It was Day Two of La Ruta de Los Conquistadores, a notoriously challenging mountain bike race that crosses the steep jungles of Costa Rica between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, and Lea Davison ’05 was facing the very real possibility of death in the Costa Rican jungle. Boa constrictors slithered behind her; ahead were more muddy trails that sucked her wheels into the ground, more heat, more humidity, and somewhere, her support team and her sister, Sabra ’07.
“Just when I thought there wasn’t any more climbing, there was another 5,000-foot climb; it was insane!” says Davison, a two-time Olympian who adds that racing La Ruta was way harder than the Games. “It’s not a game of peak performance. The Olympics were the most prestigious and pressure-producing events that I’ll ever do, but La Ruta? It’s a game of survival.”
And yet Davison not only survived, she appeared to thrive in tackling the frightening endeavor that the New York Times has called “the world’s toughest bike race.” To put it in perspective, it took 20 years for troops of Spanish conquerors in the 1500s to cross the gnarly Central American terrain from the ocean to the sea. La Ruta participants are asked to do it in three days, and nearly all of the participants drop out. Last year, of nearly 350 entrants, fewer than 10 percent managed to cross the finish line. Davison was one of them, staggering onto the beach with giddy, exhausted relief.
Finishing La Ruta was yet another check mark on Davison’s competitive bucket list, an evolving set that now includes World Championship and World Cup medals and participation in two Olympics—London in 2012 and Rio in 2016.
Though obviously driven to achieve ever bigger and better things, her philosophy is relatively simple and straightforward: “Happiness is fast. When I’m training on the bike, I’m thinking, ‘Am I going as hard as I can right now?’ It’s about being present and being in the moment. And also, ‘Did I do the best that I could?’ That’s how I measure my success, and that’s a high bar if you think about it.”
Life began for Lea Davison on May 19, 1983, in Syracuse, New York, and continued with a childhood in the Green Mountains, playing outside with her younger sister, Sabra, and learning to ski race at the fabled Cochran’s, run by a family of Olympians.
“Alpine ski racing gave them the foundation,” says their mother, Lucia, of how Lea and Sabra grew to be such stellar athletes. “Because in ski racing, you rarely win, and it taught them that you still put out effort and try; that was a good basis.”
Davison has no clear-cut memory of her first time on a bike, but as a toddler, she rode a plastic tricycle that eventually gave way to two wheels. “I definitely remember the first time we got ‘legit’ mountain bikes for Christmas—Mongoose Hilltoppers,” she says during a recent interview at her home. “My parents would bribe us to get us to ride them; we’d ride to the Jericho General Store and get a Snapple.”
As Lea and Sabra picked up new sports, they fueled each other’s competitive fire. “Cross-country running or mountain biking, it was like there was no one else racing; they were very competitive,” says their father, Jeff.
Lucia chimes in: “We didn’t foster that; it just happened.”
“More than that, I always wanted them to just treat people well,” adds Jeff. “In sports you can have a lot of meanness. You need to be gracious and you need to treat the other competitor in a positive way.”
Separately, Sabra shares her thoughts on their upbringing. Were they competitive?
“Incredibly!” she says, admitting to some serious sibling rivalry. “We had to learn how to make that a positive. But the fact that we were so competitive and constantly training with each other really drove our hard work and made our training harder and better quality than anybody else’s. And we always had a buddy. I always say in all things with Lea, ‘Yeah, you have your best friend and your favorite training partner, and the first person you want to win and the last person you want to beat you, next to you all the time.’”
A highly accomplished athlete herself, Sabra has spent most of her nearly 30 years watching her older sister achieve great things, and credits their parents for turning any potential jealousy into a genuine appreciation of sisterhood and being teammates. “She enjoys everything—that’s Lea’s superpower,” says Sabra. “She has this awesome attitude: ‘Let’s get the most out of this!’” After a stage race in Malaysia, for example, Lea took Thai cooking classes, adding to her arsenal of ethnic culinary skills.
Still, fatigue can hit. “I know when Lea’s tired, because the number of showers directly corresponds to it,” says Sabra. “She’s like, ‘Oh, God, it was a three-shower day!’ Or her playlist directly corresponds to how much she needs to get pumped up.” (Davison loves hip-hop and “anything Beyoncé. Flawless. 7/11. Anything from her Lemonade album is fire,” she writes in a text to this reporter in mid-June.)
While she spent her winter months ski racing through Smugglers’ Notch and studying through a special tutorial program, Davison spent the rest of the year at Mount Mansfield Union High School, where she met someone who would also help pave the way toward the top of the podium: Sue Dodge. A world-class marathon runner, she served as Lea and Sabra’s cross-country coach. “She taught them how to operate in the pain cave,” says Jeff. “That was their first experience of pushing themselves beyond what they thought their limits were.”
Davison is quick to agree, recalling doing 600-meter circuit intervals in the woods, where she thought she could never catch up to a teammate named Erin Sullivan. “She said, ‘I want you to stay on Erin for this interval,’” says Davison. “I said, ‘Coach, you’re insane! Erin’s really fast.’ She said, ‘Nope, you’re going to have to do this. Stay on Erin.’ That workout had a big impact on me. Amazing.”
Mount Snow, 2001. That’s where and when Davison and her parents had their eureka moment about her mountain biking future. A high school boyfriend had recently convinced her to stop running track and try mountain biking, which led Davison to the NORBA (National Off Road Bicycle Association) Nationals at Mount Snow, where she placed seventh, doing well enough to qualify for World Championships. “I was like, ‘There’s a world championships for this?’” she says, laughing. “As soon as I found out you could mountain bike for a living, I was like: ‘This is on!’”
“We were in shock,” says Lucia of Mount Snow, 2001. “We said, ‘What’s going on?!’ And that’s when we realized this might be bigger than we thought.”
At the end of her first year at Middlebury, she tore her ACL, getting it repaired in 2002, and then had both hip labra repaired, in 2010 and 2014.
The breakthrough dovetailed with the dawn of Davison’s four years at Middlebury. Majoring in environmental studies with a focus in conservation biology and competing on the alpine ski team, she soon found herself juggling several balls and, admittedly, dropping some every now and again. She says her toughest moment was senior week, when everyone was celebrating and going to parties, and she was slammed with four final papers. “I felt like I came skidding into graduation!”
There was also the time, four years earlier, when she had been trying to squeeze in a last-minute workout for ski racing, and was running up and down the stairs at Alumni Stadium. Exhausted, she tripped and hit her face on the edge of a concrete step. “I came home for Christmas with two black eyes,” says Davison. “Everyone was like, ‘What happened to you at college?’”
Getting hurt is part of sports, and Davison has not only operated in the pain cave, she’s also been operated on multiple times. At the end of her first year at Middlebury, she tore her ACL, getting it repaired in 2002, and then had both hip labra repaired, in 2010 and 2014.
Davison credits Bill Knowles, a renowned reconditioning expert based in Killington, for her coming back strong from surgeries. “He’s such a positive force, and aggressive in terms of rehab,” she says. “And also Sabe and my parents, because there were some low, low points.”
Really, however, Davison has done it herself. “Lea has an innate ability to push herself, to suffer, and keep pushing,” says Dodge. “I believe this comes from her mental strength and her willingness to do the work necessary to reach the next level, which also means doing rehab, resting and recovering, and working on her weaknesses.”
That means dedicated time in the basement of Davison’s Jericho home, which she has shared with Sabra since 2012. Here, several of the 16 Specialized and Orbea bikes that she owns hang on hooks, and a weighted barbell faces a mirror, along with an assortment of Swiss balls, a BOSU ball, and TRX straps. Most curious, though, is the set of Olympic rings on the wall that Davison has fashioned from Hula-Hoops. “Yep, I Hula-Hoop for a warm-up,” she says matter-of-factly. That is how Davison operates. Does not miss a beat.
Davison’s Instagram handle is @leaeatsalot, and it’s no joke. According to Sabra, her sister can shop in bulk at Costco as if she were feeding a family of five, and fail to waste a single crumb.
“Lots of eggs!” says Davison of her nutrition strategy. “Breakfast is super important, so I usually have two fried eggs and toast, sometimes pancakes. I love pancakes.”
That may date back to junior high school, where Jeff says she’d clown around in home economics. “She’d take a mouthful of flour and blow it out,” he says. “Or she’d get in trouble for talking in library. She was fun, gregarious, loved talking.”
Davison agrees with her lighthearted, troublemaking reputation. “I’m a little bit of a troublemaker—and I feel that’s the nature of mountain biking,” she says. “But really, in high school, I didn’t have enough energy to get into mischief.”
On August 20, 2016, in Brazil, a chaotic start for the 29 riders on the 18.43-mile course left Davison straggling and fighting her way toward a viable spot.
She’s joking, of course—Davison has enough energy to get into plenty of mischief, but she just happens to channel it toward training and racing relentlessly. Most of the year, she’s training in Vermont, either around Jericho or south by Manchester, where her girlfriend lives. Nordic skis take the place of the bike when the snow falls. Then, in March and April, Davison goes to Santa Cruz to trade mud season and 40-degree rainy days for training and surfing. She trains anywhere from 15 to 25 hours per week, taking one “active” rest day with an hourlong easy spin and one rest week to reset during the season, and then another, longer reset at the end of the season in October.
This year has been different, because she’s switched bikes from Specialized to Orbea. (Specialized, Lea says, only wanted to support her at domestic races; with the Clif Pro Team, which includes Orbea, she is able to continue racing World Cups.) “It’s a big transition for me,” she says. “I was riding the same bike for the past six years, all the same equipment, and now I’m transferring everything—bike, shoes, helmet. It’s taking me longer to get used to the new equipment and get the fit dialed.”
She reveals this during a lunch meeting at Jericho Café and Tavern, where she pauses from her clam chowder and a warm kale skillet. “I don’t know how these first few World Cups are going to go,” she says. “It’s a little bit of a question mark.”
One look at her USA Cycling bio, though, and it’s clear that Davison knows how to string together successes—period. At least 12 first-place finishes at races from California’s Sea Otter Classic in 2008 to the U.S. Cup Fontana City National in 2013 are among her career highlights. She’s competed in multiple U.S. National Championships and World Championships, earning bronze in 2014 and a World Cup silver in 2015, the best finish for an American cyclist in five years. At the London 2012 Olympic Games, Davison was 11th, a performance she hoped to turn into a medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
On August 20, 2016, in Brazil, a chaotic start for the 29 riders on the 18.43-mile course left Davison straggling and fighting her way toward a viable spot. Picking off rider after rider, Davison managed to finish in seventh place. “Olympics or World Championships, you have to have a phenomenal day to get a medal,” she says. “It just didn’t work out on the day. I’m happy I had a clean race, that nothing happened in terms of flat tires, bike mechanicals, because that is the most heartbreaking: everything in your life is pinned on this moment.”
Davison’s main coach on the bike is Andy Bishop, a longtime friend who has been working with her for about 10 years. “She’s extremely hardworking in terms of her dedication to riding and getting better,” he says, describing the “motorpacing” they undertake regularly. Bishop drives a scooter and Davison drafts behind him on a road bike, which forces her to pedal faster; they can log 90 miles in a three-hour ride. When it’s rainy, “it’s like being sprayed with a muddy water hose in the face for hours,” says Davison.
One time, Davison’s brake pedal got caught on Bishop’s scooter as they were speeding along at 35 miles per hour. They went flying off the road and down a steep, grassy embankment. “She joked, ‘Oh my God! That’s great training for the unexpected,’” recalls Bishop. “Things don’t faze her.
Davison does expect to pursue citius, altius, fortius at least one more time, and then perhaps become a parent herself. “I think it would be great to go to Toyko 2020 because I still have some unfinished business with the Olympics,” she says. “And then pop out some kids after that? Maybe. I don’t know. I’ll still be young enough, I think.”
Bishop says that Davison keeps getting stronger and better every year. “And so she has not reached her peak as an athlete or mountain biker,” he says.
How best to track this progress in an age of Strava (an app for athletes), Apple Watches, and other devices that measure what just about every cell in the body is doing, has done, and perhaps will do? Ask the girl who wears a simple Nixon surf watch on her wrist—to tell the time. “A lot of people ride with computers to see power and all that,” says Davison. “I do not want to know my heart rate! It’s limiting. You just have to go with how you feel.”
At the Catamount Outdoor Center on a Sunday evening in May, a gaggle of young girls in purple, cobalt, and cornflower-blue jerseys are riding mountain bikes around in circles on the grass, listening to Sabra Davison lead some games. “Winner, winner, chicken dinner!” she shouts. “Do I need ketchup or syrup?”
This is Little Bellas, the mountain biking mentoring program that Lea and Sabra founded in 2007 after noticing the gender disparity in mountain biking while racing in the NORBA series. Aimed at girls ages 7 to 16, it has since expanded to include programs in 12 states, with thousands of riders in the past 10 years having learned about goal-setting, camaraderie, and empowerment through cycling. Davison likes to think of Little Bellas as helping girls find their inner badass; she attends as much as she can, and is en route here tonight for a quick hello.
“She gives it credibility, for sure,” says Adam Osekowski, a father who is waiting in the parking lot for his 11-year-old Little Bella named Olivia.
Maeve Serinese, 9, meanwhile, is meeting up with her mom, Erin, when Davison emerges from her car, refueling with a Noosa vanilla yogurt after a four-hour “double gap” ride through the Green Mountains.
“I fell into a pricker bush!” Serinese tells Davison excitedly.
“No way!” says Davison, completely engaged with the young girl, and chuckling in her trademark way. “You went straight for a head dive and missed the turn, huh? How was the session? Did you guys have fun?”
This is genuine, this spark between the 9-year-old beginner and the 34-year-old pro.
“She’s just such a goof when she’s working with the kids from Little Bellas,” says Dodge, whose 13-year-old daughter, Mary, has been riding with the program since she was 8 and now aspires to be a professional mountain bike rider like Lea. “She’s able to connect with them at their level with laughter and empathy.”
Lea Davison is sore. So sore that she can barely walk down the stairs to her basement, where she’s taking a break from prepping for a mountain biking race tonight, June 14, to be held at Catamount Outdoor Center.
Prep work for races varies by venue, caliber, and distance; the fact that this evening’s amateur-friendly 20-kilometer will be followed by a birthday party for her father explains why Davison is actually wrapping a Swix thermometer (for determining his cross-country ski wax selection) in newspaper (the free Essex Reporter, which she just found in her mailbox) in between filling water bottles with Clif hydration mix; showing a visitor her bongo drums and her candy cabinet; and changing out of her bright-pink surf shorts and navy-blue T-shirt that depicts a silhouette of Vermont and the word “Home” and into her Clif Pro Team racing outfit.
Yet then there’s this sore butt, worked from yet another motorpacing session yesterday with her coach, Bishop, followed by weightlifting.
“I am not walking like a two-time Olympian!” she says with a laugh.
But as we’ve seen, Davison doesn’t do much like a two-time Olympian. Even with her sore butt, tonight she will end up placing first among all women competitors—“but I usually judge against the guys” she writes in a text, adding that she was probably top 15 in the men. “I did okay for not being able to walk up and down stairs. Haha. I was moving way faster on my bike than on foot!”
Yep, happiness is fast. But is she really the most badass cyclist on the planet?
“I think so,” she says, smiling coyly. “I don’t want to sound like I have a big head, but I’ve come back from two hip surgeries, and to return at the highest level in the world, mentally, physically? That’s no easy feat. So, yeah, I’ll claim a little bit of that title.”