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The last time Payson McElveen started a gravel race he was sick. That was at Rebecca’s Private Idaho last fall. Earlier in 2018, he abandoned Dirty Kanza 200, when flat tires knocked him out of the lead group. Despite his minimal experience in long gravel races, the pro mountain biker pulled off an impressive win at Land Run 100 on March 16, beating two-time Dirty Kanza champ Ted King in a fast finish. In doing so, he set a course record for the 103-mile race near Stillwater, Oklahoma.
We caught up with McElveen (Orange Seal) after the event to hear about how he approached a gravel race with much less experience than other riders like King. He also explained why a high tolerance for boredom can be a key to success in long races, and how he’ll approach Dirty Kanza this year.
VeloNews: You’re fairly inexperienced as a gravel racer, what was it like being in the front group with Ted King; how did you convince yourself you had a chance of winning?
Payson McElveen: I guess I just have confidence in myself as a racer, period, at this point, and I’ve done just enough road racing that I kind of know my way around a bunch, at least at that level. If you were to throw me into a ProTour peloton I’m sure I’d look like a complete clown. For a field like that I feel plenty comfortable. I have a lot of confidence in my fitness right now. I did a pretty different build this year that seems to have paid off significantly in terms of numbers we’re seeing, not necessarily racer results at this point. I guess kind of regardless of what discipline of pedaling it is, as long as it’s not like BMX or downhill or something like that. If it’s a road race, or a ‘cross race, or a mountain bike race, in North America usually, I carry some confidence into that and feel like I can at least be in the mix.
VN: Did you lose any of that confidence when you crashed midway through the race? How did that affect you?
PM: Not really, honestly it happened so fast that it was more of a reaction-type scenario, I didn’t have time to think about the ramifications. When I did jump back up and realize I wasn’t hurt I thought, “Oh man I hope the bike’s okay,” which it was. I had to bang one of the brake hoods back in place. Other than that it wasn’t a big deal. One of the guys definitely ended up a whole lot worse off than I did, I don’t think he ended up finishing that race. Luckily it didn’t really impact my race.
VN: How far into the race was that?
PM: That happened around mile 70.
VN: Was that before the decisive muddy climb?
PM: No it was after. So basically what happened, on that decisive muddy section, I saw Mat Stephens moving up and it seemed like he’d really done his homework on all the course from what I could tell, so if he was moving toward the front I thought I should do the same thing. I ended up at the front there and saw that it looked fairly challenging, and thought that it looked like the sort of thing that I could ride, and at least some other people wouldn’t be able to. I didn’t really attack there, I just rode up it. The two guys in that early break that we had such a hard time bringing back because of lack of cooperation all of a sudden were right there, and I just rode right up to them. I don’t think they had the most fun going up that.
So then it was the three of us up there with those two breakaway guys. I couldn’t see anyone behind me. For a split second I thought about just going and then I thought better of it because, obviously, Ted is incredibly strong on that type of terrain. That, plus him having those aero bars, I thought I would be pretty hard-pressed to stay away. So I just sort of sat up.
So then he, Drew [Dillman], and one or two other guys came across. We had a group of, I guess, six or seven, and over the course of the next couple of miles one of them got dropped, one of them crashed out, and a fourth one got dropped shortly thereafter, and it was just the three of us [McElveen, King, and Dillman]. The muddy climb was definitely the decisive moment, but after that, it was just general attrition.
VN: And then it came down to that stoplight track-stand in Stillwater.
PM: Oh man, that was so funny. We kind of talked to each other, “Oh this is a red light and there’s no traffic control here, and now there are cars going across the intersection. Probably we should just stop.”
We were all track-standing. After we had that truce moment, it got pretty quiet as we waited for the light to turn green. I think we all realized that this light was going to turn green and we were going to do a straight-up mountain bike start, which is exactly what happened. So we started sprinting up that last drag, just kind of racing for the corner. The video made it look like a straight sprint. Honestly it was like a 700-meter, 600-meter drag race to the finish.
VN: Perfect for a mountain biker then; I guess you were the right guy for it.
PM: I guess! It was touch-and-go. Those two are pretty strong, no doubt about it.
VN: So you have Dirty Kanza 200 on your calendar. Do you have any lessons learned at Land Run that you’ll take to Kansas?
PM: I’m excited to be on some different tires this year that are a little more proven in the gravel world and have much better sidewall reinforcement, so that’s going to be big. But also I think kind of the secret — really in a lot of ways, no matter the bike race — the secret to winning or doing well sometimes is being bored as long as possible and in a race as long as Kanza, that’s a real test of how bored you’re willing to be. It’s not a secret but it’s definitely something that, it sounds funny to say, but actively paying attention to being bored. It’s so easy in competitive scenarios to get wrapped up in the moment and say, “Oh man I feel so good and all these people are going so slow.” But you have to remember that yes, everyone feels good, and yes, everyone is going slow on purpose. If you attack, you’re sort of an idiot. Land Run reinforced the importance of patience, especially in events like this, and Kansas is going to be that, just doubled.
VN: So you have to sit in the wheels and draft?
PM: Yeah, as long as the group stays big, I don’t see how a long move would really ever work there unless Taylor Phinney decides to do it and can just sit on 320 watts for 10 hours, which I guess is possible [laughs].
VN: You have to rein in those mountain biker instincts I guess.
PM: Yeah that could be certainly an Achilles heel for me, something that I have to work on, having that mountain biker mentality, of wanting to race aggressively and take the bull by the horns. Folks like Ted, or folks with more of a road background, have gotten so used to conserving energy over the course of a long single-day race or even in stage-race formats, it’s all about conserving energy. That could be a skill that they’re better at that I need to work on.
VN: Well, we’re excited to see how it goes for you.
PM: Yeah, I’m stoked!
This interview was edited for clarity.