By Matt Kretchmar

It’s 9:00 p.m. on Monday, May 27, and I am participating in a spectator sport called “dot watching.”

In the realm of ultra-endurance cycling, athletes carry GPS trackers which beam signals to websites where cycling enthusiasts like me can track their progress in real time.

Tonight, I am following Lael Wilcox, the premier female ultra-endurance cyclist in history. She departed Chicago two days ago in her bid to set the world record for cycling around the planet. Her intended route, which covers 18,000 miles in 110 days, brought her through Granville on the TJ Evans trail.

“I wonder if she will come through Granville yet late tonight, or stop in Columbus first?”

By 9:30 p.m., I think it’s clear she will come through Granville, so I kit up in my cycling clothes, jump on my bike with front and rear lights, and head west towards Alexandria, back-tracking along Wilcox’s intended route.

About 30 minutes later, I spot her headlights on the bike path coming at me just outside of Alexandria, pull over, let her pass by with a friendly “Hi, Lael” and then jump in line behind her. There are already two other cyclists with her, so my addition forms a quartet.

Wilcox started the day just north of Indianapolis at sunrise. She made good time, taking advantage of cool temperatures and a stiff tailwind to log nearly 300 miles Monday. Still, she showed no sign of stress or fatigue, gliding along the bike path at a brisk 18 mph in the dark. We dodged a raccoon that darted out of the bush, and Wilcox shares that she has already run over a groundhog earlier in the day that almost felled her — though both she and the groundhog emerged unscathed.

We duck underneath a tree that was blown diagonally across the bike path from earlier storms, barely breaking pace.

There is a greeter on the outskirts of Granville who shouts, “Go Lael!” and another fan hands Wilcox a tin of cookies as we pass by the Granville Milling Co.

A couple cheers and rings cowbells as we arrive in Newark, and it’s clear there’s a cadre of cycling fans dot watching this evening.

With each greeting, Wilcox made a concerted effort to connect back with a sincere “thank you,” embracing her role as cycling’s leading female ambassador.

She’s equally gracious with me and her other riding companions, taking the time to ask questions, to get to know us and our cycling accomplishments and aspirations.

She only stopped once during her Indianapolis to Newark ride. This boggles my mind. I look at my cycling computer and it shows 268 watts — the measure of how hard I am working — as we attack a hill on the bike path leading to Newark. Wilcox takes it with ease, showing almost no sign of fatigue or slowing even after 15 hours of nearly non-stop riding.

She rises gracefully out of the saddle to take a few strokes standing up. While she is not a big person, her sculpted musculature is a natural work of art — chiseled out of a decade of setting world records. 

We escort Wilcox to her night’s stay in Newark, wishing her good luck and offering fist bumps. For me, it’s seven miles of midnight solitude on the ride back to Granville, basking in my brief brush with fame. For Wilcox, it’s grabbing six hours of sleep before another 110 days of 300-mile rides ahead of her.

Cycling at night is very peaceful. The streets are largely empty of traffic, and we can safely claim a spot on what would otherwise be a dangerous road.  The distractions of scenery all fade into the inky blackness.  The din of a busy day has died down as the world sleeps.    Riding at night is a Zen-like experience as there is only the narrow path illuminated by your front headlight. Night riding forces you to exist in the here and now.   

Follow Wilcox’s adventures here:

Matt Kretchmar is the George R. Stibitz Distinguished Professorship of Mathematics at Denison University and an avid ultra-endurance bicycle racer.