How Van Life Gives This National Champion an Edge Over the Competition

Payson McElveen, a 25-year-old marathon mountain bike racer, custom built a 2017 Ford Transit with enough storage for four bikes. Now, he feels right at home at the finish line.

The USA Cycling Marathon Mountain Bike National Championships go down every year on a rugged course just shy of 50 miles that loops through rural Arkansas. Last year, everything came together perfectly for Payson McElveen, a 25-year-old racer, to take the win in a sprint across the finish line, beating his friend and competitor, Howard Grotts, by less than a second.

In early May, I caught up with McElveen at his home in Durango, Colorado, where he was packing up to defend his title in Arkansas. The course would be the same, and so would his top competitor. But this year, McElveen would be driving to the race in his van, a 2017 Ford Transit that he spent two months customizing for mountain bike racing over the winter. And Grotts would be riding shotgun.

Mountain bike racing is often perceived as unapproachable—grueling and demanding—and frankly, it is those things. But beyond the hard work, McElveen’s journey as a mountain bike racer has also been about having a good time and enjoying the moments between races. Sure, #VanLife is totally Instagram circa 2017. And yes, McElveen started an Instagram account for his van (@bikeandvan). But he didn’t get his Ford Transit purely for social media exposure.

“The van is the vehicle of discovery,” says Jason Sager, a former professional mountain bike racer who coached McElveen in his first years of racing. Now, Sager customizes vans for a living with his company, Van Life Designs, and he helped McElveen build his van. “The bike race is a reason to go somewhere. The van gives him a home, and a reason for everyone to come and talk to him.”

Photo Credit: Monika Leopold

Well into race season, the van has become McElveen’s very own race headquarters. He’s at the starting line early, with all his gear and bikes close by and conveniently organized. He can cook his own meals and sleep in his own bed, while also saving money he would have otherwise spent on restaurants and hotels. After the race, he can take a shower in the van’s “garage” (the back of the vehicle, where the bikes are stored) and decompress at the finish line while hanging out with other competitors and meeting spectators. On the road, the van feeds his wanderlust.

“I spent years flying to races,” says McElveen, who has competed since 2007 in competitions across the United States and beyond, in places like Mongolia and Argentina. “It’s crazy how you never even see where you are … You look out the window and you see the Grand Canyon, or I’ll fly over the Mojave Desert and it will look amazing from the plane. You’re like, ‘I want to go there.’”

When McElveen was a teenager in high school in Austin, Texas, his dad drove him to races in a 1987 Volkswagen Westfalia. “We’d load up, right after school on a Friday and drive, sometimes late into the night because Texas is huge,” says McElveen. “We’d go to the state series race, sleep in the Westfalia, wake up the next morning and, I mean, it was van life before van life was hip.”

Unfortunately, a few years ago, while parked in front of a grocery store, his dad’s VW randomly caught fire and burned to the pavement. When McElveen bought his new Ford Transit, he drove it down to Austin, where his dad taught him the skills he needed, like carpentry, wiring and plumbing, to build out the inside.

The internet is chock-full of plans, designs and DIY tips for customizing your very own digs-on-wheels. But McElveen’s needs were specific to mountain biking and racing—and bikes aren’t exactly compact. He had to be smart with design and conservative with space. He also says that most of the van life blogs tend to glorify the experience and use fish-eye lenses to make the space look bigger than it actually is. In reality, it’s a lot of work, says McElveen.

“It’s like trying to build a beautiful wooden barrel inside some crazy corrugated metal square,” he says. “So, 90 percent of the work is just problem solving. You sit there and stare at the wall and say, ‘How in the hell are we going to do this?’”

After six months of research, McElveen knew what he wanted. The bikes had to be stored inside, where they would be safe. He needed a kitchen and living area that felt big enough and welcoming to people who wanted to hang out after races. And, he wanted a king-size bed. “I needed the biggest van I could get.”

He chose the high-roof, extended Ford Transit because it has a lot of vertical wall space for shelving and cabinets. He opted out of four-wheel drive, though, because he felt a van with a lower center of gravity would drive better on the many highways ahead of him. He also says that driving off-road turns a van into a “crazy rattle trap”—no matter how meticulously you tie things down. Compared with other vans, McElveen is convinced the Ford drives better. “And they’re cheaper, to be totally honest,” he says.

Behind the front driver and passenger seats, there’s a big table with bench-style seating. Push the center part of the table down, pull cushions over it, and he has a king-size bed. “That floor plan still leaves a solid amount of kitchen space,” he says.

The bikes live in the “garage,” which is marked by a heavy duty curtain behind the bed/table/bench. McElveen measured enough space for three bikes, but somehow wound up with enough space to store four. The bikes are secured by threading the axel on the front wheel into a floor mount. He also has a showerhead and a hot-water heater in the back for a combo bike-wash-shower-dishwashing zone.

It didn’t take long for McElveen to blow through his original $5,000 budget for the custom build. (Sager estimates it can take people, on average, between $15,000 and $20,000 to build out a van, if you do it yourself.) But the van has already proved itself as a home base this race season. In April, McElveen took the van and looped three events out west into one trip: a stage race in Moab, Utah; the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California; and another race in Prescott, Arizona. He was home for only a few days in May before pulling onto the highway once more, this time bound for Arkansas. Grotts caught a ride with him.

Photo Credit: Monika Leopold

This year at the USA Cycling Marathon Mountain Bike National Championships in Arkansas, Grotts blasted out of the start as fast as he could go and never eased up on the pace. “I felt like he was just dragging me around by the scruff of the neck all day,” says McElveen. “It was pure survival for me. If I can make it to the finish line, I know I can outsprint him. But it was just hanging tough.” McElveen dug deep for the three hours, 12 minutes, 55 seconds and 29 hundredths of a second it took him to complete the race. In a storybook sprint at the finish line that mirrored last year, he beat Grotts by half a second and won the championship for the second year in a row.

The day after the race, Grotts and McElveen took the van to northeast Arkansas to pre-ride another course they will race later in the year. “We took the scenic route,” says McElveen. “The race was really memorable. But once I hang it up and I’m not racing anymore, those sort of road trip memories and the crazy sunset that we saw are the things we’ll remember the most.”