Will Olson's death in an unwitnessed crash last Saturday during the Enduro World Series race in Crested Butte, Colorado, sent a shudder through the mountain biking world as well as the tight-knit riding community in the Vail Valley, his home of nearly 20 years.
Most of the shock expressed in the wake of the accident came from people who did not know Olson personally. Broadly speaking, few did. Those who knew him, including myself, were even more stunned by how he died. According to Olson's close friend and riding partner of 16 years, Mike Pastore, who spoke with both the event organizer, Brandon Ontiveros, and a racer who came upon Olson's body shortly after the crash, Olson "pretty much went full speed into a tree." He died of blunt force trauma to his chest. He was 40 years old.
The sequence of events that led to Olson's death, combined with the man whose life they took, is confounding.
Olson was one of the premier riders on the Big Mountain Enduro circuit, which he joined last year. In his first race, at Snowmass in June 2014, Olson was the fastest of all but one amateur riders, beating most of the 200-plus men by a wide margin. This year he surpassed a handful of pros at the same event. He entered the Crested Butte race as a favorite to top the amateur field, and he felt he had unfinished business after a series of mechanical problems and flats left him in last place at the same race in 2014.
The fact that Olson was racing at all signified something of a surprise, considering his recent and long-term past. He had always proclaimed himself a soul rider. Racing stressed him out. When his buddies would pack up their trucks and head to Utah for the 24 Hours of Moab each fall, they begged Olson to go with them.
"You could never get Will to join," said Scott McDonald, a riding partner and former roommate of Olson's. "He said he couldn't handle it, the competition. He didn't like how it made him feel."
"I spent literally 10 years trying to convince him to race," Pastore said. "He'd say, 'Nah, I'm not paying to ride my bike.'
"I kept saying, 'Man, you could win a national title.'"
If you peeled away all the fluff that surrounds mountain towns nowadays, you would find a community of Will Olsons huddled around a fire, content to simply be there. Shortly after Olson moved to Vail with a group of friends from his hometown of Scappoose, Oregon, in 1996, he took a job working room service at the Cascade Resort and Spa. The higher-ups used to complain about how he smelled, a byproduct of his squatting in a dilapidated cabin across the creek and up the mountain, surrounded by aspen trees and their quaking leaves. He and Pastore laughed about that as recently as last month.
Olson spent as many hours as he could every day in the backcountry, snowboarding in East Vail and mountain biking near and far. He took chances and understood the equation when he did.
An introvert by nature, Olson came from a tight family and remained close with his two brothers and parents. As intense as he was in the saddle, he had a soft spot for group rides and for people in need. He helped one friend kick a drug habit by drawing him into mountain biking. That friend subsequently went back to college, earned his bachelor’s degree, then got his master’s.
Olson did not need much to be happy. He lived in the back of his pickup truck and with friends who took him in for short spells. Eventually he rose through the ranks at the Cascade to become purchasing director, a 9-5 gig. But he still made time to pedal every day.
Five years ago, Olson met Bonnie McDonald, another longtime Vail local and Scott's sister. They started dating. When Bonnie left Vail for a job back east, they stayed together. But the distance was tough. Finally, this summer, after so many of Olson's friends had left town–former cross-country pro Jimi Mortenson moved to Montana, Pastore to Vermont, Scott McDonald to Denver, etc.–Olson agreed to leave his beloved Vail and join Bonnie in Burlington later this month. The Crested Butte race was to be his last.
In the wake of Olson's crash, a question hung in the minds of many this week. Why did he finally shed the soul-rider identity and toe the line? Simple. He liked racing the clock and, ultimately, himself. Mass starts wigged him out, but time trials sucked him in. Once Pastore finally convinced him to try an enduro, he was addicted. It didn't take long until a sponsor began covering his entry fees and lodging.
Last Feb. 3, Olson and hundreds of other riders got online at precisely the right moment to register for this year's Crested Butte race, which doubled as the only U.S. stop on the Enduro World Series circuit. Olson got to the payment page before the system inexplicably kicked him out. By the time he got back in, the race had sold out.
Pastore registered successfully, but when he heard Olson's story, he gave up his place in the race. "After what happened to him last year, I knew he needed to race that event more than I did," Pastore said. "He wanted it."
Olson drove to Crested Butte with a borrowed bike from Pastore, since his was still broken from a crash three weeks prior. They modified the build around Pastore's XL frame to fit Olson, who rode a large. It was the same make and model as he rode.
The section of trail where Olson crashed was rooted and rocky and fast, but despite the consequences, he knew exactly where he was. "He'd ridden that trail hundreds of times before," Pastore said.
That is one reason why his death has left so many in tatters this week. "I don't know if I'll ever understand it," said Matt Blake, who introduced me to Olson on a ride in 2004.
Three days after the accident and two days before a memorial service was to be held on Vail Mountain, Pastore fought through tears on the phone. He said he plans to leave "every speck of Crested Butte dirt, every trace of Will's sweat" on the bike forever.
"That bike will never be ridden again," he said.
The memorial is scheduled to begin at 5:30 Thursday evening. All are welcome. Additionally, a Go Fund Me page has been set up to help Olson’s family cover the costs of his services.