It’s finally on YouTube. Ultra-endurance bike racing legend Lael Wilcox released her new documentary to the public after a few months of screenings across the USA. In its forty-minute run time, I felt all the feels.
I’d first heard about ultra-endurance adventure bike racing while planning my own leisurely bike tour across the USA. The same paved route I traveled, the TransAmerica Trail, is also the course of the annual TransAm Bike Race. Self-paced and self-supported, these ultra athletes do what I did in a fraction of the time, putting in huge daily mileage and barely sleeping.
The unpaved version is the Tour Divide on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, where racers traverse gravel roads and trails along the mountainous Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico. Legendary cyclists have emerged as winners, and my favorite is Lael Wilcox from Anchorage, Alaska. She won the TransAm in 2016 and set a women’s course record for the Tour Divide in 2015 even with a lung infection.
2019 was supposed to be her year to crush her own Tour Divide record and challenge the overall record. But the race took an unexpected turn. I Just Want to Ride tells the story, and it’s packed with the emotions you’d expect from such an endeavor, and with some you don’t.
Ultra-endurance racers on the Tour Divide have superpowers. No matter how much they humbly insist that they’re just pedaling bikes like everyone else, they’re basically flying. They average around 200 miles a day, with a mind-bending amount of climbing over mountain passes.
While there’s no real commercial audience for this sport, fans like me can watch the GPS dots of their athletes on trackleaders.com. We’re called “dot watchers.”
Scenes of Wilcox’s ride brought welcome flashbacks from my own cross-America ride this past summer. The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route passes through remote, rural areas and towns with populations of less than 100. I remembered my own stops along the main streets of small-town America. I recognized the conversations with locals who take a genuine interest in cyclists and their journeys year after year. When Lael is marveling at the open sky around her and expressing her gratitude to be in it, that resonated with me too.
Whether racing or touring, there are certain elements of the adventure that stay with us as prized travel moments. It’s okay to get a little choked up with the nostalgia of seeing them captured on film.
Indignation at the trolls
After the weather turns on the racers, they’re stranded at a lodge in Colorado for two days, strategizing next moves. On top of that, Lael shares the criticism she faced from the online race-watching community.
She had been under scrutiny for inviting a media crew to follow parts of her ride, which some were calling a “support crew.” Even though they’re not supporting her in any way, the critics claimed that since Lael’s girlfriend Rue was on the crew, the “boost” from seeing her would be an unfair advantage.
“I’m not willing to be controlled by members of a Facebook group,” she declares.
Spoiler: love wins, not Facebook trolls.
This film is a message of empowerment. As Lael points out, “the percentage of women racing this year and every year is extremely low.”
Watching I Just Want to Ride, I felt so proud of her for competing in a male-dominated sport and crushing it. Thank you, Lael, for showing women we can.
By the end of the film, a new life goal was born. At some point, I want to pedal the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route myself. I certainly won’t be racing it with the ultra-endurance legends, but taking a summer to do this is now officially on the wish list.
A lot would need to happen. I’d need to find a gravel bike and overhaul my gear in favor of the bikepacking setup. I’d have to prepare more for the backcountry and train for gravel climbs. Then there’s the whole puzzle of work, savings, and free time to solve.
But, as I know from my TransAmerica ride this past summer, the first step is to get inspired and dream it up.