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Women at the World Cup level may have taken longer than the men to shift to riding predominantly 29ers, but at the first World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, it was clear that elite women are embracing big wheels. Two of the three women that were off the front most of the race were riding 29ers, and of those three, Maja Wloszczowska and Emily Batty’s 29ers crossed the line before Catherine Pendrel’s 26er.
Singletrack.com caught up with the U.S. woman who set the highest bid on the Olympics at the Pietermaritzburg World Cup with the fastest U.S. time, Lea Davison. Davison was included among the many women riding 29″ hardtails in South Africa.
Even though she now posts consistently strong times on 29ers in World Cup races, Davison hasn’t always been a proponent of women on big wheels. She admitted that, “I think I was a hard sell until I actually rode one.”
“Before I got the [Specialized] Fate I was like, ‘I will never ride a 29er. I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid,’ and then they rolled out the Fate and I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m riding a 29er.'”
Even still, Davison said that her initial reaction to the sensation of 29er wheels underfoot was that the bike was less maneuverable than the 26er she was accustomed to. That feeling didn’t last long, though. She explained, “Once I got a handle on the handling and I felt I could make it a bit more snappy, I learned to love it.”
The final sell was easy, though, since her first day on it, she raced a local Wednesday race and won the overall against the men’s field. She explained that winning races will make you fall in love with a bike in a hurry. She also added, “It’s hard not to race a bike that’s under 17lbs,” a tall order for any mountain bike, much less a 29er.
“I feel like riding a 29er hardtail is like riding a full-suspension 26″ bike,” she explained when asked if she would be riding full suspension at any of the season’s World Cups. She may pull out dual suspension for races like Windham that are consistently technical, but feels that the big wheels are sufficient for the courses with intermittent technical sections. Her process of picking a bike for a given race was simple enough. “I go and pre-ride the course to test which bike I can put down the most power and which feels the most snappy,” she explained.
Of one race Davison was certain: “I know I’m gonna race the Fate if I go to the Olympics.” The style of course in London is similar to the one in Pietermaritzburg, with primarily buffed-out singletrack, paired with quick sections of man-made technical features with safer, but slower, lines. If she whips out the full-suspension in a race this year, it will be for a race that is consistently technical throughout the duration.
For someone who went from being determined not to give in to riding 29ers, Davison now strongly advocates women riding on 29″. She believes the trend will not only improve the competition in women’s racing, but that big wheels are great incentive for women to go out and get their tires dirty for the first time. “I think [29ers make] a really good introduction bike,” she explained. Davison believes that women that start on 29ers will have a better initial experience with the sport and will be more likely to stick with mountain biking as a result. “But whatever it takes to get (women) on a bike,” she amended.
If anyone is in touch with what it takes for women to have good introductory experiences with mountain biking, and how to foster that enthusiasm to keep them in the sport, it’s Davison. As the co-founder of the non-profit Little Bellas, she develops mentoring classes for young women interested in learning mountain bike skills. Davison believes that, “it’s different learning to ride from a male than from a female. When they’re put together with the boys, they may get overshadowed, but here it’s just all girls. … We try to create an atmosphere where they fall in love with mountain biking.”
When it comes to the question of 26 vs. 29, expect to see more and more women following Davison and drinking the Kool-Aid in the near future.
Emily spent her infancy in the back of a women’s team van while the team built wheels around her. She spent part of her pre-teen years in Europe following the major European mountain, road and gravity races and touring cycling product factories. College was the first time she lived in a home without a frame building shop in her garage or basement. Her favorite style of riding is getting lost in singletrack trail networks and taking her time finding her way back.