Riding with Lael

Posted by: Jan Heine Category: People who inspired us, Rides

Riding with Lael

When Lael and Rue came to Seattle late last year, I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, I think I know Lael. I’ve watched her in countless interviews and videos. We’ve talked on the phone dozens of times. We’ve worked together to develop two tires, the Fleecer Ridge and Oracle Ridge knobbies. And yet we’d never met in person. We’d been planning to ride together for years, but something always came up. So late last year, we decided to meet in Seattle for one last big ride of the year, before snow would make the high passes of the Cascade Mountains impassable.

It was truly a ‘last ride.’ Rain was forecast that would fall as snow on the high passes. So we headed straight from the airport to Packwood. After a few hours’ sleep, we set out in the morning for the first half of the Volcano High Pass Super Randonnee – a 200-mile loop from the foot of Tahoma (or Mount Rainier) to the Columbia River and back.

Which means that just a few minutes into my first ride with Lael, we’re on the 12-mile, 3000-foot climb to Walupt Lake. What’s it like to ride with a legend? Fortunately, Lael in real life smiles just as much as she does on photos, and she’s even more fun. We chatted as we got to know each other, and the long, long climb flew by.

Toward the top, I sensed that Lael was holding back, so I told her to go ahead. Off she danced, out of the saddle, the bike rocking gently under her smooth, powerful pedal strokes. It’s clear that she’s a natural – she told me how she did her first marathon just after finishing high school, and, if I remember correctly, she set a women’s record for Alaska.

Walupt Lake was shrouded in mist. We rode onto the beach, stopped briefly, chatted with Rue, and then continued. The miles flew by as talked about riding and racing, about the things you talk about during long rides, when there’s no rush and also time to be silent.

We descended to Babyshoe Pass, and it was clear that Lael enjoyed visiting this iconic place. She told me that she went to college in nearby Tacoma, but she cycled only for transportation back then. She even rode to Seattle once, but she never ventured into the Cascades.

Lael isn’t just incredibly fast uphill, she also flies down curvy mountain roads. After riding all summer on her Diverge with Oracle Pass knobbies, she clearly knows exactly what her bike can do, and she enjoys taking it close to the limit. It was fun to follow her down some of my favorite descents.

With some people, you run out of conversation after a few hours on the road, but not with Lael. We talked about riding in the mountains, and she told me about her adventures in Kyrgyzstan and Alaska. The clouds parted, and Klickitat (or Mount Adams) emerged as we approached Trout Lake for a late lunch.

A few hours, a small mountain pass, and a magnificent descent later, we reached the Columbia River. It’s always moving to stand at the edge of this mighty river. It was nice to share the feeling of accomplishment after crossing an entire mountain range.

After a quick dinner at the small grocery store in Carson, we headed back into the mountains as darkness fell. We climbed for hours, and then I missed a turn. The central Cascade Mountains have few roads, and there are are only five turns on this route, so I navigated by memory. As we chatted, the road continued to climb when I expected a downhill, and then it turned to gravel. On a long, challenging ride, extra distance and elevation isn’t always welcome, but it didn’t matter during this night. We briefly gazed at the stars before turning around and finding the turnoff I had missed on top of Oldman Pass.

Night rides can be enchanting, especially with good company. We didn’t see a single car for many hours. We climbed Elk Pass before launching into the final (and best) descent on the flanks of Louwala-Clough (literally ‘smoking mountain,’ aka Mt. St. Helens). When we reached the bottom, and the rush of the wind subsided, we talked about how the roads in different regions were planned by different engineers. They have a different feel, and as you descend them, you get to know the engineers and how they designed their roads.

We worried whether the weather would hold as the first sprinkles fell. We upped the pace, and rode through the hills in silence for a while. When we returned to Packwood at 3:30 a.m., Rue, who’d been following Lael’s tracker, was outside, waiting for us. It was a sweet welcome. My legs were tired from keeping up with Lael, but her sparkling personality had made the hours fly by. It didn’t feel like we’d been on the road for almost 20 hours. It had been a perfect ride.

So what is Lael like in real life? She’s exactly as you imagine her after watching her in videos and interviews, and reading her stories. She’s totally genuine and always herself. Her views are refreshing and original. She’s got strong opinions, but she’s never forceful in stating them, so it’s easy to like her. Oh, and she’s really, really fast! I want to be like Lael – don’t we all?

Further reading:

This ride on Strava
Bicycle Quarterly 74 with Lael’s story and Rue’s photos of riding in the Cascade Mountains.

Photo credit: Rugile Kaladyte (Photo 6)

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