Two of America’s Most Difficult Endurance Records Just Got Smashed
Lael Wilcox became the first American and first woman to win the Trans Am bike race, while Briton Mike Hall shattered the fastest Tour Divide time
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While all eyes in the cycling world are on Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, and Alberto Contador at Saturday’s start of the Grand Boucle, two amateur racers notched record rides this week that would make those Tour contenders weary.
Lael Wilcox won the third edition of the Trans Am bike race, beating 65 riders in the 4,400-mile self-supported coast-to-coast ride to finish in a time of 18 days and 10 minutes. The time bests the previous women’s record by over two and a half days and gives Wilcox the second-fastest ever time on the course.
Though Wilcox is no newcomer to endurance racing—she beat the women’s record on the Tour Divide last season—the Trans Am win is especially impressive because it was the 29-year-old’s first-ever road race. “Before this, I really hadn’t spent much time on a road bike. I was surprised how hard it is and how different it was to mountain biking,” she said after the race. “I liked road riding. I just feel like I have so much to learn still.”
The race, which follows the TransAmerica Trail from Astoria, Oregon, to Yorktown, Virginia, played out with more twists and intrigue than the average endurance event, as Wilcox struggled in the first week. “I started the race thinking I might be able to win it, but then I was running like 150 miles behind the leaders because I was riding it all wrong. I was riding the climbs too hard, then I was all whipped out on the flats and losing time,” she says. “I had to change strategy. I thought there was no way I could win, and I was just trying to maintain my position.”
Meanwhile, at the head of the race, Australian Sarah Hammond and Steffan Streich of Greece were putting in formidable rides. Hammond eventually had some navigation issues and fell off the pace, and Wilcox kept plugging away and moved into second. But Streich looked like a lock for the win, with a commanding lead of around 50 miles leading into the final day.
However, Streich was having difficulties with an ailing GPS and was also suffering from repeated nights with just one hour of sleep. On the final night, after waking from a nap, he made a shocking mistake, heading backwards on the course toward Wilcox. She describes seeing a bright light coming at her on the final night and wondering whether it was a fan who had come out to cheer her. “It was really confusing. This cyclist passed me, then looped around and caught back up,” Wilcox recounts. “He looked like a racer but I had never seen him before, so I asked him his name. When he told me he was Stefan, I just started sprinting, riding really aggressively. I realized that was my chance.”
The two rode a few hours together and, according to Wilcox, Streich suggested that, having battled for two weeks, they should ride to the finish together for a gentleman’s tie. “I said, ‘No way,’” Wilcox explains. “This is a race. I’m racing to the finish.” Wilcox eventually distanced the Greek and took the win by a commanding two hours.
“I’m not surprised that a woman won this race, though I am surprised it was me,” Wilcox says of beating a field stacked with men. She says she was convinced early on that Sarah Hammond would win the overall. The Australian eventually finished sixth. “There’s so many skills you bring to racing like this, and I think it really levels the playing field. I’ve said it before, but I think this proves that women can be just as fast as men in endurance races.”
The only rider to have ever ridden the Trans Am faster than Wilcox is Mike Hall, who won the 2013 edition and holds the course record of 17 days, 16 hours, and 17 minutes. Just a few days after Wilcox wrapped up her 2016 Trans Am win, Hall set a new course record of his own on the Tour Divide.
It was the Briton’s third finish on the 2,745-mile self-supported mountain bike race from Banff, Canada, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, and his time of 13 days, 22 hours, and 51 minutes bests by over half a day the record that Josh Kato established last year.
The win wraps up a bit of unfinished business for Hall, who won the race in 2013 but was denied the official record because forest fires forced racers to detour around parts of the route in New Mexico. “At the time I wasn’t too bothered about the record because I had demonstrated that I had gone a lot quicker than anyone else,” Hall says. “That year, I let off the gas at the end. There wasn’t anyone chasing me and I knew I couldn’t have the record. But then last year, Josh’s time was only 18 minutes quicker than my ride in 2013. So I felt like I really needed to come back.”
At this year’s race, Kato was running a strong second during the first few days but was forced out after he suffered a knee injury from a pickup truck running him off the road in Montana. Hall wasn’t carrying any sort of mobile device, but he says that he found out about Kato’s misfortune and elimination quickly from bystanders on the route. He says he’d have preferred to have had Kato in the race throughout.
“I knew very well the schedule that I needed to be keeping based on my past rides,” Hall says. “But having someone pushing you from behind certainly keeps you a lot more on your toes. As it was, I found myself falling off the pace and then having to push really hard to get back on the schedule.”
According to Hall, it was a tougher year for a record run this year than in 2013 because of wet conditions up north. He moved slower than he’d hoped in the initial days and was forced to make up the time by slashing his sleep time. In the end he estimates he was about 90 percent as fast as he could have been, though he was pleased enough with the result that he says he’s unlikely to do the race again anytime soon.
“While I was out there, I was thinking this should be my last Tour Divide because it’s quite painful. Sometimes it’s just mentally quite challenging, your hands might be going numb, or your back might be aching. It’s the torment of never being comfortable for so long,” he says. “Now I’ve finished, I do feel that connection with the course. And I miss it a little bit. But I need a goal to chase if I’m going to come again.”
When asked whether he would return if someone bested his course record, Hall pulls no punches: “That would certainly be something to think about.” And could a woman beat the time? “Why not?” he says. “It was amazing to watch the TransAm this year, and I think it’s really good for cycling to have an event where women and men are fighting together for the top spots. And not just one woman but two [referring to Wilcox and Hammond]. That’s exciting because it’s something you don’t see in other sports. It gives this kind of racing an edge. There’s something in it that other sports don’t have. It’s just brilliant.”
The same, of course, should be said of Hall, who now holds the records on two of the most prestigious self-supported bike races in the world.