From motocross to mountain biking, Eliot Jackson is a fan of things with two wheels. Now, with his foundation Grow Cycling, he's working to make biking more accessible.
Professional mountain biker, Eliot Jackson, is no stranger to reaching big goals. He started riding motorcycles before he was in kindergarten, and ended up becoming a child motocross athlete. He won five national motocross national championships during his youth. When Eliot was 15 years old, he decided to retire from motocross.
A few years later, Eliot took up mountain biking and had the wild idea to become a professional downhill mountain bike athlete. In his seven year career, Eliot became one of the top three downhill mountain bikers in the US. Now, he is conquering a new dream. Eliot recently started a non-profit called Grow Cycling Foundation, which is an organization that is making mountain biking more accessible to youth in Los Angeles.
Connect with Eliot and Grow Cycling Foundation:
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Shelby Stanger: Professional mountain biker Eliot Jackson has always been willing to put in the hard work to make his dreams into reality. Eliot was a sponsored motocross athlete by the time he was 12 years old. Then in his twenties, he became one of the top three downhill mountain bikers in the United States. Eliot conquers his goals through discipline and through focus. Now, Eliot is applying that same dedication to making biking more accessible to all. I'm Shelby Stanger and this is Wild Ideas Worth Living.
Shelby Stanger: When he was a kid Eliot Jackson learned how to market and brand himself as a professional athlete, he got his first sponsor around age 11. He didn't have any coaches, but motocross was his first big lesson in discipline. He would analyze other racers and he'd figure out how he could outdo them on the track. Eliot got really good. In fact, he ended up winning five national motocross championships before he was 15 years old. Before, we dive into Eliot's motocross career. I asked him to take us back to how it all started when he was a pre-schooler.
Shelby Stanger: Tell us how you go from being this hot motocross racer to equally impressive, amazing professional downhill mountain bike racer. How did you start?
Eliot Jackson: You know, it's funny because I think when I think back about it, I can't really remember the exact age, but I know that when I got my first motorcycle, I was number four. And I remember like picking that number because I was four years old when I got my first motorcycle. And so-
Shelby Stanger: Wait that's a really young age that your parents let you have a motorcycle.
Eliot Jackson: Yeah, no, totally. So I have a brother that's three years older than me and he blazed the trail. We grew up riding bikes, riding motorcycles just building jumps in the backyard for our bikes and riding with the neighborhood kids and stuff like that. And I didn't really get serious about motocross until I was 11 or 12. I started doing homeschool when I was in sixth grade and then went to public school, seventh grade and then eighth grade, it kind of just started skipping out a bit, not going to school because it's like being a professional athlete. When I was 13 or 14, I was riding six days a week. That was all I did. I was trying to eat good and stuff like that. And train then, when I was 15, I guess the last year I raced, I won four national championships before taking a break after that.
Shelby Stanger: So you were the top of your game. So how did your parents let you guys... First of all, you're amazing. Where did you grow up that you could really lean into these sports? There must've been some land.
Eliot Jackson: Yeah, there was. We grew up in Oklahoma, I was born there and I didn't move to California until I was 12 or 13. But I think, it's interesting because my dad, it was a way for my dad and I, and my brother to... That was what we did. That was our thing that we bonded over. And even now it's still what we talk about. We still watch the motocross races and my mom, I don't think she actually knew how dangerous it was for a long time, until we all started going to the races. And then she was like, what is this? And when we stopped, she was like, thank the Lord. I'm so glad that you guys don't do this anymore because it's so dangerous. And, so many people got hurt when we were racing, and my brother actually as well, got hurt really bad, he ruptured his kidney at one of the races and was in the ER, had to stay overnight and stuff like that. So it was... Yeah, it was, super gnarly, but...
Shelby Stanger: Well, I'm glad he's okay. And I'm glad you seem like you're thriving. And then, how were you guys allowed to skip school? I know you're a good athlete, but your parents had to been very cool to let you do homeschool, and homeschool is not easy.
Eliot Jackson: Yeah, totally. I think it was interesting because we... I did this online program, but I've always been super into computers and video games and stuff like that. And I remember I must've been 12 or 13 and the program that we had, you could log in to teachers mode and get all the answers. And so, I was kind of into programming at the time, making little things when I was really young. And so, I would go on these message boards and posts, how do I log a key? How do I get a program to run? And so I ended up creating this key logger that would run the background when my mom would log on and get her password. And then I would log on, get the answers and put them all in and I'd be like, hey mom, I'm done. I remember the first time I did it in like 10 minutes. And she's like, what? How did you get done with the whole day's worth of work in 10 minutes or whatever.
Eliot Jackson: And I was like, I got to be smarter about this. I need to draw it out or whatever. So yeah, I think we did that for a little bit. And then, we didn't... I just didn't go to high school. I don't really know what else to say other than, I didn't go to high school, but my parents were really... They're both entrepreneurs. They're both extremely smart and-
Shelby Stanger: You're smart, this is impressive. I don't want to tell kids don't go to high school and you can be as smart as Eliot Jackson, but...
Eliot Jackson: Well, I think they did such a good job of teaching us, lessons through what we were doing. So it was like, what is the business of motocross? How do you market yourself? How are you going to sell yourself? What are the economics of all of these bikes that we have and how do we sustain this and things like that. So there was a lot of learning going on. And I think that, I'm just intellectually curious in general. So there wasn't a lack of learning going on.
Shelby Stanger: So you stopped racing motocross when you were a teenager and on track to become a pro, but why did you decide to stop?
Eliot Jackson: I think the decision to stop racing motocross was kind of a family decision. My brother was at this point where the next year he would have had to go pro and I don't think that he really... He made this decision that was like, I've done this. I don't want to stay on this grind for the next 10 or 15 years of my life. This is just not what I want to do. And at the time, amateurs weren't getting paid. So, it was pretty expensive, even though we were on this team, you still had to pay for travel and stuff like that. And then for my mom, she was just like, this is so dangerous. And so she was happy. And so for me, I was like, man, I don't really want to do it if my family's not doing it. So it was... Thinking back, it was just a weird decision, but I think it was more me associating motocross with my family. And if my family wasn't there, then I didn't really want to do.
Shelby Stanger: Eliot retired from motocross when he was a teenager from there, he went on to community college to get his GED and to complete his first couple of years of college, all the while he spent his free time doing tricks on his BMX bike at local dirt jumps. So how did you get into mountain biking?
Eliot Jackson: I just randomly met some friends when I was riding BMX at my dirt jumps and they were into mountain biking and we used to make fun of them because they would ride their mountain bikes that are BMX jumps, but they convinced me to go up to Whistler, which is like a mecca for mountain biking and skiing. But for mountain biking, it's one of the destinations, greatest places in the world. And I loved it. I thought it was so cool. And he happened to be into racing as well. So he showed me all these videos of these world cup races. And I just thought it was the most amazing things. You're traveling the world, riding in Italy on these really incredible tracks, these beautiful places.
Eliot Jackson: I don't think I could realize it at the time, but there was definitely an identity crisis there, where you're doing... It was like, I retired from a sport when I was 15. And so you put everything into it and then the next day it's like, well, what do you think about? What do you do? And it really... When I thought about riding mountain bikes and doing it at a high level, I think it kind of satisfied that piece of me that wanted to do something where I could perform, wanted to do something where I could master something and really push myself.
Shelby Stanger: How did the skills in mountain biking, how did they carry-over from motocross, what's similar?
Eliot Jackson: I think there are a lot of similarities in that you're turning, you're jumping, there's speed, there's bumps. The bikes are relatively similar ish-
Shelby Stanger: There's a motor...
Eliot Jackson: Yeah.
Shelby Stanger: One doesn't...
Eliot Jackson: But I think it's also at the core of it. They're really different, the way that you ride a motorcycle well is almost opposite of the way you ride a downhill bike well, where a motocross bike, you're gripping the bike with your knees. Mountain bike, they're open. You have to let the bike move underneath you. A motocross bike, you're holding onto it. I guess it's like, there's a motor and it's pulling away from you. Whereas a mountain bike, you're doing the pushup the whole time because you're going down these hills.
Eliot Jackson: So there's these similarities in that, you learn what it means to maneuver something on two wheels. You learn what it means to have something and be able to... I don't know, my mom always used to call it, being one with your bike. And I think that feeling carries over, in the way that the feedback happens, but at a really high level, I think a lot of things are pretty different.
Shelby Stanger: Within a year of taking up mountain biking Eliot became a pro. By the time he was in his early twenties, he'd been a sponsored athlete in two completely different sports that require different muscle groups, different equipment and totally different skill sets. When we come back, Eliot talks about his career as a professional mountain biker. The mentality behind his mastery and how life changed after George Floyd was murdered last year.
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Shelby Stanger: For seven years, Eliot was a full-time professional mountain biker with unimpressive array of accomplishments. For a few years, he was one of the top three mountain bikers in the entire United States. He also ranked in the top 10 at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, just qualifying for the world cup is a big deal in the mountain biking world, and Eliot qualified the very first year of his entire professional career.
Shelby Stanger: So Eliot with world cup, can you tell people who are clueless about mountain biking, like me, what it is and how you got in a year, which I think is unheard of or pretty rare.
Eliot Jackson: Yeah. So the way that I describe downhill racing is like, I think more people are familiar with downhill ski racing. So like what you see in the Olympics, where you're pretty much... Just pretty much always at a ski resort, not always, but you go to the top of the mountain, they tape it off in the trees down ski runs and things like that, like five to 20 feet wide. And the runs are maybe three to five minutes and you're just trying to get the fastest time. You're the only person there. And it's really interesting because you have six to seven world cup races, so there's a series and then you have one world championship race. So you can kind of imagine how much the mental side of things plays in, where you're training six, seven months. And then it's like, all right, you have three minutes to be perfect, now go.
Eliot Jackson: My path into it was really just wanting to race the world cups, that is what I wanted to do. I saved up some money, read the rule book, cover to cover so many times. So I knew exactly how to go from being an amateur to pro, what races I needed to do to get points. I ended up going with my mom and then we went to national championships and I qualified fifth and was on track for a great run and crashed in my finals.
Eliot Jackson: And I was like man, I am not going to get to do this year. This was my last chance to get points, but I had read the rule book. So, I went up to the commissar and I was like, hey, I want to petition to be on the US team because there's two US spots for each race.
Eliot Jackson: And he was like, there is a race in the US later this year. But a lot of people are petitioning and you haven't done super well. And I was like, well, what about Italy? He's like, well, it's next weekend. I was like, yeah all good to me or whatever. And so, I flew from Colorado home, ditch my friends that I had driven with there, picked up my mom and my brother. We flew to Italy as my first time out of the country. And didn't know what jet lag was or anything like that. Ended up in my qualifying run, so once I was only 80 people would qualify, I had been riding and I went down the hill, I was trying to do this jump and I didn't quite make it, and my chain came off.
Eliot Jackson: I literally had the thought of, man I came all the way to Italy, worked so hard and now I'm not going to qualify because my chain came off. But luckily Italy is like so steep and you actually don't need to peddle that much. So, I was like, I can still do this. I can still do it. Just don't break. Everything you've done throughout the whole weekend, just do it way better. And so, I ended up coming down. I remember my brother had this video of my bike, making all these noises. And I came through the finish line in like 70th place. And I was like, oh no, I'm not going to make it. And somebody was like, no, I think you'll be fine. Because, even though there's like 200 people there, the fastest people go first.
Eliot Jackson: So, it's like really rare for you to get beat, after a while and ended up qualifying like 76 or something like that at my first race. And it was a big deal, because at the time there weren't a lot of American racers who would qualify for the races. There was maybe only three or four. And that was the start of it. I ended up doing that other world cup in the US since I had points and ended up getting on the Yeti Team that next year. And that was the start of my career.
Shelby Stanger: What's the day to day in being a professional athlete? You started young and it wasn't easy. What does that look like? Because, I think we all have this picture that it's glorious.
Eliot Jackson: Totally. I think it is, it is glorious, but I think it is crazy hard. I mean, the thing I always say is, anyone can be a professional athlete. You just go and practice, but the reason people don't do it, is because nobody wants to get up at 6:00 AM and practice every single day. Eventually you don't want to ride your bike. So, I think as I... In the mountain biking space, when I was at that level is much higher than when I was racing motocross, but yeah just like had a trainer and in an off season, especially, it's the traditional way that people think of athletes. Where you're waking up in the morning, watching what you eat, going and doing a two or three hour road ride, and then going to the gym after that, getting some lunch and then going back maybe for an evening session.
Eliot Jackson: And then once you get home, you need to stretch. And then, sometimes I would watch film or whatever. Your only job really is to train, rest, so you can train again and eat. And then, the other piece of it. It's not like you're working for 14 hours a day, you might be only be able to train for six hours. Every single thing is structured about that. Every single thing you do, every thing you think about is how to get better at this sport. And I think the other piece of it, that is added into that is, is just like the mental part of saying, I have to try harder than I did yesterday or else I don't have a job. And even if I try as hard as I can, I might just not do well enough and then I get fired.
Eliot Jackson: Where I think that's a much different thing right then than you would have at a typical job. Where you're going to work and you're just performing. And so, I think there's that pressure to, just to be able to do this I have to perform at a certain level there's pressure there. And then kind of the whole mental aspect. You're really trying to find any edge that you can, whether [inaudible 00:21:38] like sports psychology or whatever. I think it's just like a whole... It's a life like it's an all consuming thing.
Shelby Stanger: You have a really good head about you, your training, the way you approach life, the way you're approaching your business, who taught you that? Any tips? Did you have a sports psychologist?
Eliot Jackson: I did at one point, there's actually an interesting story there. I went [inaudible 00:22:05] sports psychologist and we were... So you have like alpha brainwaves, beta brainwaves and data brainwaves. Data is when you're sleeping. Beta is when you're thinking about the past and the future and alpha is when you're thinking about the present. So we took this test and there's these weird things. You try not to blink. You have a reaction time thing. And then you just try to clear your head. You get this outlook and the place that I went, it was a Red Bull place where you had all these Fortune 10 CEOs, you had these Navy Seals, Olympic athletes and stuff. And so my score was really good on the beta side of things, when I'm thinking about the past or whatever.
Eliot Jackson: And I was really bad at alpha, being in the present. And so the thing that we did to train that was they had these, this thing you would put on your head and it would measure your brainwaves. And when you started off-
Shelby Stanger: [crosstalk 00:23:08] neurofeedback.
Eliot Jackson: Totally. And so it's so wild because when you're making the correct brainwave, you get feedback. And to start off, maybe you've had this where you close your eyes, you try to get music to play. And it was super strange because you'd be like, oh my God, I'm getting it to play. And then it seems you think about it, it shuts off. And...
Shelby Stanger: I did the thing where you try to race a car down the road.
Eliot Jackson: Yeah. That's what I did the second after-
Shelby Stanger: It's hard.
Eliot Jackson: It's so strange because you're willing it to go, but you're actually having to be... So what it's training you to do, alpha, it's like that flow state where you're trying to give yourself some sort of feedback where you can say, this is what it means to be in the flow state. And here are the triggers that I can use to get there. But I think in terms of my outlook on life, I think I'm just very curious and I love learning. I love thinking about stuff. And, I think that as I... I don't know, I've just had so many experiences in my life.
Eliot Jackson: I talk about this idea of there being this carrot on a stick where people are like, ah, if only I was a professional athlete or if only I had this, or if only I lived there. I think I've been lucky enough to get that carrot on a stick in a lot of ways and have those experiences that a lot of people haven't. And once you do that, you realize that you have to switch, it's all on you to be able to motivate yourself. There is not this existential thing that is going to solve all your problems. And so I think for me, it's just been interesting being able to have the privilege of doing all this amazing things and then saying, okay, what is, what is happiness truly? And how do I, how do I live that?
Shelby Stanger: What is happiness for you?
Eliot Jackson: I think for me, happiness is doing things that are core to my personality. I think all of the things that I do have this common thread of being able to think deeply about something, being able to master something, being able to get better at something every single day. Just pull the string, you just keep pulling the string and seeing where it leads. And I think that to me is what satisfies, and problem solving, that satisfies the core of my personality. I don't know what everyone else would say, but I feel that pursuit of satisfying what is core to you, I think is what happiness is. And I think it's something that's always moving, what satisfies me today... Or even when I was racing that used to satisfy me, but now it doesn't. So I have to keep working to find that thing.
Shelby Stanger: After seven years of full-time mountain biking, Eliot decided to partially retire. He was ready to pursue other interests and keep pulling on other threads. These days, Eliot works as a software engineering consultant and he recently started a nonprofit. He occasionally races for Santa Cruz bikes. He's also a Red Bull presenter interviewing athletes at bike races around the entire globe. And even though he's not a full-time mountain biker anymore, he has a big voice in the cycling community.
Shelby Stanger: Last year after George Floyd was murdered Eliot posted a video on his Instagram account, he talked about how frustrated he was with the cycling community's reaction to George Floyd being killed. In the video Eliot opened up about his perspective as a black man, watching his community react to the Black Lives Matter Movement. What was it like for you to post that video?
Eliot Jackson: Yeah, it was super interesting. I never thought that, that would have gotten a good reaction because it was really just me doing something out of frustration and blowing off some steam. Because the thing that was frustrating for me was not the action of the industry that I was in. I don't expect anyone to... Like in a perfect world sure, everyone would be on the same page and, but that's just not true and people have different views. And so the thing that was frustrating was the reaction to what was going on, because it felt the... I think the cycling world thought that they were in this bubble that were as removed from reality, where it was like, we don't have that problem here. Outdoors is open to everyone kind of thing.
Eliot Jackson: It's like yeah, it is open to everyone. But if I live in the middle of a city and the closest mountain is two hours away, it's not as accessible to you when you walk outside your door. Or when I am riding on this street and I get pulled over or something like that, or I don't have bike lanes in my town. There are things that are objectively not as accessible just by the chance of where you were born at. And so I think that that was the frustration. Where it's like there are things that you guys are missing and it was a little bit frustrating to see that an industry that made such a point to say, we are so inclusive and we are so open and accepting to not be able to be introspective enough, to recognize some of the privilege that we have when we're able to ride these mountain bikes.
Shelby Stanger: A few months after Eliot posted that video, he decided he wanted to focus on a tangible way to make mountain biking, more accessible and more equitable. He decided to partner with his mom to create the nonprofit called Grow Cycling Foundation. You have this rad Grow Cycling Foundation now, I want to hear all about it. What the mission is? When you started it? Why you started it?
Eliot Jackson: I never in a million years thought that I would be involved with a nonprofit or especially start a nonprofit. But it was interesting to me because in that moment last year, when I did have a chance to say, what is my voice? And there wasn't a lot of advocacy in the mountain biking space. I think in the cycling space in general, there is advocacy and the roadside or the commuter side, kind of the community side of things, but in the mountain biking space, it's pretty bare. I think that goes, goes to show, what sort of access there is for mountain bike racing or high-end cycling industry stuff. So what Grow Cycling Foundation is, our mission is to promote education, access, and opportunity that advance diversity and inclusion in cycling. So our main initiative is building a pump track in Los Angeles.
Eliot Jackson: There's nothing like that in Los Angeles. Right now, you have skate parks, but no pump tracks and-
Shelby Stanger: What's a pump track?
Eliot Jackson: Yes, so pump track has just this... It can be dirt, but we're building it as asphalt. And it's just like the series of rollers and you can ride it on a skateboard or a scooter or a bicycle, a two year old can ride it. A ninety-year-old can ride it. And so it's this really amazing way that we can actually, instead of trying to bring the city to the outdoors. You can actually bring a slice of the outdoors to the city. And because I think that in the cycling space and in the outdoor space, we think that people are beating down the doors to get in, but it's actually not true at all because, if I've grown up in the city and you think logically about it, none of my friends do this sport. There's not a good image around this sport. I have to travel a long way to do this sport. I have to do this... Put in this decent investment, even if I get a used bike, I have to put it in this decent investment.
Eliot Jackson: So, why would I go through all of this trouble to get involved in this sport? When I could do something that fits my culture, where I'm welcome, where my friends are doing it, where I have community around it. And so for me, it's that pump track is a way to introduce people to this. And [inaudible 00:32:35] that's for us, creating community to say, yes, we need to bring culture in, let's get the local barbecue place involved. Let's bring music, let's bring art. And then the other piece of that is in schools. So you have to have an entry point.
Eliot Jackson: We are putting kindergarten and first grade programs in the entire school district that we're going into, to teach kids how to ride bikes. It's a Strider's nonprofit arm, and then six through eighth grade programs as well in all 11 schools. So you have this place to ride a bike, or you have a place to learn how to ride a bike, and then you have a safe place to ride that bike. And then you hopefully can go on to have a career in cycling.
Eliot Jackson: The way I think about it, it's just creating these paths. You don't have to have a career in cycling. You can ride down the street with your friends and that's successful as well. But I think it's about thinking about this holistically to say, what are the ways in which people might not be introduced to this, that might not have access?
Eliot Jackson: And so all of these things that I've mentioned, these are good for everyone. Everyone can benefit from a pump track in their community. Everyone can benefit at that school from riding a bike, everyone can benefit from getting a job. That's well-paying, it's just that the places that we're putting them are disproportionately affecting a certain group of people.
Shelby Stanger: It's fascinating. This whole concept sounds amazing. So you came up with this last year?
Eliot Jackson: Yeah. We've launched in August. So yeah, totally launched in August. And we've raised just over like a quarter of a million dollars that will go toward the pump track. And we've partnered with all of the top manufacturers in the biking world. And so many other people like Fat Tire and Hydroflask and so many cool people are supporting us, which is just amazing.
Shelby Stanger: Once again, Eliot's dreams are becoming a reality with the vision for diversifying the sport he loves. Eliot has created the Grow Cycling Foundation in less than a year. He firmly believes that if he can help more kids get on bikes, then they can have some of the opportunities Eliot had.
Shelby Stanger: Eliot Jackson, thank you so much for coming on the show, sharing your story, your mindset, and your work in the world with us. Your discipline, your dedication, your curiosity, and your just total gung-[honess 00:35:19] totally inspires me.
Shelby Stanger: You can follow Eliot on his Instagram. It's @eliotjackson. that's E-L-I-O-T J-A-C-K-S-O-N. If you want to learn more about the Grow Cycling Foundation, visit grow cycling foundation.org.
Shelby Stanger: Wild Ideas Worth Living is part of the REI Podcast Network. It's hosted by me, Shelby Stanger, written and edited by Sylvia Thomas and produced by Chelsea Davis. Our Executive Producers are Palo Mottola and Joe Crosby, and our presenting sponsor this season is Ford.
Shelby Stanger: I have a new podcast right now it's called Vitamin Joy. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also follow me @shelbystanger, as always we appreciate when you follow this show, rate it and review it, wherever you listen. And remember some of the best adventures happen when you follow your wildest ideas.