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An interview with Lea Davison, December 3, 2008

A breakthrough season

After six years racing as a professional mountain biker, this season the affable Lea Davison (Trek / VW) started to see results that seemed to her a long time in coming. With her accomplished teammate Sue Haywood retiring from World Cup and national series racing scene, the 25-year-old Davison is the most likely heir-apparent to fill the void. Dave McElwaine recently caught up with Davison while she was at home in Vermont.

Lea Davison
Photo ©: Dave McElwaine
(Click for larger image)

Davison first raised eyebrows earlier this year when she won both the short track and super D races at the Sea Otter Classic in April. Although some top racers were away at the UCI World Cup round in Houffalize, Belgium, the wins boosted Davision's confidence. She followed with several podium appearances throughout the National Mountain Bike Series (NMBS).

At the World Championships cross country race in Val di Sole, Italy, in June, Davison surprised many with a 19th place finish in a field stacked with Olympic hopefuls. In fact, she finished one position ahead of Mary McConneloug, who represented the US in Beijing, China.

Racing in July on her home course at Mt. Snow, Vermont, amid deafening cheers from her large cadre of fans, she finished third in the short track behind Katie Compton (Spike) and Olympian Mary McConneloug (Kenda/Seven). She also beat the nearly invincible Georgia Gould (Luna Women's MTB Team). What followed her performance was a sort of "coming out party" with her supporters on hand.

In Bromont, Canada, Davison then notched her first top-ten World Cup result. Horrific, deeply muddy conditions must have reminded Davison of racing in her native Vermont. The course was so treacherous that multi-time World Champion Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa opted not to race rather than risk injury that could affect her Olympic goals.

Davison also clocked an impressive third overall at the inaugural American Mountain Classic stage race held at 11,000 ft. in Brian Head, Utah. Finally, in her proudest accomplishment of the season, she won the NMBS short track there ahead of one of the best racers of that discipline, Katerina Nash (Luna Women's MTB Team).

Growing up racing

"I love World Cup racing. It's aggressive, technical, and punchy. You have to be on the gas the entire time, and if you scrub one corner, five girls will pass you. I tend to thrive under that intensity.

- Lea Davison on World Cup Mountain Bike Racing

The well-liked, good-humored Davison often jokes around and seems to take disappointment in stride. She has inspired her peers and up and coming young racers with her infectious smile and friendly personality.

"One thing that I really love about Lea is her level of enthusiasm. As, I was winding down my career, she really infused her youth, energy and work ethic into mine. She is humble, but she doesn't hide it when she has done well. She pumps her hands in the air, gives a big smile and then says how stoked she is," said teammate Haywood.

"She makes everyone want to share her joy when she does well," said Haywood. "You will never see Lea throw her bike in a tantrum like some racers her age. She is a great sportswomen and a real role model for younger riders."

Davison credits her sister and training partner, Sabra, with much of her success. Growing up in a small Vermont town, the pair often raced against the boys because the women's fields were small. In local races, the two were determined to beat the boys. "They used to start us with the boys, so catching and passing them fuelled the fire," said Sabra.

"Lea and I have always been competitive. Whether it was sidewalk chalk or running around the neighborhood when we were younger, it was a battle to the death," she said of her relationship with Lea.

Lea Davison rides at the World Championships
Photo ©: Rob Jones
(Click for larger image)

"There are two things that our coach can say that get Lea and me going fast: 'Work together or attack each other'. I have never, in my life, pushed harder on the bike then on workouts that I've done with Lea."

Growing up, the Davisons raced as the only women on the 17-person Team Devo junior squad. Coach John Kemp motivated everyone by telling the boys that if the girls clocked faster laps, the boys would owe them a meal. "Lea ate well that season," joked Sabra.

After junior days, the sisters attended Middlebury College where they continued to train together. Sabra urged Lea toward Nordic skiing, and they competed throughout college. Davison's continues to ski to build her aerobic base in the off-season, and her downhill skiing background also comes in handy on technical and high-speed descents.

What follows are excerpts from an interview with Lea Davison.

Cyclingnews: What were your goals at the beginning of this season? Did your 2008 success meet or exceed those goals?

Lea Davison: The 2008 season went above and beyond my expectations. I knew I had it in me, but I think I surprised my coach and myself. At the beginning of the season, my goals were to be a consistent NMBS podium contender.

CN: What factors do you attribute to your steady improvement over the past couple seasons?

Lea Davison grits her teeth and pushes the pace
Photo ©: Dave McElwaine
(Click for larger image)

LD: I have worked ridiculously hard for the past two years under my coach, Andy Bishop. Those dividends hopefully have to pay off at some point. I also attribute part of my improvement to being on the couch with a dislocated elbow and mono for about five months during the 2006 season. I learned a lot during the time. I got a new appreciation for cycling and, being out that long definitely sparked a new type of motivation.

I've been going into every race extremely hungry. We train for four months straight for a relatively few number of mountain bike races. You have to make the most of every opportunity that you have.

CN: What kind of advantage has it been to have Sue Haywood as a teammate?

LD: It's been a huge advantage having … Sue show me the ropes. My nickname on the team is "Lambie" or "little lamb chop" because she has shepherded me around the race circuit. Plus, she's a blast to travel and race with. I'll definitely miss her on the circuit.

CN: You told CN that you had targeted that National Championship Short Track race from the beginning of the season. Why the short track?

LD: I was targeting the National Championships race in general (both short track and cross country) from the beginning of the season. Mount Snow is my home course, it's technical and climby, and it plays to my strengths. My short track success has been an unexpected bonus to the season.

CN: What was your most rewarding race of the 2008 season, and why?

LD: Winning my first National race at the NMBS Finals in Brian Head, Utah. It's great to get a win with the best US talent racing and an amazing way to cap off the season.

CN: What is your favorite cross-country course?

Lea Davison at the US National Championships
Photo ©: Dave McElwaine
(Click for larger image)

LD: Mount Saint Anne World Cup and Mount Snow

CN: Was there a point during the past couple years where you said to yourself "Hey, I can ride with these girls!"

LD: I think my first mental breakthrough race was 2007 National Championships at Mount Snow. I started out with the top girls and said, "I'm going to risk a little bit and stay with these girls for as long as I can." I rode with Sue, bumped elbows with some of my idols, and scored my first top ten. I was like, "Finally, a top ten". It was a relief in some respect. I had been riding pro for six years with that goal in mind and I finally accomplished it.

CN: You have been donating time to the Little Bella organization. How did that begin, and has it been successful relationship?

LD: My sister, Sabra, and I noticed a lack of females on the start lines. With the overarching goals of wanting to get more girls on bikes and to empower girls through cycling, we created the Little Bellas. We joined forces with Angela Irvine from the Bellaship, a Vermont women's cycling network, in the fall of 2007 because she had the same goals.

It's been a great learning experience, and, through collaboration with our accomplished mentors, we have evolved into a successful program. In our initial year, we had fifteen girls ages 7-12 years old and twelve mentors. In 2008, we had to cap our participation number at 40 girls and now we have a wait list. There's been a phenomenal response. We are laying a solid foundation for our program functioning in Vermont at the local level, and, once that happens, we plan to expand the Little Bellas nationally.

CN: With Sue Haywood moving on to endurance and stage racing, you are still left with a strong women's team of Mical Dyck, Emily Batty, and Jenny Smith. Do you feel that in the future you will become a force to be reckoned with, much as the Luna women are today?

LD: Yes, there is definitely that potential for Trek/VW with the experience of Jenny Smith and the developing talents of myself, Mical, and Emily.

CN: Your family, particularly your sister, seem to be passionate about your racing. Were they always part of your racing career as you were growing up?

Lea Davison climbs
Photo ©: Dave McElwaine
(Click for larger image)

LD: My family has been amazingly supportive throughout every one of my competitive endeavors, and they fully supported my goal to become a full time professional mountain biker. There's no question that I wouldn't be here without their support.

My sister has played an important role because she is my training partner. There's no better training partner than Sabe because we're equally matched and are extremely competitive. We've pushed each other so hard in workouts that almost always in a race I say to myself "Okay, this isn't as hard as that time trial I did with Sabe. I can go harder". You have to love sibling rivalry. Plus, the most important thing is she's my best friend so it makes training really fun.

A four-hour ride in the pouring Vermont rain isn't that bad when we are singing and rapping to each other. She's really good at rapping.

CN: What are your off-season training plans?

LD: I plan to go with almost the same plan as last year. I'm going to lift weights in the early winter, cross country ski almost every day in December and January to gain fitness, and add some downhill skiing in there for fun.

In the winter months, I also do yoga and indoor rock climbing to balance out my body. The only change is I'm going to be on the bike earlier this winter. I'm going somewhere in February, possibly Colorado, and get my cycling legs underneath me. Maybe I'll train with Georgia (Gould), and I'll discover she has some secret rapping talent.

CN: You did well at the American Mountain Classic Stage Race this year. Do you plan to enter more stage races next season?

Lea Davison interviewed
Photo ©: Sue George
(Click for larger image)

LD: Stage racing gives a great boost in fitness, and there's definitely a time and place for it. They're usually great adventures and produce great stories. It's not my priority.

I would like to do BC Bike Race. The American Mountain Classic Stage Race put up equal prize money for women, so I like to support promoters who are doing the right thing. If more promoters showed equality in men and women's prize money, I would support their efforts and attend their races.

CN: Are there any weaknesses are you working on?

LD: I put most of my energy into becoming a more powerful rider.

CN: What's your 2009 schedule?

LD: World Cups will be a priority. I won't go to the opener in South Africa, but I'll race the European and North American World Cups. I'll race the NMBS races that don't conflict with World Cups.

CN: How do the World Cup courses and style of racing suit you compared to domestic races?

LD: I love World Cup racing. It's aggressive, technical, and punchy. You have to be on the gas the entire time, and if you scrub one corner, five girls will pass you. I tend to thrive under that intensity. I also really enjoy domestic racing because the level of competition is high. If you can win a NMBS, you can podium at a World Cup. We're lucky to have that level of competition at home. I just really like racing.

CN: Have you decided on specific 2009 goals?

LD: I would like to be more of a consistent World Cup contender.

CN: You will be 29 when the 2012 Olympics come around, which seems to be a perfect age to be at the top of your game. Is making the 2012 Olympic Team one of your primary long term goals?

LD: Definitely.


For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Dave McElwaine/www.trailwatch.net

Images by Sue George / Cyclingnews

Images by Rob Jones/www.canadiancyclist.com

Other Cyclingnews interviews