Q&A: Payson McElveen’s Dirty Kanza strategy involves “staying bored as long as he can”

The pro mountain biker talks with VeloNews about race strategy, how WorldTour riders might change the race dynamic, and the all-important question of aero bars.

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While Payson McElveen (Orange Seal Off-Road Racing) is better known for his mountain biking exploits, the former marathon MTB national champion has also become a contender in gravel races. He out-sprinted two-time Dirty Kanza winner Ted King to win Land Run 100 in March, then set off for Moab to set a new record on the White Rim Trail through Canyonlands National Park.

Despite recently suffering through a bronchial infection, McElveen heads to Dirty Kanza with aspirations of contending at the sharp end of the race.

VeloNews: First of all, since you are primarily a mountain biker and have many great MTB races scattered around the country to choose from, why are you racing Dirty Kanza? 

Payson McElveen: A few reasons. One, for better or worse, it’s one of the biggest off-road races in the country now. I say “for better or worse” because 200 miles is definitely out of my wheelhouse. Then again, I think that goes for most people. Only Lael Wilcox and Rebecca Rusch are like, “Oh, 200 miles, that sounds perfect for me.”

There’s also a lot of interest from sponsors for me to be there. It’s also just a cool challenge, and I want to be part of the gravel movement because it’s such a strong segment of the sport now. And Kanza is the gravel race now. You want to represent at whatever the biggest race in the discipline is.

It is a big challenge to balance the mountain bike events and the gravel events. I’m definitely a bit envious of someone like Ted King who has a small handful of major events that he’s shooting for. That sounds pretty nice and relaxing [laughs]. But there are two or three gravel races that I will not miss because that segment of cycling has become so big now.

VN: Do you foresee a time when you would transition to become more of a gravel racer?

PM: I’ve never really thought about that because I enjoy mountain biking so much now. And the sport is so healthy right now. Also, I don’t really know if anyone knows where gravel racing is going right now. It still feels like it’s in its infancy; everyone is still feeling it out, to an extent. That’s one of the reasons it’s so exciting. So I don’t want to say, “No, I’ll never transition to gravel racer,” but right now the mountain bike scene is so healthy that unless something drastic were to change, some nationwide gravel series like we have with the Epic Rides series in mountain biking, I don’t foresee any major transition at this point.

VN: Without giving all of your secrets away, what is your race strategy for DK200?

PM: I think I kind of gave it away after Land Run. The same tactic holds even truer at DK, which is “be bored as long as you can.” I don’t want to say it’s a secret to bike racing, but I feel like it’s almost a tenet of bike racing. As much as you can, be bored, until the fireworks really start. If you’re bored that means, a) you’re not working very hard, and b) you’re keeping your powder dry. I consider Land Run to be a long event at 100 miles, and certainly conserving energy is important there. And when you double it?! Pfff. You can only keep your powder so dry over 200 miles, as much as I can that’s certainly going to be a goal.

I see so many racers keeping their excitement in check, and also I think to an extent it’s an ego thing. Everybody feels good at the beginning of a bike race. Everybody. So it’s really easy to strut your stuff. When you see some of the most seasoned veterans at races — Geoff Kabush comes to mind — they just have this serenity and tranquility about them for a long time in the early stages of a race. I definitely aspire to that.

VN: How do you think the presence of more WorldTour riders — Taylor Phinney, Alex Howes, Lachlan Morton, Peter Stetina, Kiel Reijnen — will change the racing dynamic?

PM: I don’t think anyone knows. I kind of doubt they know. I’d be shocked if they had some major plan, because even though they’ve done 300-kilometer races like Milano-Sanremo, a seven-hour road race where you get to sit in is very different from Kanza. So that’s the major question. I know some of the contenders are sort of lamenting the fact that they’re showing up, but I think it’s awesome. It further validates this part of cycling, and it’s an opportunity. I race mountain bikes for a living. It’s very unusual that I get to race WorldTour roadies, so I think that’s really cool.

When it comes down to it, I could see someone like Taylor riding away from everyone six hours in and winning by 20 minutes. And I could also see all five of them not finishing. I don’t think anybody really knows how it will play out.

VN: Final question: Aero bars or no aero bars?

PM: Hell no to aero bars! [laughs] I had a funny conversation with Geoff Kabush about this. Evidently he had spoken to Ted King. Ted’s perspective is that he’s all for saying “no” to aero bars, but he also wants to win. His perspective is that if all the other contenders show up with aero bars, the way that he’s going to win is that he would also run aero bars.

I would personally love to see Ted take a stand and set an example because, in my opinion, he’s still the face of gravel on the men’s side. But I also understand that he has sponsors that he wants to make happy, and he needs to win races.

There’s a reason there’s a gap rule in triathlon, and it’s not just about wanting everyone to do a purely solo effort. It’s partly for safety reasons. When you get a whole bunch of relatively strong riders in that 20th to 50th range, and they see Ted King with aero bars, they’re going to show up with aero bars. And they’re not nearly as good as Ted King at driving a bike.

I also want to represent my sponsors well, and being successful on the results sheet is important to me. But I also want to be successful while doing it in an admirable way, and doing it by “looking good.” And, to me, aero bars just aren’t the right answer for that. But Ted is a heck of a lot more established in the gravel world than I am, so he can do whatever he wants until someone puts their foot down who gets to make rules.

At the end of the day, the aero bar thing isn’t too big of a deal to me. It’s cool just to see the groundswell of interest in gravel racing, which is growing like mountain biking did in maybe the early 1990s. But, for example, I had to completely change the way I raced at Land Run because Ted had aero bars. I knew there was no way I was going to just ride away from him. So I didn’t even consider attacking him. I knew I had to wait for a sprint because if I tried to go away on the flats late in the race, I knew he could just get in his aero bars, do the same watts that I was doing, but just go two or three miles per hour faster. For that reason it can be a little frustrating.

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