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Payson McElveen is down but not out

A conversation with the injured endurance off-road rider as he sits out the first race of the Life Time Grand Prix.

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Payson McElveen is being a good sport.

Normally, the 29-year-old would have been at the Sea Otter Classic to focus on one thing — racing his bike. The Fuego 80k at Sea Otter was the first event in the Life Time Grand Prix, a six-race off-road series that seems tailor-made for McElveen, a winning gravel racer and marathon cross-country mountain biker by trade.

Yet after breaking his clavicle and left hand at The Mid South last month, McElveen has been sidelined, and chagrined.

“Oh man,” he said at Sea Otter, “I’m bumming so hard. I don’t know, it comes in waves. It’s sorta like a much less severe version of true grief, so it comes in waves. It gives you a much greater appreciation for when you do get to do it. And it’s also obviously just part of the job.”

McElveen catches up with Cole Paton and Colin Strickland before race day at Sea Otter. (Photo: Alex Roszko)

Because McElveen’s ‘job’ is increasingly based on the things he does off the bike (podcasting, film projects, content creation), he was in attendance at Sea Otter anyway. Amid sponsor visits and saying hi to fans, McElveen even stepped in as an expert voice during the FloBikes commentary of the XC race.

Despite his disappointment to not be racing (and not to mention the fact that he says people ask all the time if he’s “still” a mountain biker), McElveen knows he will heal and he knows he will be back at the races. Here’s a glimpse into how the marathon mountain biker is managing.

VeloNews: I’m sure you’ve had injuries before, but does this somehow feel the most consequential? 

Payson McElveen: Yes, definitely. One year I broke my elbow five weeks before the last collegiate race. For some reason I did a crazy comeback and had one race to qualify. Sepp [Kuss] and Keegan [Swenson] were there, of all things, and I won and I qualified at the last minute and podium’ed at nationals. And I’m like, ‘It’ll be like that again. That was sweet!’ But the hand is such a pain. We rely on our thumbs a lot so it’s hard to hang on the bars, so I’m spending a lot of time on the aero bars. Yesterday I did a three-hour ride, which felt like a big victory, but that’s at most what I can manage. It sounds like a long ride, but when you ride as much as we do — let’s just say there’s a certain plateau I’m gonna be at for a few weeks. So I’m just reassessing and very grateful that we get to drop a race. [The Life Time Grand Prix is scored on riders’ five best results of the six races.— Ed.]

Ultimately it could have been worse. 

VN: Are you aware of the risk of starting back too soon? 

PM: For sure. Had it just been the collarbone, I would have been faced with that conundrum more significantly. When Ted [King] did his collarbone last year — if I race this weekend that would have been the equivalent of what he did with Gravel Locos last year. [Last year, King broke his clavicle on May 2 and raced Gravel Locos on May 22. — Ed.] If it had just been my collarbone that would have been a really hard decision. But this hand being so much of a hindrance it’s sort of a self-governor. 

VN: Where will you be with healing come Unbound Gravel? 

PM: Oh, I’ll race before Unbound. I’m gonna do Rule of Three. Theoretically I should be on a mountain bike in early May. 

Whiskey Off-Road’s out, which is a heartbreaker. There were so few mountain bike races last year and the number of people that ask me these days if I’m still a mountain biker it’s like, ‘yes! Definitely.’ I understand the question but it just reinforces the frustration. The middle of the season has a lot of gravel obviously, but then I’m looking forward to doing a lot more mountain bike racing the second half of the year. 

McElveen leading before his crash at mile 90 at The Mid South. (Photo: Brad Kaminski)

VN: So, the crash. What was your initial reaction after it happened? 

PM: I felt both break on impact. I knew. But it never really hurt that badly and I was kinda reminded how soft tissue injuries are way more painful than bone breaks. Like, still the thing that hurts most is that I have torn intercostals and a sore back, so when I breathe deeply it still hurts. And it’s been a month. The funny thing is, they moved me off the road and I was just leaning against this guardrail for an hour before I got picked up. So I was just sitting there in the sunlight thinking about things, obviously I didn’t have a phone on me so there were no distractions. I was already kinda plotting the return. Literally what was going through my head was who do I know in Durango who’s a surgeon who I can call that can get me in sooner. And they did. I got surgery three days post-crash which is unheard of. So I got lucky there. But yeah, it’s just part of it. We’re all fans of bike racing, we all see our favorite riders crash and hurt themselves. 

It’s like paying taxes on speed. It’s a thing now and then. 

VN: Physiologically how much fitness are you really losing? Is it really a plummet?

PM: I can show you. [McElveen opens up the TrainingPeaks app to show his performance graph. —Ed]

See that valley? That’s my off season. That peak is California training camp. Then I rested. The second peak is Mid South. So now I’m down here. CTL [chronic training load] is your fitness level. So I raced between 130 and 140. In the off-season it’s like 70 or 80, so half. Right now I’m at 105. So I’m halfway between race fitness and off-season fitness.

VN: How is that information valuable? 

PM: It helps us know what sort of training is the best bang for the buck right now. The biggest thing that pros do differently than non-pros is we don’t do way harder intervals, we just ride way more. We’re just in the saddle more, especially with gravel these days. So it’s just an hours things. So because I’m limited on hours it helps us figure out how to maximize that.

VN: I just can’t help and think about athletes who come back too soon at the risk of jeopardizing future performance.

PM: The thing is, as athletes we’re so insanely driven. We’re just programmed to get through whatever is in our way. Illness. Bad weather on a training ride. Bad races. Bad headspace, lost sponsorships, whatever it is. And so then there’s this other thing that you’re also just programmed to do, which is just put your head down and get through. So it’s a valid question. The only counter I’d give is that I think we’re so in tune with our bodies that you just know. Like, it sounds dumb but I can feel the progress happening. The biggest thing is trends. So, I know that I pushed it a little too hard if I get swelling in my hand, which hasn’t happened. But, just trusting the doctors. Ultimately I could race sooner than I’m going to. I could race at six weeks but I’m gonna wait until nine. 

VN: After Ted’s crash at Big Sugar last fall, this is probably the most high profile gravel injury we’ve seen. 

PM: We’re coming to realize how dangerous gravel racing is. I don’t think collectively we’ve all admitted that yet, but it’s kind of the combo of mountain bike and road elements that can be a pretty crazy recipe. The circumstances of the crash were just classic bad — we were just going really fast in a tight group of ten. And the road just completely disintegrated for 20 yards. You get lulled into thinking that all of the rules of road racing apply, but then if all of a sudden the road completely disintegrates without warning. It’s just tricky variables. The speeds are just so high too. I think mountain biking is, at least XC, often deceptively pretty safe because the speeds are half what they would be gravel racing. Imagine road racing where every corner was just sandy and gravely. 

The crash was 100 percent my fault. No one else was doing anything stupid. I just happened to look over my shoulder half a second too late and hit a really deep rut. The road had been great for the last five miles. 

VN: Like you said, it could have been worse. What else is on your mind as you recover and wait? 

PM: One thing I have thought about is being 29 now and how I’m in the meat of my prime. You start thinking about every year where you have a setback like this. In some ways these could be your peak earning potential years professionally. All these different things go through your head at night as you’re staring at the ceiling.