Immortalized in both the Mountain Bike and BMX Halls of Fame, Leigh “The Legend” Donovan has the resume to prove it: two downhill world championships, nine downhill national championships and an X Games gold medal. She even posed in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.
But despite conquering cycling’s daredevil discipline, Donovan said fear governs her life, and she doesn’t consider herself “extreme.”
“I’m a very fear-based person,” Donovan said. “I don’t know why, but I have a lot of fear.”
The 43-year-old from Orange, Calif. who started “I Choose Bikes” mountain-bike skills clinics said being afraid is how she relates so well to her clients.
“I understand what my clients are going through,” Donovan said. “I break it down by riding, by focusing on the basics. “I don’t care what level rider you are – you can learn something by revisiting the fundamentals.”
She focuses on breaking down fears, working on fundamentals and balance and breaking bad habits so riders can tackle any situation.
Dagmar J Mathis Pascua, a California mountain biker, said she took Donovan’s Oct. 18 clinic and was able to fix a downhill positioning issue.
“I had been hanging back off my seat way too far, and she helped me correct that,” Mathis Pascua said. “I just need to keep practicing it.’
Donovan said that beginners often ride their mountain bikes with a “huge fear base” and a “low skill base,” an unsafe combination.
After traveling around the country hosting clinics, Donovan said she realized most riders’ fear is rooted in three things – crashing, embarrassment and lack of knowledge.
“No one wants to crash and get hurt,” said Donovan, who works with professionals to beginners who haven’t ridden a bike in 20 years. “Riders get very embarrassed if they do something that feels wrong because we are raised that failure is not an option, and when riders don’t know what they are doing, they will most likely do things wrong at first.
“That is why I love what I do, because after a six-hour clinic riders won’t be worried about crashing and embarrassment, because they will know what they are doing,” Donovan said.
Donovan said most of her clinics are focused on beginner and intermediate skill levels, who tend to learn the most. With her more advanced riders, it’s more about breaking bad habits.
“Regardless of what it is, if you don’t know what you are doing you have a lot of anxiety and fear because of it,” Donovan said. “After riders do a six-hour clinic with me they leave focused on the skills and technicality of mountain biking and forget about the fear. They are focused on what to do. It’s exciting to watch.”
Although she barrels down mountains and flies over jumps, Donovan said she thinks racing road, particularly a crit, is “crazy.”
“A lot of stuff scares me, just not riding a mountain bike…riding off-road is like walking,” she said. “But put me on a road bike in a crit, and I’m scared s**tless. My mind is thinking, ‘I’m around all these people on these skinny, tiny wheels, going so fast’ and that freaks me out.”
She said the clinic, though geared toward mountain bikers, can help road cyclists with balance, cornering and bike handling skills.
Paula Evenson (Team Ninja) said Donovan’s clinic catapulted her to the mountain biker she is today; this year she competed in big events like nationals and the Enduro World Series.
“Regardless of what I thought I already knew, and what I was already training for every day, Leigh completely revised my skillset,” Evenson said. “Leigh has a knack for deconstructing hard-to-understand concepts.”
“You walk away with this energy and freedom to just go out and create yourself, to believe you can make yourself into the rider you want to be,” Evenson said.