When you think about great places for mountain biking, Texas is probably not the first place that comes to mind, but that doesn’t mean that great mountain bikers can’t come from there. Payson McElveen (pronounced “Muh- Kelvin”) has become a force to be reckoned with in the last few years, even if he did start racing in Texas. He now lives in Colorado, however. He attended Fort Lewis College in Durango and has lived there ever since.
In the last few years, Payson has proven himself repeatedly. He took third place in the USA Cycling Cross-Country National Championships last year in West Virginia, and he also took third in the Leadville 100. He came close to winning the Iceman Cometh in Michigan this past fall, finishing behind Geoff Kabush but beating America’s reigning XC national champion Howard Grotts in the sprint for second place.
“He and I are best buddies,” says Payson of Grotts. “We train with each other a lot. I think he and I both know that if we can get to the finish together, I can pull it out, but pulling it to the finish together is the hard part.” Grotts is America’s top cross-country racer and Payson’s toughest competition, but the two are close friends. If Howie’s internet connection isn’t working, he’ll call Payson on the phone and have him go online to see what kind
of training regimen Howard’s coach has picked for him to do that day.
Durango’s pro racers are highly competitive, Payson tells us, but they’re still good friends. Howie, Payson and Chris Blevins (last year’s Pro XCT champion) shared a room at last year’s Iceman Cometh. The top pro riders in Durango, both road and mountain, get together on Tuesday nights for a group road ride together. Grotts, Payson and Blevins are joined by Ned Overend, Ben Sonntag, Troy and Todd Wells, and the rest of the Durango superstars. It’s not an easy group to drop. Payson told MBA he was surprised at how friendly the mountain bike stars in Durango proved to be. Says Payson, “I was blown away by how welcoming the best riders in the country were. I went from being the best rider in Texas to realizing I had a long way to go. I wasn’t all that good compared to Todd and Howard and everybody else.” That seems to be changing now, though. Red Bull started sponsoring Payson this winter, and that is one of the most highly valued sponsorship deals in mountain biking. Orange Seal is still Payson’s title sponsor, and Trek is his bike sponsor, but Red Bull is now one of his major sponsors too, and that is a sweet deal.
While pro cycling careers can be very challenging, Payson had the brains to pursue a couple of other possible avenues to success. He majored in exercise science at Fort Lewis College with a minor in English. He writes a weekly column on his website, PaysonMcElveen.com, called “The Tuesday Hand-Up.” It’s worth checking out.
Will Payson be able to beat his riding buddy Howard Grotts to the finish line at this summer’s National Championship and take the title away from his longtime friend? We don’t know, but it should make for an interesting race.
Name: Payson McElveen
Nickname: Many of them! Payso Mac,
Peso, Pay-Dirt, Pay Stub, P-Mac, Payso
Mac n’ Steez (by one VIP) Age: 25
Birthdate: February 18, 1993
Birthplace: Austin, TX
Weight: 150 pounds
Shoe size: 44.5
Helmet size: Small
Marital status: Single
Current home: Durango, Colorado
Vehicles: Ford Transit Highroof Extended (#VanLife converted) and a Toyota Land Cruiser
Started racing: 2007
Turned pro: 2012
Racing specialty: That’s a tough one. I feel like I’ve gotten pigeonholed as a long-distance guy recently, but I held my own in the XCs and STXCs in 2017, so I like to think I’m fairly well-rounded. Any course that’s especially rocky or rooty is usually good for me, and I like my climbs frequent but on the shorter side.
Favorite course (North America): 12 Hours of Mesa Verde. It’s this little regional race near my home in Durango where you get to do 12 hours of laps at this trail called Phil’s World. It’s the epitome of flow, and after a few laps, it’s easy to get into that autopilot mode that all athletes chase—like you can do no wrong. I’ve had a lap or two there where I felt more one with the bike than at any other point.
Favorite course (Europe): It’s a little east of Europe, but I did this World Cup test event in China that was probably the best UCI course I’ve ridden. The organizers contracted the Fort Williams course designers to build it, and it was like one long 4X track. This was back in 2014, too, when the UCI was just getting into that sort of thing. I wish that World Cup would have worked out!
Favorite food: I am not a picky eater and don’t really have a favorite. I do like to be adventurous when possible, so I will often order the weirdest thing on the menu when traveling—yes, even overseas! This habit got extra extreme during the aforementioned trip to China.
Goals: I’m not nearly as big-picture goal-oriented as I used to be. Things started going a lot better when I stopped fixating on big results-centered goals. I definitely have achievements in the back of my mind that I’d like to check off the list before hanging it up, but I prefer to focus on the day-to-day steps that will get me there in due time.
Heroes: Growing up, my hero was Lance. Living outside Austin, I didn’t have much in the way of good trails to train on. Back then, he had this ranch near my house with amazing trails. A mutual friend told him about me, and he gave me the gate codes to his ranch so I could go train out there whenever I wanted. Nowadays, I don’t know that I have heroes, but there are certainly folks I look up to professionally. Riders such as Todd Wells and Geoff Kabush are inspiring examples of professionalism, longevity and how to do it right.
Favorite recording artist: Boards of Canada
Favorite movie: The Right Stuff is one I can be inspired by over and over
Favorite hobbies: Since graduating college, it’s been important to me to stay curious and work hard to educate myself about things outside the cycling world. I’ve been reading more, and I listen to podcasts almost daily. It seems wrong to classify that as a “hobby,” but from what I can tell, many people my age have replaced almost all of that with social media. I love social media but work hard to maintain a balance.
Jobs held (other than racer): I do a little bit of coaching but don’t have much time to dedicate to it these days. All the off- bike stuff is almost like another full-time job—social media, content creation, fun side projects, etc. I’m still learning to control my creative mind and usually have more projects going at once than I can keep up with.
Most embarrassing moment: I did have a pretty frustrating race at ’cross nationals a few years ago in Austin. I had a ratchet break on a shoe, and there was lots of running in deep mud. This shoe kept getting pulled off in the deep mud, and I had to go back and fish it out several times.
Always takes on a trip: JBL Pulse 3 speaker (best impulse buy I made this year), a little iPhone tripod, Sony A6, GoPro, a 4-ounce bottle of Orange Seal with injection system (they’ve made it so you can top off your tires in a hotel room pre-race!), a spectrum of Oakley lens options, and a couple of Red Bulls for when the travel gets long.
What you would be if you were not a racer: A different kind of racer—probably on foot.
Inside The Pros’ Bike
Trek Top Fuel
Bike weight: 22.3 pounds with pedals
Estimated value of bike: $10,000
1. Frame: Trek Top Fuel 9.9 Project One; custom orange-and-black paint scheme for our Orange Seal off-road team; 100mm travel, front and rear; Fox RE:aktiv shock, 147 psi.
“This is the most capable XC bike I’ve ever ridden. At 22.3 pounds, it goes uphill just fine too.”
2. Fork: Fox Stepcast, 100mm, 92 psi. “Butter.”
3. Tires: Kenda Saber Pro, 29×2.2 inches; SCT casing; usually 18 psi front and rear, 19 psi for faster, sharp- er courses. “These tires measure even bigger than 2.2 and have this wonderful high-volume balloon shape that allows really nice, low pressures. The knobs look crazy low-profile, but at 18 psi, you get a ton of rubber on the ground.”
4. Tubeless system: 3 ounces of Orange Seal, Orange Seal tape and Orange Seal Versa valves. “I punctured at Leadville this year, and it sealed at a pretty high psi. Even though I had to stop and hit it with a CO2, it allowed me to stay in touch long enough to snag a podium.”
5. Rims: DT Swiss 1200 XMC.
6. Spokes: DT.
7. Front hub: DT.
8. Rear hub: DT.
9. Brakes: SRAM Level.
10. Handlebar: Bontrager XXX, 9-degree sweep.
11. Bottom bracket: SRAM BB92.
12. Grips: ESI Racer’s Edge. “With Togs!”
13. Cranks: SRAM Eagle 175s with SRM.
14. Chainring: SRAM Eagle, usually 36t, sometimes 34.
15. Pedals: Shimano XTR.
16. Chain: SRAM. (How often does he change it?) “When the chain measurement tool tells me to!”
17. Rear derailleur: SRAM XX1 Eagle.
18. Front derailleur: “Front derailleurs are so 2015!”
19. Shifters: SRAM XX1 Eagle trigger.
20. Brake levers: SRAM Level.
21. Rear cassette: Stock SRAM Eagle.
22. Saddle: Secret Bontrager test saddle.
23. Seatpost: Bontrager XXX.
24. Cables and housings: “Whatever Darian at Mountain Bike Specialists put on most recently.”
25. Headset: FSA.
26. Water bottle cage: King Cage. “Sometimes people ask me why I don’t have a carbon cage. Then I tell them that it’s a handmade Ti one that weighs less than their carbon one, and that I’ve had the same handful of them since 2012. Then they want to know where to get one.”
27. Shock: Fox RE:aktiv, 147 psi.
28. Stem: Bontrager Pro.
29. Special touches, like carbon or titanium bolts? “I don’t do any weird weight-weenie stuff to my bike, but I do write a note to myself and tape it to the top tube for some races or training rides.”
30. Extras: SRM PC8 power meter; Togs on handlebars.
31. Head angle: 70 degrees.
32: Bottom bracket height: 33cm.
The MBA Q&A
MBA: Where did you grow up?
Payson: Rural Texas Hill Country, about 20 minutes outside Austin.
MBA: What kind of work do your parents do?
Payson: My dad was an ER doc for over 30 years. He now works as the lead doc at an urgent care clinic. It’s funny; when I was younger, I got comments once or twice about how nice it must have been to grow up with a family that could enjoy an ER doctor’s salary.
I never felt like we were particularly wealthy, so it confused me. I found out only recently that early on my dad had made a decision to simply work less than is typical for someone in his position. In hindsight, I realize he did that for his quality of life and ours as a family. It meant he could continue pole-vaulting, running, kayaking, mountain biking and, ultimately, driving me to races all over Texas.
My mom has worn many hats—park ranger in Big Bend National Park, worked in the Texas legislature as a grant writer for several non-profits and nowadays is the administrator for the school where I spent 14 years of my life, the Austin Waldorf School.
MBA: When did you first learn to ride a bike?
Payson: I think I was about 4 years old. Like many kids, it was in the driveway. Our driveway is dirt and pretty rocky. Maybe that set the tone from day one.
MBA: Did you compete on other kinds of bikes before mountain bikes?
Payson: No. My first race was on the dirt.
MBA: When did you get your first mountain bike?
Payson: I was about 8 or 10, but it was an old, heavily used 24-inch chromoly girls’ bike. I didn’t know the difference and shredded it all over. When I started reading mountain bike magazines like Mountain Bike Action, I figured out what “modern” race bikes looked like. My parents didn’t hear the end of it for months, and then I finally got one for Christmas. It remains the best Christmas gift I ever received, both at the time and looking back.
MBA: When did you start racing mountain bikes?
Payson: I did my first race when I was 6 at the Mas o Menos race in Lajitas, Texas. Shortly thereafter, my dad began struggling with a medical issue, and we didn’t go to the races again until I was 14. After that first comeback, I haven’t looked back since.
MBA: How did you finish in your first competition?
Payson: During that first race when I was 6, I won. It’s still one of my most vivid memories. It was a sprint finish!
MBA: Did you win any titles as an amateur?
Payson: I won some Texas state titles and some national championship medals in the juniors but no national titles.
MBA: What have been your best results as a pro?
Payson: 2017 Marathon National title; bronze at 2017 XC Nationals; third, 2017 Epic Rides Series overall; third 2017 Leadville 100; first, 2016 Mongolia Bike Challenge; second at 2017 Iceman. I like to do a lot of the traditional regional races, too, when I can. Some of those: 2016 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, 2017 Chequamegon 40, 2015 Grand Traverse, 2017 Firecracker 50.
MBA: Where did you go to college?
Payson: Fort Lewis College; exercise science major, English writing minor.
MBA: Did you win any awards in school?
Payson: Honestly, I can’t remember the titles exactly, but something like Emerging Scholar as a freshman and USA Cycling Academic All-Star a couple of times.
Payson: Track and field, XC running, basketball, flag football, swimming and lots of outdoor/adventure sports. I grew up in a family of kayakers.
MBA: Can you tell us something unusual about yourself or your family.
Payson: I simply could not have had a better childhood. Both my parents were and are loving, dedicated, smart, and hardworking people, and those were values instilled in my sister and me from the beginning. We grew up on a beautiful 18 acres in the Texas Hill Country with chickens, big Rhodesian ridgeback dogs and adventure right out the back door. I remember some friends visited us from Europe one time and commented to my mom: “Ah! Your children are growing up in a garden!” I wouldn’t trade that childhood for anything. I went to a Waldorf School from K–12, which, along with all the traditional subjects, taught me many other skills. Things from blacksmithing and woodworking to acting, over five instruments, art and so much more. All of these things together, along with a classroom culture that encourages class interaction and creativity, have contributed greatly to the way I think and go about my job today. I wouldn’t trade that education for anything.
MBA: Is there some other interesting fact or trivia that people might like to know about you?
Payson: I think unlike most bike racers, I love mainstream sports. I follow the NBA and NFL pretty closely.
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