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Our Athletes Voice series gives athletes a forum to talk about how technology has impacted their careers and their lives away from sports. This week, mountain biker Payson McElveen talks about how he trains, his experience of sprinting up the Red Bull Bay Climb, and his fans.
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Payson McElveen is a two-time cross country mountain bike national champion, winning in 2017 and 2018. He also won the Mongolia Bike Challenge stage race in 2016 and the Single Speed World Championship in 2018. Last September, he was invited by his sponsor, Red Bull, to race the company’s Bay Climb uphill sprint in San Francisco, and he added that title to his collection too.
After winning his first national championship, he grew a full beard during winter training. Eventually tiring of the beard, he shaved it off but left a mustache on a whim and raced with it. Cycling industry insiders soon began calling him, advising him to keep the ’stache because it helped him stand out in a crowded field. Now the mustache is featured on a jersey made by Voler, his apparel sponsor, and McElveen even launched a podcast, The Adventure Stache, in April.
McElveen has a degree in exercise science from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., and is a passionate NBA fan and avid fly fisherman. He’ll return to San Francisco next weekend to defend his Bay Climb title. The race is a three-block sprint up Potrero Hill along De Haro Street, hitting gradients in excess of 20%. (We’re out of breath just thinking about it.)
On aspiring to be a pro cyclist…
“From the outside, athletes that have ‘made it’ sometimes seem almost untouchable in a way. Like it’s binary. Like they play for a living. They have a blue check mark next to their Instagram. Things come to them easily, this, that and the other. And it really couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s so many people out there that are really good at mountain biking or climbing or skiing or whatever it is—but things just didn’t quite align for them for whatever reason.
“And likewise, I think there’s people that made it professionally who maybe in some ways aren’t the collection of typical ingredients to be a successful athlete, but just sort of willed it into existence. I don’t really know which camp I fall into, but I had a dream of being a professional cyclist since I was about 8 years old. Lance Armstrong was winning the tours as I was growing up, and he actually lives just 15 minutes from where I grew up. There was a strong connection there and I was inspired by that—and that’s eventually what got me into riding. And then my dad has always been an avid cyclist. We would go out on weekend trips. He was really good about supporting me in whatever I wanted to do, but never pushing me in any one direction.”
“For my style of riding, training is a lot of volume. That just means hours in the saddle, lots of climbing, lots of subthreshold training … I toss in some strength training elements off the bike about two days a week … Just making sure you’re an overall strong athlete and not a really frail, one-dimensional cyclist, which can happen. You want to be able to hit the ground and jump back up and race the next day. Terrain can get pretty spicy at times on these courses. You want to be able to move your bike well, have the hand-eye coordination, reaction time, all of those things to ride challenging terrain at speed.
“One thing that’s been really helpful recently is this Garmin watch that I’ve been using. It’s a Garmin Forerunner, and basically it’s allowed me to track all of this stuff that was previously difficult to track. When you’re on a bike, there’s all kinds of awesome stuff like power meters and heart rate monitors to get really specific information about your training. It’s nice to know what the load is on your body.
“One of my favorite things recently has been doing a kind of circuit training. Not CrossFit, but a combination of some pretty challenging lifts and then going straight into some sort of element that requires balancing on one of those yoga balls and juggling at the same time. It looks like I’m training for the circus, but I have noticed some pretty solid crossover in terms of when you’re really tired, like you just absolutely pegged yourself up a climb and then you go straight into a pretty gnarly descent and need to recover from the previous climb while also being super focused on the descent and being able to make really minute movements to steer your bike down the hill as fast as possible. It’s a pretty unique skillset to mountain biking and kind of an overload thing.”
On racing Bay Climb last year…
“The climb is ridiculous. But the cross streets, the little flat bits between, that took me a bit by surprise. That was a component that I didn’t really think about. That makes it a little trickier just in terms of pacing.
“In terms of effort, it was about what I expected. I’ve raced on the track a little bit—track cycling collegiately—and I’ve done some kilo efforts, so I have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to go flat-out for a minute. Just total kamikaze effort. From that standpoint, I felt pretty prepared and knew what it would feel like. Even so, you train and have just mountains of data from all sorts of different durations and effort lengths. But I set my personal one-minute power record three times that day … yet again a good lesson in why competing just kind of helps everyone get better. You just always give your best in a competition.”
[At Bay Climb], everyone’s a hero up until the end of that second pitch. When you hit that third pitch, that’s where people run out of gas. It’s just a brutal duration because it’s mostly anaerobic, but it’s just long enough that you can’t fake it with sprint ability alone.
On getting ready for this year’s event…
“I can’t necessarily afford to focus a bunch of training on that super high-end stuff, but physiologically, for whatever reason—and I don’t know if it’s because of the track-and-field background or what—I just naturally have ‘some talent’ for that minute-long duration. As long as I’m rested going into it and get one high-intensity workout the week before, I can compete pretty well.
“[If I could train for Bay Climb], I would still keep some volume in the training; it’s tricky because you have the heats. If someone crushes the first heat, congratulations for them, but they’re not going to race the final until late that afternoon. You still have to have a certain level of aerobic capacity to recover well and do repeated efforts.
“Everyone’s a hero up until the end of that second pitch. When you hit that third pitch, that’s where people run out of gas. It’s just a brutal duration because it’s mostly anaerobic, but it’s just long enough that you can’t fake it with sprint ability alone.
“I would do some sprint workouts just to make sure that the high end is really there. Just some classic 10- to 15-second all out sprints. And then also I would do some intervals that are just a little bit longer than the actual Bay Climb just to make sure the muscular endurance is there, so when that third pitch hits, you can actually kick to the line and have a little something left.”
On the spectator experience at Bay Climb…
“It’s kind of hard to make bike racing a spectator sport. A lot of people have tried different ways to do that, but this was the most spectator friendly bike racing thing I’ve participated in. The vibe in general has brought people together from all different backgrounds, and it’s just kind of a big party celebrating bikes, and some people take it seriously and race really hard and other people really don’t. And everyone’s having fun. I absolutely love it … people are just fighting back and forth for like one extra foot on their competitor, and it comes down to this minute-long death match.”
On engaging with fans…
“I’m one of the more well-supported riders among my peers and it’s in large part because I’m willing to sacrifice more of my own time to spend with other folks. In July, we had the cross country national championships in Winter Park, Colo., and the day before the race there was a huge expo area and lots of races going on. And lots of fans mingling, and racers and amateur racers, wannabe racers. It’s a big scene. And in this team expo area, I spend a few hours every day hanging out under the tent, chatting with people as they come by, signing autographs, taking photos, answering questions, giving advice if they’re looking for some. Whatever it is, just being available.
“The biggest thing when you’re talking to folks for two or three hours straight and answering questions, you just want to come across as engaged—like it means something to you as much as it means something to them. Being that engaged with people takes energy, and I genuinely enjoy it, which is why I do it. I really do like interacting, but a lot of times we’ll finish at the venue and I’ll get back to the hotel room and just flop down on the bed and be like, ‘Oh man, I hope that those three hours didn’t impact my race tomorrow too much.’
“I try to answer all of the questions that I get. It’s getting harder, but I try to remind myself of when I was the person on the other end and I was emailing—we didn’t have Instagram back then—but I distinctly remember emailing some of the stars of the sport, like Geoff Kabush or Todd Wells, and they were always kind enough to write back, no matter how silly a question I had. So I try to do the same.”
On his race schedule…
“The hardest thing is balancing all of these events. There’s so many good events these days, but the tricky part is knowing what to say no to. It’s a constant balancing act of performing the best you can for races. It’s a little counterintuitive, but when you’re racing a lot, you actually tend to lose fitness because you’re having to rest in between two races, and they’re so intense that inevitably you have to take some extra rest on the backside of them. It gets pretty hard to carry form through a long season. Typically, I’m my fittest at the very beginning of the spring before racing even starts.
“To be honest, plenty of my sponsors would love for me to not do Bay Climb, and a handful of other events. But I am a firm believer that diverse types of events help make you a better racer overall. I think it’s good to get a really high intensity race weekend in like Bay Climb, just to make sure you’re not getting too lethargic. And also it’s almost like a vacation for me, that race weekend, because I love San Francisco. It’s one of the like 17 places I want to own a home when I’m filthy rich somehow.”
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