USA Pro Challenge: Summit County’s Taylor Shelden makes debut in top cycling event | SummitDaily.com

USA Pro Challenge: Summit County’s Taylor Shelden makes debut in top cycling event

In 2001, Taylor Shelden entered his first official bike event at 14 years old, the storied Fall Classic mountain bike race held on the trails in his backyard of Breckenridge.

And, almost no one knew that he finished. Almost.

Somehow, longtime event organizer Jeff Westcott forgot to announce the junior field at the post-race awards ceremony. He and his crew were packing up, ready to head out for a bite and beers, when he felt a tug on his sleeve. It was Shelden, "just the quietest, nicest kid," reminding Westcott that he hadn't yet announced the youngest group of finishers.

"By then, we were done," remembered Westcott, owner of Maverick Sports and a fixture in the Summit biking scene for decades. "I mean, we were ready to leave — everyone was filing out. But, just as the crowd was about to disperse, we did a fast awards presentation, and so he got dully recognized."

The 2001 awards-ceremony-that-almost-wasn't is his earliest memory of Shelden: Quiet, polite, a bit on the lanky side. But, he knew the kid was special from the start. Shelden joined the local MTB junior league the next year and, shortly after falling in love with bikes, began training and racing on the road with two close friends, Walker Savage and Kevin Soller.

Westcott — something of a godfather-mentor for young Summit cyclists — remembers them as a trio of driven, hard-working athletes, even in their early teens. They thrived on the sort of friendly competition found in the Rockies. They pushed each other in high-pressure races and on casual weekend rides. They went back and forth in the local race series standings, sometimes struggling to reach the top-10, other times sweeping the podium handily.

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But, all three were better athletes because they simply loved the sport of cycling.

"My impression of Taylor as a human being is that he's just together," Westcott said. "He's solid. He and those two other boys were all into road cycling, and they were extraordinarily good for each other, as in without each other, I don't think any of them would have made it to the level they did."

In 2015, some 14 years after Shelden almost wasn't recognized for simply finishing a race, he's back in his hometown as the first Summit native to start in the USA Pro Challenge. It's the largest cycling event on U.S. soil and by far the largest sporting event in Colorado. It's also the largest start in his 6-year professional career — and four of seven stages take place in his childhood backyard.

"I can't wait to race through Breckenridge," Sheldon said a day or two before starting Stage 1 in Steamboat Springs on Aug. 17. "I've done quite a bit of riding on the mountain bike, but to do it on the road bike will be incredible. We race through Summit so many times this year that it almost becomes a tour of Summit, not just a tour of Colorado. This couldn't have worked out better."

Nordic vs. cycling

Like many Summit County athletes, young Shelden was more attracted to outdoor sports than their traditional counterparts like football and basketball and baseball. It began with that first Fall Classic and carried through to his high school career at Vail Mountain School, where he joined the Nordic team as a freshman. He's a natural endurance athlete, the sort who prefers aerobic punishment to ball handling, but it took at least two years of constant work with Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy Nordic director Dan Wieland to tap his potential.

"He was a little awkward as a young athlete," he said. "It took Taylor time to grow into his body, but he had potential from the start. There are kids who show signs early on, even when they were awkward, and he had those genetics gifts right away."

It only helps that Shelden was born into a prototypical mountain family. His father, Kevin, still competes in the bi-monthly mountain bike series and high-profile events like the Firecracker 50 and Breck Epic.

"The key for him was he enjoyed all of it," Kevin Shelden said. "It was never like, 'I have to go out and train because that's what I need.' He just enjoyed going out to bike and ski."

Shelden's brothers — there are three — all joined the junior league and went on to ski for VSSA, just like Taylor. He's the oldest of the Shelden brood, an athletic role model for three equally athletic brothers, but both Wieland and Westcott agree that the apples didn't fall far from the tree.

"A lot of it (his success) has to do with grit," said Wieland, who has been an athletic mentor for Shelden over the past decade. "His parents instilled that in him, and you see that in a lot of top athletes — the parents start it, and the athletes finish it off. Again, he wasn't the prettiest skier, the most graceful skier, but, when he put his head down, he could push hard."

Or, as Westcott puts it, "When you live in Summit County and your dad is a bad***, it kind of rubs off."

At times, Shelden's drive looked more like masochism. He finally grew into his body as a high school junior, and, by then, his athletic roster was packed: Nordic in the fall and winter, road cycling in the spring and summer. The two are similar in many ways — stamina over sprinting, pure aerobic drive over flashes of athleticism — but, by the time he made the University of Denver Nordic squad, he had to choose between Division I skiing, a burgeoning cycling career and an engineering degree.

In 2009, he stepped away from Nordic and school for a season to focus on cycling. He promised his coach, Dave Stewart, that he'd return to finish his degree at some point. Stewart believed him, and, after a season away, Shelden earned a degree while bouncing from team to team on the cycling circuit.

"He did not take an easy road, but he understood how to handle his athletics," Stewart said. "Growing up in Breckenridge, he had a passion to get outside, run around the woods, bike around the roads in summer and ski on the hills in winter. It was an intrinsic thing for him, not about the results on the page. It's about enjoying the social aspects, the athletic aspects, the getting out there every day."

The road back home

Navigating personal athletics is one thing — navigating the world of professional athletics is an entirely different beast. Early in his career, he leaned heavily on Wieland when trying to court cycling teams and sponsors. Wieland is a veteran endurance pro who once claimed Nike as a sponsor, and, when Shelden opted to pursue road over snow, his former Nordic coach became a sort of career mentor.

"It's just a difficult sport for various reasons — the funding, the money, the staff," Kevin Shelden said. "You'll have a team collapse under you and then you're scrambling to find something new. It's a very nebulous thing, how these teams find their funding. There are a few big teams, and everyone else is fighting for scraps."

In six years as a professional, Shelden was on three different teams before signing to Jelly Belly-Maxxis before the start of this season. His last team, 5-Hour Energy, fell apart unexpectedly at the end of last season, leaving him without a team. At the same time, he was getting older, and, like all professional sports, the window for opportunity shrinks every year without eye-catching results. He also suffered a brutal crash at the 2010 Cascade Classic and was airlifted off the course.

"He looked like a piece of hamburger after that," Kevin Shelden said. It was an early reality check: Cycling is not for the faint of heart or spirit. Four year later, when 5-Hour Energy folded, Shelden even considered leaving the sport.

"I was a little surprised to hear that he made the Pro Challenge this year," Wieland said. "Talking with him last year, it sounded like he was leaning toward retirement, getting into the real world.

But, Shelden couldn't pass up the opportunity to race through his hometown. He's a time trial specialist, known for powering through pain, and, with the debut of the Breckenridge time trial on a grueling Moonstone Road, he'll have the chance to do something no Summit local has ever done: Take an international win on his childhood street. He grew up on Moonstone, where his dad, mom, brothers, Westcott and thousands more will line the forested road to cheer him on.

"I would like to see him do something special and use that hometown energy to his advantage," Westcott said. "With the Pro Challenge right here, in his backyard, he might be able to get away and do something special. You never know."

Taylor Shelden highlights

At 27 years old, Taylor Shelden has been on the professional race circuit for nearly 6 years. Here’s a quick look at his accolades heading into his first-ever USA Pro Challenge:

Current Colorado state timetrial champion

KOM climber’s jersey, 2012 Tour of Redlands

Winner, 2010 Tour of Bahamas

Third place, U-23 Nationals time trial

Second place, U-18 Nationals time trial