Ladies We Love: Mountain Biker Leigh Donovan
When her sponsors and other bike industry folks said she didn’t have what it takes to become a mountain bike champion, Leigh Donovan didn’t fold under the pressure. Instead, she hired an Olympic-level coach, trained her heart out, and proved everyone wrong—times 3. That year, the mountain biking phenom won three championship titles—an accomplishment that no other U.S. rider (man or woman) has achieved to date. Here, we check in with this inspiring lady to learn more about her dogged determination, the beauty of motherhood, her scariest biking experience, her 3 best tips for learning to mountain bike, and her upcoming 3-day mountain biking retreat for women at California’s Mammoth Mountain.
What first got you on the bike back when you were young?
When I was young, my parents only had one car so my mom, sister, and I would do a lot of bike riding. At first it would be in the seat of my mom’s bike and by age 3 it was riding alongside her and my sister (who was now in the seat). We would go everywhere in our town—to the grocery store, the mall, my grandparents, and to the park. I loved the feeling it gave me—it was a freedom and empowerment that I could go anywhere and do anything.
What was the high point of your competitive cycling career?
I started racing BMX bikes in 1983 and by 1992 I had transitioned into Mountain Bike racing. At the end of 1994 I lost my sponsorships and heard some negative feedback from some industry folk that I wasn’t championship material and no one wanted to invest in me. Being the pig-headed person that I am, I hired an Olympic-level coach and did everything he told me to do. I was lucky enough to find a sponsor in the industry that did think I might just have what it takes. With the support of my coach, family, and my sponsor, I finished the 1995 season being crowned US National Downhill Champion, US National Dual Slalom Champion, and the UCI Downhill World Champion. No U.S. rider has ever achieved 3 Championship titles in one season to this day. It was that year that gave me the confidence to not listen to the doubters but to find the strength within, to find my best everyday.
Scariest experience while cycling?
When I race I am never scared, the adrenaline gives me a confidence that most athletes can understand, but when I practice on the race courses I often have to overcome some areas that challenge me mentally and physically. One moment I will never forget was a World Cup race in Bromont, Quebec in 1999. The rain wouldn’t stop, which made it very muddy and slippery. Not only was that a challenge but the organizer decided to add some large rock sections that were sending a lot of riders to the hospital.
I was so scared just to practice, so I walked the course about 4 times (which a normal race I’d only walk it one time) and I only was able to get up the courage to ride it twice (walking the rock gardens both times). By race day, I had cried, wanted to quit, and even thought about just not racing but my race mechanic (who is now my husband) reminded me that this was my job (reality check, my job is dangerous). On race day, the sun came out and my race brain turned on. I didn’t win that race (I placed 6th), but I rode the rock gardens and overcame a challenge that was standing in my way—me. Today, when I ride I look for rock gardens and I’ve learned that overcoming my fears might just require me to walk before I shred.
What inspired you to launch women’s cycling clinics?
After my racing career I opened a women’s clothing boutique (named Tangerine). It was the first time in my life that women were just my friends and we didn’t have any competition between us. I loved training new employees and educating our customers on the products we sold. Unfortunately, when the economy took it’s nosedive so did our business and by the summer of 2011 I had to close the store. Missing the bike industry I wondered where I would fit. Last year I was asked to be part of this amazing group of women executives in the bike industry and on a trip we talked a lot about the momentum of women on bikes. It was that trip that reminded me that I love educating people and I love to ride bikes…so ichoosebikes.com was born, with the goal to get more women riding bikes with confidence on and off the bike.
What will your upcoming clinic focus on?
My next event is in Mammoth on July 23-26, 2014. It’s my first 3-day retreat that I’ve ever hosted and I’m excited to do it with Mammoth Mountain (which is actually where I raced my first Mountain bike race). The camp will focus on the 3 C’s which are Comfort, Confidence, and Calm. These are 3 areas that stop us from achieving our greatness (on or off the bike). The goal is to reconnect the rider with themselves and their bikes. I hear so often that women want to ride mountain bikes but it’s too scary. This camp is based on overcoming that fear and finding the rider that lives within. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, join us: www.mammothmountain.com/
Can you please share some tips for improving our cycling skills?
When I teach a clinic, I hope the 3 tips I’ve left with my students are:
1. Make sure your bike is tuned and ready for the trail.
2. Always walk if you come across a section you are not comfortable riding.
3. Look ahead when riding, I use the term, ” Look where you’re going, not where you’re at.” These are some simple tips that help you get started.
How old is Grace? How do you two spend time biking together?
My daughter Grace is 8 years old. She has ridden on two wheels since she was 3 and tells me all the time how she is going to be the best rider ever. We have enjoyed mountain biking in Boulder, Bend, Mammoth, Lake Tahoe, and Whistler. While she is competitive with me, we generally take our rides with the goal to find a great picnic area. Once we find that spot we will turn on the music and enjoy the moment. Maybe someday we will be hitting the jumps on the mountain, riding the rock gardens together, or even racing at the same event, but today biking for the two of us is a moment of uninterrupted attention that we can both enjoy away from the electronic world we now are immersed in.
Fav on-the-bike energy snack?
I have two—my dark chocolate & sea salt Kindbar for food and my Vanilla GU for energy.
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