Payson McElveen has been a member of USA Cycling’s national team since he was 17. He has earned national titles in both cross-country and marathon by using tried-and-true preparation methods. Whether you’re a diehard racer or just a weekend rider looking to improve your performance, Payson can help you get faster, last longer and even find sponsors.
We spoke with Payson to get his insight on what works best in training and racing. Keep reading to get his tips on how you can be your fastest.
MBA: What crossover activities can benefit a cyclist?
Payson McElveen: Cycling is a pretty linear sport, but I’ve found that getting more well-rounded—strength and coordination- wise—has benefited my riding. For one, when you inevitably hit the ground now and then, having a bit more durability can go a long way to getting you back on the bike faster. I’m a huge fan of basketball and love that it’s completely different from cycling in that you’re constantly making lateral movements. I think the hand-eye coordination probably helps with bike handling, too. I have to be careful with basketball, though, because it’s pretty hard on your body, and I still need to have energy for the bike workouts. Gym work has also been huge for me and something I incorporate year-round.
MBA: In the gym, what are the best exercises for a cyclist?
PM: It depends on the athlete, but I think the cornerstones for just about any cyclist are squats, deadlifts, and some assortment of core and upper-body strengthening. As an endurance racer, I have a major interest in staying as light and lean as possible, so I go for higher-rep stuff, especially regarding upper-body strengthening. I do a lot of stability work involving yoga balls and Bosu balls, and even some coordination stuff like juggling right after a lifting set that made me really tired and winded. I’ve also found that some rubber-band exercises that address the hip and glute area are super beneficial for injury prevention. I used to have knee issues almost every year, but those completely went away after I started spending time in the gym.
MBA: What is the best way to build endurance?
PM: Long rides! Endurance is physical but also mental. After an off-season, a three-hour ride always feels so long to me. After a handful of long rides, though, a six-hour ride can be enjoyable. You have to train your mind, too. Doing long sub-threshold intervals also helps build endurance. It’s a longer scientific conversation, but gym work also goes a long way in developing muscular endurance and can counterintuitively help your long rides.
MBA: How do you build intensity capacity?
PM: The best athletes in the world can push themselves in training incredibly far, but still will push even harder during competition. Intense interval training is very important for building high-end fitness, but competing against riders who are better than you is the single most effective way to improve. I do our weeknight group ride often and work training races into my schedule.
MBA: What bicycle component are you most picky about?
PM: There are so many things that really change the ride quality of a bike, such as tires and suspension setup, but in terms of actual geometry, I’d probably say saddle setback. I’m a taller guy at 6-foot-2, so I have to run my saddle pretty far behind the bottom bracket to get optimal power transfer. This has gotten more challenging as we see steeper seat tube angles as a trend, so I sometimes have to get a bit creative with setback posts and maxing out saddle-rail tolerances. It’s worth it, though, as proper bike fit can be the difference between a lot of watts.
MBA: How do you evaluate tires—width, tread pattern and final tire pressure?
PM: Experience and experimentation! With a trained eye, you can generally predict how a tire will ride just by looking at it, but there are so many factors that play into ride quality that the only way to really know is by riding it. Personally, I like running a tire with as little pressure as possible just so long as it never totally bottoms out on the hardest hit of a given course or trail. When racing, I’ll sometimes add 0.5–1 psi of pressure, because I’m always pushing just that little bit harder in a race setting. Tire volume, casing, thread count, construction, etc. all play a role in determining the way a tire rides, so you have to deter- mine the right pressure for each individual model. I run different pressures in the different thread-count and casing versions of my go-to tire, the 2.25-inch Maxxis Aspen.
MBA: How much sealant do you use? Does it vary based on terrain?
PM: How much sealant I use doesn’t vary by terrain but does vary by tire volume. For a narrower 2.25-inch tire I’ll run 3 ounces, and for a wider 2.35- or 2.4- inch tire I’ll run 4 ounces.
MBA: How often do you replace your sealant?
PM: I replace it often, because I always want to have the best shot at sealing a puncture. Orange Seal has a super-handy sealant top-off kit that includes a dipstick, so you can check your sealant levels without taking your tire off. If it’s a little low, you can just add some with the hose, straight through the valve. Topping off your sealant is a tricky thing to remember to do, because you don’t have a visual reminder, but it should become a habit just like oiling your chain. I top off my sealant every 2–4 weeks, which is probably a bit more often than I need to, but I’ve had it save so many rides and races that I want to make doubly sure it’s there to do its thing.
MBA: How do you choose your gear range?
PM: It’s amazing how far drivetrains have come the last few years. It seems like just yesterday we were still wrestling with 3x systems. These days, I actually run the same gearing all the time—36t in the front and a 10-50 cassette in the back. That gear range is so wide that I can train and race on the same chainring size. It’s awesome! In some very rare circumstances I’ll run a 38-tooth ring, but most mountain bikes won’t accept a ring that size in terms of chainstay clearance.
MBA: What is the number-one benefit of van life at a race?
PM: Freedom and a sense of home away from home. The van and I are so familiar at this point that when I step inside, it feels like a room in my house back in Durango. It goes such a long way to have a bit of tranquility during the melee of a race weekend. The freedom to make fun little side trips to and from races is awesome, too. For example, after Marathon Nationals this year, I decided I wanted to go watch game seven of the Nuggets/Trailblazers playoff series. So, I just stayed on the road for an extra day and got to do one of my other favorite things—be around basketball! If you fly to a race, that sort of thing just isn’t an option.
MBA: What is the biggest trade-off/challenge of van life for a cyclist?
PM: It’s a small space. I have the biggest cargo van on the market (the Ford Transit extended wheelbase, highest roof), but it’s still a small space at the end of the day. Bike racing requires a lot of pieces, so you have to get clever with storage and organization. Basically, that just means everything takes a little bit longer, because invariably the thing you need is at the bottom of a crate inside the bench seat that someone happens to be sitting on. Once you accept that aspect, the constant Tetris puzzle can be kind of fun. And, man, I’ll take freshly cooked eggs and bacon over a continental breakfast any day, even if takes 15 extra minutes to put together.
MBA: How did you get sponsored by Red Bull?
PM: Whew, that’s a long story, and a question I get asked often. The short version is just by being willing to be different and have an interest in leading a slightly non-traditional bike racing life. That’s the kind of person they look for in their athletes. Bike racing is a sport of tradition, but I love thinking about what new elements can be brought in, what new directions it could go, both on and off the bike. The longer answer involves getting on the right people’s radar with the help of an agent, and then being very patient (well over a year) as they kept an eye on what I was up to. They don’t rush their decisions on athletes, for good reason, and it’s worth waiting for!
MBA: What are your rules of engagement for social media, specifically Instagram?
PM: It seems like a bit of a cliché, but I really strive for authenticity. That means not dropping off the radar when things go wrong like bad races, injuries etc. There are accounts out there that only promote successes, and I think that leads to followers thinking they’ll never measure up, and eventually that they can’t relate. I also try to keep it fun and diverse. The majority of my main feed posts are about bikes, but I post to IG [Instagram] stories more than most, and at least half of that is non bike-related stuff. People love to chat about bike stuff, but I get just as many messages about basketball, van life, shoes, mustache-grooming tips and podcasts now. I love that. I’m known as a bike racer, but no one has only one interest, and personally it seems connecting with folks on multiple fronts goes a long way.
MBA: What is the service you hope to provide with the “Adventure Stache” podcast?
PM: Honestly, it was a somewhat selfish vocation at the beginning. I’ve always been a huge podcast fan and listen to at least one daily on all kinds of subjects. Honestly, it’s kind of rare that I listen to cycling-related ones. Podcasts opened my mind to the incredible number of amazing people out there and all that they’ve accomplished. Our bike riding world is wonderful, but so is the climbing world, mainstream sports world, academic world. Once I signed with Red Bull, all of a sudden many of the folks from those other areas became accessible to me. I started rubbing shoulders with the best in all kinds of different realms and having amazing conversations with them. I finally thought, “What the heck? Why not record these and share them with the world?” Plus, now I have an excuse to go bother and get to know even more of the best athletes, adventurers, and achievers of all kinds. Ha! The conversations we have are a bit different, because as someone in the middle of their athletic career, I can usually relate with them on a bit deeper level. We’re just nine episodes in, but the reception has been amazing, and I could foresee doing this for a long time. I just find myself more fired up and motivated every time I hit stop on the recorder.
MBA: What do you consume in a typical week?
PM: I follow the common-sense diet. To me, that means following three basic rules: variety, balance and moderation. If I can hit those three things, I’m good. The truth is, personally, the training is just far too brutal to come home starving and then go weighing my food and counting macros. I have an exercise science degree, so I have a solid understanding of fueling for performance. I eat well, but if I did a 100-mile training ride and I want a beer and ice cream, I’m gonna have the dang beer and ice cream.
MBA: What do you eat on the morning of race day?
PM: Three eggs and toast. I’m a creature of habit when it comes to breakfast, so I just follow the same routine on race day. There are a lot of athletes who do all kinds of special things for meals in the 24 hours leading up to a race, and that’s never really made sense to me. We always say to never change your bike setup right before a race, so why would you totally change the fuel? Sure, there are basic things like cutting back on high-fiber veggies and bumping up carb intake, but besides that, I try to keep it pretty simple.
MBA: What is your key to recovery post-race?
PM: Timing. My team manager always has a GU recovery shake waiting right at the finish, which is so satisfying directly following a hard effort. Following that, I try to get some quality real food in, but I am not one to shy away from a reward meal, especially after a successful race.
MBA: Any pre-race rituals?
PM: Not really. There are a few things I always do, like personally check my tire pressure with a specific tire gauge I always bring to races, and drink a Red Bull, but other than that I keep it pretty simple. I’ve certainly gone through phases where I thought a pair of socks or gloves were lucky, but as soon as you have a bad race with them, those things go out the window. I mean, at this point I don’t even flip my number plate if it’s number 13! I guess part of that is I like being different, and everyone flips their number 13 plate, so why would I want to do that? Gotta make your own luck!
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