High Riding | Lea Davison Followed the Singletrack to the 2012 Olympics

Photo courtesy Dave McElwaine.

Jericho’s Lea Davison was always preparing for the day she’d compete in the Olympics. She was brought up participating in sports, she has a high level of comfort with downhill travel, and she has an enviable internal engine that won’t quit. This all makes Davison a natural mountain biker, while her positive attitude makes her a joy for spectators to watch.

On August 11, her talent, hard work, and dedication actualized on a custom-made cross-country course at Hadleigh Farm in England. Davison, clad in a red, white, and blue Team USA cycling uniform, pedaled with the best mountain bikers in the world, representing the United States in the women’s cross-country mountain bike Olympic competition. She finished 11th.

Through the adventure, Davison tried to stay level-headed and enjoy the experience so many athletes only dream about.

To prepare, she enlisted the guidance of former pro-rider Andy Bishop of Williston. As her coach, he focused on increasing Davison’s strength and power. “She was always a good aerobic athlete,” Bishop says. “But we focused on getting her as strong as possible, to get that power.” They worked for the past two years for the Olympics, after Davison took a year off to recover from a hip injury. However, Bishop points out, “It was all training we had to do, anyways. The Olympics is just another race.” This training included biking (starting early in the season) and strength building, plus off-season cross-training on skis. He credits the on-snow cross-training with building the kind of strength and conditioning you can’t get from biking year-round, alone. Now, says Bishop, “She’s really changed as a rider.”

Due to time constraints, Davison is the only person Bishops currently coaches. And it’s a case quality over quantity. “I couldn’t imagine anyone better to coach, because of her enthusiasm. It’s very rare to get someone with her personality.” Bishop teases Davison for smiling during races or big climbs. “Are you even working hard out there? How can you be smiling?” he jokes. In seriousness, he says, “You’ve got to have fun.”

Photo courtesy Dave McElwaine.

Davison kept that attitude when she arrived in London. On the morning of her event, she followed her normal routine. “I ate a breakfast of eggs and toast about three hours prior to start time. I checked my e-mail. … I just tried to really stay relaxed and soak up the entire experience,” Davison says. But she was nervous, she knew, because she was unable to eat much for breakfast. “That is very unlike me.”

One of the e-mails she read was one Bishop had sent her. In it he told her, “No matter what, you’re an Olympian from now on.” And she had moved through a checklist of major accomplishments to get there: World Cup, World Championships and podium finishes. Now all she had to do was give 100 percent of her effort. “If you give 100 percent, you can’t be unhappy with your results,” Bishop had told her.

Davison’s strong network of friends, family, and supporters helped to help calm her nerves before the race. “When I was warming up, I was able to find my sister, Sabra (Davison), and talk to her before the start, which was excellent.” She was able to also find her girlfriend, Joanna Petterson. “Both give great pep talks and are phenomenal at keeping me calm,” Davison says. She was able to relax a little at the start. She “focused on taking a deep breath,” she says. “and I smiled.” Just in case, she has a trick for luck: “I wore my lucky sports bra.”

Riders were bunched closely at first, which is not typical of World Cup races. Then something changed in the third lap and riders spread out a bit more. The constructed Olympic course included short kicker climbs and technical features such as rock gardens, jumps, and drops, with little time for recovery. Davison says the course “was very much like racing on the hill side at Catamount” Outdoor Family Center in Williston, where she honed her mountain biking skills. Davison said the Olympic course was well-designed and even flowy, despite the fact that it was not a natural trail. “The Olympic course was a bit more high speed and absolutely perfect for spectating,” she says. “It produced a deserving champion.”

She was impressed with the size of the crowd at the Olympics, too. “I did expect a lot of spectators to be watching, but I was still completely blown away by the crowd at the race.” She was touched by all those she knew were watching back home, too. Bishop, many members of Little Bellas (girls who Davison and her sister teach mountain biking), friends, and fellow Vermonters showed up at 7:30 a.m. for a viewing party at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, where a close friend of Davison’s was able to secure a room and the technology to project the race from a computer onto a big television screen. “It was super fun,” Bishop says.

Davison is very proud of her performance and finish place. “My goal was to push myself harder than I ever have. I think I accomplished that because my legs were so sore after the race that I had a hard time walking,” Davison says. “I actually had to take a recovery ice bath after the race to be able to walk around and celebrate!”

Returning to Vermont has been a great experience, too. “The Olympics in itself is an amazing experience, but the experience has continued even back in Vermont,” says Davison. On the way home from the airport, she passed Snowflake Chocolates in Jericho, where a sign hung saying, “Lea, We are so proud.” And she was moved by a video of the Little Bellas at the viewing party, too. “I just can’t believe I have all of these people behind me, rooting for me. It’s exciting and motivating,” she says.

So what’s next for Davison? “I leave for the World Championships, the second biggest race of the season, in two weeks,” she says. It will be in Austria, and her last big race of the season. Later, the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival will bring her to Cable, Wisconsin to race and run a Little Bellas camp. And she plans to do a couple of fun races in the fall, including the Vermont 50, Cross Vegas, and possibly a mountain bike stage race in Malaysia.

For the rest of us, Davison reminds us to be gentle with ourselves. “Focus on learning with a gentle progression,” she says. “It’s OK to walk down that drop. Just work yourself up to it.” And most importantly, says Davison, “Have fun!”

Sarah Galbraith

Sarah Galbraith of Plainfield skis, bikes, hikes, swims, and camps her way through Vermont’s mountains in all seasons. After an adventure, she can often be found with friends, beer, and food.