This story appeared in the March/April edition of VeloNews Magazine.
Lea Davison needed a miracle.
It was the final stage of the Kos Island Stage Race—a little-known four-day mountain bike race held in the Greek island of Kos—and Davison was sitting in third place in the overall standings. A flat tire during an earlier stage had torpedoed her shot at the overall victory. Second place, however, was still attainable, and Davison was committed to grabbing that spot.
After all, she had traveled all the way from her home in Vermont to this island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, weeks after she would normally end her season, in hopes of a top finish.
When the gun sounded, Davison attacked.
“I just drilled it in the front,” Davison told VeloNews. “Maja [Wloszczowska] was on my wheel the whole time, and I just went as hard as I could to drop her.”
Davison’s repeated surges eventually dropped Wloszczowska on the rocky, rough course. As she sped along the long climbs and descents, the American continued to pour on the speed. Davison eventually took the stage win, and she then stared at the clock as each second ticked off. Finally, Wloszczowska crossed the finish line, minutes in arrears. Davison had done enough to finish second overall.
“It made the entire trip worthwhile and it was the confidence-boost I had needed all season,” Davison said. “It was pretty special to do what I had set out to do.”
What Davison had set out to do in Greece was bolster the United States’s push to earn the maximum three spots for the women’s cross-country race at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. In 2018 the UCI released the playbook for qualifying for the Olympics. The document carried a new wrinkle: the two top nations in the UCI standings could now earn three spots, whereas in years past it was just two.
The period to earn points ran from May 2018 through May 2020. As the 2019 World Cup season drew to a close in August, Team USA sat in second place, pushed forward by Kate Courtney’s impressive World Cup-winning season. But Team USA’s lead was tenuous, and Canada and The Netherlands were just a few points behind.
In a normal season, Davison and her peers might end their respective seasons and prepare for vacation time. Instead, Davison, along with Erin Huck and Chloe Woodruff prepared to travel across the globe, chasing after UCI points in an effort to defend the USA’s spot in the standings. Three spots in Tokyo were on the line. It was not an easy undertaking.
“I was hanging on by a thread to my form,” Davison said. “It was just like, ‘remember the goal, remember the goal, let’s do this.’”
Changes in the MTB model
The Olympic chase has captured the attention of mountain biking’s top athletes since off-road racing made its Olympic debut in 1996. Previous generations of American riders circled the globe on the World Cup calendar, backed by large factory racing teams owned by big bike manufacturers.
Mountain biking’s Olympic chase was immortalized by the 2005 documentary “Off-Road to Athens,” which chronicled the efforts of Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, Susan Haywood, Mary McConneloug in their push toward the Athens Olympics.
“It’s always tight and tense,” said Davison, who qualified for the games in 2012 and 2016. “The chase for the number of spots was usually an afterthought. Everyone just wanted to qualify themselves.”
By 2019, the economic model governing American cross-country racing had undergone dramatic changes. Old factory teams like Subaru-Gary Fisher and Trek-Volkswagen were long gone, while other squads focused more on backcountry events, stage races, and gravel.
Thus, only Courtney enjoyed the benefits of factory team backing from her Scott-SRAM team at the World Cup races. Huck, Davison, and Woodruff, meanwhile, all raced on privateer racing programs that valued North American events but did not pay for international travel. In early 2019 USA Cycling stepped in to fund all three women on the World Cup, due to the dearth in sponsorship dollars.
Marc Gullickson, the mountain bike coordinator for USA Cycling, said it made sense to fund all three women at the races, due to their impressive results and need for financial support.
“Our women are our strength,” Gullickson said. “We have a deeper bench with our top women, and they can compete with the best in the world.”
Indeed, Huck, 38, is a biomedical engineer whose career took off as she reached her mid 30’s. She won two national titles in 2017, and throughout the 2018 season regularly battled for the top-10 in World Cups. Woodruff, 31, is a cycling prodigy who earned her first national title as a teenager; by age 30 she had gone to one Olympics and won multiple national championships.
Davison is another lifelong racer with stellar international accolades, including earning a silver medal at the UCI world championships. All three women were strong enough to score UCI points that could count toward the country’s nation ranking.
“They’re all so good,” Gullickson said. “We need to focus on the World Cups and take care of business, and if we do, we have a great shot at [three spots].”
The backing from the federation meant that all three embarked on their respective 2019 international campaigns as de facto teammates. At World Cup races they all wore the stars-and-stripes jersey of the national federation, and roomed together in hotels, traveled together to and from events, and even pre-rode the course together. Rather than view each other as competitors, they saw each other as teammates.
The three women shared in each other’s successes and failures throughout the season. They celebrated together when Woodruff won the short-track cross-country race at the World Cup event in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. And they came together to support Huck after she shattered her ankle while pre-riding the World Cup course in Albstadt, Germany at the onset of the season.
“You might think it’s a small change, but just wearing the same kit at World Cups had this really positive impact,” Huck said. “You feel a camaraderie when you’re wearing the same jersey, like you’re on the same team. It brought us closer.”
As the World Cup season drew to a close, the three women saw the points standings and knew that both The Netherlands and Canada would try to capture the second spot on the UCI standings. So, a few days prior to the World Cup finals in Snowshoe, West Virginia, the three met in Woodruff’s condo to discuss a plan of attack.
“We threw around some crazy ideas about points, and we all felt motivated to squeeze in a trip at the end of the season,” Woodruff said. “We had a verbal financial support from [Gullickson], so we started to strategize on how best to make the most of the points.”
The three drew up a plan: Davison would race the Tokyo test event in October before flying to Greece to compete in two stages races: Attika Cup and Kos Island. Woodruff and Huck would travel to Israel for the five-stage Israel Epic, a two-person race across the desert. The plan meant all three would need to extend their seasons just a little bit longer.
The international push
Woodruff looked at her bicycle in disbelief—the rig was hopelessly tangled around a ball of bailing wire. Woodruff and Huck had been riding in the front group at the Israel Epic when the course took them through a darkened culvert, and she became entangled in the wire. Woodruff eventually untangled her bicycle, and she and Huck began pedaling as hard as they could into the desert.
“You end up losing a ton of time when you’re out of the front group,” Woodruff said. “So, we were just out there chasing forever trying to make up time.”
The calamity marked yet another challenging moment for the duo throughout the race across Israel. Neither Huck nor Woodruff had done a two-person race before, and both spent the early stages learning the nuances of the discipline.
“Chloe is so good on technical descents and she loves to go fast on single track, while I’m a climber, you give me a climb and I’ll motor up it for days,” Huck said. “Adopting the other person’s riding style took a few days and a lot of communication.”
The two started strong, winning the short prologue. They lost five minutes on the opening mountain stage, and then lost more time on stage 2, finishing nearly 13 minutes behind Canadians Catharine Pendrel and Haley Smith. But they roared back on the final stage to solidify second place overall in the standings. The effort brought in more UCI points toward the American total.
The combined effort paid off: Davison, Huck, and Woodruff secured nearly 200 combined points, boosting the U.S. total to 4,308 points, nearly 300 points ahead of The Netherlands. More importantly, however, was the psychological impact the chase had on the Americans.
“The points chase and having a combined goal brought us together as a team, which has been special,” Huck said. “The word that comes to mind is respect. I consider them my friends.”
That combined respect will, of course, be put to the test in the final push toward the Olympics. Should the U.S. secure three spots, a grim reality awaits one of the American riders. Courtney secured her Olympic spot, which leaves USA Cycling to determine the two other Americans to go, should no one meet the automatic criteria at the World Cup opener in May. In that scenario, USA Cycling will need to choose two riders between Woodruff, Huck, and Davison.
“One of us will lose out and it’s going to be absolutely heartbreaking,” Davison said. “I think the fact that we’ve all thrown everything at it together will change the impact. But what can you do?”
Kate Courtney’s ascendance
Of the four Americans targeting Tokyo, Courtney, of course, has the best shot at winning a medal. Courtney is already an elite world champion and World Cup winner at age 23, and in 2019 she collected three cross-country wins on the World Cup series.
Courtney’s success on the World Cup series in 2019 drove Team USA’s points totals toward new heights and was a major reason why the U.S. ended the season ranked so high. So, when Huck, Davison, and Woodruff met to plan out their globetrotting mission, Courtney was not part of the plan. She had already earned more than her share of points, and Courtney planned to race an early-season stage race in Cyprus to take additional points.
Courtney had come to represent a special figure for all three women. They had raced alongside Courtney as a junior and witnessed her progression first-hand through the ranks. Huck and Courtney had traveled to the Pan American Championships when the latter was a junior and Huck was the national champion. Woodruff said she was inspired to win her first World Cup by seeing Courtney’s success.
Davison was Courtney’s older teammate on the Specialized Factory Racing team for several years and tried to pass along her knowledge to the budding racer.
“I gave her advice on how to talk to the mechanics, how to make contacts in the industry, even what tires to use for a course,” Davison said. “When Kate wins, everybody wins.”
Courtney said those experiences were invaluable to her own Olympic chase. She watched on the sidelines as Davison made her push for the 2016 Olympics and qualify.
“She actually gave me one of her Olympic Team t-shirts from 2012 to encourage me to dream big and go for it myself,” Courtney told VeloNews. “I think those experiences have really impacted my mental approach to my first real Olympic season and having Lea as a mentor and now more of a peer in my racing career always keeps things fun and motivating.
And that was the final chapter in Team USA’s unique camaraderie in the push for Tokyo. It was a story of four women, working together, to accomplish a common Olympic dream.