When is the 350-mile DKXL just another training ride? One case might be if you are ultra-endurance cycling star Lael Wilcox.

Best known for racing events such as the 4,400-mile Trans-Am Bike Race and 2,750-mile Tour Divide, Wilcox decided to race the second edition of the DKXL after meeting Dirty Kanza’s Kristi Mohn at an event earlier this year.

“They first asked me to race the 200, and I was like, ‘You know, the only one I’m actually interested in is the XL because it’s my kind of race. It’s self-supported, it’s longer,'” Wilcox said.

Wilcox’s DKXL weekend was more of a DKXL week as she first rode to Emporia from Pearl Izumi’s headquarters in Louisville, Colorado and then served as the keynote speaker at Friday’s Women’s Forum held just a few hours before her race.

Even with all that going on, Wilcox won the Women’s DKXL by over 2 hours and finished 6th overall with a time of just under 24 hours out on the course.

“My plan was to just ride my best because I didn’t really know how I could do since I’ve never ridden that distance as a race,” she said about her approach. “It just went better than I could have imagined. I felt great out there. We were riding a really strong pace. For a lot of it we rode at like 18 miles an hour, which is really fast for rough gravel. I felt super strong and had a really good day on the bike.”

Lael Wilcox at the finish of the DKXL 2019. Wilcox was the first female finisher and placed sixth overall in the DKXL with a time of 23:51:37. © Rugile Kaladyte

Lael Wilcox at the finish of the DKXL 2019. Wilcox was the first female finisher and placed sixth overall in the DKXL with a time of 23:51:37. © Rugile Kaladyte

All of Wilcox’s gravel riding was training for the 2019 Tour Divide race that starts this Friday in Banff, Alberta, Canada and follows the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route 2,745 miles south to New Mexico. Wilcox holds the all-time Women’s ITT record after finishing the route in 15 days, 10 hours and 59 minutes in 2015.

In 2019, Wilcox will be trying to win the Grand Depart overall and perhaps break her own record in the process.

Was the DKXL good training for that effort? All signs point to yes. “The DKXL was definitely tougher than most of the Tour Divide,” Wilcox said. “It was pretty rugged and very rutted. We actually rode through a river bed for a bit of it. It was pretty rough terrain.”

I was able to catch up with Wilcox late last week before she headed up to Banff for the Tour Divide Grand Depart. You can read a transcript of our conversation below.

For more from Emporia, see all of our coverage of the 2019 Dirty Kanza.

Interview: Women’s 2019 DKXL Winner Lael Wilcox

Cyclocross Magazine: You’re kind of known for events that are longer than the DKXL, but in the gravel world, it’s kind of a long distance. What was your motivation for doing it this year?

Lael Wilcox: One of the organizers, Kristi Mohn, came down for endurance gravel camp in Arizona where I was a guide. The week before, Komoot, an app, was like, ‘Hey, we’re sponsoring the race, but part of the deal is you race.’ They first asked me to race the 200, and I was like, ‘You know, the only one I’m actually interested in is the XL because it’s my kind of race. It’s self-supported, it’s longer.’

Then the next week Kristi came down to camp and asked if I would race the DKXL and then also come as the keynote speaker for the Women’s Forum. We also came up with the idea that I’d ride to the start of the DKXL from Colorado. It sounded like fun, kind of the package deal of riding and the event, and my thought was it could all be training for the Tour Divide, which is coming up soon. I’ll get a bunch of miles in, get some fast miles in for the race and then go to my main race, the Tour Divide.

CXM: How was the ride over from Colorado?

LW: It was super fun. We started in Louisville at Pearl Izumi headquarters. There was actually another guy along with me named Dylan Morton, and he put together a primarily gravel route between the two. It was 650 miles and probably 90 percent gravel. And we took six days to ride, riding about 100 miles a day.

We had a total blast, but it was really bad weather. It was super windy with a headwind three of the days. It was still fun to be on my bike.

CXM: Leading up to DK, everyone was talking about the weather and how terrible it was going to be. With your experience, is bad weather something you look forward to?

LW: I always want good weather. It’s always more fun when you have good conditions. It’s faster too, and you enjoy it more. The weather in Kansas changes so much, I figured there was really no point in looking until a few days before to see what it was looking like. We experienced the bad weather on our ride there, then when it was time for the race, it was great weather. Super fast conditions. Two days before the race it was sunny and dry, so all the roads were dried out and it was awesome.

CXM: I was reading the PinkBike interview you recently did, and you rode your Tour Divide bike over to Kansas? How did that work logistically?

LW: I rode my Tour Divide bike, and then my girlfriend who was along documenting our ride was also transporting my gravel bike. But in the end, I ended up riding the Tour Divide bike for the gravel race too. I heard it was really rough, and so the day before, I decided I would ride my Tour Divide bike, which is basically a hardtail mountain bike with a drop handlebar. The tires are 2.1 inches, and then I actually put a 42c tire in the rear to have more clearance for mud if there was any. But in the end, there wasn’t any.

I think it was really the right choice. The DKXL definitely incorporates more B roads, making it tougher than the 200-mile route, so I was really happy to have that bigger tire.

CXM: Tour Divide is kind of fire road, doubletrack type stuff, right? How did the terrain compare, and do you think some of those B roads helped you prepare for Tour Divide?

LW: Yeah, actually, the DKXL route is a lot rougher than the Tour Divide.

CXM: Oh wow.

LW: The Tour Divide is just longer. You need a bigger tire because it’s so long your body just gets beat down. A couple of people have ridden it on gravel bikes, but they usually don’t get good results. It’s really good to have like a 2-inch tire because for the record, you’re trying to ride 200 miles a day for 14 days. It’s a lot of strain on the body, so a bigger tire definitely helps you sustain the distance.

But yeah, the DKXL was definitely tougher than most of the Tour Divide. It was pretty rugged and very rutted. We actually rode through a river bed for a bit of it. It was pretty rough terrain.

CXM: It was rough driving over some of it, so I can only imagine what it was like on a bike. Tour Divide is self-supported, I’m assuming you mostly ride during the day, but DKXL goes through the night. Do you have a lot of experience with those kinds of rides?

LW: Definitely. With the DKXL, I was like, Oh it’s only one night, that’s no big deal. I did a ride this spring that was a time trial on the Arizona Trail, which is all burly singletrack. I actually rode two consecutive nights with zero sleep on singletrack. I was like, Man, if I’m just riding a dirt road for one night, that requires like a quarter of the mental focus you need to ride mountain bike terrain.

We actually had a lovely night. Clear skies, stars. It was probably in the 60s, it was really great out there.

CXM: For a lot of us, riding through the night might be one of the many hangups we have about an ultra-endurance event. Do you have any advice you’ve learned over the years that can help demystify doing that kind of race?

LW: I guess the biggest thing is just to embrace it. Realize wow, you’re going to have an incredible experience being out there and being present for the entire night. That’s when you see more animals, and they’re attracted to you because they’re attracted to the lights on your bike. There’s the stillness of it. There’s less traffic. Just to be in that moment and enjoying that.

Also, you can look at the clock and see that the sun is going to come up in two or three hours and be ready for that. In Kansas, it’s nice because it’s warm. It’s in the 60s, it’s humid. It’s a warm night but not hot. You don’t have to worry about drinking too much water. I thought it was kind of a nice respite.

CXM: To what extent did you pack your food and to what extent were you planning on stopping at gas stations?

LW: I was definitely planning on stopping for water. Going in, I asked ‘How often can I get water?’ Then every time I’d see a gas station, I’d drink about two bottles of water right there on the spot to keep up with hydration.

In the very beginning I carried a couple of sandwiches and a few other things, and then along the way I bought chocolate milk and pizza. Anything just to keep me going. I’ll really eat just about anything. I was just more concerned I had enough water.

CXM: Do you consider eating lots of food a perk of being an ultra-endurance athlete?

LW: I’m actually so burned out from eating all that stuff because it’s nonstop. You have to keep eating the whole time. It’s not delicious food, it’s whatever you can find. I don’t have a huge problem with it, but I’m not actually enjoying it. I mostly enjoy the riding, and the eating is just part of the job.

CXM: It sounds like the riding was pretty dope. I saw the sunrise on Saturday morning, and I can only imagine what it was like knowing you’d be finishing that day.

LW: It was so fun. It was such a cool route with rolling hills all the time and then chunkier tough sections before it smoothed out.

CXM: You’ve seen a lot but it seems like you still have a sense of wonder in all these events you do. How do you keep finding the motivation to take on these challenges?

LW: I just love being out there because you kind of never know what’s going to happen. You can’t predict the people you’ll meet or the terrain you’ll roll over. Or how the weather will change or your body will react. I love that it’s so unpredictable, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that.

CXM: Reading stories about you, it seems like you enjoy riding alone, but groups are part of an event like the DKXL. How did the race go for you?

LW: I rode at least half of it with a guy named Andrew who was on a singlespeed. He was so awesome. He’s a younger guy, I think he’s like 26. He was super strong pushing a pretty big gear. We rode all through the night together, which was really cool. And I had never him before. My ride to the start was also with a guy whom I had never met.

You know, it’s just about being with good people out there. It’s kind of cool if you’re actually matching your pace. That doesn’t always happen because the pace isn’t going to work out, and if it does, it’s pretty awesome.

Another cool thing with the DKXL is drafting was allowed, which is really unusual for ultra-distance races. Definitely for the first 100 miles I was riding with a pack of people, which was a lot of fun. It was fun to work together and keep such a strong pace. I’m happy they allowed that.

I like the rules they’ve set out. Drafting is allowed. You can help each other out. It’s a lot more about camaraderie, which a lot of other ultra-endurance races don’t allow. They say you can’t really interact with others. I like that they’re about building friendships and being with other people.

CXM: Was this your official gravel gravel race?

LW: I raced a 125-mile gravel race in Arizona in the spring, but I’m a gravel guide, so I spend a lot of time taking people out to show them around.

CXM: What did you think the whole Dirty Kanza experience? The DKXL, the finish, the whole scene?

LW: I think it’s fantastic. The organizers have done such a great job being inclusive and then drawing so many strong riders to come. You have everyone from folks challenging themselves to get out on their bikes to Tour de France riders. I love that everyone is kind of on the same playing field. Then you never really know how it’s going to unfold.

It was super encouraging. I’ve never been in a scene where people are more encouraging and cheering for other people and involving the local community. I think they’ve done an excellent job incorporating the city and then inviting others to come.

CXM: As a gravel guide, is that inclusiveness the kind of thing you try to encourage?

LW: For sure. I guide as a job, but I also hold a girl’s cycling program every spring, I’ve hosted a couple of women’s scholarships. I’m always trying to get more women on bikes in any way I can and encourage them. I want to show it’s not an elitest thing and only the best can do it. Anybody can ride their bike. I feel like anyone who tries has fun out there and finds something valuable in it.

CXM: It seems like gravel is a good way for women to get started in cycling, do you think that’s the case?

LW: I do. I also think gravel is a good place for almost anybody to feel welcome because you can be more of an individual riding by yourself, but you also don’t have to have really good mountain bike skills. Most people can figure out the technical aspects of riding gravel and also enjoy it because it’s away from traffic and it’s usually in beautiful places. I think it’s really encouraging more people to get into cycling in general, which is super cool.

I love to see that there are more women participating and getting interested. The other thing I’m really surprised by is how many more people are considering riding these ultra distances. There were, I think, 3,000 people out for Dirty Kanza this year, and at least half of them were riding the 200. That’s a big day on the bike. I’m surprised that many people want to ride a hard 200 miles, and I think it’s encouraging people are taking on that challenge and pushing themselves.

CXM: How did the Women’s Forum go? That was on Friday, correct?

LW: It was on Friday three hours before my race. I gave my presentation, we showed a new video I helped put together about my preparation for the Tour Divide and riding to the start of the DKXL, I did a Q and A and then they broke into smaller groups to talk about different issues. It was awesome and really inspiring. It was a good group of people and a fun event right before my race.

CXM: One more question about the race; what was your approach and plan for the race?

LW: My approach was to get out there, have fun and try my hardest and see what I could do. I really felt zero pressure heading into it. I was really looking forward to this race because Rebecca Rusch, who is a notable female endurance racer, was supposed to race, but she pulled out a day or two before. I really wanted to race her, but she sent me a text saying, ‘I just can’t do it. I have too much going on at home.’

I was like, Dang it, because that is what I was really looking forward to the most. My plan was to just ride my best because I didn’t really know how I could do since I’ve never ridden that distance as a race. It just went better than I could have imagined. I felt great out there. We were riding a really strong pace. For a lot of it, we were riding at like 18 miles an hour, which is really fast for rough gravel. I felt super strong and had a really good day on the bike.

CXM: Looking forward, Tour Divide is first obviously, but will you be coming back for the DKXL and doing more ultra-endurance gravel races in your future?

LW: I’d love to. What a fun event. For me, it’s like a relief since it’s only a day. I don’t have to deal with like two weeks of sleep deprivation. I can feel athletic and get my ride in and after that be done and sleep and do whatever else. Recovery definitely won’t be as long, which is awesome. I love the racing, but even more than that, I just love riding my bike. After super long events I have to spend two weeks recovering.

This distance, I’d definitely love to do more of it. They’re not all on my radar yet, so it’s more about getting to know the organizers and being a part of what they’re doing. The scene is so good and the people are so friendly. Yeah, you’re being competitive, but it’s in such a positive way.

CXM: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time. Congrats on the win and good luck at Tour Divide.

LW: Thanks so much.