Lea Davison is a 2x Olympian and professional mountain biker. She has been competing in cycling for 20 years. She and her sister Sabra started the non-profit 'mentorship through mountain biking' program, which empowers young women and girls through cycling, setting goals, living a healthy lifestyle and creating positive female bonds.
What was the sport of cycling like when you joined, in terms of inclusivity?
When I first joined the mountain bike world, there actually were equal race opportunities for men and women. Both pro men and women were getting equal TV time and livestream coverage. These two things have been consistent in the mountain bike world over the course of my career, and it has made elite mountain biking racing more equal than the road, cyclocross and other cycling disciplines. There was not equal prize money for the men and women, and salaries were not equal. I remember there being some female leaders of the sport at the time that had very destructive beliefs that women don't deserve equal salaries to men. When this became apparent to me, it was one of the first moments I realized that women can be our own worst enemies and block progress. This was also a prime example where the equality that had been fought for in the generation of female mountain bikers before us was not passed down. This was a moment that illuminated the need to work together to carry that equality torch and also bring the younger female riders right along with me on that journey.
There was also a big disparity in the numbers of male and female junior racing mountain bikes. My sister, Sabra, and I experienced this first hand racing in the Junior mountain bike fields, and this is part of what motivated us to start Little Bellas, a nonprofit mentoring on mountain bikes program for girls. We wanted to get more girls on bikes and try to make an impact.
How have those circumstances improved over the last 20 years?
Georgia Gould was on the UCI mountain bike committee and pushed for equal prize money at World Cups. She had success and now there is more equal prize money for UCI races. It's hard to gauge how the fight for equal salaries has gone since most riders sign non-disclosures when they sign a contract with a pro team. I believe that the top women earn closer to equal salaries to the men, and there's still some progress to be made.
Up until last year, there were always more Olympic start spots for men than there were for the women. The women had a max number of two spots that a top ranked country could qualify, and men could qualify three spots. This only just changed for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic cycle. Now, the top two ranked countries can qualify three Olympic spots women, equal to the men. The USA mountain bike women have fought hard and raced around the globe to be ranked second in the world, and we currently have three spots for the Tokyo Olympics.
How have you chosen to challenge the norms?
With our work with the Little Bellas, we are trying to create opportunities for young women and create a more inclusive space in the cycling industry. The work that the Little Bellas team has done, and is doing, is challenging the norm that the cycling industry is a white, male dominated sport. There's an idea that mountain biking is an individual sport, and we are always competing against each other. I believe that we are more powerful when we work together as a team. As Team USA, we have the whole world to race against. We don't have to focus on racing each other. Let's work together to push each other, lift each other up, and help each other to reach the best possible version of ourselves. When you working together, when one of us wins, we all win. We all play a part in that victory. Shalane Flanagan, Olympic runner and marathoner, has a great quote that I really believe in. She says, "If you are lonely at the top, you did it wrong. High performers focus on pulling others up along with them. They are generous as they rise and create a tribe." As an experienced veteran of the sport, I have so much knowledge to give back. I feel like that's my duty.
Where is cycling headed for women?
In the last twenty years, I have experienced more of an investment in women. In terms of equipment, the industry has moved away from 'shrink it and pink it' - just taking men's equipment, making it smaller, and throwing pink on it. Now, there are bikes, apparel, and equipment that are really designed with women in mind. The sport and industry is still very male dominated so we have to continue to push to be more inclusive, to put BIPOC in leadership and decision making positions, and to create a more welcoming space. We have a long, long way to go. On the racing side, there's still no women's Tour de France. The broader view of the cycling world, it's still very unequal. he difference in prize money, salaries, and race opportunity especially on the road is absolutely appalling. We must do better.
Is there a specific person you can point to that helped pave the way for you?
My mom and dad raised my sister and I as feminists. I remember watching TV and my mom asking questions like, 'why isn't the doctor in this show ever a woman?' It's questions like these that really got us thinking and planted the seed. Since my mom was pre-Title IX and the only sport available to her was cheerleading, she made sure to give us every single athletic opportunity that she could. We did everything from windsurfing lessons to trying swim team. We literally played everything available. Sports have given me so much and, from that foundation, my sister and I wanted to create the same opportunities for girls through cycling. This is another spark that ignited Little Bellas. Ideally, I want to make the world a more fair, inclusive, and equal place now and for the future, and I want the next generation coming to pick off where I left off.