99947_000_011This world-class mountain biker has already taken a detour for a mission. The obstacle he faces now could end his career.
The first time Gene Hilton got on a real mountain bike, he was 12. He borrowed the bike from his cousin and tried to ride up the mountainside near his cousin’s house. “I couldn’t do it. My legs wouldn’t do it. We had to turn around and go back home,” says Gene.
Now Gene’s legs will take him up mountainsides and across rugged trails. They’ll let him hop across rock barriers and pedal downhill at breath-stealing speeds. In fact, the St. George, Utah, native was just named as mountain biker of the year in a national magazine. He is expected to turn pro this summer if—and it’s a big if—the pro races have been switched from Sunday to Saturday. Gene won’t be riding if the races are on Sunday.
That first bad experience with his cousin’s bike when he was 12 didn’t discourage Gene. He wanted a real mountain bike of his own, but they were expensive. He got a paper route and made a deal with his parents, Allen and Randalin. If he earned half the money, they would help out with the other half. He earned his wheels.
Gene loved riding his bike. “I’d take my bike and go find back roads, places I could ride my bike and get away,” said Gene. “That was a big reason I started biking, just to get out in nature. I love the outdoors so much.” He also discovered that he liked to ride fast.
The summer of 1993, Gene entered two local races. “I won my first cross-country race as a beginner. It made me more interested. Then the next race, I bumped up to the next category and did really well. The event was actually several different races. They had a hill climb, a cross-country, the downhill, and trials. In trials you use your brakes and hop across boulders like a little pogo stick with two wheels. It’s really good for toning your bike-handling skills. I entered and won the hill climb. I made a mistake in the cross-country. I thought that if I rode the course before the race, then I’d be able to do better. So the morning of the race, I rode half the course. That isn’t very smart to ride seven miles when you’re only going to race 14. I learned from that mistake, but I still moved from beginner to sport.”
In 1994, Gene won the junior national championship. He was invited to participate in the world championships, where he placed fifth. Other racers he knew had won trips to glamorous places like France or Germany for the world championships. Unfortunately for Gene, that year the world competition was held in Vail, Colorado, just an eight-hour drive from his home in St. George.
Gene was bumped up to expert. He was still doing well. In one race, his bike frame broke, yet he still finished in third place. Everyone was recognizing Gene. He didn’t have any sponsors, so he didn’t wear biker’s clothes. “They called me Team T-Shirt because I just rode in a T-shirt and shorts.” And he was winning. “When I would pass the other racers,” said Gene, “they would think, Why in the world is the guy in the T-shirt passing me?”
Eventually Gene started riding for the Bingham Team from a cycle shop in Salt Lake City. The team arranged for Schwinn to sponsor him for the world championships. Two of his teammates were also LDS racers from Utah. They had a great time traveling to races and talking about their upcoming missions.
Even though Gene was hitting a fast pace in his sport (in 1995 he won the national point series as an expert and was the favorite to go pro the next year), he never considered not serving his mission. “Everyone was giving me a hard time about it,” said Gene. “They said I could get paid so well the next year. It was a hard decision looking at it from that perspective, but from an eternal perspective, it wasn’t hard. I knew I was basically making the decision, Do I want to keep on going really strong in the Church and set a good example for my brothers and sisters, or do I want the worldly fame?”
Gene chose the mission field and was called to serve in the Brazil Fortaleza Mission. Unlike missionaries in some areas of the world who ride bikes, Elder Hilton walked everywhere. But, in many ways, not riding a bike helped him focus on teaching the gospel of Christ. “I felt that I was giving up a lot,” said Gene, “but then I’d step back a lot of times and say, What am I giving up? This is nothing compared to what Christ gave for us. I was just so glad to be there. I didn’t go into the mission field thinking about biking. I tried to put that out of my mind. It wasn’t until a couple of months in Brazil that I really realized that I was little by little forgetting completely about myself. All I had to do was bathe myself and feed myself. Everything else was worrying about other people, helping them come unto Christ. It’s a more lasting feeling when you help somebody change their life.”
Now Gene is home. He’s back as the oldest brother of his seven younger siblings. He’s attending BYU in preparation for dental school, teaching Portuguese at the MTC, and racing as a semi-pro instead of as a pro. He chose to compete at that level because the races are held on Fridays. While he was on his mission, he decided to commit to avoid racing on Sunday. Back on his bike, he’s again at the top of his division as a semi-pro. Next year he has to move up to the pro category. Again sponsors are offering money. It could sure help pay for school.
Will he race? NORBA, the National Off-Road Bicycle Association, is now considering changing the pro races from Sundays to Saturdays. If the change is made, Gene will be pedaling out in front. If not, “I’ll be looking for a summer job,” said Gene.