Remembering a real legend
Chris Shelton wasn't a legend because of how many miles he rode or how high he climbed.
Like the word “epic” the term “legend” has been devalued over the years. The exercise app Strava now crowns cyclists as “local legends” based solely on how many times they’ve ridden a section of a road.
But Birmingham’s cycling community has lost a legend, and as former pro Allie Legg pointed out, he was a real local legend. Cancer took Chris Shelton too soon, but not before he befriended cyclists in Birmingham and literally around the world through his travels to some of the truly epic climbs in Europe. He’s a reminder of what it really means to be a legend: an inspiration who lives on in our memories.
I remember the first time I met Chris, probably 10 or 12 years ago. I had stopped at a little store at the bottom of Coosa Mountain to refuel before beginning a series of climbs that would take me back to Birmingham. I went to the drink machines to fill my bottles and there was a guy sitting alone at a table. Helmet off. Shoes off. Having a snack and warming up his feet. We chatted for a few minutes and it struck me that here was a cyclist – rail-thin and clearly a climber – who looked like he belonged at a French cafe, not the Watson Grocery in Vandiver, Alabama.
And he did visit those cafes during his Rapha Cent Cols trips: 10-day trips to iconic climbs, each day over 100 miles and each day with more than 10,000 feet of climbing. Dawn to dusk in the saddle for 10 days. He once tried to talk me into joining him. “But I’m not a climber, Chris,” I told him. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “You should do it.” He always expected the best of you and that you could match him. I’m not sure he fully appreciated just how strong he was.
He would join a group ride in progress on a Saturday morning and already have 50 or 60 miles in as we were just starting. He wasn’t a racer; most of his rides were what he called “just pootlin around.” Except for Chris, that could mean a 235 mile day in the saddle.
The last time I rode with Chris was a Sunday afternoon ride that splits into A and B groups. Chris moved to the front of the A group and pulled until there were only a few of us still barely hanging on to his wheel. It wasn’t his intent to shatter the group; he just wanted a nice fast ride, and he was apologetic when he saw what had happened. And at the regroup point he rode on, headed home to see his grand-daughter. Another reason for him to ride fast. Priorities intact.
And about that “legend” title: Strava won’t show him as their “local legend” on any of the segments he frequently rode. And, really, it doesn’t matter. But I created a segment years ago on Highway 25 that I’m sure he climbed hundreds of times. In his honor, it’s now called the “25 climb from Mimosa – Chris Shelton memorial.” He still has the overall fifth fastest time on it from a 92-mile ride in 2014 he titled “Can life be any better, a morning on the bike and lots of sun. Hello Spring!” I hope you’ll remember him and his legendary optimistic attitude whenever you climb it.
The segment: Chris Shelton memorial - 25 climb from Mimosa
This was a great tribute to Chris. Thanks for writing it, Rick. Sorry to miss you as I passed through Bham this time, but rest assured we'll ride again.
Amazing tribute to Chris. Thanks for writing this up, Rick.