Tom Lais (he biked around the world…)

Tom Lais has biked around the world.

But while growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, Lais never envisioned gallivanting across country lines on two wheels.

Instead, the Twin Cities native preferred trekking off into the woods and making forts.

“And I was not very good at sports, so I also did a lot of running,” Lais mentions.

Years later, when he enrolled at St. John’s University, Lais’ interests had evolved to become more sophisticated.

“I was going to be a political science major, but I screwed that up, so I went for mathematics and got an undergraduate in Number Theory,” he says.

“I then had to get a job, so I became an accountant.”

Lais worked in several locales around the United States, but eventually he came back to the Twin Cities when he was hired by Pillsbury to be an auditor in Latin America.

If that role seems peculiar, it should be noted that when Lais was in high school, through an exchange program, he went to live in Costa Rica.

It was there that he learned Spanish and met his future wife.

Not long after becoming an auditor for Pillsbury, Lais was again on the move once a position in Europe became available.

“At that time, Pillsbury’s CFO in Spain had triplets. They then needed somebody, and so that’s where I went,” he says.

Lais enjoyed his time in Spain, and over the years he and his wife went on to have two children, but eventually the marriage ended in divorce.

Stung by the dissolution of his marriage, Lais spent the better part of the next twenty years dedicated to earning money and raising his children.

“Career wise, I transitioned into working in healthcare because it was local and I could be home at a good time every day,” Lais says.

During that span, life was relatively normal, but through some acquaintances in the medical field Lais later learned that the state of his health was suboptimal, and that to improve physically he would need to incorporate different exercise regimens into his routine.

“One thing led to another. I started to run and do some wilderness camping,” he says.

A running injury later sidelined Lais, but since he was determined to find new ways to stay active, he decided to experiment with cycling.

Lais didn’t know it at the time, but this single decision would completely revolutionize his universe.

Before long, Lais had become so enamored with cycling that he sought out professional guidance, which then led to him entering a 135-mile race in the middle of a frigid Minnesota winter.

“I was only going 6-7 miles an hour, in minus 25 degrees. It was really nasty, but I liked it,” Lais recalls of that race.

By that point, Lais had reached the health metrics his acquaintances had recommended, but instead of basking in his newfound physical prowess, Lais leveraged the momentum he had generated and began thinking bigger.

“By then I had also become a strong advocate of bicycling for health reasons, and one of the things that I did was I tried to calculate the total cost of healthcare, and I realized all these indicators could be corrected by riding your bike,” Lais says.

“So I created a company called Destination Based Exercise, where I advised people not to worry about winning races, but on simply riding from point A to point B.”

Coincidentally, a friend named Kyle Tollefson appealed to Lais’ dreams of grandiosity when he playfully informed him of the Tour D’Afrique, a cycling event that begins in Cairo, Egypt and culminates in Cape Town, South Africa.

“I told my friend Kyle that he was crazy, but over the years his suggestion ate at me,” admits Lais, who had been reluctant to act, until the cycling gods intervened.

“I still wasn’t going to do the Africa trip, but one night I was looking at my phone, and I ended up pushing a button and paying for the trip.”

Suddenly financially and emotionally invested, Lais began readying for the trip, but his preparations didn’t include churning his legs on a stationary bike at a local fitness club.

In making a decision that has now become commonplace for Lais, the St. Paul product opted to embark on a separate journey that would start in Alaska and finish in Costa Rica.

“My brothers thought I was nuts and that I was going to get killed, but by this time I had been living a pretty independent life. I didn’t have a wife telling me not to do something, or kids that I had to look after,” he explains.

Lais jetted off to The Last Frontier and didn’t look back, but that isn’t to suggest that his cycling journey was easy.

If anything, the road ahead nearly broke him.

“Every day I was asking myself if this was the day that I was going to quit,” Lais says.

“There were days where my legs felt good, and there were days where my legs were heavy, and as I went through the trip there was always the question of whether I was going to get enough to eat.”

Over time, Lais learned to treat cycling as if it were a job by following a structured routine designed to keep his body operating at peak efficiency, and then one day he arrived in Costa Rica, the same country where his life originally shifted from conventional to unparalleled.

That trip alone would have provided enough memories to pen a novel, but it was then off to Cairo.

As one could have predicted, Lais indeed cycled from Cairo to Cape Town, the total events of which could not possibly be appropriately captured in this piece.

And if that weren’t enough to make one question their worldview, Lais has also cycled through South America and Europe.

For a younger gentleman, Lais’ escapades might have inspired further dreams of exceptionalism, but Lais insists that in lieu of affording him newfound motivation, his cycling ventures instead offered perspective.

“Because the trips happened at the back end of my life, they allowed me to better understand what life is all about. They helped me become a kinder person, and much more focused on my personal relationships with people,” he observes.

“I learned to be much more simple and not require as many things as I would have otherwise, and that has served me well in retirement because I live pretty cheap, without any suffering.”

The average person will never seek to rival Lais’ accomplishments, and nor should they.

What would bring Lais more satisfaction is if future generations incorporated cycling into their daily lives.

Simple as that.

No quotas or numerical representations of effort; just pure participation.

“Don’t take riding a bike too seriously,” Lais advises.  

“For example, the Dutch don’t see the bike as a big deal. They just get on it and ride it, but it’s also important to have someone who will encourage you. Moreover, if you can get in the habit of riding your bike to the gym or to the coffee shop instead of driving your car, then you’ll soon discover your strengths, and also some areas where you might want to improve.”

In fairness to those who are apprehensive about immersing themselves in the culture of cycling, Lais understands that the current climate isn’t inviting to outsiders, especially if their baseline knowledge doesn’t meet certain criteria.

“Unfortunately, the bike industry is replete with bike junkies and people who are telling you what kind of gear you absolutely need to have, but fundamentally what you are looking for with a bike is something that fits correctly, and that doesn’t have to be really expensive,” Lais says.

As for Lais, he’s unsure if the days ahead will include further transcontinental travel, or if he will continue to pass down his wisdom to anyone willing to place their fingers on a set of handlebars.  

Nevertheless, internally he is still abiding by one important principle:


“I’ve done some strange things on a bike, and I know there are stranger things to do, but my goal is more focused on continually challenging myself as I age,” Lais says.

“The pandemic made me realize how lucky I was to do so many things before the world shut down, and with now being able to take out my phone and look back at those photos, and to see the person I have become, that gives me a lot of joy.”

No matter if he assumes his former role of active participant, or embraces a new position as heralded sage, Lais emphasizes that he will continue to ride, adding that ideally his viewpoint will become more romantic; both in terms of landscape, and companionship.

“I would love to have a honey [woman] and go ride. I would revel in sharing company with someone who wants to wake up with me every day, have a cup of coffee and a peanut butter sandwich, and then by day’s end be able to appreciate all that happened,” Lais reveals.

“I suppose that would be my version of, quite literally, riding off into the sunset.” QS


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