The Lifer: The extraordinary story of a somewhat ordinary bike racer
Don’t feel bad if his name doesn’t ring a bell. His biggest win came at a race you’ve probably never heard of. His greatest strength was not sprinting or climbing or time trialing.
His greatest strength was helping other people — helping them to win or fall in love with bike racing.
The man with the long blonde hair has been racing bicycles at a high level for more than 30 years but never got the kind of results that lead to fame or six-figure contracts or profiles in glossy magazines. He never made the European racing circuit or won a national title. He is considerably faster than almost all of us will ever be, but he was not quite fast enough to meet the conventional standards of success for a pro cyclist.
But if you invest 10 minutes in this story, you might not forget Bill Elliston’s name.
And maybe you’ll come to see how Elliston represents much that is pure and good in the sport of bike racing, a sport with a shortfall of pure goodness in the modern era. This is a story of unglamorous toil, a journey of painful and rewarding discovery, a reminder of how beautifully the bicycle can help define our lives.
This is the story of a lifer.
Riding, racing, and escaping
Fittingly, the journey began with a paper route. Elliston was 12 and living in the small Pennsylvania city of Easton, the longtime home of Crayola crayons and Lafayette College. The family home was in the steep and leafy College Hill neighborhood, and delivering newspapers on foot was slow. Elliston convinced his folks to buy him a bicycle.
That’s how he got the Concord, a steel 10-speed with Suntour components. He outfitted it with baskets and loaded them up with newspapers and grinded through the hilly neighborhood. “I had to walk the bike up certain roads at first,” Elliston, now 49, recalls. “I was just a skinny little punk. But I stuck with it and got stronger.”
Even then, he had a pronounced fascination with racing. His mom had a friend whose son was a bike racer, and he took a 13-year-old Elliston out for a couple of rides. “He was a lot older than me but he showed me the ropes, taught me a little about training and pacelining,” Elliston says. He started hanging out with two kids his age who were into bike racing. He couldn’t stop thinking about it.
In the spring of 1984, Elliston persuaded his mom to spring for a racing license. But he was so nervous about taking the leap that he didn’t race that first year. He didn’t even tell his two cycling buddies that he’d gotten a license. For a guy who’d wind up doing thousands of races, that’s pretty funny.
Elliston kept riding, and dreaming about racing.
He took the leap the following March, pinning on a number for the first time for a training race in Berwick that was held on an auto test track. Although there was a shorter and slower B race, Elliston lined up for the 30-mile A race. “I went into that race feeling so confident but I got spit out of the back after 15 laps,” he says. “I was temporarily upset that I’d gotten dropped — I remember chucking my helmet to the ground — but I was hooked.”
This region of eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey was a hotbed of bike racing, a place where a motivated teenager could hit two races every weekend within an hour’s drive from home. That first year, Elliston did maybe 20 races, and he did a lot more the next year, and even more the year after that. He never won a race as a junior but he kept plugging away, training harder and racing more.
Riding was becoming Elliston’s passion, but it also was his escape. Life at home was unpleasant and stressful. His father had suffered a serious stroke and was paralyzed on one side. The teenager spent hours helping his dad get around the house. He was 14 and helping his father go to the bathroom. Then his older sister got pregnant and he started pulling bad grades and things just kept going downhill.
“Home life wasn’t deplorable, but it wasn’t good,” Elliston says with little drama. “My parents seemed increasingly bitter and depressed. There was a part of me that wanted to escape and there was a part that wanted to say fuck you.”
Long training rides and frequent weekend races were an excellent way to escape. He had hours to pedal through his anger, daily opportunities to find peace and camaraderie. He would run home from school, throw his backpack on the floor, jump on his bike, and ride until dark. Struggling to find his place at home and in school, he dropped out of high school just months before his graduation.
“I was naïve and wanting to lash out at my parents,” he says. “I needed something and bike racing seemed to give it to me.”
A young Bill Elliston threw himself into the sport of cycling and found moderate success. His first race win, a criterium in Newark, Delaware, came at the age of 18. The next year, he made his first trip westward to race at the prestigious crit series called Superweek. “I never even sniffed the front of the races out there,” he says, recalling competing against sprint talents from the dominant 7-Eleven and Chevrolet-L.A. Sheriff squads. “But I could hang, and see that I was improving.”
The breakthrough came in 1990. Along with a small local team, Elliston, then 20, went down to Gainesville, Florida, for some hard winter training and the start of the national racing calendar. He was hanging out and riding with national-class talents like Charlie Issendorf, Christian Young, and Rich Hincapie (whose younger brother George was still in school).
Adam Myerson, another bike racer in the lifer mold, remembers meeting Elliston early that season. They both had breakthrough performances at the prestigious Ocala Road Race, an 85-mile event that marked the start of the National Racing Calendar. In a field full of big-name talent, both Elliston and Myerson finished in the top five, and a friendship was born. Interestingly, both men recall the other guy finishing right in front of him. (Thankfully, I could not find results to the 1990 Ocala Road Race to confirm whose memory is correct.)
“He was this stylish punk-rock kid from New England and I was this straight-laced kid from PA,” says Elliston. “Neither one of us knew then that we’d wind up doing more than a thousand races together.”
This began the start of an annual barnstorming ritual that was popular at the time among top domestic road racers, heading down to Florida in the winter and then following big-money races northward until the Tour of Somerville in New Jersey on Memorial Day weekend. Elliston wasn’t a pro yet but he was racing with pros, some of whom — like the younger Hincapie and Tyler Hamilton — would go on to fame in Europe.
“He was one of those guys sleeping in their cars and living off prize money,” says Myerson, who says Elliston quickly evolved in a rider who always seemed to be sitting near the front of the race. “He was one of those guys who wasn’t likely to win the race but always seemed to be top 10. He was so consistent, such a good bike handler.”
As a young man, Elliston remembers seeing older guys like Paul Curley (who has more than 25 national titles and is still racing today in his sixties) at these races, still living the same lifestyle he was, and making jokes with his buddies that they’d better be someplace different at that age. Elliston didn’t know then how much he’d go on to emulate guys like Curley and Steve Tilford, who tragically died last April. Elliston was young and still didn’t know shit. “I didn’t know I was destined to be a lifer in the sport,” he admits. “I hadn’t been enlightened, and wouldn’t be for some time.”
Bill Elliston got his first pro contract, with the Navigators squad, in 1994. “I earned exactly zero dollars,” he laughs, recalling how he borrowed “a decent chunk of money” from his mom to make the lifestyle work. He had finished in the money at big races like Somerville, but the pro lifestyle wasn’t exactly easy. That first year would turn out to the only one in his professional career in which he didn’t have another job to help make ends meet. He delivered pizzas for Domino’s for four or five years, and then got into carpentry and construction.
During a long interview, Elliston spends at least an hour offering a blow-by-blow, year-by-year account of his professional cycling career. It is a rollercoaster of highs and lows — good years and bad years, unexpected opportunities and broken promises, shiny new race bikes and low-ball job offers. One year, after a team refused to pay him, he rode as a privateer, a free-agent professional.
Among the quality teams Elliston rode for was the Rite Aid squad in 2007. It was a scrappy squad full of regional studs that had a genuine closer in Argentinian Alejandro Borrajo, a sprinter who had podiumed in a stage of the Giro d’Italia and could win field sprints in top domestic races. “It was super motivating to ride for Borrajo,” Elliston recalls. “I was a real player in these races with bigger teams. Suddenly certain guys stopped trying to shove me off my lines.”
In the long years between his first contract and his retirement, Elliston came to discover his role in the domestic pro peloton as a gifted workhorse — the kind of guy who helps other people win bike races, a rider with the diesel engine and the tactical mind and especially the selfless attitude to put a teammate in the position to post up at the finish line.
“There were so many races where he rode up front all day to pull back the break,” Myerson says. “So many crits where he dropped out with one lap to go because his work was finally done. There are actually not a lot of really good bike racers who aren’t afraid to bury themselves that deeply.”
Elliston is not the kind of person to talk lyrically about himself. “Yeah, I’ve never been afraid to suffer,” he says simply. “One of the reasons I love bike racing is how it gives you a chance to see and prove what you have on the day.”
Elliston’s final year as a paid cyclist came with the Rite Aid squad in 2008. At the age of 40, he was the oldest licensed pro in the United States. “I don’t know what to say about that,” he says. “I wanted to keep racing.”
The Cyclocross Racer
Three-time U.S. national cyclocross champion Tim Johnson says real bike racers don’t focus on one discipline. “Real cyclists ride more than one kind of bike,” he says. “Bill is the real deal. He is a lifer, and he has shared and spread that ideal in real and authentic ways.”
Johnson says Elliston, and a handful of other top regional talents in that generation, played a critical role in helping lay the groundwork for the long-term success of cyclocross in the United States. Over the past two decades, cyclocross evolved from a regional cult favorite to a broad-based participation sport. There’s been an actual transformation.
“I think lots of people racing cyclocross in New England or the Mid-Atlantic region in the last 20 years would be able to place Bill in nearly any race story, real or imagined,” says Johnson. “There would always be the young punks here and there, like me, who were faster, but it was local heroes like Bill—who battled hard and committed to attending races and became deeply part of the community—who spread wide what CX was all about. They made people care about the storylines in the sport beyond a national championship at the end of the season.”
Elliston’s strengths are well suited to cyclocross. “He’s agile, he’s got skills, he can run, he’s got a big motor,” says Myerson. “There are not that many old guys who can do that and churn out four watts per kilogram. That takes talent and work.”
Racing against the likes of Myerson and Johnson — and virtually every top cyclocross talent the United States has produced in the past 15 years — Elliston was one of those guys who would always show up and compete, always on the lead lap, usually in the top 10. Though sheer consistency, he beat Johnson and other bigger names to win the season title in the Mid-Atlantic Cross (MAC) series in 1999 and again in 2000, a time when the sport was beginning to explode in popularity.
These days, racing for the Van Dessel Factory Team, Elliston competes in regional Open Pro-1-2 races. He’s not a fan of age-group racing. “I like to race young guys and try and beat up on them,” he says. An exception is at ’cross nationals, where these days he mixes it up with other age-group beasts. In the past four years, he’s twice finished in the top 10 in his age group (and no worse than 16th). Elliston says that his idea of a perfect Saturday is to empty himself in effort for an hour and then sit with his team in the parking lot and share laughs and a couple of beers. He says he loves to clean his bike after a race, too.
But Elliston’s legacy can’t be defined by podium places. “Sometimes Bill lined up in big domestic races as a local hero and won,” says Johnson. “But he also raced his heart out in international-level races where he usually was an also-ran. That could be tough on many athlete’s psyches. But it never seemed to be an issue for Bill. He truly seemed to love to race whether he won or came in 40th.”
“Bill raced at a high level but he has always understood that he could do more than just line up, he understood he could give something back,” Johnson continues. “I have such clear memories of Bill — seeing him an hour before he’d go get suited up to race, walking the course and hammering stakes. He was setting an example without really trying.”
The Fall and the Rise
Elliston cannot at first pinpoint the moment when he realized he was a lifer. But he certainly wasn’t one in October 1998, that much is certain.
It was a lovely fall day and he out riding a fixed-gear bike out on a rural farm road in Pennsylvania. He was spinning down a hill when the squirrel ran out into the street and into his front wheel, and the next thing Elliston knew, he was tumbling headfirst over the handlebar. “I learned that concrete is much harder than asphalt,” he says.
Elliston fractured his skull behind his ear and wound up permanently losing 70% of his hearing in one year. He was out of the hospital after a few days but his life situation was completely up in the air. He didn’t have a contract for the following season. He didn’t have a college degree or an alternative profession. He was a bike racer. And now he was a married, unemployed bike racer with a cracked skull.
He had started taking college classes a year earlier with aspirations of joining the FBI, but eventually an agent told him the FBI wouldn’t likely give him a good look until he had a master’s degree. After he confirmed this was true, he dropped all his college coursework. “It would have taken me 10 or 12 years the way I was going,” Elliston says. “I just wasn’t in the situation to make that choice.”
So he started doing construction projects — decorative fences, home additions, and so on. He kept on with bike racing, maybe 15 or 20 events a year, still racing with pros, but spent most of his time swinging a hammer. “I fucking hated it,” Elliston admits. “It wasn’t that fulfilling and I was really trashing my body.”
His attempt to maintain this unhappy balance finally tipped in 2004. He remembers working a job, building a fence in North Jersey, on Labor Day weekend when he heard the sound of freewheels and laughing voices. He peered over his work and saw some riding buddies of his in full kit, warming up for a bike race at a nearby AT&T office park. “I just stood there and realized that I was on the wrong side of that fence,” Elliston says. “I told myself I was going to get back on the bike full time and figure it out. I think I actually quit the next day.”
Fortunately for Elliston, the results were coming. In August of that year he finished second in the Mengoni Grand Prix, a regionally prestigious event held in New York’s Central Park. In a field full of pros, he made the break, and when a Dominican named Melito Heredia riding for a local team attacked with ten miles to go, Elliston was the only one who got across.
Elliston knew that something was not normal — keep in mind it was 2004 — and he turned himself inside out to hold the wheel. “That guy did 31 miles per hour over every roller in Central Park. I didn’t even take a pull,” he recalls. Heredia would test positive for EPO the following year after winning the Univest Grand Prix on a 24-mile solo effort.
Elliston chooses to look at the positives of that second place. “I knew right then that I could do this,” he says. “I knew that it would help me get a job racing bikes.” He was right.
The Clean Break
It would be challenging to contextualize the career of a man who raced as a professional cyclist from 1994 to 2008 without asking about performance-enhancing drugs. So I ask Elliston about performance-enhancing drugs.
He recounts a moment in which a coach brought up the topic in the latter half of his career. He was alone with the coach in a car— they’d just dropped off a teammate at home — when the question came. “He just asked me if I wanted some help to get better,” Elliston says. “I knew exactly what he meant. I had this small hesitation, maybe it lasted five seconds. And then I said ‘No man, I’m good.’”
Elliston is philosophical about the whole doping issue. He’s happy about his response and the choices he made, but he’s far from strident. “I understand how people might have made the wrong decision, and I’m aware that I might have made a different decision if that five seconds had come in a different moment in my life,” he says. “It’s a fucking mistake and people make mistakes, you know? People can make a million good decisions and then get behind the wheel one night after having one too many beers at a bar. All I can say is that I’m glad I made the right call and at the end of the day, the people who made that mistake have to live with it.”
Elliston says he knew early on that he wasn’t destined to race Paris-Roubaix no matter what choices he made. And though he just spent an hour detailing a 15-year struggle to find his place within the sport he loved, Elliston seems understandably reluctant to articulate how other racers’ cheating or bad decisions impacted his career. He’s a glass-half-full kind of guy. He’s someone who looks back on his second place in a big race won by a doper as a fruitful resume builder.
Of course, other racers seem willing to put into words what Elliston will not. “The guys at the top, they still don’t understand,” says Myerson, taking aim at WorldTour racers who don’t see how their choices trickled down to impact blue-collar domestic pros like Elliston. “There’s a whole food chain of guys taking jobs from other guys. It affected how much prize money he won, jobs he got and didn’t get, the visibility he got. Every good crit squad needs someone like him, and yet sometimes someone undeserving got that $30,000 job. And it’s still happening. Every time some U.S. team hires Paco [Mancebo], that takes a spot from some young Bill Elliston. That’s how shit works.”
Tim Johnson agrees with Myerson’s assessment. “People tend to make doper-to-doper comparisons when comparing Tour winners and asterisks,” he says. “But at this level, winning prize money is what pays for gas and reinforces the reasons to attend the big races. In domestic racing, the trickle-down effects of doping are really about missed opportunities. Getting into a break and then getting split off near the end can be a direct effect, but it’s more about being anonymous and not being noticed or needed by the bigger pro teams. It’s hard to truly quantify, but it’s real.”
From time to time Elliston runs into guys he raced against back in the day— guys who had talent and made choices and went to Europe and well, you know. He’s bumped into Tyler Hamilton and crossed paths with George Hincapie. He just refuses to indulge the nugget of injustice that’s buried inside of him. “I try not to get bitter about those days,” he says. “It’s just a small part of my racing experience and the larger part has been good to me.”
Who knows what Elliston might have accomplished on a level playing field? The answer is that no one knows. In perfect world, Myerson says, Elliston would have found his niche in Europe. “I imagine he would been a great kermesse rider,” he says. “Windy, hard four-hour crits in Belgium? I’m telling you, Bill would have killed that.”
The Victory Salute
Though this is a story about an eternally strong lunchpail bike racer — the guy who worked for the sprinter who won the big crit, the guy who made the break and finished third, the guy who finished in the money more times than you can count — there is a moment of raw triumph.
In 2005, someone talked Elliston to traveling down to Belize to participate in the Cross Country Cycling Classic. The 142-mile race, held annually during the Easter holiday, is the most important sporting event in cycling-crazy Belize, one of these regionally famous bike races that you’ve likely never heard of.
Competitors ride on a main road west out of the capital of Belize City until they reach a town near the Guatemalan border and then turn around and head back. In typical conditions, racers get a crosswind in both directions. The race ends at a big stadium with a lap on a half on a running track. In short, the event is like Gent-Wevelgem meets Breaking Away meets Paris-Roubaix, set in Central America.
On that spring day in 2005, all eyes were focused on two-time defending champion Chris Harkey. As the field turned back toward Belize City, Harkey’s teammates went to the front and throttled the pace and guttered the pack until there were only 20 guys left. Elliston was one of them.
The attacks kept flying, and with a few miles to go there were only a handful of guys left. Elliston was still one of them.
As they entered the track, Elliston and Harkey had a small gap, with a few riders about 10 seconds behind. Elliston had a teammate in that chase group, a guy with better sprinting credentials, and so he sat on, hoping it would come back together and he could play his usual card — to help someone else win a big race.
But it didn’t play out that way. With 200 meters to go a Belizean rider and a teammate got across and then they arced the final turn toward the line into a headwind and Elliston just decided to launch.
In the photo, Elliston has crossed the line with a 10 or 12 bike-length gap. His hands are off the bar but not aloft. He is smiling and his fists are clenched.
Elliston fell in love with racing in Belize and has returned many times. “When I go back, people actually call me ‘champ,’” he says. “That’s what they call everyone who’s won that race. It takes some getting used to, people calling me champ.”
Elliston says he’s signed up for the event next Easter. If he somehow triumphed, 13 years after his big win, he’d be the oldest champ in the 90-year history of the event. It won’t be easy. Recent winners include U.S. domestic pro Justin Williams (who is Belizean-American and whose father won the event three times in the early 80s). “I’m training hard for that,” Elliston says. “You never know with a bike race like that.”
The Training Partner
The first time I saw the guy with the long blonde hair he was in a three-man break that was never coming back. It was maybe 15 years ago. Elliston was smashing it with a future Olympian and an ageless racing legend as a large pack stacked with domestic pros and elite track racers and trusty masters and spunky Cat 2s chased in futility. This was hardly a prestige event; it was a meaningless weekly training crit with pizza vouchers as the grand prize. But still, it was a bike race and the guy with the long blonde hair loved bike races.
The veteran in the trio was Paul “The Animal” Pearson, another lifer who had raced six days and the Red Zinger and won Somerville and was still ripping people’s legs off in his fifties. The young guy pulling through was Bobby Lea, a local kid who already had been fast for a long time. He’d go on to win more than 40 national championships, mostly on the track, and represent the United States at three Olympic Games.
In conversation, Lea admits that he can’t actually remember meeting Elliston. “In my memory, I’ve just always felt like he was there,” says Lea. “As long as I’ve been riding, Bill has been an elder statesman of the sport in our area. One doesn’t get a reputation like that just by being older and faster than most riders in the area— you need to have skill, experience and ability, to be likeable and willing to give back to the local cycling community.”
Like every pro I talked to for this story, Lea talked about the way Elliston freely dispenses tips — about equipment, tactics, etiquette, balancing life and sport, whatever — to young racers. Elliston has a coaching business, but he hardly reserves his hard-earned wisdom for paid clients. “He’s one of the few people who’s never afraid to pass along knowledge, he senses his responsibility to pass it on,” says Lea. “Many pros refuse to do ad hoc coaching. They’ll only offer advice if they can charge for it.”
American veteran Laura Van Gilder agrees. “Bill has vast knowledge about racing and training and has always been an open book for racers, always willing to share his knowledge and insight with you,” says the dominant American road and cyclocross racer, who first met Elliston at a race in 1991 and has been a friend ever since. “Not all racers want to or can give back to the sport— they come in and do their thing and get out. There are not many people like Bill, who has been a fierce and dedicate competitor and always an educator. This is a rare combination.”
Every pro I ask about Elliston has something to say about his skills and tactical savvy. Van Gilder notes that “Bill has so much experience tactically that his efforts in bike races can be more effective and less physically taxing because of how he can evaluate a course and his competition.”
Myerson laughs when discussing Elliston’s awareness in the pack. “I mean, I’ve done more than a thousand races with the guy,” he says. “And Bill has never chopped me once, not even inadvertently.”
Bobby Lea concurs. “I guess I know a lot of racers who can go that fast but not so many with that kind of road awareness,” says the three-time Olympian. “He sees everything in a race and he knows how to sense the rhythm of the bunch. That sounds simple, but it’s an art form.”
Lea and Elliston were teammates for one season — with Rite Aid, in 2008 — but they’ve trained and raced together for almost two decades now. Lea, who recently retired from the professional ranks himself, says when he was ramping up for the Rio Olympics, Elliston was one of the only local riders who could provide company on big training days.
Though neither collects a racing paycheck, the two still do a couple of big rides together in a typical month.
“We go out for as long as we can and go hard,” says Lea. “He’s one of the few people I can count on to go out and smash it for four or five hours. The rides start off social and then get pretty quiet as we get more fucked. The only difference between the rides we do now and those a couple years ago are that we cover a bit less ground and have upgraded from recovery shakes to beer.”
As he manages his own transition from elite racing to whatever comes next, Lea says Elliston has helped him navigate this phase of life. “Now that I am no longer racing full time and trying to find my feet again, I’ve again been leaning on his experience,’ says Lea. “Whether it’s learning how to adjust to a new rhythm of life or learning how to manage fitness on a much smaller scale, there is always something I can learn from Bill. Now it’s a return to the reason we all began riding bikes in the first place, for the pure love of it. “
Reflecting on how Elliston has shaped his outlook on cycling and life, Lea gets philosophical. “He’s just one of those rare guys, like Steve Tilford, who wind up being a bridge between generations,” he says. “He’s helped me see how it all comes down to fundamentals in life. Are you racing bikes for results or the lifestyle? This sport is just too damn hard and if you’re just in this for the results than this is just something you’ll do for a while and then move on. Bill has helped me realize that I’m a lifer, too.”
Elliston admits that it took him a long time to realize he was a lifer, and to embrace it. The picture didn’t really come into full focus until his professional riding career was over. “It was strange, the way I was struggling to put my pro identity behind me,” he says. “I was having more fun riding, and I was still racing, but it felt like something was missing.”
The racer who had once scoffed at eternal competitors like Paul Curley, middle-aged guys still vagabonding at high-level crits and ’cross races, had come to understand them. A guy who had once looked with vague wonderment at Tilford, beating the crap out of kids half his age, had become his friend and seen the lifestyle up close.
“There was a long time in which I’d look at Steve’s life and think that guy had things figured out,” says Elliston, who says he “envied” Tilford’s lifestyle without fully seeing how he could do it himself.
The lightbulb, he says, came on during a trip to New Zealand with Tilford to race the Tour of Southland. “It was just classic Steve,” says Elliston. “Racing really hard, drinking beers, shooting the shit, having fun. It made me think — what does it matter whether I’m doing this as a pro or an amateur? I’m doing this because I’m a bike racer. I’m doing this because I love this.”
As my two-hour interview with Elliston nears its conclusion, I ask him to put that love into words. “Oh man,” he groans and then pauses to think. “I love everything about bike racing. I love to train, to ride with buddies, and to do soul searching on long rides by myself. I love being on a team where the bikes match and we’ve got sharp team kit and all the bikes are perfectly clean.”
Bill Elliston has been racing bikes for 32 years, and though he has given so much to the sport he loves, it’s also clear that he gotten something profound in return.
“I love the lifestyle, the traveling circus of it all, I love to be a part of that show” says the lifer. “I love to suffer, to show up somewhere on a Saturday morning and strip myself down to my primal being. I think that’s fun.”