I have always felt that my mission here on Earth is to empower women.
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I grew up as a downhill ski racer and also a cross country runner – two pretty unique sports. I found mountain biking when I was 17 years old and I quickly discovered that it perfectly merged those two sports together. I needed the fitness and ability to push myself from cross country running, and then the bike handling had a lot of overlap with downhill ski racing. So, I kind of immediately took to it. I started racing at the local level and then that first year – 2000 – I did one US Cup race and my eyes were completely opened up. I was like, ‘oh my gosh! There are women that race professionally for a job!’ So, the next year I raced and won Snowshoe and someone approached me from USA Cycling and said, “hey! Since you won this Junior race you qualified for the World Championships!” I was like, ‘there’s a World Championships?’ I honestly had no idea. Not surprisingly, it was that same season that I learned mountain biking was an Olympic sport, that there were World Championships and that you could make a living with it. So, from that point on, I was laser focused. I knew ‘this is what I’m going to do’.
In 2001, I ended up competing in the Junior World Championships, in Vail (CO), and that essentially kicked off my cycling career. I came in seventh and I had no idea what I was doing. I raced the World Championships with a Camelback and an $800 bike. I seriously had no idea what I was doing. But, I came in seventh and I actually had the fastest lap time on the 2nd lap; so, I showed some promise. I was invited to join the most successful Junior development team at the time, Team Devo, and I started college. It was my first year at Middlebury College in Vermont, and there was no U23 class back then so that first year I made the jump from racing Junior to Pro. Talk about eye-opening!
I raced some Collegiate during my time at Middlebury but I mainly focused on the US National series (NORBA) which was booming at the time. During my senior year of college, there was a U23 National Championships and I won it, which allowed me to sign with a Pro Team, thank goodness, in 2005. I have been professionally mountain bike racing since then – 20 years!
One thing that I think is important to point out is that USA Cycling has been a part of my career since the very beginning. I’ve been working with USA Cycling in various capacities at different stages of my career for 20 years now. The relationship has been especially important this past year – the 2019/2020 season – because I was/am not on a factory team. That means my team has no presence at the World Cups, no mechanic, no massage therapist… USA Cycling is really the only reason that I could race World Cups in the 2019 season and pursue my Olympic Dreams. It is run like a professional team. USA Cycling supported me with logistics in terms of lodging, transportation, flights over to Europe for the World Cups and mechanic support. I have the same amount of support in terms of mechanics, soigneurs, support staff and everything that I had when I was on full factory teams – it has not been a step down and that has been a big relief for me. Being supported by USA Cycling has also provided a cool opportunity to engage with up-and-coming riders. You travel a lot with the U23 cyclists to the World Cups, and it provides a unique chance to nudge the next generation along and show them what it is like to be racing at the elite level – what it takes. I love it. We currently have a group of elite women that work really well together and I think it is important that the U23 girls see that and know that mountain biking, although it is an individual sport, can be a team sport too. It doesn’t have to be so competitive among riders from the same country. Instead, you can actually work together because you have the whole world to race against. I put a lot of energy into modeling that for the younger generation, and I am really enjoying that opportunity.
Part of why I am really enjoying my current opportunity is because I have always felt that my mission here on Earth is to empower women. To use cycling, my career, and my success as a platform and a conduit to do that. My personal mission definitely fed into launching Little Bellas - Mentoring on Mountain Bikes with my sister, Sabra, and Angela Irvine in 2007. Growing up, Sabe and I were very aware of the reality that there were not as many junior girls as boys on the start line at races, and there was also a shortage of positive female role models in the media. So, we wanted to provide good role models for young girls and to use cycling to empower as many females as possible. Ultimately, we wanted to provide opportunities. Little Bellas is a great program for girls who are not really engaging in the classic sports system and the girls who play all the sports. Wherever a girl falls on the sporting spectrum, Little Bellas is a great place for them to find their tribe, to find friends who ride bikes and to improve and get better at riding. Girls need opportunities, and Little Bellas is providing that.
Looking back, Little Bellas started with more volunteer mentors than girls. In the first year, we probably had twelve mentors and eight girls. Yet, by the end of summer 2007, we had more girls than mentors so that was a success. Then, it just blew up over the next two years. Word got out through the moms in the area – we did no marketing – it was just word of mouth. Very grassroots. But, all of a sudden, thirty girls signed up, and we had to evolve quickly. There were some growing pains. But we adapted, and we are bigger than ever now! We have around 1200 girls that we will get on bikes this season and around 500 volunteer mentors.
It is an exciting time for Little Bellas, and we are always looking for additional support. The easiest way to get involved is to be a mentor. We are a full on 501c3, and there is an application process. You can go to our website to see if you have a local Little Bellas chapter nearby and you can apply directly to become a mentor. Being a mentor is really cool because we have found that you automatically find your tribe. Female cyclists commonly have a hard time finding other women to ride with. We have found that Little Bellas has created a great cycling community – for the mentors, the families, and the girls. It impacts each group, which is really special. The other way to get involved in Little Bellas is to start a Little Bellas Chapter. There is another application process for that and we try to provide support on our end to make it as easy as possible for these women who want to start programs for girls in their local communities.
Most recently, I started the Little Bellas Pro Ambassador Program. We currently have twenty-two Pro Ambassadors that are linked up with our local chapters or engaging with the girls online. We have a pro pen pal segment that we do. We have a lot of USA Cycling athletes in terms of road and mountain bike, but we also have cross country skiers, triathletes – a lot of different athletes involved. Leading this Program is one of my roles with Little Bellas. My inspiration for it was to clone myself. I couldn’t visit all these chapters that we have and these Little Bellas were missing out on the opportunity to meet a pro in real life. I wanted to give as many Little Bellas as possible the experience of meeting a pro who rides the same trails that they do, who maybe went to the same elementary school that they did, for a chance to really connect with them.
It has been such a rewarding and inspiring experience to be able to compete professionally for 20 years now and, at the same time, give back to the sport by providing tangible opportunities for girls – and women – to get involved in the sport through Little Bellas. I am excited to see where the future takes me both professionally and via my involvement in Little Bellas.
About the Contributor
Lea Davison competed in two Olympics (11th place in London and 7th place in Rio) and also won two World Championships medals in 2014 and 2016. After experiencing how much sports gave to them, Lea and her sister wanted to empower as many girls as possible through cycling. The Little Bellas was born, a mentoring on mountain bikes program for girls. Lea’s true passion is empowering women and using her cycling career as a platform to do this.