda drop off. So it’s just a lot of time to stay focused.
Some men on social media accused you of cheating. What’s the deal with that?
I haven’t actually seen it. I’ve heard about it, like third-hand. It’s just weird—there’s a lot of people that try to take away what you do, and interpret the way things are going in a negative fashion. I mostly just try to stay out of it because the reality is that I’m out there on my own, doing the best I can. People are in their houses sitting behind their computers trying to take away from what I’m doing. So I just stay out of it. I’m in this for a positive reason, and I’m not really willing to go down to that level.
It’s very easy to comment on the internet from your desk chair.
Right. We’re not even engaging in the same world at that point.
The runner-up, Steffen Streich, asked in the last 100 miles if you wanted to finish the race together. How do you feel about that?
Obviously he was hurting, and he was worn out, and he’d made some mental errors. He was kind of at the end of his line. For me the exciting part is that we got to race to the finish—I thought it was pretty awesome that we’re both in same region of the last 100 miles of the race, of an over 4,000 mile race. So I thought “No way! I’m not giving up this chance. This is like, the moment of the race. This is the pivotal point.” So I just told him that I wasn’t going to do that. Which is fair! I mean, it’s a race. That’s the point.
I wonder if he would have made that request of a man? I guess you could only speculate, but what do you think?
I’m not sure. The thing is, he made a pretty big mistake: he started riding the course backwards. Mentally, that’s really tough. But I’d been chasing this guy for two weeks, he’d been riding away from me for two weeks, and then finally at the last 100 miles he asked to ride with me. There’s no way. Had he been 20 miles ahead of me, there’s no way he would have waited to ride with me. So that wasn’t happening. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. This was exciting. This is a race. This is what I’m here for, is to race.
How do you feel being the first woman to have won this thing?
It’s awesome! It’s really awesome. Going into it, I felt there was no reason that I couldn’t win—it’s just never happened before. But I feel like, in these endurance events, it’s kind of an open playing field. And when you see the winners of these things, it’s not consistently the same kind of person, the same kind of body type. It’s all sorts of different people. There are different strengths and weaknesses that play in. It’s not all about power. A lot of it is recovery, strategy, mental capacity. So it’s super exciting to win, and I feel like that kind of opens up opportunities for others, too.
A lot of it is just believing that you can do it, having the confidence, the tenacity to go after it. There are so many moments in the day where you can give up, and just feel like you’re not out there competing. I feel like for people to see an example of a fairly normal person—I’m normal height, normal size, I’m a woman—winning. I’m not this super human, and I won. And I feel like people can relate to that and believe in themselves.
Image by Anthony Dryer/Trans Am Bike Race.