Todd Wells raced mountain bikes across two decades, reached three Olympics, won 15 national championships, two collegiate national championships and stood at the top of countless podiums in races across the globe.
Wells, 41, announced his retirement from full-time professional cycling Monday after an illustrious 22-year career. He was drawn to Colorado in 1995 from his home of Kingston, New York, by reading about world champions Juli Furtado, Ned Overend and John Tomac, who all called Durango home in the early 1990s. His heroes quickly became his competition.
Though Wells never won a world championship, he has left a legacy in American mountain biking.
“To me, Todd is probably the best guy in U.S. history for the amount of range he has,” said Overend. “He has won short-track nationals, cross-country nationals, the Leadville 100 several times. Whether it is a 20-minute race, six-hour race, a long stage race or whatever, I think for a U.S. mountain bike racer, he has the greatest range of anybody in history with the biggest diversity of titles.”
Wells won a pair of collegiate cross-country mountain bike championships at Fort Lewis College in 1995 and 1996. His first USA Cycling National Championship came in cyclo-cross in 2001, and he won three cyclo-cross national titles in his career. He also won four short-track championships – three in cross-country and five marathon national titles in a row from 2012-16.
Wells raced his first Leadville Trail 100 MTB race in 2010 and finished third. He told his wife, Meghan, that he would never do the race again. One week later, he was talking to her about what he needed to do to win; he won his first Leadville 100 the next year. He went on to win three Leadville 100 races and became the top U.S. rider in the marathon distance for the next six years. Any time Wells faced a challenge, he found a way to conquer it.
“He didn’t transition into those longer races until after the first Leadville,” Meghan said. “He said he was never doing the race again, and the next week, he’s telling me about going to altitude, training in Silverton and doing all these long rides. Everything kind of ramped up after 2010 with longer rides, sleeping in altitude tents, everything.
“Todd will be the person who says he is average at everything. He’s not average at anything. Clearly, he hasn’t been average in cycling. He gives 100 percent to everything he does.”
Wells was fifth at this year’s marathon nationals and was second in the Leadville 100 to Durango’s Howard Grotts, who grew up with Wells as a role model. He also was fourth at cross-country and short-track nationals in 2017. Wells can still compete at the highest level with the young stars such as Grotts, and that makes retirement a little but tougher.
“You always want to go out when you’re still good, but at the same time, I can’t keep doing this,” Wells said. “You make the decision, but one of the great things about cycling is that I’m retiring from cashing a check and making this my career and living, but it’s a sport I can still do a couple of races a year and still participate. It’s not like football where once you’re done, you’re completely done. This sport is more of a lifestyle and makes it easier. I will ride my bike every day the rest of my life.”
Life-long cyclistWells got his start in BMX biking at age 5 but never had promising results. He discovered mountain biking in 1993 during his senior year of high school and quickly gravitated to the sport. He rode his bicycle every day as a kid, finally finding a venue in which his skills shined. When he got to Durango and discovered limitless trails, a plethora of bike shops and elite talent to learn from, his career skyrocketed.
“I was lucky I came to town in Durango in 1995 when mountain biking was booming,” Wells said. “It was probably at its highest level in the U.S. that it ever achieved. I was able to come to a town with all these world champs and pioneers that shaped and created the sport. It was so unique.”
In Wells’ first week in Durango, he was on a group ride with Overend and Tomac and all the heroes he had read about in magazines.
Overend still remembers the first time he heard of Wells. He was at Southwest Sound record shop speaking with former owner Hal McLean.
“Hal was telling me about some kid going to college who was going to be a big star some day,” Overend said. “I distinctly remember that. Over time, I got to know Todd from the rides here. Watching him progress, he did well at collegiate nationals and had quite the trajectory after he first moved here.”
Wells fought hard to make the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. He went on to qualify for the Olympics again in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London. His best Olympic result came in London with a 10th-place finish. But it was making the Games in Athens that helped continue his upward trajectory.
“We had a dogfight to make the two-person team, and by the time we got to Athens, we were all cooked,” Wells said. “I managed to make the team with a ninth-place or something close at the last World Cup in the selection in Calgary, Canada. It hailed so hard in the race everyone thought they were going to cancel it. Lucky for me, they didn’t. Becoming an Olympian was something I had never dreamed of but was completely amazing. I had no idea mountain bike racing would bring me to a stage like that.”
Wells’ family attended the Games, and so did Meghan. It was Meghan’s dream to make the Olympics as a figure skater. She competed for 25 years from the time she was 5 and went to bed every night dreaming of making the Olympics.
“In 2004 when Todd made his first Olympics in Athens, it was so incredible to go,” she said. “Not just to go to the Olympics and watch but to be there. Todd’s brother, Troy, and I got to go to Olympic village and experience all of it. It was special, and probably better because I didn’t have to train all those hours and fall on my butt 20 times a day. I was able to support him. That was a long road and hard for him, and every Olympics was hard for him to qualify for, but that was a special time to make it and for me to be able to go.”
Wells last stood on a UCI World Cup podium in 2012 in Windham, New York. He was fourth, and his close friend Burry Stander of South Africa was first. No American mountain biker has stood on a elite men’s World Cup podium since, and Wells said that event is his fondest memory of racing bikes because he was able to share the podium with Stander, who died in 2013 after being hit by a taxibus while on a training ride.
“Back when I did it, there were a fair amount of Americans doing it compared to now there’s very few,” Overend said of Americans reaching World Cup podiums. “Todd was one of the last ones doing it and was best at it, with results in the World Cup and the last American on a World Cup podium.
“Todd was a great ambassador in all aspects of the sport. He’s got a lot of integrity and is a real pro. I’ve seen how hard the guy trains, and he did it for a long time and was impressive all the way through. It’s become harder and harder to make a real living at mountain biking.”
Mountain bike familyTodd Wells was 8½ years older than his brother, Troy, who remembers riding BMX bikes as early as age 3, trying to imitate his brother. Troy has raced with his brother ever since. When the older Wells discovered mountain bikes, the younger Wells followed his path and started riding mountain bikes by age 9.
Troy moved to Durango in 2004 and finished college at FLC. He also is a professional mountain biker who is successful at the national level.
“When you have an older brother, you kind of do what you see that brother do,” Troy said. “He had me on a BMX bike early. When he got me into mountain biking, I loved it. I’ve been doing it non-stop now for pretty much the last 15 years.
“Todd and I are obviously super close. I couldn’t have asked for a better brother.”
Getting to race alongside his brother was a prize in itself for Todd.
“It’s been awesome for me, and it’s always been that way with Troy and me riding together,” Todd said. “I feel lucky to have been able to share this with him.”
When Meghan and Todd had their son, Cooper, Todd switched his career focus from international competitions to domestic events to be closer to home with Cooper and Meghan. With Cooper getting older and beginning to ride his own bike, the decision to retire was easy for Wells. He now will sell mortgages for Sinberg Capital Lending in Durango and will continue to run his online-based coaching business.
“Coop was huge motivation for me to retire,” Todd said. “If I remained in the industry doing any job, there would be required travel. I stopped racing because I didn’t want to leave Coop. Even with a scaled-back schedule with just domestic racing the past few years, I leave for a week and he changes. My new career enables me to be here every day and not miss any of that.”
Cooper and Meghan have attended plenty of Todd’s races in recent years. Cooper joined Wells on the podium for the first time when he was only 6 months old. Since then, Cooper has joined Wells on several podiums and has come to appreciate his father’s wins and losses.
“When we had Coop, I really wanted him to experience this with us,” Meghan said. “The year Coop was born, Todd had a great season and Coop was able to get on podiums but had no idea what was going on. This year, Coop really started to know. He knew when Todd didn’t have a good race or when Todd didn’t win and that somebody else won. When he could go on the top step of the podium, it was awesome for Todd and so special for Coop. It’s taught Coop that it’s not always about winning and that it’s about the hard work. When Todd is the champ, Coop can look at his dad and know his dad worked hard.”
Like his father, Cooper loves his bicycle. Every day, he goes for a ride. And now his father will join him for every one.
“Different people attach to different things,” Todd said. “It’s not always something we try to do but something we steer toward without knowing. Being a cyclist, it’s a lifelong sport. You can ride with your dad, your grandpa, your kid. It’s something you can all do together and have fun doing.”
What’s next?Wells will be going 100 percent at his new career in the mortgage business and as a coach, but he is not quite done competing on his mountain bike. He will target the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic in Durango every year, will promote and ride in Todd’s Durango Dirt Fondo each fall and still has a few races he would like to jump into, including the race he told his wife he would never do again back in 2010.
“Leadville will always be near and dear to my heart,” he said. “That’s one I want to continue to do, though now that I have a real job, it will be a harder one to find time to train for. But I’ll try to do Leadville, the Iron Horse and other fun weekend warrior events where you can leave on a Friday and be back home on a Sunday.”
Wells also wants to be more visible in the Durango community, one that has supported him since he arrived in 1995 and one he does not intend to leave.
“I feel like I’ve been around a long time but haven’t really been around,” he said. “I’m always gone. When I’m here, I was always focused on the next race. I look forward to riding with everyone and having time to chat and get to know the people in Durango more now that I have more time. I have such a huge appreciation for them and all the support this town has given me through my career.”