The sun was still climbing from behind the mountains when Ben Parsons finished working his usual 24-hour shift for the Whitefish Fire Department.
By early afternoon he was already on his mountain bike. Instead of catching up on sleep or sitting around the house, he pedaled from his home in Kalispell to the wooded trails in Herron Park where he kicked up dust for almost 30 miles, like he does most days. It’s his regular routine to log upwards of 200 miles per week, an arduous regimen that he squeezes in between working long shifts as a firefighter and paramedic and filling his new role of family man.
“Taking it easy is the part I suck at,” he says.
Parsons is the rare breed of athlete. He fits the bill of an average 33-year-old, standing 5-foot-10 and weighing 145 pounds. Yet years and countless miles of exertion have carved the Kalispell native into an elite year-round athlete, one that can log 100 miles in the rugged hills in less than nine hours during summer and power up mountains on skis during winter.
Parsons is one of the best mountain bike racers and ski mountaineers in the West. He regularly wins the Whiteout at Whitefish Mountain Resort, which sends racers up Big Mountain on skins and then downhill as quickly as possible.
His skills in ski mountaineering, a sport that continues to slowly gain ground in the mainstream, are less known, but his accomplishments on the bike have made him a well-known name in the pedaling community.
Parsons rides with a talented crew of local friends and teammates who comprise the best mountain biking collective in the state. The Sportsman Ski Haus Cycling Team includes Parsons, Clint Muhlfeld, Joel Shehan, Matt Butterfield, Phil Grove, Dustin Phillips and Rose Grant. The squadron of riders is the No. 1 ranked team in the Montana Off Road Series, and the individual riders regularly finish near the top in regional competitions.
“We’re all on the same team and we all want to beat each other. Whether we say it or not, we all want local glory,” Parsons says. “It’s just perfect because it motivates you and makes you push each other. We support each other but when it comes to the start line, it’s pretty much mano-a-mano.”
Last week members of the local team traveled to the Butte 100 cross country ultra endurance race. Parsons placed second, finishing behind only Tinker Juarez, who at 52 is one of the best long distance racers in the nation. It was Parsons’ best finish since winning the high-profile event in 2010. Butterfield earned fourth and Ross Toelke of Whitefish was sixth.
At another top-notch competition this summer, the Missoula Cross Country on June 22, Parsons earned 24th, again finishing high among a number of professional riders from across the nation.
“Ben is a very talented, hard-working, positive and consistent rider, and above all one of my best buds. I couldn’t think of a better person to share these lifelong accomplishments with,” Muhlfeld said. “I’m thrilled that his strong work ethic has paid off and he is now one of the top cross country mountain bikers in the country.”
Later this month he’ll compete in the inaugural 24 Hours of Flathead mountain bike race at Herron Park, a new mountain biking endurance event raising money for outdoor enthusiasts living with disabilities.
“Ben is just a pure pleasure to be around,” Whitefish Fire Chief Tom Kennelly said. “I think he’s a real role model for the rest of the staff, the way he sets his goals and tries to achieve them but keeps a really good attitude. He’s a good teammate and the perfect person you want on a team type organization like the fire department.”
Nothing seems to sum up Parsons better than one of his recent accomplishments. In early July, he placed 14th in the men’s open division at the USA Cycling Marathon Mountain Bike Nationals in Sun Valley, Idaho. It was his best finish ever among many of the top professional riders in the U.S.
But just as impressive, if not more noteworthy, he earned third place in the event’s “Working Man’s” division, which distinguished the competitors who don’t ride for a living and work 40 or more hours per week.
In other words, only two other riders at the event can juggle work and play better than Parsons.
And that’s the dilemma, or rather the crossroads where he finds himself today. Every athlete eventually reaches the point where it’s time to settle into life away from sports, transitioning to a weekend warrior or a “former” competitor.
For Parsons, he’s closer to being one of the “fast dads” than a professional rider, and that’s what he wants. Parsons married four months ago. He has his dream job and a home. He’s surrounded by family and friends.
So where does the bike fit in?
“At 33, I feel like I still have years of getting faster,” he says. “But my biggest overall goal is trying to find balance, trying to not let my goals with the bike overlap into work and marriage and relationships.”
That’s easier said than done for someone like Parsons, who isn’t wired to take it easy.
“It’s hard for me to show up to races and feel like I haven’t done everything I need to do to get there and do my best,” he says. “It’s been a learning experience.”
He pedaled his first bike, a BMX, at the age of 6 after his parents Larry and Val brought him home a present. After graduating from Flathead High in 1998 he went to Montana State University in Bozeman, where he picked up the sport wholeheartedly. Soon he fell in love with it.
When he accepted a teaching position back in Kalispell after graduating, he began exploring the trails outside of town and it grew into a very successful “hobby.”
“I feel like I was given this innate drive inside that needs to be directed towards things,” he says. “I need to have goals and the direction. Riding has taught me so many different life lessons, about being able to achieve what you set your sights on and being able to go past fears and hurdles and take crashes. Everything in my life, there’s almost a reflection of it in the world of cycling.”
But along the way he’s also learned to appreciate the important things in life. Like family and friends, whom he credits with supporting him through good days and bad. He’s still planning on riding and skiing, but he’s not willing to sacrifice everything for the bike.
“I’m a pretty fortunate and blessed dude,” he says. “I feel like we all have some purposes in life. I guess I hope that the dedication and desire and passion that I have for it, people see that as a passion for life and I hope that it kind of rubs off on people. It’s a great way to live.”
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