In June, Lael Wilcox raced the Navad 1000, a 1000KM mountain bike race in Switzerland with over 100,000 feet of climbing. Bikepacking races are typically a lonely affair, where riders pedal in solitude without support or company. Switzerland is a small country with huge mountains and heart.
Willi Felix, the race organizer, would like this race to be more accessible to newcomers. As such, he encourages people to come ride with the racers and allows the racers to accept unexpected trail magic. In addition, at the halfway point in Finsterwald, there is a Navad 1000 depot where racers can leave a box of supplies to refuel them for the rest of the race.
On the first day of the Navad 1000, Lael rode nearly 300KM, riding past all of the other riders while they were sleeping. She slept for a couple of hours in a hikers’ hut, packed up her bivvy and got back on her bike.
The sun is rising and so am I, up past the farms and over the pass and down to Schwyz. I stop at a gas station, but it doesn’t open until 6, so I throw out my trash, change my batteries, take off a few layers and get back on my bike. It’s Sunday and I’m carrying extra food because I know most of the shops will be closed. That’s Europe. People don’t work too much.
I pedal a couple miles along Lake Lucerne and turn sharply up another steep switchbacked climb. I put in some music. My legs are a little cooked and I need some motivation. It works. Up over the other side is a rooty, muddy, steep hiking trail down. I get off and walk until the trail evens out and then it turns to dirt road and farther down to pavement to Lake Lauerz. Down at lake level, Stěpán the Czech catches me or I catch him and we leapfrog back and forth and talk a little.
You are pretty strong for a woman.
Thanks. I genuinely smile.
Oh no. Your blinky.
Your blinky is gone.
Do you have mobile?
Who is before?
How many are before? He points forward.
I don’t know. I haven’t checked.
He ducks down into his aerobars and leaps into the lead. Only later do I realize that I lost my taillight and I’m bummed because I don’t want to ride in the dark without a light. Over the past year, I’ve gotten paranoid about getting hit by a car in the night during an ultra-endurance race. I just don’t want it to end like that.
Shortly up the hill are Rue and Ivo, waiting to take photos.
Stěpán asks them who’s in front of us and they tell him that we’re in the lead. It’s sunny and I’m having fun. The up and over is relatively painless. Down the other side leads to an immediate steep up and then there’s a bakery and it’s open and there’s a bike laying down in front and it’s Stěpán’s with bright orange bar tape. I set my bike down next to his and hustle inside. Stěpán is at the counter ordering pastries. I grab two bottles of coke and stand next to him in line.
You have a hard time to decide?
No. I know what I want.
I order sechs butter gipfelis and pay.
Outside, Stěpán’s eyes get big when I pour one of the bottles of coke into my water bottle, stuff two croissants in my gas tank and the rest in my framebag. He starts riding away with half of a nussgipfel hanging from his mouth and I get on my bike to chase.
We switchback up steep at first and more gradual towards the top. A tall guy on a red bike calls out like he knows me. I wave and smile. It’s always nice to be greeted. He pedals up beside me.
Hi! I’ve been writing you on Facebook. I almost missed you because you came through so fast.
He asks me to stop and take a selfie with him.
I’m not stopping.
Then he says he doesn’t usually ride this fast, but he’ll ride with me and it kind of feels like he wants me to slow down. I’m confused because I’ve been out for almost thirty hours with two and a half hours of sleep. There’s no way that I’m riding that fast. He talks.
You might not remember, but I met you at the Tour Divide in 2015. I wasn’t very good at navigation and I couldn’t find the descent after Fleecer Ridge, so I dropped out. Maybe I should’ve just taken a day off and gotten back on my bike. But I didn’t. I was going to ride the Navad two years ago, but it was raining and I have better things to do with my vacation.
At first, I’m happy to have company, but the talking never ceases. He fires question after question and I just start responding with yes or no answers.
Do you have a boyfriend?
But I remember some mention of your boyfriend. Where is he?
I don’t have a boyfriend. I have a girlfriend.
Is she riding?
Do you like Switzerland?
Did you see my bike? It’s a really great bike. It’s full suspension, but the suspension is routed internally. You’ll probably see it at Eurobike. Do you usually ride fullies or hardtails? I have a hardtail too.
Do you like Switzerland?
The roads in Switzerland are nice. A lot nicer than the roads in the US. I know.
And on and on. He keeps riding in front of me to take selfies together and he keeps asking me to stop and I won’t.
We pedal along a low ridge above Lake Ägeri past some houses and there’s a sign for Navad 1000 coffee and some ladies sitting out front. I met them at the pre-race meeting. Their husbands are racing. They cheer and it makes me smile.
Do you want a coffee?
Of course, I do, but I don’t want to stop, so I say no. And they smile and say of course not. We know how you ride.
At least take a sandwich to go. Do you want something to wrap it in?
No, that’s okay.
I reach for a sandwich and I see Stěpán sitting in a chair eating one. I open the latch to my gas tank, stow the sandwich and hop back on my bike. Stěpán is immediately back up and on his bike.
This woman is chasing me!
Good old red bike keeps riding with me.
Those women told me that I’m only allowed to ride with you for 10K, but I don’t have a tracker, so I can ride with you for as long as I want. No one will know.
It doesn’t matter.
And he sets back into a series of questions.
Stěpán is ahead and I want to catch him.
We’re passing near Baar and I’m really hoping that Rita Jett comes out to ride because she lives close by. I don’t see her, but I do see another rider. It’s a Slovakian that lives in Switzerland. He seems nice, but then he asks me to stop for a selfie.
I’m not stopping.
He only has 20 minutes to ride with us because he has to get home to get ready for a wedding.
That should be fun.
We get stopped by a farmer with cows. I’m feeling a little impatient and the Slovakian decides that this is a great opportunity for a selfie because we’re stopped. Okay. I smile for it. Then, he turns back home and red bike sticks with me into the farmlands. I stop for a toilet break in the woods and he waits just feet away. Within an hour, he says he has to go home. I say bye thanks for coming and he says he’s not leaving just yet. He’ll ride me to the next turn.
And then he’s gone and I’m relieved. I try to call my friend Kaspar’s bike shop to see if I can get a new taillight, but it’s Sunday and it’s closed.
I pedal through the woods and then into a small town.
A man on a mountain bike and a woman on an e-bike call out to me. It’s Kaspar and his girlfriend and he’s coming to ride with me. I do a quick high five handshake with his girlfriend. Her eyes are warm and it lifts me up. Then, we’re off– back into the woods on a little single-track trail and it all feels really fun again.
We ride through the fields and along Lake Sempach and up a couple steep pitches.
Do you need anything from the shop?
Yeah, do you have a taillight? I lost mine sometime this morning.
Yes. We can stop and get a new one.
We stop at his bike shop in Sursee. He finds a used taillight that fits my mount.
Do you need anything else?
I ask to use the bathroom and I soak my head in the sink. He says, he has a shower and I say it’s okay, I don’t need a shower and he says he’ll just spray my head. So, he does and it feels great and we both laugh and we’re back out on our bikes.
The ride is rolling pastures to Luthern and from there the climb begins into the Napf. From touring the route, I know the next 20KM could take hours with plenty of steep climbing and some necessary hike- a-bike on narrow, rough trails. It may be the wildest feeling portion of the entire Navad 1000 track. It’s a challenge and it’s gorgeous.
Kaspar tells me that he rode in the Napf the day before. There are so many trails and he doesn’t know where they all lead. Sometimes he comes to ride the dead ends just for the fun of it. There’s a lightness to him. We talk very little, but we ride together and I can feel it. It’s so nice to have company. The hours pass and we’re at the first high point and then riding rooty single-track down to a hut and then a steep descent and then a steep climb.
Do you want a coke? I’ll buy you a coke.
I think he’s joking, but he’s not. He puts some coins into a metal box and takes a coke out of an outdoor fridge and we split it.
This route is tough, so many gates and so many quick stops. Down a little and then up a little and then down a little and then up a little and finally down to the pavement, but not for long. Kaspar takes a wrong turn and I follow him down to bring him back up.
We descend a steep, forested tunnel to a river and Stefan from Finsterwald is waiting at the bottom looking fresh and clean. I smile big. It’s so nice to have a friend waiting. I stayed with him two weeks before when I toured the route. He doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak German, so we’ve never really talked, but sometimes it really doesn’t matter. Kaspar confirms that Stefan will ride with me to Finsterwald and he says goodbye. It’s past eight o’clock and then sun is waning.
Are you riding home now?
I thank him for riding with me and he smiles. And then he’s gone. I continue behind Stefan on a trail along the river and I’m having so much fun. And there’s Rue and Ivo taking photos and the party is getting started.
Stefan asks if I’m okay. Yes, I’m great except for my throat. At this point, I’ve all but entirely lost my voice.
Then it’s a hike up a long set of stairs to the pavement to a road climb to Finsterwald and it’s getting dark. The air is warm and electric. I’m almost to the halfway point and it’s only the second day.
Someone cheers out of their window. A man and a woman standing by their parked car clap and holler. Stefan and I ride side by side into the village. We pull up to his mother’s house, the Navad 1000 depot. A small group of people is waiting. For the race, riders are allowed to leave a box of supplies at the depot. I go to the basement to find my box. I’ve packed a fresh t-shirt, socks and bibs, potato chips, coca-cola, cookies, extra batteries, extra caffeine pills, a replacement bottle of lube and lots of Nutrixxion bars, gels and drink powder. I change clothes– sliding my muddy legs into a fresh pair of bibs. It feels good. I go upstairs to use the toilet and when I come out, Stefan’s mother is in the kitchen, heating water.
No, no. It’s okay.
Yes, tea. Tea mit honey. And she runs her fingers over her throat.
She hands me a mug. My cough is so bad, I sound like I smoke multiple packs of cigarettes a day.
I take the mug outside and start loading the resupply onto my bike. The people of Finsterwald (population less than 100) are celebrating. They say that for the second year in a row, Finsterwald is the center of the universe.
Ivo hands me the phone.
It’s Willi, the race organizer. He’s a hundred or so miles back.
Thanks, Willi. I feel great.
Then, I hear something like a wailing trumpet and I turn around and the neighbor with the dyed black hair and mustache is playing an alphorn.
There’s a guy behind me playing the alphorn.
This is surreal. Three weeks ago, I didn’t know any of these people. I had only talked with Willi on the phone twice.
I get off the phone and pack the rest of my resupply. Stefan will ride a few hours into the night with me. He pedals a block to his house to get a bright light and a rain jacket. In the meantime, I drink my tea and crunch through a medium size bag of potato chips. They taste so good.
And we’re off. It’s drizzling and dark, but our lights are bright and I’m not alone. What ensues are a series of loose, steep climbs and descents. Stefan gracefully ascends even the steepest. I’m on and off the bike a few times. These are not driveable roads and sometimes we’re pushing through tall grassy trails and across small creeks. This is Stefan’s home. He knows the way. We pass Flühli around 1AM and start switching back the other side. Stefan turns down a short dirt path to a shack. This is it. Time for sleep.
I can’t sleep inside because that would be an unfair advantage– Stěpán the Czech won’t have a shack to sleep inside. Instead, I unroll my plastic trash bag bivvy, lay it out in front of shack under the awning, take off my shoes and set out my inhaler and painkillers for the morning. It’s 2AM. I set my alarm for 4:30 because I don’t want to miss any daylight.
Stefan comes back out of the shack with a fold out cot. He clicks the legs into place, sets it under the awning and places my trash bag on top.
“A little deluxe?”
I don’t refuse.
On day 3, I wake up naturally at 4AM. I’m coughing so loudly that it wakes Rue up and she comes out of the shack.
I didn’t know you were sleeping here. Did you get enough sleep?
Yeah, two hours.
She watches while I take my inhaler and Ibuprofen and a caffeine pill, drink half a bottle of coke, put on my shoes and pack up my bike. I’m back in the saddle and well up the hill before my alarm goes off.
Lael finished second to Stěpán Strásnský in the Navad 1000 in four days and ten hours. They both beat the previous record. Lael is the second woman to have ever completed the race.