At mountain bike worlds, one rider’s shot at redemption
This weekend, American MTBer Lea Davison will take to the startline in the Cross Country World Championships in Mont-Saint-Anne, Canada. After a tumultuous few seasons marked by self-doubt and frustrating results, Davison is on the comeback trail. As Jen See writes, this weekend’s world championships are a chance for Davison to continue what has been a positive return to the highest levels of competition.
On a Friday evening in early July, Lea Davison sprinted for sixth in the World Cup short track race at Les Gets. She did not win that sprint, but that seventh place marked her best World Cup finish so far this season. It felt amazing. “Finally, I was back on the front row, where I know I can be,” she says. “I was celebrating, for sure.”
That a rider of Davison’s history in the sport was celebrating a seventh-place finish is surprising. She’s won two world championship medals and is a two-time Olympian. Her career has been characterized by rock-solid consistency, with its string of top-ten and podium finishes at the World Cup level. In 2016, she finished seventh at the Rio Olympics and second at the world championships.
Then the results stopped.
On the outside, Davison appeared the same enthusiastic, bubbly person she’d always been. She threw down in rap battles with teammates and goofed with the girls in the Little Bellas organization that she and her sister Sabra created. But she was also struggling to achieve results on the bike. Again and again, she went to the start line afraid of failing, afraid that she “wasn’t enough.”
More than once during her two-year absence from the podium, Davison considered retiring. But she believed she had unfinished business. She wanted one more shot at the Olympics. And she wanted to prove to herself, if no one else, that she could still compete with the best women in sport.
After 17 years as a professional, how does an athlete reinvent herself? With her back against the wall, Davison set out to change everything.
A surprise phone call
After her successful 2016 season, Davison thought she had her career on lock. But in September a call came from Specialized, her sponsor at the time. If Davison wanted to continue racing at the World Cup level and return to the Olympics in 2020, she’d need to look elsewhere for support. Davison’s teammate at Specialized, Annika Langvad, won the world title and as Davison now sees it, the brand had some hard decisions to make.
At the time, the news came as a shock to her. She’d ridden for Specialized for five years and the team felt like family to her. New doubts about her ability and self-worth took hold. “I thought I was enough, but after that, I felt like, ‘no, I’m not enough.’” she says. It might have been easier had Davison ridden poorly in 2016, but she’d achieved some of her best results that year.
“I really took a hit from that — it was like, my soul was bruised,” she says. “It was like going through a break-up.”
If there was a silver lining, it was that Specialized had told her in plenty of time to find a new team and Davison soon found a ride with Clif Pro Team. At first, it felt like a perfect fit. “I loved that group of girls,” she says of her teammates. A self-described extrovert, Davison readily embraced her new team’s environment. “I definitely thrive with that kind of camaraderie.”
In Clif Bar, the brand, meanwhile, Davison found a sponsor who supported her as a gay athlete. It was a first for her. “It was unbelievable,” Davison says. “It was like a watershed moment.” Though there was never pressure from previous sponsors to hide her sexuality, she didn’t feel encouraged to highlight it. “It was something that just wasn’t talked about, which in a sense isn’t very supportive,” she says. Most people she encountered in the bike industry assumed she was straight, which led to some awkward moments.
Thanks to the support from Clif Bar, Davison decided to be more open about her sexuality and she remains grateful to the brand for giving her the confidence to make that change. “It really is an opportunity to show other athletes, ‘hey you can be gay and you can come out and you can still be top level,’” she says. “That’s a really important message to get out there.”
Davison says she didn’t receive that message from the mountain bike community as she came up through the ranks, so it felt doubly important to her to speak more openly.
But the switch to Clif Pro Team also opened up a whole new set of challenges for Davison, starting with her bike fit. During spring 2017, she made three trips to Boulder to work with bike-fitter Andy Pruitt. Thanks to a pair of past hip surgeries for labral tears, an exact bike fit is especially important to Davison. “I was dialed in post-surgery and now we’re trying to make this new equipment work within those constraints,” she says. Everything from shoes to helmet changed with the new contract. It all took some time to get used to.
But time was one thing Davison didn’t have. While racing for Specialized, Davison rode the spring U.S. Cup races without pressure to get results. Until 2017, she had used the spring as an intensive training period ahead of the World Cup season, which typically doesn’t start until May. Expectations changed significantly at Clif Pro Team.
“The team management was way more results-based and I don’t really do well under that,” she says. “It was a much more demanding spring than I was used to.”
When she traveled to the first World Cup race at Nové Mesto in 2017, Davison still believed she could make it happen. “I had pulled out a top ten in all the years before,” she says. Tired from the spring races and travel, she got sick. On race day, she quite simply “got smoked.” She had lost her ability to get results just when she most needed it. “That was when the other shoe dropped,” she says.
For the remainder of the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Davison felt caught in an inescapable cycle of pressure and failure. The more often she failed to deliver results, the more pressure she felt from the team management. “The message was like, constantly, for two years, ‘you are not enough,’” she says. Instead of going to the starting line optimistic and excited, she raced burdened by fears of failure.
“It was just a downward spiral,” she says. “I was always afraid, because it wasn’t working. It wasn’t working out.”
Davison remains proud of how well she held it together. “By no means did I block it out,” she says of the doubts she felt, but she kept pushing and kept training hard. She credits her sports psychologist, Peter Haverill at the U.S. Olympic Center, for helping her stay on track. Her long-time coach Andy Bishop and her now-wife Frazier Blair also each played key roles in supporting her. At the end of 2017, she finished sixth at the world championships, but the joy she’d always felt racing her bike had faded.
Things came to a head during the 2018 season ahead of the season’s first World Cup races. Again the spring schedule wore Davison down, but she held on to that sixth place finish at the 2017 Worlds race like a talisman. “I was coming into June, like ‘alright game on, let’s do this’,” she says. Then came intensified pressure from team management for results. This time, she needed top-three finishes or she’d be off the team, she says. She finished the 2018 season deflated, her Worlds hopes derailed by a stomach bug.
Davison views the past two seasons as a period of extremes in her life. She had teammates who inspired her and a brand who supported her. “I love Clif Bar, the brand, to the moon and back,” she says. But she could never find common ground with her team’s management whom she felt made demand after demand.
“I was so heavy, I couldn’t breathe,” she says. “I thought about retiring during every single bad race.”
As she wrestled with her career on the bike, Davison found new happiness in her personal life. “Here I am, I met Frazier, we get married — so that’s like, on one end of the spectrum, incredible,” she says. “But then I also have all this toxicity on the other side of the spectrum in cycling.” She married Blair in September 2018 and in a gesture of support, Louis Garneau made commemorative wedding skinsuits for them. In part Davison’s reinvention started with her marriage, which became a strong foundation for everything that followed.
With the 2018 season over, Davison sat down and made a pair of lists. She wrote down the things she believed worked for her. Then she wrote down the things that didn’t. The lists became her road map.
Davison knew she needed to put the previous two seasons firmly in the rearview. She “Marie Kondo’ed” all her old team kit and she cut her hair. “I was like, that was hair that was around, I need to cut it off,” she says. Davison laughs at these rituals, but also recognizes their importance to her of making a fresh start. She drew inspiration from Brené Brown’s instruction to let negativity and criticism fall to the ground.
“I’m not going to kick it or stomp it, I’m just going to drop it and walk away,” Davison says. “It’s so hard to do — I’m very good at kicking things.”
With no contract for 2019, Davison set out to find sponsors willing to support her 2020 Olympic ambitions. Despite the doubts of the previous two years, Davison wasn’t ready to walk away from racing. “I need to prove it to myself that I love cycling and I can get back to the old me,” she says. Her long-time personal sponsors Louis Garneau and L.L. Bean stood by her. She teamed up with Nicola Cranmer’s Team Twenty20, which supports road and track racers with Olympic ambitions. Scott Tedro provided essential financial support.
“Just having the people who support the team, just because they believe in me — do you think Scott Tedro sells more shipping containers because of cycling? No,” she says, answering her own question. “He simply believes in me — and that’s an amazing place to begin.”
When she took a detailed look at her training, Davison recognized a need to balance the hard work with fun. For winter, nordic skiing checks all the boxes and Davison turned her honeymoon into a solid training block. She traveled with Blair to Norway and they spent three to four hours each day nordic skiing. “We were skiing 40 k’s and 50 k’s for three weeks,” she says. “It was exactly what I needed as a foundation for my fitness.
Back in Vermont, Davison stayed on her skis, but she focused on shorter, threshold efforts. To stoke her competitive fire, she skied biathlon races. Davison jokes that she’s the only cyclist who loves winter, but she’s found the winter break from the bike essential. Nordic skiing tunes her aerobic engine while keeping her hungry and excited for cycling. She also hit the gym with her long-time strength coach, with whom she’s worked since her early career as a downhill skier.
During a trip to warm-weather Tucson, Davison laid down a solid block of training on the bike. A stay with the Homestretch Foundation, which provides housing and other support for elite women cyclists, offered the perfect mix of focused training and the camaraderie that feeds Davison’s extroverted soul. “I need to be around people,” she says. “I can’t be solo training and living by myself — that’s a nightmare for me.”
Surrounded by inspiring, talented women, Davison brought renewed energy to her training. As she ticked down the miles, Davison dialled in the last details, such as working with a nutritionist for the first time.
As she felt her fitness and the positive energy begin to flow, a weight lifted for Davison. For the previous two years, her self-worth had felt reliant on her results. Now she could finally begin to see a new separation between the two.
“Put your results on the ground — whether good or bad — and walk away,” she says.
This isn’t Davison’s first comeback, but it has proven a bigger challenge than she’s faced in her career before now. In 2014 she returned to racing from hip surgery to win a bronze medal at Worlds. “This has been a harder journey,” she says. “It’s not so cut and dried, like if I follow the training plan and work really hard, it’ll work out.” This time around, she’s felt more uncertainty. Battling psychological challenges like self-doubt can feel like wrestling ghosts.
Feedback from her coach tells Davison that she’s riding better this season than she has at any time in her career. She still feels like a work in progress. “It’s hard to get back to that 2016 and 2015 headspace,” she says. She felt more confident then. She’d never really questioned whether she could be enough. But she believes she belongs in that front row as much as she ever has.
“I have unfinished business at the Olympics,” she says. “Then the past two years went south and I really have unfinished business. I’m not done.”
Two chances remain this season for Davison to score the big result she’s chasing. On Saturday August 31, she’ll go to the line at Mont Sainte-Anne for the Cross-Country World Championship race. A week later, she heads to the final World Cup event at Snowshoe in West Virginia.
Davison believes that she has all the pieces in place, but she also recognizes just how hard the task she’s set for herself truly is. Women’s World Cup racing is more competitive than ever, as women such as Kate Courtney and Jolanda Neff have come into the sport. At the same time Davison has worked to rebuild her career, the level of racing has gone up. That seventh place in the Les Gets short track remains her best result this year.
“You have to be having a great day, that women’s World Cup field is phenomenal right now,” she says. “I really want to get back on that podium — and I know that I can.”