| Outside magazine, June 1996|
Downhill mountain bikers are like butterflies. They show up every spring, flapping their wings, showing off their colors. This year Missy Giove, 1994 world champion cum Reebok spokesrebel, has a new commercial to go along with her six piercings and three tattoos. Former world champion and rowdy heart patient Dave Cullinan has a new barrelful of boasts, not to mention a new team. And Leigh Donovan, last year's world champion, has already been spotted in preseason wearing her trademark fire-engine-red miniskirt, navel-revealing blouse, and bubble-gum-pink lipstick. "My outfits are political statements," she insists.
As the World Cup downhill season moves into high gear this month in Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebec, it seems the struggle for recognition is as much about image as it is about race times. For the last few years the sport has thrived in the mold of Giove, but that, argues reigning champ Donovan, is about to change. A 24-year-old southern Californian who likes to playfully pucker her lips for admirers and who posed topless last year for an advertisement, Donovan says she's on a crusade to introduce a dose of traditional femininity to the sport. "You don't need to be a human pincushion to prove that you can race a bike," she explains.
While Donovan's views may seem a bit behind the times, there's no disputing her current status as the world's best downhiller. She finished last season by wrapping up the U.S. National Championship in Helen, Georgia, and then the World Championships in Kirchzarten, Germany. Of course, in 1996 she'd also like some of the respect that usually comes with such an impressive r‹sum‹. At the worlds, Donovan was booed as she walked onto the podium. A few months later, at the sport's postseason awards ceremony, Donovan was overlooked for the title of top U.S. woman cyclist. (Cross-country diva Juli Furtado, who faltered at the worlds, took the prize for the second straight year.) Which caused some in the Donovan camp to grouse that the award had more to do with popularity than performance. "Leigh wants people to perceive her as a sex object, but a lot of the riders are feminists," says Mercedes Gonzalez, a confidant of Donovan who finished second to her friend at last year's worlds. "They have a hard time accepting her point of view."
Indeed, respect is a touchy topic with all downhillers these days. In July, their cross-country counterparts will compete in the Olympics, but downhillers weren't invited. The snub has left bitterness among some riders, including Cullinan, whose hell-bent style and off-trail antics have brought a lot of attention to the sport. "We sell the bikes," Cullinan says. "We get on TV."
So, telegenic or not, cross-country will be in the Olympic spotlight, while the downhillers are left with the rest of us to follow along on television. Which gives Donovan further incentive to push her gentlemen-prefer-blonds persona, in hopes of garnering at least greater attention, if not respect. And while her rivals may not exactly be lining up to thank her, Donovan's sponsors will tell you the feminine look is here to stay. "She brings to the sport a little bit of the girl-next-door quality," says Tom Eagleton of RockShox, a suspension manufacturer. "She doesn't seem like a creature that came from outer space and runs on adrenaline."