Lea Davison of Vermont will compete in the women's mountain bike event on Aug. 11 at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
You could say that 29-year-old Lea Davison of Jericho has spent her entire life preparing for the Olympic mountain bike competition on Aug 11.
But ask the five-time national champion and she'll downplay her world-class preparation.
“I grew up training for mountain bike racing without even knowing it,” she said. “I did downhill ski racing when I was young, so a lot of the technical aspects carried over. And with cross-country running, that helps a lot with the engine.”
Davison graduated in 2001 from Mount Mansfield Union High School, where she excelled at soccer, cross-country running and Alpine skiing. Her mountain biking breakthrough occurred during her junior year when she won the junior expert class at the national championships in Mount Snow.
“They told me I'd qualified for the junior world championships, and I didn't even know there was one, so that was the jumping-off point,” she said. “I realized that women do this for a job at a high level, and there's a world championship. I said to myself, 'I want to do that too.'”
Davison enjoyed a successful ski season during her freshman year at Middlebury College, winning the Panthers' carnival for slalom and placing 11th at NCAAs. During the last race of the season at Sugarbush she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), prompting a natural gravitation toward mountain biking following some extensive rehab.
Before long, it became crystal clear that her pedaling potential had barely been tapped.
After placed seventh at the 2001 UCI Junior Mountain Bike World Championships, Davison won two collegiate national titles in addition to claiming two crowns in the under-23 category. She wound up fourth in cross-country mountain biking and third in short track at the 2008 national championships, but a hip injury the following year forced her to miss the entire 2010 season.
Despite having to spend six weeks on crutches, she regards the mishap as the best thing that's happened to her career.
“At the time the hip injury seemed all doom and gloom, but I worked with iSport and Bill Knowles out of Killington,” she said. “He said every injury is an opportunity, and he was exactly right.”
She added, “I had a chance to build myself up again from scratch and really work on strength training. And that was exactly what I needed — combined with the mental and physical break — because I had been going after it for eight straight years. It was great to have some downtime, so it was good to come back stronger and refreshed.”
Davison immediately ripped off three top-10 World Cup finishes in 2011 and also placed 10th at the World Championships in Switzerland. Coached by Vermonter Andy Bishop, who finished the Tour de France in 1988, 1990 and 1991, Davison kept rolling into 2012 with solid World Cup results in Czech Republic, Belgium and France.
“In the race in Czech Republic, I went down at the start about 100 meters in,” she said. “A girl swerved and I got pinched and I went down. I was on the bottom of the pile and I was scraped and bruised because it was on pavement, but I got kind of lucky. I'm able to still ride!”
With a discretionary spot in the Olympics still up for grabs, Davison made a strong case for herself by finishing fourth in a World Cup race in South Africa on March 10. Georgia Gould earned the only automatic nomination for the U.S. Olympic women's team by cracking the top 10 of the UCI World Cup rankings, but Davison was still hopeful leading up to the big announcement in late May.
“Logic was on my side for the selection, but I was still waiting for the final word,” she said. “I run this girls mountain bike program called Little Bellas, and we were on our way to having Burger Night at Bread and Butter Farm in South Burlington. We went out of service for a brief time and we checked the USA Cycling site and they had posted (the Olympic team), so I was on the side of the road by the App Gap when I found out. It was pretty fitting.”
Davison was the lone discretionary selection for the U.S. women's team after cracking the top 10 at three World Cup or World Championship events in the past 24 months. Since hearing the good news, she's only gotten faster.
On June 23 she placed seventh during a World Cup race in Quebec, clocking a time of 1 hour, 45 minutes and 32 seconds. World champion Catharine Pendrel of Canada won the race in 1:41:40, while Gould finished second in 1:42:03. Pendrel claimed top honors again the following weekend with a time of 1:37:53 at a World Cup race in Windham, N.Y. Once again she was followed closely by both Gould (third, 1:38:03) and Davison (fifth, 1:39:43).
“Every race, you're pushing yourself to your absolute limit,” Davison said. “It's an all-out effort for as long as you can sustain it. You're in the pain cave no matter what.”
Gould is currently ranked 15th in the world, sitting five places ahead of Davison. While Pendrel is favored to win Olympic gold, Maia Wloszczowska of Poland and Katerina Nash of Czech Republic are two other strong contenders.
The field in England will be considerably smaller than most World Cup races, though the mass-start format featuring 30 women will still put a premium on a quick, clean break after the gun goes off.
“You want to get up front but also avoid any crashes,” Davison said. “Because the Olympic course is open and there's lot of room for passing, it could be one of the more tactical races that I'll think we'll do. And with a lot of courses, the natural terrain tends to separate the field.”
Although mountain biking isn't the most spectator-friendly event, this year's Olympic venue was created to shatter that stereotype.
Located 40 miles east of London, the 5-kilometer single-track course at Hadleigh Farms was built in the open countryside and features more than 170 meters of climbing during each lap. Roughly 5,000 tons of rock and 3,500 tons of crushed stone were used to construct the site, with riders likely to complete anywhere between four and six loops.
“Mountain biking is one of the more fringe sports, so I think the Olympics helps bring it to the fore,” Davison said. “There's been a groundswell of interest lately, so hopefully this will just push it even further and keep the momentum going.”
When the day arrives for the biggest competition of her life, Davison will stick with her pre-race regimen of eating “eggs, toast and maybe a piece of fruit” three hours before the event. She's a long-shot to win or even make the podium, but she has momentum on her side and believes the course will suit her strengths.
In fact, Davison's first impression of Hadleigh Farms was the strong similarity between the Olympic course and the trails at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston, where she first started biking.
“Growing up riding in Vermont, it's more technical,” she said. “You get good just learning how to mountain bike over rocks, roots, rock faces, jumps. It gets muddy, and it's in any type of weather.”
A same-day taped broadcast of the women's mountain bike event on Aug. 11 is scheduled to be aired on NBC from 2 to 2:15 p.m. and on MSNBC from 2:45 to 3 p.m.MORE IN This Just In
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