Born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, Lael Wilcox is an ultra-endurance cyclist. She's inspired to push her own limits, travel the world by bike and encourage other women and girls to get out and ride. She filed this dispatch from the recent Roam Fest women’s mountain bike festival in Arizona. At the Roam Fest, Lael rode Zipp 3 Zero Moto wheels.
All photos by Rugile Kaladyte
By Lael Wilcox
A morning start from Tucson, a stop at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport to pick up Rachel Olzer, a stop at Filiberto’s for tacos, a stop at Rock Springs to pee and fill up on gas, a left on the 179 and straight to the Red Rocks.
Roam Fest Sedona, the largest women’s mountain bike festival in the world, is stationed at the Red Agave resort, at the base of Castle Rock, with views of Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte. There are signs for trails in every direction.
Women are talking, unpacking, hugging, laughing and building the weekend village. We show our vaccine cards and get wristbands.
We find Carlie Mock in the “pink shirt and floral hat”, get the RockShox tent out of the SRAM VW and click it into place in front of a tree.
There’s just enough time to get the bikes assembled, download the gpx files, upload them to Komoot, sync them on my Wahoo and get out for a sunset spin before dark. The real event begins tomorrow at 8am.
I haven’t ridden in the area for years and even then, it was just passing through while bikepacking the Coconino Loop from Flagstaff. I’ve volunteered to be a ride leader at Roam Fest with the caveat that I don’t know the trails and I’m not a great mountain biker. The Sedona festival is not intended for beginners, and the trails can be quite technical. I’m signed up to lead the easiest ones—somewhere between “rugged” and “spicy”. With the help of GPS, I’m confident I can make it work. My favorite way to spend time with people is while riding. Somehow the bike takes down barriers-- we’re all doing the same thing, pushing the pedals and moving through the world. There are fewer distractions. Our senses are alive. It’s hard and it’s fun.
When events are focused on riding, that’s where I want to be. There will be 300 women at the three-day festival with 100 group rides to choose from. I’m thrilled to be part of the mix.
Rue, Carlie, Rachel and I set out on the Big Park Loop. Rachel will be leading the BIPOC ride here tomorrow and I’ll be leading the route on Saturday. Nothing comes for free. We’re climbing, it’s warm, the trail is chunky, we’re at elevation and it’s the perfect time of day where the light magnifies beauty.
There’s no rush.
Without fully realizing it, Roam Fest Sedona is rounding out my season of travel that started early May-- from a time trial on the Oregon Outback to getting married in Seattle on electric scooters to shooting the Rapha Nomad collection in Colorado to winning Unbound XL in Kansas to racing the Hope 1000 in Switzerland then riding to Alpine Huts in France to riding a time trial on the pipeline in Alaska to hiking the southern stretch of the Colorado Trail to a failed run on the Tour Divide in the Rockies to establishing the Westfjords Way in Iceland to organizing a women’s bikepacking challenge on the Torino Nice Rally in the French & Italian Alps to riding with three women’s groups in England back to Switzerland to hike with friends and finally home to Arizona in time for Halloween to look for our first house, something I never thought possible. We fit in at least half a dozen speaking events from the road, shot and launched five story driven videos and met with as many people as we could-- women on bikes, bikepackers, route builders, dear friends and people I’d never met face to face, but had been in touch with for years. I’m super grateful for all we got to do and really inspired by all the women led events.
We are running on fumes, a state I am very familiar with as an ultra-endurance athlete. I am vulnerable and I like it that way.
Making it halfway around the loop, we scoot back on pavement as the sun goes down. We stop at Rotten Johnny’s Wood-Fired Pizza for dinner and laugh deliriously about nothing too funny.
“Have a rotten day!”
Carlie, the new grassroots coordinator at SRAM, is kind, considerate, goofy and buzzing with ideas—in a word, caring. I am thrilled SRAM is carving out this kind of support. I am thrilled Carlie is the person in this role. In the bike industry, grassroots support is unique. I am always dreaming about how to get more women and girls on bikes-- from organizing a girls’ cycling mentorship program for 12 and 13-year-olds to hosting women’s scholarships where individuals design their own 1,000 mile bikepacking adventures. I have had a ton of support from within the industry—this is generally coming from people with full time jobs doing something else that want to help me succeed. What if there were people that had the job of helping to turn ideas into reality? That’s Carlie! That’s a really hard job!
We head back to the festival to get a good night of sleep before the party begins. A picture of Roam Fest
Parked in front of the Red Rocks is the blue Roam Fest school bus. There are tables staffed with welcoming volunteers. For the entire weekend, I never saw a stressed individual or received a harsh word. Get a wristband, sign up for a ride, get a meal ticket, eat the bibimbap, get your costume on and get ready to dance. There are vendor tents in between and around the A-Frame chalets and swimming pool stocked with demo bikes and everything is dialed. Ash Zolton patrols the grounds with her walkie talkie, checking in and giving hugs. Tina Ooley never leaves the group ride tent, making sure everyone gets on the right shuttles and gets a move on. This is a fluid and highly functional operation. Everything is happening outside. The days are sunny, the nights are cool and the schedule is dialed. I can’t imagine all that’s happening behind the scenes, but I’ve gotten multiple emails from Tori Miner and Andi Zolton seems to see everything through her red glasses.
I am thrilled to participate. With no major role, I enjoy the days. After the safety talk, I get on my first shuttle to lead my first ride. Half of the group are old friends from the Midwest. They’re planning on riding a two week stretch of the Great Divide together next summer to celebrate Sarah’s 50th birthday and I ask them to stop by the RockShox booth, so we can talk about it. The riding’s fun as hell. It’s a great mix of focusing on getting over the rocks and moments of joy at the beauty of the surrounding formations. I don’t think you could really have a bad time.
I’m back to HQ in the afternoon to eat lunch, pop into Liz Sampey’s Arizona Trail bikepacking talk at Revel and chit-chat at the RockShox booth for the “Happiest Hour” where every vendor provides a drink. Ours are apple cider with Werther’s Originals and hot cocoa with marshmallows. Then, it’s dinner time.
I go to bed at 8pm and don’t wake up until 8am-- the best sleep I’ve had since coming back from Europe. I’m finally over the jetlag.
My Saturday ride leaves from the venue. It rocks! We have a couple ladies from Flagstaff and a couple more from Ogden, Utah, and another that unexpectedly runs into her wife at the high point of “the longest climb in Sedona” and the way their eyes light up melts my heart.
We hear another woman go down in the bushes, but she comes around the corner and says she flew off at the right moment to avoid getting hurt. That’s worth celebrating! Another comes around with the broadest smile, saying that last little bit was her favorite part. We are actually sharing this trail in time and space and that’s special. We are all sweating and we all have different favorite parts. On the scariest descent, half the ladies ride it and half walk it. I’m one of the walkers.
“If you’re not feeling it, don’t do it.”
This is not a competition, there aren’t any rules and that’s a good thing.
Back to the venue and hungry for lunch, I grab a bite before hopping out to Angi Weston’s clinic addressing the “most underrated mountain bike skill”—track stands. It’s balance work that gives you more time before rock drops and helps you correct landings. Angi is an awesome teacher and gets us on bikes right away— practicing the knee wiggle, starting from seated, starting from a roll, keeping our eyes up. She encourages us to fit in practice whenever we can “20 minutes before picking up the kids or making dinner.” Rue’s a natural and gets it on her first try. “You’re so coachable!”
We head back for the “Ride Pack Hack” talk at the RockShox booth. I load my mountain bike with a bikepacking set up. It’s informal and it’s fun. People ask questions. I always love the range—from how do you filter water? (I don’t), to how do you monitor exertion? (I don’t). In bikepack racing, everything is about economizing time, staying on the bike, doing your best at every moment, making good decisions and actually enjoying riding through beauty for 20 hours a day, day after day. I always want to win, but I wouldn’t be out there if the overall experience wasn’t mind blowing—sunrises, sunsets, unexpected encounters, unexpected breakthroughs. Yes, it hurts, but that’s not the overall feeling I’m left with. I come out with gratitude for my body and the earth. It’s a huge gift to race thousands of miles self-supported.
There’s a brief break to scarf a panini before the SHREDtalks panel. One of the women from my first group ride lends me a monkey mask. After the panel and Rebecca Rusch’s keynote speech, there’ll be a dance party where animal themed costumes are encouraged. Turns out, Roam Fest takes this seriously— there are full sized unicorns and a blow-up pool toy wiener dog. At one point, I see three women squeezed into it at the same time.
Rachel Olzer knocks the panel out of the park. Alyssa Gonzales is a fantastic moderator. She holds space without judgement. We are here to listen and learn. Rebecca Rusch gets us to visualize the feeling of getting lost and extreme discomfort before sharing stories from the Iditarod Trail. I will not try to convey their words. I really hope this evening was recorded and you should go watch it. I feel very privileged to have been in the audience. Both Rachel and Rebecca have written extensively about their experiences. Please read their writing.
Then, we get to dance! We have to stop making noise by 10pm, so we don’t waste time. Everybody gets into it right away. I dance like I have a death wish. I know this lunging is going to hurt tomorrow. I’m on the stage and off the stage. Dancing in groups and dancing by myself and I just want to move and that’s the vibe. I would’ve stayed out there all night. I remember dancing next to Paz from Ibis in a space costume. Neither of us know the song that everyone else is singing. How old are you? 35. Me too. And we both laugh. I’m not getting any more mature, but I’m definitely getting older.
One of the best parts of the weekend is the little in between moments where we get to talk ideas. These are not planned meetings or Zoom calls. They just happen because we’re there.
I am very impressed with the SRAM crew. Everyone is approachable, laid back and actively gets shit done while making it look easy and fun. Rachel recently got her PHD in the mail and “that means they can’t take it back”. She’s teaching college courses. She has a wealth of stories. Rachel’s not afraid to cruise off rock drops or dance until her ankles hurt. She’s the picture of well-rounded, well-spoken and thoughtful. I want Angi to be my mountain bike coach. While extremely skilled, she’s the kind of person that cheers for improvement and gets fired up by effort. The best teachers light up and they’re the ones that get people to try hard. Rebecca can have 300 women holding onto her every word. She’s not willing to rest on her success. She’s always trying something new that scares her— organizing, writing, bikepacking and winter expeditions. Anne Galyean likes “sliding.” She’s someone that could actually film a mountain bike video and look like a badass, but doesn’t make that intimidating. I wish I got to spend more time with her and I bet I will. Rue is my wife. She’s not a SRAM ambassador. She’s the best person I know. She captures reactions and truth, showing everyone at their best. I am very inspired by these individuals.
Ladies from Industry 9 serve blueberry pancakes on the final morning. I get on the shuttle to co-lead Chuckwagon with Kaysee Armstrong from Liv. She’s young, from Knoxville, Tennessee, and crushing endurance. I try to talk her into ultra-distance, and I bet she’ll give it a go. Our ride crew is chatty. I think our ride to talk ratio is an equal split and that makes for a great pace. We hammer the pedals and then break into full story mode. I could do this every day. The three hours fly by and we’re back in the van, heading back to Roam.
I miss the on-trail suspension clinic, but I hear it went great. Rue says that Anne and Angi crushed the instruction. Time to pack up and say goodbye. Summer camp is over. I don’t realize how tired I am until I’m sitting in the car on the way back to Tucson. I don’t recognize fatigue until I stop moving. The weight of the summer is steamrolling me. I can’t keep my eyes open. There’s no better place to rest than the desert.
- Roam Fest is a hoot. The schedule is thoughtful and packed. The event is empowering. I highly recommend it.
- Riding bikes is the best way to meet people.
- This weekend was awesome because we were outside for almost every hour.
- There was no downside.