Payson McElveen's adventure stache

Payson McElveen climbs a ledge on his mountain bike
(Image credit: Nicole Fara Silver / Red Bull Content Pool)

In 2016, then up-and-coming professional mountain biker Payson McElveen had a decision to make. The decision would take him from his home in Colorado, all the way to Ulaanbataar, Mongolia and shape his career trajectory. 

The young McElveen was a fledgling XCO racer who had seen early race success and had experience racing World Cups with the USA Cycling National Team. He was making money off of race results, but it wasn’t enough to fully support himself. With only a few thousand dollars to his name, he was staring down the possibility of having to take a part-time job on top of training and racing. 

That’s when the organizers of the Mongolia Bike Challenge invited him to their race. The mountain bike stage race organizers would pay his expenses on the ground, but McElveen still had to shell out for an expensive flight to Asia. Another bonus: Outside Magazine was interested in providing media coverage of the event. 

McElveen won the race, beating out stiff competition like Italian Nicholas Pettina. The race win gave him confidence, but also showed him the storytelling potential and media coverage that’s garnered by doing non-traditional events. 

“I don't know if I had a massive amount of confidence going into it, to be honest,” McElveen told BikePerfect “It was just a desire for adventure and having just this gut feeling that it was potentially going to open doors.” 

The following summer, doors started to open. McElveen won the US Marathon National Championships, edging out his friend and 2016 Olympian Howard Grotts in a sprint to the line in Arkansas. He also unexpectedly came third in the US XCO National Championships, which prompted offers from some World Cup-focused XCO programs. 

“I made a really hard decision to stay the course, and keep doing what I felt I was more suited to, what I was having more fun doing, what felt like a better way to see the world and go on adventures, and momentum just kind of started to build,” he said. 

Payson McElveen rides a rocky trail

McElveen found a home in marathon mountain bike racing and non-traditional projects  (Image credit: Colin Kerrigan / Red Bull Content Pool)

Not only did McElveen gain momentum racing marathon mountain bike and gravel events, but he also gained new sponsors. He signed with Red Bull and started wearing a personalized helmet from the energy drink and sports marketing behemoth. Red Bull encourages its athletes to take on projects that aren’t necessarily related to racing, which is how The Adventure Stache Podcast came about. 

Initially, McElveen was against the proposal he received from his marketing manager at Red Bull for a podcast. The medium was really starting to take off, but he was afraid that he didn’t have anything unique to bring to the landscape. 

“If there's one thing that I've always been really afraid of is conforming and not being original,” McElveen said. “And that's kind of guided my career throughout. That's probably one of the reasons that I did end up taking that trip to Mongolia. And so, fitting in just really kind of terrifies me I guess. And so, to me, a podcast sounded like fitting in.” 

His manager showed him a list of guests and possible conversations he could have with fellow professional athletes, and that’s what sold him on the idea. Instead of the classic sports cliche of a reporter asking “how did it feel to win,” McElveen could have more genuine, peer-to-peer conversations. 

The podcast, which broadcasts long-form, conversational interviews that usually last about an hour, debuted in April 2019 with guests like mountain bike legend Juli Furtado and hall of fame basketball player Reggie Miller. In a recent episode, he interviewed Chris Burkard, Rebecca Rusch, and Gus Morton about their fat bike trek across Iceland in the dead of winter. 

The genius of McElveen’s show, whose title is a reference to the racer’s mustache, is that he doesn’t just stick to cycling or sports. Last fall, he aired a three-hour-long episode with Martha Schoppe, who is a smokejumper. Smokejumpers are an elite class of firefighters who parachute to the sites of wildfires, often in remote corners of the US. Out of about 400 smokejumpers in the country, Schoppe is one of nine women in the profession. 

The gripping episode about jumping out of planes and fighting fire led to real-world inspiration. One of McElveen’s industry contacts sent him an email saying he would be leaving the bike industry to pursue a career change to become a firefighter. The podcast episode served as a final push to make the jump out of the bike industry. 

Back in 2016, gravel riding and racing had not yet fully enveloped the bike industry. But if McElveen had stuck to pursuing XCO racing, maybe he wouldn’t have jumped into the emerging discipline to become the current Mid South gravel race champion or a top-five finisher at the Unbound race in Kansas. 

Not afraid to do things differently, McElveen is now involved with developing a new gravel event in Texas with fellow Red Bull athlete and 2019 Unbound gravel winner Colin Strickland.

Payson McElveen gravel racing

McElveen has also jumped into the world of gravel racing, in addition to marathon mountain bike racing  (Image credit: Red Bull Content Pool)

Strickland and McElveen both grew up outside of Austin, Texas and both have connections to the West Texas borderland region. Strickland has Hispanic heritage, while McElveen’s parents met and married at Big Bend National Park, which sits just above the US-Mexico border.

Bike events have seen a decline in the mountainous desert region in recent years, and the pair felt they could bring something new to the table. The two racers have full control over the route planning, while others are tasked with organizing the event.

“We wanted to try to create something that really showcased what these modern off-road, kind of multi-surface bikes are capable of,” McElveen said about the event.

Official details aren’t available yet, but in the meantime, McElveen is planning to travel to Arkansas to work on a media project that’s been in the works for months now, something similar to the out-of-the-box ideas that have set him apart from other mountain bikers.

“A blessing and a curse for me is that my creative brain just like never switches off,” he said ahead of a busy spring schedule. “I always have ideas.”

Ryan Simonovich

Ryan Simonovich has been riding and racing for nearly a decade. He got his start as a cross-country mountain bike racer in California, where he cultivated his love for riding all types of bikes. Ryan eventually gravitated toward enduro and downhill racing but has also been found in the occasional road and cyclo-cross events. Today, he regularly rides the trails of Durango, Colorado, and is aiming to make a career out of chronicling the sport of cycling. 

Rides: Santa Cruz Hightower, Specialized Tarmac SL4