Talk to anyone who knows Breckenridge cyclist Taylor Shelden " his father, his teammates, his coaches, even Shelden himself " and one trait always comes up.
Nothing freaks him out.
Minutes before a big race, he walks around calm as when he woke up. His face is plain, his blood pressure almost unimaginably low. Everyone marvels at this ability, and how it continues right through the competition and often to the podium afterwards.
"I think that's why he has done so well," says Kevin Soller, who grew up with Shelden in Breckenridge and has raced with and against him in regional and national competitions for five years.
So you can imagine what it must have taken to tie Shelden's insides tight like a twine ball last month.
It was only a casual ride, no pressure to go fast. That's what Shelden kept reminding himself. But he knew an opportunity when he had one.
Casual or not, this was a one-on-one tryout with Jonathan Vaughters, Lance Armstrong's former teammate and now the architect and founder of the Garmin-Chipotle cycling franchise, one of the hottest in professional bike racing.
As Shelden put it later, "I was hoping something was going to happen."
It did. Two days after their hourlong pedal through downtown Denver, Vaughters e-mailed Shelden and asked if he'd be interested in joining Garmin-Chipotle's under-23 development team.
The money wouldn't be much, but it would be some, and most importantly, he'd be one of nine riders training one rung below Garmin's 27-man pro team " which competes in the biggest bike races in the world, including the Tour de France.
(Garmin's Christian Vande Velde took fifth at the Tour this year.)
For a 21-year-old college senior who had been racing only four years, the offer presented an improbable opening " one Shelden happily accepted.
Explaining the relationship between Garmin's U-23 team and its pro team, Vaughters said: "If we don't think he's got a shot at making the pro team, we won't sign him."
The interview itself materialized 12 days earlier, during a random conversation on a Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Denver.
Shelden's club team director, Scott Glasscock of Rio Grande Cycling, had been flying home from Interbike, the annual industry soiree, when he noticed Vaughters sitting alone reading a magazine.
He sat down next to Vaughters, unabashed, like a Division II football coach sidling up alongside Mike Shanahan. Two rows ahead of them sat disgraced Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton.
They began chatting. Before long the topic turned to the architecture of Vaughters' team, a Colorado-based squad whose revolutionary anti-doping stance has made it the most talked-about franchise in cycling.
"We're a team of time trialists," Vaughters told Glasscock. "A lot of teams have climbers or sprinters, but we build our team around time trialing."
Glasscock mentioned that he'd heard Olympic track cyclist Taylor Phinney, an 18-
year-old prodigy from Boulder, was leaving Vaughters' under-23 development team to train and race under Armstrong's watch. He wondered if Vaughters might be looking for a rider to replace Phinney on his U-23 team.
Maybe, Vaughters said.
"Well, I've got a kid on my team named Taylor Shelden," Glasscock said. "You should look at him."
Vaughters, no stranger to such pitches, retorted dismissively: "Why?"
Glasscock told him Shelden, a senior at the University of Denver, had finished third in the time trial at this year's U-23 national championships. Said he had a big engine, one that hadn't been fully tapped.
"But what really perked up my ears," Vaughters recalled, "is he said (Shelden) also races cross country skis in the winter and he's going to school full time."
Intrigued by the overall package, Vaughters gave Glasscock his card. "Send me his
contact info," he said.
Exactly two weeks later, Vaughters offered Shelden a contract. He liked Shelden's time-trialing abilities and his youth, but it was something else, he said, something subtle, that caught his eye that day in Denver.
"His form on the bike, he's very efficient looking and smooth, and he's got a good build," Vaughters said. "From an experienced cycling perspective, he looks like he's generally got the gift. It's hard to describe. In Europe they'd say he rides with class. If you've been around cycling long enough, you can tell."
To understand why this deal represents such an unusual occurrence, it helps to know that Shelden, the oldest of four brothers, spent the first 17 years of his life barely aware that road biking existed.
He was born in Orange County, Calif., to a pair of blonde, athletic Southern Californians, Kevin and Stacy. He always wanted to be a good athlete.
"But I remember, he was just awful at ball sports," Kevin said.
The family moved to Breckenridge in 1992. Shelden started mountain biking at age 15 in Maverick Sports' junior league, but didn't begin riding (or racing) a road bike for another two years.
The same year he discovered mountain biking, he picked up Nordic skiing. By his senior year at the Vail Mountain School, he was standing on the podium at the state championships in both Nordic disciplines, skate and classic.
He began turning heads on his bike just as quickly. A decent development team in Vail, CenturyTel, picked him up at 17. He finished better than expected at junior nationals the following year, and suddenly people began wondering whether he could be the first cyclist to make it big from Summit County, the way so many young ski racers have.
Yet despite his promise, Shelden refused to abandon his other love.
He made DU's Nordic team, one of the best in the nation, as an unrecruited freshman.
Head coach Dave Stewart, an assistant at the time, remembers the first day he saw Shelden on roller skis - stumbling around, flailing, his technique horrific.
"And then we get to our first race, and all of a sudden he's passing our top guys, guys who've been on the podium at NCAAs," Stewart said.
Last year, when DU won the national championship, Shelden regularly finished in
the top 15. He beat at least a dozen racers on full scholarships every time he did.
This year, Shelden - who is majoring in mechanical engineering, "the study of lots of moving parts," he says - will only race the first half of the college Nordic season, forgoing a chance to help DU defend its national title.
He made the decision to allow for an optimal cycling season " and because his goals demand such commitment.
Topping his list next season is to win the U-23 time trial national championship. Two that he keeps in the "long-term" category: Race in a Grand Tour in Europe, and represent the United States in the Olympics.
For someone who takes his abilities so seriously, Shelden is nonetheless able to hide a sense of humor under his lycra.
Take, for instance, this post on the Rio Grande Cycling website, where he recounted his experience racing against Floyd Landis on fat tires at the 2007 Teva Mountain Games.
"Floyd attempted to ride a nasty 180 degree turn over some slippery roots, and was promptly falling off his bike. In an epic moment of glory I bunny-hopped over his body. Well, not really. He told me that, 'I shouldn't have tried that, that was dumb, go ahead.' In my excitement, I left out a thank you and simply showed him my back wheel."
On a serious note, it was no accident Shelden passed Landis that day. In addition to working harder than most of his opponents, he also has been blessed with lungs like balloons.
His VO2 max - a measure of one's aerobic capacity - tested out at 82.1 this past January, more than double that of an average male his age and not far off the highest recorded by a human being (94).
Shelden's build - he stands 6 feet, _ inch tall and weighs 154 pounds, with five percent body fat - is slightly smaller than Lance Armstrong's but thicker than 2008 Tour champ Carlos Sastre's.
What's more, he has nearly tripled his training load the past four years.
All of which leads Vaughters to believe Shelden's "trajectory" might break the mold for an elite cyclist of a similar age.
Even the best European prospects - most of whom began cycling far earlier than Shelden - generally have only three or four percent of upward swing left in them by this time, Vaughters said. Shelden, he said, could have 10 percent, maybe more.
Shelden won't make much money next season, which he'll split between racing domestically and in Europe. But if he makes good on Vaughters' hunch, he could eventually earn a nice living " mid-level riders make about $100,000 a year, and the top racers bring in about $2 million.
Shelden knows that carrot exists. He's also 21 years old, keeping variables like trajectory and VO2 max in their proper perspective, doing his best not to get greedy.
"If I could get paid to ride my bike and not have to get a real job," he said, "that'd be the ultimate."
Devon O'Neil is a freelance writer in Breckenridge.