The Wilson family graciously authorized the exclusive interviews for this story. We ask that you consider donating to the GoFundMe page they set up to benefit programs supporting youth in the sports Moriah Wilson loved.
This story should have been written sooner. This story should have had a different ending. This story should not have been about the tragic murder of a young woman from Kirby in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
The story should have been about her life and her meteoric rise as a bike racer. [See Ted King’s tribute to Moriah Wilson, “Vermont’s Rising Gravel Star.“]
In an interview published on May 11, Velo News called Anna Moriah “Mo” Wilson, 25, the “winningest woman in the American off-road scene.” Later that same day, Wilson was found shot to death at a friend’s home in Austin, Texas. She’d flown to Austin the day before to compete in a 150-mile gravel race. She was the favorite to win.
The news of her death spread like wildfire. In the national media, it became a sensational story of how a jealous girlfriend, Kaitlin Marie Armstrong, allegedly murdered Moriah for having briefly dated pro cyclist Colin Strickland, Armstrong’s boyfriend.
But that is not the story. The real story is how this young woman from the Northeast Kingdom went from never having competed at a national-level bike race to the top of off-road cycling in two short years.
On May 18, 2022, Moriah Wilson would have turned 26. That afternoon, Moriah’s family and friends biked along East Burke’s Kingdom Trails from various directions until they all gathered at Heaven’s Bench, high on the ridgeline of Darling Hill.
“It had been raining the days prior, but that day was clear, beautiful with just a light breeze,” Matt Wilson, Moriah’s younger brother, recalls. A crowd of nearly 100 gathered at the Bench around 6 pm, joined hands in a circle and then raised them to the sky. “Our arms were like birthday candles,” Karen Wilson, Moriah’s mother remembers, her voice cracking in her first media interview, which the family granted to this magazine in late May.
The trails around Burke were Moriah Wilson’s playground—literally. She grew up in the area and went to Burke Mountain Academy where her father had been a coach.
As an athlete, Moriah was a product of Burke Mountain Academy, the ski academy that has turned out such competitors as Mikaela Shiffrin. “I’ll tell you where our future ski champions will come from,” Warren Witherell, then headmaster of Burke Mountain Academy, told The New York Times in 1977. At the time Moriah’s father Eric Wilson, was one of five Burke grads on the 17-member U.S. Ski Team. “We’re going to have to raise them. And right here at Burke, we’re doing our part,” Witherell said.
Kraig Sourbeer, one of Moriah’s ski coaches at BMA and a former bike racer himself, remembers taking Mo on training rides in the off-season. “She was quiet and almost shy but put her on a bike and she was fierce. We’d go out for training rides and some of the elite boys would pull ahead of me and then all of a sudden Mo would pass me too. She had an engine, man did she have an engine. She was a delight to coach – if you told her to ice something for 20 minutes, she’d ice it for 40. But she also just knew how to have fun.”
Moriah was an intensely-focused and accomplished athlete who before taking up cycling competed in ski racing and was captain of her soccer team. Yet, as pro cyclist Ian Boswell put it: “She was a Vermonter in and out: always giving to those around her.”
“Moriah was a former Kingdom Trails employee, babysitter to many in the Kingdom Trails family, consummate riding buddy, mentor and model to aspiring young riders, and so much more,” Lilias Ide, the communications director for Kingdom Trails said in an email. “Simply put, we loved Moriah and she loved Kingdom Trails.”
Moriah’s father Eric is on Kingdom Trails board. Her mother Karen Wilson is a cycling instructor with KC&E Adventures. Her brother Matthew also went to Burke Mountain Academy and then ski raced for Colby for two years and then Middlebury College.
“We’ve been biking with the kids on Kingdom Trails since they were six or seven,” Karen recalls. “As Mo got older, it’s what she would do with friends. A lot of people might have been surprised by her relatively sudden success in cycling, but it’s something she’d been quietly working toward for a long, long time.”
Julie Furtado. Lea Davison. Both were ski racers, trained in Vermont, who went on to become some of the top mountain bikers in the world. Moriah Wilson’s trajectory was similar, except she put it in fast-forward. In just two short years, she went from an unknown in cycling to standing on the podium alongside seasoned pros at the toughest bike races in the country: the Leadville 100, the 80-km Sea Otter Classic, the grueling Belgian Waffle Ride.
In 2019, after graduating from Dartmouth with an engineering degree, Moriah told her mother she wanted to be a professional cyclist. “She was determined. I knew she could do it and we did our best to help her,” said Karen, who connected her daughter with a training coach, Neal Burton. “Her yearbook quote was from Ralph Waldo Emerson,” Moriah’s brother Matt recalls. “It said: ‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.’”
“Moriah’s goal at the time was just to see what potential she had,” says Burton. An accomplished ski racer at the Div. 1 collegiate level, Moriah had become more serious about cycling after recovering from two ACL surgeries. “She had this great attitude about the injuries: she said ‘These things happen for a reason and this will just make me stronger,” Karen said.
She was right. “Mo worked out harder coming back from that surgery than I’ve ever seen anyone work. She’d be in the gym for six hours,” said her father, who had competed on the World Cup against Ingemar Stenmark in the late 1970s. Moriah’s aunt, Laura Wilson Todd, was a two-time Olympic cross-country ski racer.
But Moriah had only raced bikes a handful times, and mainly in local events, such as Circumburke.
That didn’t phase Burton, her trainer. “Right off the bat, we did these functional power threshold tests,” said Burton. “I was like ‘Wow’! She had World Cup-level power numbers.”
By late summer, Moriah had moved to San Francisco to join her boyfriend, Gunnar Shaw, son of Olympic ski racer Tiger Shaw. He had grown up in Norwich, Vt. and graduated from Dartmouth in 2014. “They bought a van and started going to rides and races together. Gunnar and his family saw her potential, encouraged her and really helped her,” says Karen.
Burton, her trainer, had suggested Moriah start racing cyclocross. She started out with local events. By early 2020, Moriah came from the back to finish 26th as an elite racer at the Nationals.
“Mo always had this quiet determination, she was a real perfectionist —almost to a fault,” said her mother. “I remember when she was in seventh grade and Kirk Dwyer, then the head of school at BMA, asked her point-blank, ‘How are you going to deal with your perfectionism?’ We had gotten her some counseling and it helped. Mo just looked Kirk in the eyes and said, ‘I’m going to start with a clean plate,” Karen said with a laugh. “She meant ‘slate.’ It was so cute.”
By spring of 2020, Covid-19 had shut down races. “In some ways it was a blessing because it gave Moriah the chance to really train as she didn’t have to go into an office,” Karen says. Moriah had started working for Specialized as a demand planner in 2019.
“In a year where 99% of races have been canceled, I’ve been searching for ways to test myself both mentally and physically,” Moriah wrote on Instagram. In the fall of 2020, she set out to speed-ride Moab’s 100-mile White Rim Trail with a friend. Her friend dropped out, but riding alone Moriah broke the women’s fastest-known-time record for the trail.
In 2021 Moriah had already racked up wins at California’s Grasshopper Adventure Series and the 90-mile “stupidly hard” off-road/gravel/adventure race, Rock Cobbler, when she entered Unbound—gravel-racing’s premiere event, 200 miles of dirt riding in Kansas.
In an interview with VeloNews’s Betsy Welch, Moriah called herself a “dark horse,” for that race. But she was still quietly confidant. “I’ve noticed that in life in general and particularly in cycling women like to sell themselves short,” Moriah said in the interview. Moriah flatted and finished 9th in Unbound’s star-studded pack. Just a few months later, she took second racing 100 miles on knobby tires at the Leadville 100.
After Leadville, Moriah seemed unstoppable. At the October 2021 Big Sugar Gravel Race in Bentonville, Arkansas, part of the Life Time Grand Prix off-road series, she not only easily won against some top pro women, she finished the 103-mile race in 12th overall, beating such seasoned pro men as Peter Stetina.
THIS IS WHY WE RIDE
In March, Moriah finished second in the Mid South gravel century. After finishing, she went home showered and then came back to cheer on the last riders, who were straggling in late into the night.
“It was dark, it was cold, and she had been out there for 14.5 hours! What an incredible display of strength and perseverance,” Moriah wrote on her blog about seeing the final finisher come in. “Watching this woman cross the line, with dozens of others cheering her on, was a special moment. This is why we ride. We ride to do hard things and celebrate those things together. My race may have looked a lot different than this woman’s, but there are threads of similarity in our journey.”
A few weeks later was the first event of the 2022 Life Time Grand Prix Series (a new 6-race series of endurance mountain bike and gravel races with an overall prize purse of $25,000 for the winner). On April 9 Moriah was at the start of the Sea Otter Classic 80-km Fuego cross-country mountain bike race in California.
“I remember going over to the house where Moriah was staying the night before the Sea Otter race,” recalls Ian Boswell, the pro cyclist from Peacham, Vt. who manages Wahoo Fitness’ athlete relations. “While a lot of elite athletes might be resting before a big race like that, Mo was cooking everyone dinner and doing dishes. That’s just who she was,” he said. Moriah loved good food. “Food is not just fuel. Food is a linchpin for connection – for community,” she wrote. At Sea Otter, her sponsor Skratch Lab, provided food for their athletes. Moriah published her “Sea Otter menu” and recipes on the Skratch blog.
“I still struggle with a bit of imposter syndrome: Do I deserve to be here? How did I get here so (seemingly) quickly? Will it all disappear at some point?” Moriah wrote on her Substack blog about the Sea Otter race. “I was with: Sofia Gomez, Alexis Skarda, Evelyn Dong, Hannah Finchamp, and Lea Davison. These are legit mountain bike racers,” she wrote of the field that included Olympians. On the last hill Moriah, who excels at climbing, made her move. She won. Lea Davison was fourth.
The next big race on Moriah’s calendar was the grueling Belgian Waffle Ride, on May 1, a 222 km gravel race over dirt, singletrack, and with stream crossings in southern California. Moriah won by an unprecedented 25 minutes. Two weeks later she flew to Austin, to race the 150-mile Gravel Locos.
A FULL-TIME JOB
“Bike racing is a sport where oftentimes it takes a long time just to learn the tactics and techniques,” said Ian Boswell in late May. “She was obviously a very quick learner, but still was very much figuring out the intricacies of the sport,” he said. “One day she came over to our house in Peacham to pick up a Wahoo trainer. I asked her if she knew how to change the cassette and she said ‘No, I’ve never done that before.’”
Boswell had planned to stay at the same house where Moriah was staying in Austin, owned by a friend with ties to the Northeast Kingdom, but last minute plans changed. He had also been planning to do a video shoot with her in Texas for Wahoo Fitness, her sponsor. Boswell had also helped her get invited to race the 2022 Migration Gravel Ride in Kenya on June 16. “It was something she was really excited about – not so much for the race but for a chance to help the sport grow there,” he says.
Moriah had worked hard to connect within the industry and had picked up sponsors such as Specialized, Skratch Labs, TheFeed, and The Meteor Café.
“About a year ago she had coffee with [pro cyclist] Colin Strickland to talk about how to get sponsors,” recalls her mother. Strickland was sponsored by Red Bull. The Meteor, a bike café with locations in Bentonville, Ark. and Austin, Tx., sponsored them both.
Moriah had recently made the decision to leave her job with Specialized and devote herself full-time to cycling. “She’d moved all her things back to Vermont and had this idea that she’d like to start a gathering place for cyclists, like the Meteor, with good local food, a place where a community could gather,” said Karen.
Moriah and Strickland had a brief affair while they were both newly single in late fall of 2021. Strickland then resumed his relationship with Kaitlin Armstrong, but he and Moriah remained friends. It was a friendship that according to the police affidavit, Armstrong tried to disrupt by blocking Moriah’s calls and texts on Strickland’s phone. A few weeks ago, Karen Wilson asked her daughter if she was dating anyone. “It’s not something I would normally ask but Mo said ‘No, I’m not in any relationship,’” Karen said.
According to the affidavit, Strickland and Moriah had gone swimming together at a local pool in Austin the night Moriah was killed. After walking to get a burger, Strickland dropped Moriah back at her friend’s house in Austin and left without going in. Minutes later an SUV was seen outside the house, captured by a neighbor’s surveillance camera. It was similar to Armstrong’s. The gun that was used to shoot Moriah was similar to one of two weapons Strickland had purchased in January and kept at the house he shared with Armstrong.
Since Moriah Wilson’s death, Kaitlin Armstrong has disappeared. As of press time, police had tracked her to New York City. Colin Strickland voluntarily cooperated with police and issued a statement saying “there is no way to adequately express the regret and torture I feel about my proximity to this horrible crime. I am sorry, I simply cannot make sense of this unfathomable tragedy.” Still, as VeloNews reported, several of his sponsors, including Specialized, severed their ties to the pro rider.
In the cycling community and in the Kingdom, memories of who Moriah Wilson was are being kept alive.
“She was just this amazing person with an amazing career ahead of her,” said her coach Neal Burton. “We had been talking about her racing mountain bikes in World Cup events just the week before she left for Texas and Lea Davison was going to help mentor her.”
“She was so determined, so strong and I think she was just getting started in bike racing and that’s one of the tragedies of her death,” said her former coach Kraig Sourbeer.
“Moriah was always giving back,” says her brother Matt. “She had already begun using her blog as a way to highlight others, like the Paralympic cyclist Meg Fisher.”
After Moriah’s death, the Wilson family set up a GoFundMe page with the proceeds going to a foundation “to help fund community organizations that help youth find self-confidence, strength and joy through biking, skiing, and other activities that Moriah was passionate about.” As of press time, it had already raised more than $100,000.
In late May, Matt Wilson graduated from Middlebury College Phi Beta Kappa. He now plans to make the foundation his project. “I’ve never been more passionate about anything in my life,” he said.
That passion, if it’s anything like his sister’s, will take it far.
In October 2021, following the Big Sugar gravel race in Arkansas, Moriah wrote on Instagram: “It’s been a year of growth, change, self-exploration and discovery. Leaning into the things that light a little spark, seeing if they’ll start a fire. Chasing dreams I didn’t even know I had. Rode a lot of miles, but somehow they all went by so fast. I guess that’s what happens when you’re having fun.”
For a timeline of recent events and updates on the search for Kaitlin Armstrong, see “Moriah Wilson: A Recent Timeline
Opening photo by Laura King