Riding with Lael

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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Comments (16)

  • daniel

    what a wonderful ride. appreciate seeing the native names for the mountains in the write up, too.

    February 2, 2021 at 6:50 am
  • Michael Wolfe

    Ha! No wonder you got lost. You were on top of Oldman pass, not Deadman pass.

    February 2, 2021 at 7:22 am
    • Jan Heine

      You are right! Corrected the typo.

      February 2, 2021 at 8:19 am
  • Bryan I. Lorber

    Wow, what an experience! Lael is my hero in every respect. You’re so lucky to have had this opportunity.

    February 2, 2021 at 8:23 am
    • Lael Wilcox

      That’s really kind! It definitely brightens my day. I’m so fortunate to have gotten to ride with Jan and to get to know him better.

      February 2, 2021 at 4:56 pm
    • Peter Chesworth

      Yes to this, to riding for the fun of it, and to good people.

      February 4, 2021 at 1:49 am
  • Mark Guglielmana

    The Gifford Pinchot National Forest has become one of my favorite areas to explore after attending the first un-meeting out of Carson. The summer of 2019 I lead a credit card tour from Seattle to Portland in a roundabout way with 5 friends that covered a good deal of your route. Of course there were huck shakes for everyone in Trout Lake!

    February 2, 2021 at 8:29 am
  • Anne HH

    I’m curious which saddle Lael uses. Did she have any recommendations?
    This was a much happier story than the one Lael tells towards the end of her video about the Tour Divide 2015. Sigh. And yet we persevere.

    Now about that saddle….

    February 2, 2021 at 2:03 pm
    • Garth Liebhaber

      That was too bad about what happened with Lael at the end of that Tour Divide race. At the same time, I like how she took ownership of her experience of riding the continental divide. Her integrity of what she’s about came through. That’s an inspiration.

      February 2, 2021 at 4:51 pm
    • Lael Wilcox

      Hi Anne!

      Thanks for being in touch! Yeah, the Tour Divide controversy was definitely tough to live through, but I do still love the route and the time out there– hope I can make another attempt at the overall record this summer.

      I’ve been riding an Ergon SR road saddle on every bike for the past couple of years. I absolutely love it. I love the shape and it has a little padding. I also cut the chamois out of my bibs. I started riding as a commuter, just wearing regular clothes and never wore bike shorts. Ultimately, I think it’s better (more hygienic) for multi-day riding.

      February 2, 2021 at 5:06 pm
  • Garth Liebhaber

    Thanks for sharing! I’ve followed you both from your “early days” and you are both an inspiration!

    February 2, 2021 at 4:47 pm
    • Lael Wilcox

      Thank you!

      February 2, 2021 at 5:07 pm
      • Bhavesh

        Hi !
        Cycling for multi-day without chamois is also suggested by Jesse & Sarah. Need to practice.
        Keep Inspiring. Have A Good Ride.

        February 2, 2021 at 7:21 pm
  • Lael Wilcox

    Jan!

    I just read this article out loud to Rue and it made us both smile. Nice to relive the ride and I’m so thankful that we get to work with you and Natsuko and spend time with you two!

    I remember feeling kind of woozy on the last descent of this ride. I was so sleepy and so grateful to be riding with you (not solo). Autumn is always hard for me, especially after a summer of long days in Alaska. I feel like I lose my energy as the daylight dwindles. Your energy and enthusiasm are remarkable. I’m really looking forward to more rides, experiences and conversations with you and Natsuko.

    Thank you for everything!
    Lael

    February 2, 2021 at 5:17 pm
  • Eugene Tuvilla

    I’d love to be a fly on either Jan’s, Lael’s, or Rue’s, jersey/jacket during that ride. Thanks for the tales, throughout the years, you all certainly kept cycling inspiring and meaningful.

    February 2, 2021 at 6:24 pm
  • Mark

    Thanks for the story, great read! I discovered night riding on Scotland’s quiet country roads, with no wind, no cars, moonlight and the company of a pal this year. Night riding with friends is like a whole new pursuit. Love it!!

    February 3, 2021 at 2:03 am

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