Faster than crude oil: Anchorage's Lael Wilcox bikes the trans-Alaska pipeline in less than 4 days

·5 min read

Jul. 18—Anchorage endurance cyclist Lael Wilcox packed light for her latest ride, an 858-mile haul across some of the most remote terrain in the world.

She carried 20 pounds, including a one-pound tent, an assortment of food (Lithuanian cheese cake bars; amino acid powder), repair items (brake pads; tire plugs), clothes (down jacket; cargo shorts), personal items (toothbrush; bear spray) and several kinds of electronics, including a fairly big power bank to keep her phone and GPS charged.

"Though you don't really need a GPS for this," Wilcox said. "There are, like, four turns."

An accomplished endurance biker who has left tire-tread marks all over the globe, Wilcox stayed relatively close to home for this one: a time trial along the trans-Alaska pipeline from Deadhorse to Valdez.

That's right, a time trial.

Wilcox, 34, left the general store in Deadhorse on Tuesday morning with the goal of setting the fastest-known time (FKT) along the route.

She reached the marina in Valdez a few minutes before 4 a.m. Saturday.

Total time: 3 days, 18 hours and 47 minutes, which included 10 or 11 hours of sleep.

Wilcox is calling her effort an FKT because she's never heard of anyone else attempting to set a speed record on the route. A rock star in the world of long-haul bike races and FKTs, Wilcox is confident that if someone else has done the ride faster, she'll hear about it.

We do know this much: Wilcox is faster than the speed of crude oil.

During the peak of production in 1988, oil flowed the length of the 800-mile pipeline in 4.5 days, according to an April 2021 report by Alyeska Pipeline. In these days of waning production, it moves at a very un-Wilcox rate of 18 days.

The pipeline was in sight most of the time, Wilcox said, and for long stretches it looked endless.

"It's just — you see it for a hundred miles," she said. "It's unreal, especially on the Dalton, where there's no trees."

Wilcox rode through three mountain ranges (the Brooks, Alaska and Chugach) and crossed about three dozen major rivers and streams. She started at sea level near the Arctic Ocean, topped out at 4,737-foot Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range and endured the 2,678-foot climb up Thompson Pass in the final stretch to Valdez.

"I'm tired but super happy," Wilcox said late Saturday morning after a five-hour nap.

Part of her contentment came from riding in Alaska, where she has deep roots — and fans in unexpected places.

"It's the most remote place I ever ride. There's nothing up there," she said. "But people were coming out to cheer for me and it was unexpected. A mom and her 4-year-old daughter greeted me in Coldfoot and they had a little sign with my name on it. I walked into camp with them."

There, Wilcox found more hospitality. A storm on the previous day had left her with a soaking wet sleeping bag, which she was invited to put into a clothes dryer.

Later, at Mile 69 on the Richardson Highway, she encountered several young adults who were having a party. They gave her some rhubarb crisp.

Wilcox carried everything she needed from start to finish except water, which she got from natural sources along the way, and some food, like the rhubarb crisp on the Richardson and some food she bought along the way. In Glennallen, she bought two cartons of ice cream and three hot dogs; she packed the ice cream and waited for it to melt so she could drink it on the go.

She strived to consume 10,000 calories a day. She filled up pockets and pouches with sandwiches and protein bars but nonetheless ran low on fuel at times.

"Getting into Fox all I had left were my last slices of cheese and almond butter and I was eating them together and (it) was not a great combination. But you just have to keep eating," she said. "Last night coming into Valdez, I had peanut butter on Ritz crackers. You have to eat what you have."

About half the route — 414 of the 858 miles — is on the Dalton Highway, a haul road built back in the 1970s to service the pipeline. Unpopulated and remote, Wilcox covered that distance in 48 hours.

The first turn doesn't come until the end of the highway, although it's not really a turn as much as a transition.

"You stay on the same road but it becomes the Elliott (Highway)," Wilcox said, and that road goes about 150 miles to Fox, near Fairbanks.

Soon after comes the first and perhaps only navigational challenge of the ride, where you can head to North Pole or take a slightly longer route through Fairbanks, which has bike stores for riders in need of repairs. Wilcox's bike, a Specialized Diverge, needed no such help, so Wilcox went through North Pole.

Following Wilcox by car were photojournalist Rugile Kaladyte and driver Ana Jager. Kaladyte filmed and photographed the ride for Rapha Performance Roadwear, one of Wilcox's sponsors who will post a YouTube video about the ride in the next month or two, Wilcox said.

The ride served as a sort of honeymoon/birthday celebration for Wilcox. She and Kaladyte were married in May, and she turns 35 on Sunday.

Wilcox also had the company of countless mosquitoes, which bit through wool socks to leave her ankles studded with bites.

"Oh, they were so bad," she said. "The ones farther north were bigger, and then they got smaller and meaner."

She made good use of the DEET she packed but she didn't need the bear spray — no sightings of bears or other big animals. So there's a few ounces she packed but didn't need, sort of like the GPS charger.

One thing she didn't even think to pack: A bicycle lock.

"Stealing a bike in Coldfoot?" Wilcox said. "Nobody's gonna take it. Where would they go?"

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