Legends never die is what they say. And as the old saying goes, those written off as dead live even longer. But whatever they say, both of these proved true as Missy Giove, the femme fatale of the international downhill scene, rose from the ashes to race in Windham, NY at the sixth round of the UCI Downhill World Cup 2015. Hell yeah!
Who doesn’t know Missy? Perhaps the younger generation, those who haven’t spent the past two and a half decades following mountain biking at its most radical, devouring the international craziness of downhill. World Cup DH pushes riding to the absolute limit; it’s against the clock and takes no prisoners. No technical singletracks, it’s the incarnation of the worst you can imagine, with tracks that would strike so many of us as completely unrideable or result in a near-death experience should we try.
Back in at peak of Missy’s riding, downhill bikes were nowhere near as technologically advanced as they are today; her fame came from the days when mountain bikes and downhilling were still learning the ropes. Rudimentary suspension, often overwhelmed brakes and damn small bars characterized the bikes. Components we’d expect today were still in their infancy, or even yet to be thought of. Catastrophic mechanicals and brutal crashes were part of the norm, like K.O.s are to boxing.
“Pin it or bin it!”
Riding on a knife’s edge, downhill is a sport that lures the most courageous riders. A sport in which this young American proved indomitable for years. Throughout the 90s, Missy dictated the female racing scene in US, winning the US NORBA Championships no fewer than 14 times, leaving the competition in her wake. And she kept the men on their toes too, frequently clocking times that would rank her amongst the top 20 elite men. On the international scene, Giove was extremely successful, clinching 11 World Cup victories, two overall victories in the World Cup and the World Championship title in 1994 in Vail, CO.
‘The Missile’ was known for her merciless approach, citing ‘Pin it or bin it.’ All or nothing. If this New Yorker wasn’t on the podium, she was likely to be in hospital. Her fearless, almost improvised riding style drew tons of fans and admirers. Today, we’d call it ‘out of control’ or ‘loose’. She was the undisputed star of a sport that was dominated by strong guys. Tattooed, pierced, wild haired, and certainly her own person, she didn’t mince her words. In the sport of downhill, she was the first rockstar to exist, the ‘Punk rock’ of the sport, as she liked to say.
Not quite the image of the pin-up top athlete, Missy’s overwhelming success didn’t stop sponsors such as Volvo, Reebok and Cannondale from expressing an interest. After all, the audience loved her. She was a refreshing change to the norm, and usually equipped with a broad smile. This was back when downhill was starting to get big in the US, and the legendary NORBA race in Mammoth (CA) and elsewhere was the scene of frantic celebrations. Thousands of spectators and wild parties with the riders, Missy Giove and Shaun Palmer were in their element: ‘the good old times of mountain biking!’
‘Life is a bitch’
In 2003 she stopped racing, and gradually slipped out of the public eye. At the same time, downhill lost its popularity in the US. The next few years weren’t easy for Giove, a case of ‘life’s a bitch’. After getting caught with large amounts of marijuana and cash, she served time in prison before a lengthy probation period. Part of her probation stipulated that she couldn’t leave the state of Virginia – naturally rendering her opportunities for downhilling limited. Yet the decisive thing is that she never fully turned her back on the sport, although she admits that she’s only occasionally ridden her old and outdated Foes over the past few years, but wherever she went, you’d hear that familiar grating voice of hers.
Everyone deserves a second chance – and Missy is more deserving than others. Her contribution to the sport remains unrivaled, and the impact she had on such a male-dominated sport has been invaluable. Her cat-like style and irrefutable will to win still inspires young female riders today, acting as proof that downhill isn’t just for tough-as-nails guys.
You can survive if the masses love you
When Missy showed up at Pro GRT in Snowshoe, (WV) a few weeks ago, the excitement was insurmountable. Armed with a basic rental bike, she was able to mix it with the best. But as so often happens when you push the limits of a bike that’s far from intended for this extreme purpose, Missy suffered a crash in training, and a crash in the race too. Straight over the bars she went, injuring her hand in the process. Yet she got back on, committed to winning enough UCI points to race in Windham at the World Cup. But with the crash and the subsequent injured thumb, it wasn’t going to be her day and the result didn’t live up to her expectations.
But Missy wouldn’t be ‘the Missile’ if she gave up that easily. Shortly before the UCI race, a position on the US national list became free. Yet the selectors were reluctant, claiming she wasn’t competition-ready, and that she had too few of the required UCI points. However, the news that Missy wanted to race amongst the world’s best once more spread like wildfire, and friends and loyal fans rallied across America. Public admiration of her heroics and American national pride spurred on a wave of sympathy, and the US downhill scene from the East Coast to the West Coast appealed to the UCI. The petition proved remarkably successful, and the DH icon was permitted to race what is presumed to be the final World Cup on American soil.
Would she qualify?
It was clear she could still ride, even before Windham. If you’d seen her in Snowshow, you would have recognized the old Missy immediately. But the question of what she would ride plagued the world. After all, she still didn’t own a bike that could cope with the strains of a World Cup race. Just three days before the race, freeride superstar Cameron Zink arranged for her to borrow a YT Industries Tues CF. The German direct order company duly prepared a perfectly specced racing bike for her. A marketing opportunity that couldn’t be missed, and for a valid cause.
In Windham Missy can’t take her eyes off the YT rocket, hugely taken by its supreme riding style and the aggressive, slack, new school-downhill geometry. After a few adjustments on the first day of training (a firmer setup on the RockShox BoXXer, a change of tyres), the 42-year-old lets off the brakes, and in true Missy-style lands hard several times. An old injury hampers progress; she finds it hard to keep her right hand on the bar. She qualifies convincingly, riding alongside the elite females and clocking the 17th fastest qualifying time.
Saturday’s pre-race excitement is sky high. The sun is shining in Upstate New York and there are tons of spectators. Aaron Gwin (USA) has his eyes on winning on home soil; his chances are good. Missy will also race today, as well as many of America’s future hopes. Everywhere you look, there’s red, white and blue, a real ‘star-spangled’ World Cup party. The track is extremely dry, becoming more challenging with each day. A dust cloud sits over the track, front wheels slip and the berms block out. The world’s best riders are getting pushed to – and often beyond – their limits.
The fastest women start around 1pm. Due to the pain in her hand and elbow, Missy doesn’t appear at the morning training session, but she lines up at the start. Her run down the blown-out World Cup track is furious and terrifying in equal measures. She’s third at the speed-trap. Then she crashes, losing vital speed and contact with the pedals before the road gap. Missy still jumps: “I knew I could do it! It’s all mental.” She comes up short, cases, and struggles to get the YT under control. The crowd scream, but she stays on the bike. “Missy, Missy! U.S.A, U.S.A!” There are big tabletops just before the finish. She goes full gas, jumping the ‘big boy’ features with a death grip. At 45 seconds off the leaders, she claims 16th place on this historic day.
With more training and more time to get used to her new bike, the 42-year-old has proven she still has the pace to place amongst the top 10 in the world. Without a doubt, ‘the missile’ is back. The current world elite are in raptures in her presence, giving Missy ‘mad respect’ and welcoming the living legend back with open arms. The spectators are the same. An icon within the sport, no one has forgotten her. Honour when honour is due. And belief is all it takes to move mountains. Well done!
It’s doubtful she’ll pose a threat to Rachel Atherton, a multiple World Cup winner and 2015’s overall series winner. But that’s not her goal this time, the competition is irrelevant. She has nothing to prove, neither to herself nor to anyone else. The motivation for her unexpected comeback runs far deeper: “I wanted to race for my girl who wanted to watch me race a World Cup as a wish of hers when she got cancer. That’s why I wanted to ride … I did it outta love for my girl and love for the art of DH and mountain biking.“
Missy wants to inspire other riders and spectators, instilling in them the thrill of riding at your limit. “I want to inspire people to overcome fear in life. I love to give my 100% for people when I ride. I think they deserve that from me and it’s usually more entertaining to watch and more memorable of an experience for me as well when I’m on the edge.“ Over the years she has missed racing at such a high level. The thrill of racing a hard track that has been ‘destroyed’ by hundreds of world-class riders is incomparable, she explains. She also longs for the atmosphere that can only be found at World Cup events, the camaraderie between the riders and the wild times they have together, with unrivalled memories of World Cup after-parties where she has been present.
Windham gave Missy the chance to taste the blood of World Cup racing once more, and it tasted good. Her dream now is to race with a team for the following season. She has got a lot to offer young riders – far more than just years of experience and an uncompromising style of riding, it’s her grasp of the significance of the mental and physical demands of racing that is inspiring. “My dream would be helping others attain their dreams so they can inspire others and to be riding pinned next to them on the knife’s edge cause its more fun, and finding out what one is truly capable of in life. Living for me is not holding back.”
But Missy needs new sponsors and the safety net of the organisational and logistical force that comes with a World Cup team. Shortly before Windham, she lost her job, so support is crucial at the moment. Despite being a former star, it looks unlikely that she can satisfy her seriously ill partner’s longterm dream of a week’s holiday. In her regular headstrong manner, she pushed on regardless in the race, ignoring the injuries and the knowledge that she’d risked her job. “These are the best battle wounds I ever felt. But it was liberating knowing I was literally all in … still am … I will make something happen, I always do. This time legally however.”
Words: Steffen Gronegger Pictures: Steffen Gronegger/Paul Busa
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