The Little Bellas program have wrapped up for the 2014 season, and it is all but quiet at Little Bellas head quarters. Lea got third at the World Championships. This is her best result to date coming off hip surgery in January, this is an incredible feat and testimony that hard work pays off. We are so proud of her. Here are some words from Lea about her race:
I rode to a bronze medal finish at the World Championships in Hafjell, Norway!!!!! I'm a very excited person, but, honestly, this is a new level. I've never been so happy than riding down that finish stretch and across the finish line at that race. I would have been completely ecstatic with my season if I defended my national championship title in July. Then, when I equaled my best ever world cup finish at Mount Saint Anne, I started to believe that something big was really possible this season. It was a bit hard to believe actually coming off of hip surgery in January and missing the first half of the season. But, I pressed into the second half of the season without any limits. This is the special thing about coming back from an injury. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to fare against a deeply competitive world cup field that had been training and racing for months more than I had. I had no expectations, and, with that, I also put no limitations on myself. I was simply happy to be back racing my bike in earnest, and I just became more and more happy as the races ticked by. As my sister says, when I am happy, I race fast. I am truly grateful to be back, and I had so much fun with my new teammate, Kate Courtney, this year. As one can see from the last post, we especially had a blast in France and Norway before Worlds. This combination, along with the hours of support from many different people and hard work, really put me a great situation for the World Champs. I was really happy.
I scored my lucky number, 22, for a start position, and I was stoked. This was definitely a great sign. I raced the relay on Wednesday before the World Championships XC. The relay is a team event where each country races a junior male, a U-23 male, an elite woman, and an elite man. Each team member completes one lap of the XC course, and the country can decide any start order. I raced the third leg, and, luckily, most of the other elite women did as well. In order to have a good race on Saturday, I was going to have to start fast. The relay leg, one lap against Jolanda Neff and Katerina Nash, two very fast starters, was a perfect opportunity to try this approach. The three of us started within ten seconds of each other, and I was able maintain my distance from Jolanda for most of the lap. I was in front of Katerina for the entire lap except when she passed me on the last downhill to the finish. The U.S relay team had a great ride collectively, and we were only thirty seconds off the podium in fourth. This was the best finish for the U.S since 2007, and it got me very excited for Saturday's race. Then, during the U-23 men's race on Friday, my U.S and Specialized teammate, Howard Grotts, came back from an really slow first lap (44th place) to get a bronze medal. This made me even more excited for my race. I was having doubts about my start position in the third row because the start is crucial on the Norway course, but Howard's comeback ride made me believe that it was possible to podium without the ideal circumstances.
Turns out, I didn't have to worry because, luckily, I got the perfect start on Saturday. I lined up in the third row and lady luck was on my side again. The gun went off, and I charged hard up the first climbs to find myself in the best possible start position of my career. I was already in the top six riders in the first two kilometers of the course. Perfect. Now, don't freak out. Kate and Kaylee, my U.S U-23 girls, were cheering for me on the first lap like it was the lap lap. All I could think is, I have a solid five more laps to go so just pace. My aunt Sarah, uncle Mark, and cousin, Zane, were all at the race cheering me on. This was so cool to have my family there to cheer me on. They had the entire course dialed. Zane was on the first climb, Sarah was on the second switchback climb, and Mark was on the last climb. He was carrying a big american flag that he would dip into the track before I rode up, and then he ran up the entire climb beside me every single lap. To have them and everyone else yelling for me out there really, really helped. The entire race is a bit of a blur, but I felt great. The first half of the race, I maintained ten to fifteen seconds off of second and third place, Irina and Maja respectively. I was biding my time on when to burn my matches and get up there in medal position. The third lap, I started to dig a bit more, and I could see that I was closing on Maja and third place on the main climb. Then, on the downhill, all of the sudden, Maja was there. She had suffered a flat tire, and, just like that, I was in the bronze medal position. I continued chasing the silver medal and maintained my ten to fifteen second gap. On the fifth lap, my quads started to twinge a bit, and I rode conservatively to try and protect my quads and my world championship medal. But, that conservative effort caused Tanja Zjackel to close on me. Marc Gullickson appeared sprinting at the top of a field at the beginning of the last lap screaming that the girls were closing on me. 'Oh hell no', I thought. 'I didn't spend all of the race in third place and all of that work to miss out on an opportunity like this in the last lap'. So, I risked everything and dug deep the last lap to protect my position. My legs actually stopped cramping for that last lap. Maybe it was the coke or maybe it was more caffeinated Clif Blocks. Who cares what it was? Thank you legs for cooperating. I started up the last climb of the day, which is a long, straight drag up the mountain, and, to my shock, I could see Irina AND Catherine Pendrel in front of me. I hadn't seen Catherine the entire race, and, with five minutes left in the race, the world championship title was about thirty seconds in front of me. What?!? Catherine suffered a flat tire in the perfect place very close to the tech zone, and her mechanic, Dusty, did a fast, world champion wheel change.
There's one, last technical descent about three hundred meters away from the finish line. I rode down the first rock drop and nose wheeled, unclipped, and just barely saved myself from going over the handlebars. I just thought, get to that finish line. I am so close. Riding down that finish chute, it literally felt like I had won the world championships. This was one of the best days of my entire life. When I told the news of my hip injury and surgery to Benno, my Specialized team manager, in January, he responded by saying, "we don't care about anything else but the World Championships. Just do everything you can to heal as fast as possible and be fast at World Champs." My reaction in my head was, "yea, that would be nice, but it's also a little bit crazy". There are at least about thirty people that helped turn crazy into a reality. Each of them deserve to wear this medal everyday for at least a month. Look what is possible when an athlete has a great team to help and the best support network. Thank you thank you thank you to everyone who supported me and made this possible.
Thank you for your support.
Photo Credit: Michal Cerveny