American Lea Davison’s second-place finish last weekend in Lenzerheide, Switzerland — her best-ever finish at a World Cup cross-country event — was a “huge confidence boost” on her quest to become the first U.S. rider to win a World Cup since Alison Dunlap in 2002.
While Canadian Catharine Pendrel has won 11 World Cups (and two World Cup series titles), and compatriot Geoff Kabush took a win on home soil in Bromont in 2009, no North American man or woman has done so since Dunlap won two — and the overall series title — in 2002, while wearing the rainbow jersey of world champion.
Over the past five years, Willow Koerber and Georgia Gould have reached the podium, both on several occasions, but neither was able to secure that elusive World Cup victory.
In Lenzerheide, under hot, dry, and dusty conditions, Davison saw a front-row start go up in smoke when she pulled out of a pedal on the course’s first main climb and lost position. She spent the first half of the six-lap race clawing her way back, ultimately catching and passing Swiss rider Jolanda Neff (Stoeckli), and then Pendrel, to finish exactly one minute behind Norwegian Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Multivan Merida).
A four-time world cross-country champion and the 2004 Olympic gold medalist, Dahle Flesjaa, 42, registered a record 29th World Cup victory. The Lenzerheide event was the third of six cross-country races on the 2015 World Cup calendar.
Davison’s result — one better than the bronze medal she took at last year’s world championship — moved her into fourth in the World Cup series rankings, and served as added motivation as the Specialized rider prepares for the second half of her season, which will include a defense of her national XC title in Mammoth Mountain, California, on July 18, followed by two North American World Cup events in early August.
Earlier this week, VeloNews caught up with Davison by phone to discuss her silver-medal ride in Switzerland, the rest of her 2015 season, and her road to Rio 2016.
VeloNews: Was this result a surprise? Did you start the race believing you could fight for the win?s
Lea Davison: It was and it wasn’t. I knew I had it in me, especially after the bronze medal at the world championships last year. I have been building and gaining momentum as the season progresses on, and it’s nice to actually do it, and to do it this early in the season. I have my eye on the North American World Cups, and of course the world championships, and to make it happen, to have my career-best result, earlier than that, is fantastic.
VN: How did the race play out?
LD: It was a very different course than the other World Cup courses. It was very technical, and there were not a lot of passing opportunities. The entire thing was held on rough, bumpy, technical singletrack. There was one main pavement climb, which we started on. The start was important, and I was on the front row, ranked eighth, which I was happy about. I had a good start, but then I pulled out of my pedal, which was not ideal. I was able to get [the cleat] back in quick, but on the first half of the first lap I’d dropped back to about 14th position. I was stuck in some traffic, and I lost about 45 seconds on the leaders in the first lap. I just put my head down, and told myself I needed to pass as many people as possible on the first two laps, because it typically just explodes from there, the time gaps just get bigger.
By the third lap I was able to get on the podium; I passed Maja [Włoszczowska] for fifth. Jolanda was coming back from behind, and for laps four, five, and six, it was Jolanda and I battling, which was fun. It was in Switzerland, so I felt like I was racing the entire country. The fans were crazy, just awesome, that country really loves cycling. I was feeling good, and I was riding the entire second half of the lap better than her, so coming into last lap, behind Jolanda, I knew I would make a move on the first climb. I attacked, and got a gap, and then I could see Catharine [Pendrel] in second. I was closing in on her, and halfway through the last lap I passed her. But then she passed me back, so I got on her wheel, and attacked her in the last feed zone, which was kind of the only place to attack. I put some time in her and came in second.
VN: What is there to say about Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa, winning her 29th World Cup at age 42?
LD: The first half of the race she rode away from Catharine. I never even saw her. She’s 42, she’s just unbelievable. It’s cool to see the women’s World Cup so competitive. You have Gunn Rita, and she’s battling with Jolanda, who is young enough that Gunn-Rita could be her mom, you have the old-school racers and the newbies coming up, and I’m somewhere in between. You have the whole spectrum of races, and ages. Irina [Kalentyeva] is up there, she’s been at it for years, and she was fifth [in Lenzerheide].
VN: If this was a “very different course than the other World Cup courses,” and you had your best-ever result, is it fair to assume that rough, bumpy, technical courses work to your advantage?
LD: I was feeling really good. I worked a lot on dialing in my lines, making sure I had the entire course dialed, that I knew where I was going. The course didn’t have three steep climbs like the others — only one main climb — and then the whole thing was punchy power climbs, which I think is an advantage for me. But I feel like I can ride on the whole spectrum of courses, really.
VN: So you are back in the States for the next month?
LD: Yep. I’m racing the North American World Cups, Mont-Sainte-Anne, then Windham. I’m in the States until then, headed to Mammoth for the national championships, then back to Vermont, which is my home base for the season.
VN: Will you be going to nationals with the mindset that the jersey is yours to lose?
LD: Of course I want to keep it, it’s such an honor to ride the World Cups in the U.S. national champion’s jersey. I have won two in a row, and the year before , I won the short track championship, and Georgia won the cross-country.
VN: Is Georgia Gould your biggest threat for the national title?
LD: We have a solid crew of American ladies. Georgia (Luna) is the main rival, but there is also Erin Huck (Scott 3Rox). Chloe [Woodruff] has been riding well, she had her best-ever World Cup finish, in 17th. We were doing hot laps together, and she was very strong. Evelyn Dong [Sho-Air-Cannondale] could come out strong. All those girls live at altitude too, so I will be going in there with a healthy respect. It’s going to be a good race. The last time I was in Mammoth was for nationals, and I won the U23 title, so I have some good juju on that mountain.
VN: You’ll be based in Vermont, which is not far from Mont-Sainte-Anne and Windham, so travel and jet lag won’t be an issue for you. Do you feel like a win at one of the North American World Cups is within reach?
LD: That result [in Lenzerheide], and how it all played out, was a huge confidence boost. I couldn’t be more excited to race those World cups, especially in my backyard. Each venue is a five-hour drive from Vermont, so I will have my friends and family there. It will be so much fun.
VN: Who coaches you?
LD: My coach is Andy Bishop. He used to race on the road, with 7-Eleven, and then he switched to mountain bike and rode for Subaru-Gary Fisher. He also lives in Vermont. I’m actually the only one he coaches; it’s a way for him to keep his hand in the cycling world. He’s been my coach for eight years. We work really well together.
VN: How does this performance, in July 2015, fit into your plan to peak in August 2016 in Rio de Janeiro?
LD: I’d say it’s working out really well so far. That’s what you want, to be building, to be clocking in better results, and gaining confidence. It’s a great thing, this year is a big test year for the Olympic year. Things are always different, and worlds this year is at elevation [in Andorra] while Rio is at sea level. But it’s been great to test out our build-up to big events. It’s working.