Interview: Leigh Donovan-The Lady With Game

Leigh Donovan

Few riders can claim to be in more than one cycling Hall of Fame. Leigh Donovan is in not two but three. The 49-year-old SoCal cyclist was inducted into the BMX Hall of Fame in 2013, the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 2014, and the U.S. Cycling Hall of Fame in 2020. Her mountain bike race record includes being the 1995 Downhill world champion, 2001 World Cup Downhill champion, an ESPN X Games gold medalist and nine-time U.S. National champion.

LIFE ON TWO WHEELS

From Leigh’s earliest days, she recalls loving bikes. She started racing BMX in Orange County, California, and was sponsored by Pedal Power BMX. Near the end of her BMX career, she brought home the very first National #1 Girls’ Cruiser title. When she started mountain biking in 1991, it was merely a hobby. She went to Big Bear for a race in May of 1992, entered the cross-country event, and decided that kind of racing likely wasn’t for her. She’s quick to tell you that she hates climbing hills, but when she found out about downhill racing, her interest was piqued. 

A month later, her neighbor talked her into entering the Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze downhill race. Following her high-altitude weekend filled with plenty of thrills and camaraderie, she was hooked. In the decade of racing that followed, she would be sponsored by Haro, Iron Horse, Diamondback, Mongoose, Intense and Schwinn. Even in retirement from her pro career, she’s been riding for GT, Intense, Liv and now Pivot.

IN RETIREMENT

After she retired from racing, she was offered a chance to work with the Interbike trade show. Although it was still a “bike industry” job, it was a desk job, and as Leigh says, “I’m definitely not a desk-jockey kind of gal.” So, after a year of networking where she connected with people in the industry, women executives and others, she recognized a need for mountain bike education. 

Leigh put together a proposal for mountain bike skills, clinics and events that were women-focused. Several companies in the industry showed interest. Starting in 2014, she became a mountain bike instructor: “I teach people how to ride mountain bikes really with the goal to safely ride your bike as a pilot versus a passenger.”

She started working at events with her sponsors, doing clinics at those events. Now, especially during the pandemic, she teaches small groups, some of whom find her on her YouTube channel or her website. 

Surrounded by the place where she grew up—in the mountains of Orange County.

 

She’s been riding e-bikes for a couple of years now and is currently on the latest Shuttle from Pivot, which she rides about 60 percent of the time. “I don’t do a ton of personal riding, maybe one or two rides a week. I teach three times a week, so I would say probably 25 percent of my classes are on e-bikes and 75 percent are still on regular bikes.”

She does like that e-bikes—being even heavier than her 38-pound downhill bike from two decades ago—stay on the ground better and can be easier to control than a much lighter modern mountain bike. Her bike back then had 26-inch wheels, which roll much differently than the 29-inch wheels on her modern mountain bike. Although her Shuttle is set up with 29ers, she’s looking at trying a set of 27.5-inch wheels instead, as she thinks 29-inch wheels are too big. 

E-BIKE DETRACTORS

Leigh loves riding her e-bikes, but still has people tell her off for riding an e-bike. She sets a good example with her way of calming down an upset non-e-mountain bike rider.

“This past summer I was in Santa Cruz, and a group of us rode up to the top, actually right before the fires. We rode in from town, actually from the house we rented. I never drove my car the whole week. I rode my bike everywhere. When we were on one of the downhills, this guy got upset. 

 

“Educating the public is still something we must continue to do. The bottom line is that there are always more positives than negatives with any bike for sure.” 

 

“He said, ‘Oh, those bikes are cheater bikes,’ and I just replied, ‘You know, there was a shuttle trail that people were shuttling their bikes up all the way to the top and then coming down. I noticed you weren’t yelling at all those people that drove in their car and that are coming past you now, but you’re gonna yell at us and not the people that actually rode their bike to the top? We didn’t use any car to get up here!’  

“And it was like a moment where the guy literally had to think about what I just said to him. Instead of being judgmental, for the first time, he was like, ‘I get it.’ But, that was just another illustration of the importance of educating cyclists about e-bikes. Educating the public is still something we must continue to do. The bottom line is that there are always more positives than negatives with any bike for sure.”

TRAIL ACCESS

One of Leigh’s big concerns is trail access for both e-bikes and mountain bikes. She doesn’t understand why so many e-bike manufacturers aren’t working on advocating for better access, especially when so many trails are still closed to e-bikes. She’s suggested a trail survey that sounds great. Follow 200 e-bike riders, 200 bike riders and 200 hikers on a set of trails to see how many incidents there were caused by each on the trail. Good trail etiquette would prevail and show that e-bike riders aren’t the problem they’ve been made out to be.

This is why programs that not only teach riding skills and confidence on the trails, but safety and etiquette are what lead to more fun and more people enjoying the trails!

Check out her YouTube channel, “iChooseBikes With Leigh Donovan,” for some great content and to book her for a clinic. Also, if you’re interested in hearing more about Leigh, we did an interview with her for our podcast, which you can find at Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to them.


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