In 1982, Wiens arrived in Gunnison as young man fascinated by challenging outdoor adventures.
“My interests at the time were not academic, but skiing and paddling,” Wiens recalls.
At Western, he met Mountaineer Sports Hall of Fame coach Ken MacLennan. Wiens rose to the challenge of training to be a ski racer, enduring daily “dry-land” workouts of running, lifting weights and even playing soccer to build strength and agility for the coming winter’s competition.
“He showed me hard work, discipline and structure,” Wiens says.
But like dry snow on a cold, windy peak, that structure wasn’t quite ready to stick. New to ski racing and in a very competitive environment, Wiens was cut from Western’s team. The following summer found him running rivers again. Instead of returning to Gunnison in the fall, he wandered to Durango, where he spent the winter ski racing.
He returned to Western in 1984, but again, he was unsettled.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was chasing athletic dreams: skiing, kayaking …”
“That’s when it hit me that I wasn’t a very good ski racer,” he says. “And that’s when mountain biking snuck in there on me.”
He purchased his first mountain bike in 1985 and moved to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he spent another winter “chasing the ski dream, just not the racing dream.
“That season in Jackson is when I realized I probably didn’t have the talent or mindset for what was then called ‘extreme skiing.’”
The following summer of 1986, he learned a similar lesson paddling Devil’s Canyon of Alaska’s Susitna River. While the run in a kayak was successful, Wiens concluded he wasn’t cut out for the level of risk such feats required.
But that summer also found him competing in his first two mountain bike races.
“When I came back to Gunnison a third time, in the fall of 1987, a lot of the guys I knew were racing.”
Wiens continued to paddle and ski, but he was quickly caught up in the growing sport of mountain biking, which at the time centered on Colorado and California. He was in the right place, at the right time, almost immediately competing in the Expert class, on the same courses with professional racers, while attending to his academic studies and still cutting a few lines on skis at Crested Butte Mountain.
During his senior year at Western in 1990, Wiens signed his first professional bike-racing contract, and “I never really looked back for a while.”
Racing forward, he traveled the United States, and then competed in the World Cup. At first, he traveled on his own, learning to repair his bikes, but as the sport progressed, mechanics, support trucks and team travel became the norm.
Along the way, he got to know Diamondback teammate Susan DeMattei, a former nursing student from northern California, who would eventually earn a bronze medal in mountain biking at the 1996 Olympics. A four-year friendship grew into more, and she left her California home to join Wiens in Gunnison in 1993.
He notes his homes during the past 26 years have all been within 200 yards of each other. The couple now has three children: a 15-year-old son, Cooper, and twins Ben and Sam, age 13.
Wiens joined his wife in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 2000. And although he “retired” from professional racing in 2004, he kept on pedaling, training for big races rather than trying to keep up month to month. In 2008, he became an “ambassador” for German bicycle accessory manufacturer Ergon, and he continues to work with the company.
Wiens also owns the legendary Leadville Trail 100 MTB race – in more ways than one. From 2003 through 2008, he took first place each year on the grueling route – out and back on a 50-mile course with some 11,000 feet of climbs. In 2007, he edged under the 7-hour mark for the first time, defeating Floyd Landis of Tour de France infamy by just under 2 minutes. The following year, Wiens set a course record of 6:45:45 to beat the even-more-infamous, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, also by a shade under 2 minutes. He placed second to Armstrong by a similar margin in 2009, finishing at 6:57:02.
In 2006, Wiens helped found Gunnison Trails to support Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service staff in maintaining popular biking trails. The group balances a respect for the land and nature with the need for safe access. And you can find Wiens not only designing routes but also working with other volunteers, wielding shovels on trails at Hartman Rocks and other areas around Gunnison. He founded and continues as race director for the Original Growler. The 64-mile – with a 32-mile Half Growler option – race is held each Memorial Day weekend as a key fundraiser for Gunnison Trails.
He also started and operates, with Western chemistry lecturer Jarral Ryter, the Dave Wiens West Elk Bicycle Classic. It bills itself as a timed tour of 134 miles, with climbs totaling 9,300 feet. The Labor Day weekend event attracts a wide range of cyclists, from those who seek a challenging ride through amazing scenery, to others with more to prove.
More importantly for Western’s young adventure athletes, it raises funds for the Mountain Sports program.
Wiens recalls Gary Pierson – Western’s vice president for Student Affairs, an avid bike rider and skier – approaching him to manage the team. Pierson asked what it would take to compete with RMCCC Division I teams (Western is in Division II).
Knowing competing schools were in towns with much milder winters than Western’s team faced in the Gunnison Valley, Wiens settled on a slightly different goal.
“If we were to recruit pure cyclists, Gunnison might not be a good fit for them,” he recalls telling Pierson, noting the chilly valley makes for challenging training in the winter. “Instead, I suggested we recruit cyclists who also enjoyed winter sports.”
It took more than a year for Pierson to respond, but by July 2012, Wiens was busy consolidating several club sports at Western into the Mountain Sports program.
“We started with the existing bike club, Nordic and freeride ski teams,” Wiens explains. “Then, last year, we expanded our park-and-pipe program, created the endurance ski team – which crosses into Nordic and competes in ski mountaineering and similar races – and started the snowboard team.”
In 2013, Mountain Sports sent 20 skiers and boarders to the United States Collegiate Ski Association championships in Sun Valley, Idaho. The Western men’s freeride skiers placed second, behind the much larger team from University of Colorado Boulder. Dave Sugnet won the slopestyle competition, becoming the collegiate national champion in that discipline. Western’s women freeskiers came in third. The snowboarding men also took third. In addition, last winter, Crested Butte native and women’s captain Francesca Pavillard-Cain won the Subaru Free-Ride Series and advanced to the Swatch Freeride World Tour, where she will represent Western in international competition.
Meantime, Wiens’ cyclists have shredded a few hills, too. More than 40 students are dues-paying, bike-riding members of Mountain Sports. They took second this fall at the Collegiate National Championship in North Carolina. And they hosted an exciting and slushy Campus Cross race – which also served as the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Cycling Conference regional championship – through the Western campus on Nov. 17.
But it all starts, Wiens says, with the training discipline he learned from Coach MacLannen. Five days each week, dozens of students join in dry-land training before the snows fall, working with both endurance and “gravity” coaches to build young bodies into mountain-shredding machines.
“It’s not as rigorous as I remember it,” Wiens says, “but we’re getting there.”