The Dynamite That Is Leigh Donovan
As far as American mountain bike racers are concerned, there are few who have seen as much success over a more-than-three-decade span as Leigh Donovan. And while the number crunchers out there might argue that riders like Ned Overend or Brian Lopes have better stats, more important to me is that Leigh’s success extends far beyond race wins.
Although initially, I had my doubts about what kind of success she would find on fat tires, Leigh’s recent induction into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, in addition to her previous inductions into both the BMX and Mountain Bike Halls of Fame, is the type of trifecta that even the most successful athlete could only dream of.
Despite my initial impression after our first encounter way back in 1991, over the years my appreciation for Leigh has grown. She is a serious racer for sure, but when the helmet comes off, she is still as celebratory and embracing of bikes and life as they come.
A FAMILY PORTRAIT
Many of the sport’s old-timers recall the early days spent on the NORBA circuit as a family affair, and for Leigh, it rang especially true after she married Craig “Stikman” Glaspell, an early XC racer who eventually took up the wrench for a succession of race-winning teams and riders (1992 and 1993, Iron Horse; 1994, Barracuda; 1995–1998, Brian Lopes/Mongoose; 1999, Intense; 2000 and 2001, Schwinn; 2002–2004, GT).
That family portrait was made complete when nine years out of retirement the 38-year-old returned to racing in 2010 and qualified for the U.S. team at the World Championships. After her 5-year old daughter, Grace, carried the American flag for the opening ceremonies, Leigh, with her hubby, Stik, doing the wrench duties, would go on to take top American honors with an eighth-place finish.
“Downhill racers are typically anaerobic for over three minutes, so the better your body is warmed up for the race run, the longer your body can manage that racing intensity.”
AND SO IT BEGINS
MBA: What year did you start riding and racing mountain bikes?
Leigh Donovan: I started riding mountain bikes in 1991. My first race was a cross-country event at Big Bear in May of 1992. I truly hated pedaling uphill, and that race made me think that mountain biking would never be for me. Fast-forward one month later and my neighbor Colleen Wilburn talked me into racing the NORBA National at Mammoth. She told me they had a downhill category, and it piqued my interest.
Haro gave me a frame and some parts to build a bike, and I ended up beating Missy Giove in the dual slalom for third place.
MBA: What different bike sponsors did you have throughout your career?
LD: 1992, Haro Bikes; 1993, Iron Horse; 1994, Diamondback; 1995–1998, Mongoose; 1999, Intense; 2000–2001, Schwinn. After that, I raced in retirement for GT, Intense Cycles, Liv Cycling and now Pivot Cycles.
MBA: How would you differentiate between downhill and dual-slalom skills?
LD: Both share many physical and mental skills. To be good (or great) at both, you need to have exceptional balance; you need to be a master at braking and shifting. Great racers will have an eye for line selection and how to be flexible during a race run when terrain or weather changes. Being open-minded and able to shut off the outside world in a split second are key. Obviously, skills such as cornering, jumping, loving speed and loving competition are some of the main ingredients that make you great, but the difference?
For me, the difference was that in DH, I utilized both my physical and mental skills more equally. I also had to be more comfortable with racing on the edge (or past it, which I’d always make sure I did during a race run). In downhill, it also took a lot more visual preparation to memorize the course and all the line choices, being adaptable to the changing conditions (rain, wind, dry, snow, cold). Fear was a huge component for me, and during practice I often found myself having to overcome my fears to ride sections that scared me, whereas with dual I’d say that rarely happened.
The one important skill for DH is the warm-up for the race run itself. The more fit I would get, the longer and harder I’d have to warm up. Downhill racers are typically anaerobic for over three minutes, so the better your body is warmed up for the race run, the longer your body can manage that racing intensity. Knowing how to read your body and the conditions you are racing under was a huge skill I had to utilize often in DH racing, where I could be sick and/or even not recovered and still win a DS because the skill of perfect riding still mattered more.
“It is so rewarding to watch a new-to-the-sport rider arrive to a skills clinic with fear written all over their face, and then watch them leave with confidence and a smile.”
I always found dual slalom to be much more stressful. Again, the same physical and mental skills would cross-pollinate (and you need those skills to win), but I personally found this type of racing didn’t leave much room for error; you would get one shot, and it would have to be perfect. Any mistake could easily cost you the race.
Managing your stress before each race run, and having the skill to block out the distractions of competitors (especially those that loved the head games), was also challenging for a kid who loved to talk and generally engaged in nervous chatter.
Even during the recovery between each run, whether it was walking back up to the top to do another run or driving up in a vehicle with my competitors, I needed to learn how to be an actor by basically appearing to be engaged with others, but on the inside maintaining the focus and drive that I had to work so hard to find every race.
MBA: Who looks better with his shirt off, Stik or Brian Lopes?
LD: Well, I married Stikman, so you guess my answer! I’m kind of into the skinny-guy look, so even though I love Lopes, those big, bulky muscles aren’t my thing!
THE FRENCH THREAT
MBA: Who was the tougher competitor, Missy Giove or Anne-Caroline Chausson?
LD: Both Anne and Missy were tough competitors. Missy had the drama and so much energy around her every move, which as her competitor was both frustrating and distracting. Anne was the complete opposite—private and quiet. Because I lived somewhere in the middle, I felt the two actually balanced me out as a competitor by helping me stay in my own lane. They were both amazing competitors and equally awesome humans.
I would say, however, when I think about beating Anne, it was always memorable, and there is a feeling of beating a great that I can’t say I have when I think about beating Missy. Missy kicked butt, and I have great respect for her. She is one of the nicest, kindest humans I have ever met. But, at the end of my career, I’d say it was Anne. I had risen to the highest level, and Anne was, and will always be, the greatest DH racer in the world. The two of us battled.
I did beat Anne many times, some at World Cups, some at special events, and every time I knew when I lined up, she was my main competitor, and I had to bring my best to beat her. After winning four of the six [dual slalom] World Cups in 2001, along with winning the overall World Cup title, I was able to retire from racing as one of the greats, all because I was able to beat the GOAT fair and square many times during my career. So, after all that, I guess the answer is Anne.
MBA: Do you have a favorite race bike?
LD: I always loved dual-slalom racing more than downhill racing. There was something about it that completed me. I struggled to find a great bike during my early days of racing.
In 1999 I asked Chris Herting (3D Racing) if he’d make me a dual-slalom hardtail frame because the hardtail bikes back then were lame with ridiculously steep head angles, which made me gravitate towards full-suspension bikes for dual-slalom racing. I loved that bike and rode it for my last three seasons (it went through many paint jobs). I won so many races with it, including my World Cup and National DS titles.
Best of all, the bike is still alive and well and getting plenty of use at the dirt jumps with one of my NICA high school team racers. It will always be my favorite bike!
MBA: Can you explain your transition from being a racer to being an ambassador?
LD: I was an ambassador with Liv from 2014–2018, where I helped grow their educational platform across the U.S. with a focus on getting more women on bikes—safely. We put on women’s events, tested women’s products, made skill videos, and made a big push to invite more women to join us.
Currently, I work with Pivot Cycles, Shimano and Troy Lee Designs. They continue to allow me to put education first. Before COVID hit, I’d help out at events, leading rides, joining educational panels and helping riders find their best through skill clinics. I am currently focused on skill clinics (beginner and intermediate) for private or small groups with SkyPark at Santa’s Village.
This is my seventh year of full-time teaching, and I’ve seen the rise in education across the country, with so many new coaches and instructors doing their best to get more riders out there riding safely! Being an ambassador for mountain biking is about helping riders understand that mountain biking can be fun and safe, and you can overcome the fears with facts.
It is so rewarding to watch a new-to-the-sport rider arrive to a skill clinic with fear written all over their face, and then watch them leave with confidence and a smile.
MBA: What is your best advice for women riders to get their “Leigh” on?
LD: When you’re asked to do a photo shoot with a guy named Zap and he’s not that nice to you, don’t let it stop you from chasing something that you love (yeah, you were hard on me!). I almost said no to getting the Haro bike when Colleen Wilburn set that whole sponsorship thing up, because you made me feel like I would never amount to anything. Good thing I said yes!
I have struggled much of my life with confidence and deal with depression from time to time. I often let others dictate my outcome in my early years of life because I wasn’t strong enough to stand up for myself. In 1992, I was so scared to go to Mammoth and race the Kamikaze. I had so much fear in my life at that time, but something inside me made me try.
My best personal advice would be to learn to love who you are and not what you are and chase a dream no matter how scared you are. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I would have never gone to Mammoth back in 1992 to race with Team Haro.
Would I have never raced, made all my wonderful friends, traveled the world, grown more confident, loved myself? I often wonder this. And when I’m scared now about taking a risk, I think about what I want to do and whether it will make my life better.
My best advice is to take a minute when making big decisions (whether it is on the trail or personally), and if you want to be a great bike rider, know that it comes with great effort and sometimes huge sacrifice. Don’t say no just because it scares you. Say maybe, or even yes, and face the fear. The people we look up to the most, the people we admire and want to be just like are all flawed, all human and all struggle with something, but they found a way to say yes!
MBA: What is your best advice for a racer?
LD: Hire a coach who will keep you accountable to a training schedule. Surround yourself with riders who are better than you, and watch and learn from them. Take care of your body through massage and yoga. Eat well, and don’t overload your body with supplements.
Have your blood drawn once a year (or twice if you’re having health problems) to check your vitamin levels and any deficiencies that you may have so you can make adjustments to your diet or add a specific supplement that may be missing in your diet.
Off the track, work on your human side often and give back when you can to your local community (this will keep you humble). Race local races, and don’t think you’re better than them because you win World Cups. Be prepared, both personally and physically. You will have bumps and bruises along the way, but allow yourself to accept those things you cannot change, and don’t ever let it stop you from making yourself the rider or human you want to become.
MBA: How does it feel to be inducted into three Halls of Fame?
LD: Amazing. But it’s more than just that. It’s a confirmation that I did something right and that I am still doing something right in the bike industry. It may sound cliché, but I’m honored to be inducted. However, I didn’t do it alone. I’ve had so many people along the way help me get to where I am.
I guess when I think about recognition at this level, it brings back all the memories of Mom and Dad working their tails off for me to race BMX bikes, or my good friend Colleen Wilburn telling me I’d be a great mountain biker. Of course, also those sponsors and coaches from the beginning of my mountain bike career that took a risk on me, just because they saw something in me. Without all these people in my corner over all these years, I’m just not as awesome.
But any athlete knows that to be recognized for your accomplishments doesn’t stink, and now I get to live forever as a part of cycling history.
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun.