Tad Elliott knows what it feels like to get bucked off the bike, and why it’s important to get back on again.
The two-time U23 mountain-bike national champion from Durango, Colo., has been there before, essentially stepping away from a sport he loves to give everything he had to another: skiing. In 2010, U.S. Nordic Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover reportedly told him he had what it took to make the national squad, but he needed to scale back his mountain biking significantly to do so.
The son of three-time Olympic cross-country skier Mike Elliott, Tad decided to go for it. He put biking on the backburner, ramped up his offseason ski training (i.e. running, rollerskiing, weight lifting), and in 2011, made the U.S. Ski Team (USST).
Almost exactly two years later, Elliott is at another crossroads. One of three men not renamed to the USST, which was announced earlier this week (Kris Freeman and Skyler Davis are the other two), the 25-year-old Ski & Snowboard Club Vail/Team HomeGrown skier was a little stunned.
A month and a half ago at World Championships, he heard there was a possibility of him not being nominated to the 2013/2014 squad, but before an Olympic season? He tried not to overthink it and just kept plugging.
In his third of four races in Val di Fiemme, Italy, Elliott anchored the U.S. men’s team to a solid 10th-place finish in the World Championships 4×10-kilometer relay. Previously, he placed 34th in the 15 k freestyle, and two days after the relay, he was 40th in the 50 k classic mass start.
“I thought I had a pretty solid season, I scored points in Canada [finishing 28th in the World Cup skiathlon] and my sprinting got better,” Elliott said on the phone from Durango. “Especially World Champs and the relay, I thought my season was going to be good enough to be on the Ski Team.”
Just over a week ago, he received a call from his longtime coach, Jason Cork, now the USST assistant men’s coach.
“I actually wasn’t that surprised to learn that I wasn’t going to be back on the team,” Elliott said, thinking back to the initial buzz he heard about it at World Championships.
His conversations with Cork and Grover were amiable, he said, and the former B-team member announced his intentions to return.
“Even Cork said, ‘All the pieces to the puzzle are there, they just didn’t come together last year,’ ” Elliott explained.
Elliott was sick for much of the season, recovering then traveling home for a bit where illness struck again. His mom had a cold most of the winter, he said, and every time he came home, it seemed to take hold of him. Still feeling off at U.S. SuperTour Finals in early April, Elliott said he was going to get some blood work done to make sure he was on the mend.
“There were still some things good parts to last year, just want to make sure everything’s good for next year,” he said.
As for next year, the big question is: ski or mountain bike? Elliott said he didn’t give the latter much thought.
“I made the decision last year to really go in for skiing,” he said. “I didn’t really focus on the bike at all and tried to focus on skiing hoping for a great year. I did have a tough year results-wise and understood it, so I’m still gonna stay with that plan.”
Two of his biggest skiing sponsors, Salomon and Swix, told Elliott they’d stick with him. Salomon encouraged Elliott to join its factory team at some trail running races this summer, which he said would be a new experience, but he was excited about the opportunity.
In addition, he’s going to start riding again, competing in some local mountain bike races in Vail, Colo., where he’ll be based with his team, Ski & Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV)/HomeGrown.
“[My coach] Eric Pepper said, ‘You definitely need to be on the bike and having a good time. It’s something that’s made you successful in the past,’ ” Elliott said.
All he needs is a bike. When he committed to the USST two years ago, he had to give his bikes back to Specialized, his sponsor.
“I’m mountain-bike-less right now,” Elliott said with a laugh. “So that’s kind of my goal in the next week.”
Also on his radar, Elliott’s in the process of coordinating training dates with Freeman and some current USST members. When he didn’t make the team, his Vail coaches, Dan Weiland and Pepper, rose to action. They started planning on-snow camps with Noah Hoffman, Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton, all of which were renamed to the U.S. team.
Freeman and Elliott texted each other when they heard the news and resolved to meet up this summer in Colorado and the East Coast, where Freeman is based with the Maine Winter Sports Center.
“When I learned I wasn’t on the team, I was disappointed for sure, but a big part of me was relieved, too,” Elliott said. “Team HomeGrown [has] been supporting me really well for the last two seasons and the Colorado community, especially my hometown of Durango, they have all the tools in place to create successful cross-country ski racers from helping us fundraise, coaching, [and] they have really talented strength coaches.”
Knowing that he’ll be training with his former U.S. teammates comforted him as well.
“I think last year’s Ski Team men are still going to be training together this year leading into Sochi,” Elliott said. “I’m glad those guys are still friends of mine and still really want to go training. I don’t see a huge difference from my training-camp perspective.”
In terms of goals, Elliott’s still shooting for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. First, he will have to prove he’s at an international level and said it hadn’t been decided “100 percent” whether he’ll start racing domestically or on the World Cup.
“Most likely I’ll be in the U.S. and hopefully racing fast to get there,” Elliott said. “It’s the same as it was last year: you have to race fast. Wherever you are, you have to race fast so if it’s in West Yellowstone or on the World Cup, I think it’ll be apparent who’s going well and who should be on the team.”
Asked if he ever wonders what a career in mountain biking would be like, he said, “sometimes.” At the same time, he’s happy he chose skiing.
“I really enjoy the skiing lifestyle,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder, but I only wonder, I don’t really regret my decision.”
For now, Elliott said he’s committed to skiing for at least another year, probably two, and figures he’ll have time to try his hand at mountain biking later on.
“I love ski racing and if other people are racing fast on an international level with the ski team, good for them, they’ll be fun to watch,” he said. “I believe I’ll always be a skier in the U.S. having a good time, but I kind of still have mountain biking, I hope, as a card in my pocket. It seems like those guys are getting older and still racing fast so maybe someday I can go back to pro-mountain biking. I’m just keeping it open right now. We’ll see.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.