Have you ever wondered whatever happened to someone from mountain biking’s past? Maybe it was someone you idolized, someone you hated or someone you might’ve just rubbed elbows with at some point in time.
Well, I do.
Our sport was created largely as an escape from the rigid constructs that too often govern other forms of cycling and is young enough where historical hero worship seems out of place. But still, there are some great stories that have been created along the way to where we are now, stories that, even if they’re about those people you hate, might surprise you. —Joe Parkin
The Uncanny Connectivity of a Career
Growing up on the rodeo circuit, Leah Garcia was not completely unfamiliar with bumps, bruises and other setbacks. But when she was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, the tough westerner began feeling sorry for herself and set out on a mission of self discovery.
“Since I’m a Garcia,” she reasoned, “I should learn to speak Spanish.” It was a logical enough notion, so she bought a one-way ticket to Spain.
As she wandered through the countryside, and stumbled through verb conjugations and local dialects, she developed a healthy affinity for Spanish food. By the time she’d made her way north, to the Basque country, this former rodeo star cum triathlete from California’s central coast had packed on a few too many unwanted and uncomfortable kilos.
She stumbled upon a bike shop and, once inside, set her sights on a Klein Rascal. She bought the bike and started riding regularly with the old man who owned the shop and his grandson.
On one of their rides, the trio rolled up on a mountain-bike race getting ready to start. The old man convinced Leah she should sign up. A few thousand pedal strokes and heartbeats later, Leah Garcia got to experience her first XC podium. It was 1992 and, for the time being, she’d found her calling.
Success, and reconnecting with some Alpinestars friends she’d met in California, led to her first sponsorship. In what seemed like an instant, Leah Garcia was a professional mountain-bike racer.
Back in the States, mountain bikers, cross-country racers in particular, were becoming superstars of the sport, and Leah was soon back on home soil. But the girl who’d grown up around cowboys and whose life had been redeemed by a pair of cross-country knobbies wasn’t about to be sequestered to a hotel bed with her feet pointing toward the heavens. Weighing her food for the sake of one place closer to the podium and living the life of a nun wasn’t part of Ms. Garcia’s pre-race routine. A bon vivant at heart, Leah felt infinitely more at home with the barnstormers of our sport: the ‘90s downhillers.
As the new millenium approached, results trumped personality completely, so Leah skipped from one team to the next, knowing that the writing was on the wall.
But her big break came when Susan DeMattei, the first-ever bronze medalist in mountain biking at the Olympic Games, and her husband and former NORBA National Champion Dave Wiens decided to start a family. DeMattei, who had been covering mountain-bike racing on TV would be stepping down from her commentator gig and the network needed someone to take her place. Eric Moore, NORBA’s then director of competition, asked if Leah would be interested in trying out for DeMattei’s spot.
It was an obvious choice: She did her best impression of “The Scales of Justice,” indicating that a tryout for TV was a much better choice than her rapidly diminishing future in racing.
Leah admits that her first few years as a television commentator were disastrous. She didn’t even own a TV when she took the job, so she had no idea what a ‘color commentator’ was—she just thought Susan DeMattei looked official and interesting walking around with a microphone at the races.
She originally took what she calls an “MTV approach” to her job: Interviewing Shaun Palmer while lying on the couch inside his Prevoost tour bus, for instance. Apparently, there were rules in the television world and Leah hadn’t been given the memo.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. “Thank goodness that I show[ed] up on time.”
Before television’s love affair with mountain biking began to wane, the Outdoor Life Network decided to cover the Calgary Stampede and Cheyenne Frontier Days, two iconic events on the rodeo calendar.
Leah saw an opportunity and convinced the higher-ups to let her cover Calgary and Cheyenne. In a way, she was back where she started, back home.
She was, in fact, so in her element providing color commentary for these events that the network pretty much forgot that she’d ever swung a leg over a bicycle. Nowadays, she’s a household name with PBR (Professional Bull Riders) fans around the world.
Though she now knows most of the rules of television, she still loves going to work. As I sat in the stands at a recent PBR event in Chicago, I received the following text message from Leah:
“I live this stuff. And still love it.”
And despite trading her stiff-soled mountain-bike shoes for a pair of Ariat boots, Leah is the first to admit that without her intimate relationship with mountain biking, she wouldn’t have gone home to the rodeo.
You can catch Leah Garcia on CBS’ coverage of the PBR.