On one hand it was a marketing masterstroke, holding a downhill
mountain bike race 3,000 feet underground in an abandoned German
salt mine. On the other hand it had the whiff of gimmickry and
desperation. So eager are we to draw attention to our sport, the
organizers of February's Red Bull Race Down to the Middle of the
Earth seemed to be saying, we'll journey to the center of the
planet to do it.
Given how little the mainstream sports fan knows about downhill
mountain biking, the sport might as well hold all its events
underground. In this underexposed universe, the best-kept secret
is a 23-year-old Frenchwoman named Anne-Caroline Chausson who
lords over her discipline like a crash-helmeted goddess. She is
the soft-spoken daughter of civil servants from Dijon, famed for
its spicy mustard. There is mild irony here, because Chausson's
demeanor--off the bike, at any rate--is far less piquant than that
of most of her tattooed and body-pierced rivals.
Take Marla Streb, a Californian in the habit of soothing her
prerace nerves by turning to the starter and saying, "Hey, your
fly is open." It was Streb who faced Chausson in the women's
final of the salt mine race. Having stuck the jumps, skidded
around gnarly hairpin turns and avoided immolation riding through
the course's "wall of fire," the two bikers pedaled furiously for
the finish. Suddenly Streb, trailing slightly, turned off her
headlight and began cursing. "I wanted Anne-Caroline to think my
light was broken," she says, "so maybe she'd relax for a second
and I could pass her." As Streb switched off her light, though,
Chausson turned and caught her opponent in the act, ruining the
ruse--and Streb's chances for victory.
So Jordan-like is Chausson's domination of the downhill that her
rivals' best hopes of beating her lie in deceit. Whether racing
head-to-head or one at a time against the clock, downhillers bomb
down obscenely steep and obstacle-strewn courses, over
butt-puckering jumps designed expressly to separate them from
their high-tech, disc-brake-equipped bikes--at speeds approaching
50 mph. These riders collect broken bones and concussions the way
Midwesterners collect Hummel figurines. And, alas, on the women's
side they must battle it out for second place. Since she took up
the sport in 1993, at age 16, Chausson has won eight downhill
world championships (three in junior competition, the last five
as a senior) and has been victorious in an astounding 77% of the
World Cup races she has entered.
Chausson's stranglehold on the distaff downhill is such that in
1999 she won the International Cyclist of the Year award given
out by VeloNews, the bible of bicycling. In so doing she beat out
Lance Armstrong, who, you may recall, had merely survived
testicular cancer and won that year's Tour de France. Although
the choice angered Armstrong (and countless cycling fans),
VeloNews made no apologies for its decision, citing Chausson's
inhuman 14 wins in her previous 16 World Cup races.
Inhuman is how many downhillers would describe Chausson, who has
developed a reputation as a sort of Terminator on two wheels.
"She's not, uh...gregarious," says Streb, choosing her words
carefully. Depending on whom you ask on the circuit, Chausson is
either "shy" (limited, conversationally, by her only-fair
English) or "arrogant." While she likes and respects Chausson,
Streb suspects there is a method to her diffidence: "Everyone's
terrified of her," she says. "She's got a lot of people beat
before the race begins."
A recent search for the source of this terror led to Monterey,
Calif., and the trailer of Volvo-Cannondale, Chausson's sponsor,
at March's Sea Otter Classic. Before long, puttering along on a
comically small minibike, her knees sticking out like jug
handles, the Terminator arrived at the trailer and pulled off her
helmet, releasing a cascade of chestnut tresses. Chausson had
been casing the downhill course, studying the lines taken by some
of her fellow pros--the men in particular--over the most difficult
stretches. As she sat outside the trailer sipping a sports drink,
she was calm, reasoned, apparently sane. There was nothing of the
wild-eyed adrenaline addict one might have expected to meet. "For
sure I love speed," she said with a smile. "I love the big jumps,
but I do it since I'm a little girl. I'm not crazy." She pauses
and makes one of her graceful midair corrections: "Well, maybe a
Relative to most of her downhill peers, Chausson is a paragon of
moderation. Her undyed hair, mostly unpierced skin and minimally
tattooed bod (there is a small panther, though she prefers not to
say where) make her a misfit in her sport. If a bike race were a
high school, the downhillers would be the ones smoking in the
lavatory or slumped scowling in a chair outside the principal's
office. Consider the crew queued up for practice runs on the eve
of the Sea Otter. "Anyone who tries to cut in front of me,"
snapped a young woman with fuchsia dreadlocks, "will get a helmet
in the face!"
Then there was the Missile. Although long ago deposed by
Chausson at the top of their sport, the purple-coiffed,
generously tattooed, variously pierced Missy (the Missile) Giove
tenaciously clings to her status as the tonsorial and
self-mutilating bellwether for the downhill set. In Monterey,
Giove was back on the bike for the first time since a terrifying
skiing accident 10 weeks earlier, in which she broke her right
tibia and tore two ligaments in her right knee and another in her
"It was a high-speed crash," explained the American, to the
surprise of no one. "I lost my balance, almost pulled it out,
then hit another death cookie and started spinning in midair.
When I landed, my s--- just exploded. I didn't want to take the
meat wagon down, so I got my ass up, skied to the bottom, took a
lift up--I was on the backside of the mountain--skied down the
front side, then got some help."
It's easy to be intrigued by the bad blood between Giove and the
Frenchwoman who dethroned her, two competitors who have nothing
in common but fearlessness. In a sport of determined black sheep,
Chausson is the accidental nonconformist, the anti-Giove. "This
is a sport," says Volvo-Cannondale team manager Charlie
Livermore, "in which you've either gotta have a shtick or you
gotta have results." Chausson has zero shtick, but she's been
delivering serious results since she was six. Following her older
brothers, Stephane and Arnaud, over BMX courses, she laid waste
to much older competition even then. "It was good, because my
brothers pushed me, but they also took care of me," she says.
"Then, in '93, all my friends from BMX were trying mountain
bikes, so I said, 'Why not?'"
With apologies to feminism, the key to Chausson's success, many
riders believe, is that she has always ridden with, and like,
guys. "When we go skiing, she doesn't ski with girls because she
has to wait," says Cedric Gracia, the '98 French downhill champ
and a childhood pal of Chausson's from France. "And when she
rides, she rides with guys because if she rides with girls, she
thinks she'll be slow. Sometimes she follows me, and believe me,
I'm going fast. But she thinks, 'If he can do it, why can't I?'"
That mind-set occasionally hurts her--Chausson crashed while
following Gracia over an enormous double jump at the team's
training camp in San Diego this winter, fracturing her right
pinkie. More often, though, it results in ridiculous margins of
victory. In a driving rain on a mountainside of mud and muck in
Leysin, Switzerland, the site of a World Cup event last summer,
Chausson beat her closest rival by an unheard-of 40 seconds.
Streb, who worked as a molecular biologist before turning pro
seven years ago, speculates that downhillers might be well-served
by undergoing "a temporary frontal lobotomy" before each race. In
other words, the less you think, the better you'll race.
Chausson, Streb says, began racing at such a young age that she
is better able than her competitors to "stop thinking, to erase
her inhibitions and go into flow mode. She's not overcoming bad
habits because she probably never had any. The rest of us are
fighting habits we learned while we were growing up, riding
little pink Barbie bikes and listening to people tell us to be
Livermore agrees. "Because Anne has less fear tackling the most
difficult, technical sections of the course at high speeds, she
can ride more aggressively than the other women," the
Volvo-Cannondale team manager says. "To keep up, her competitors
are forced to ride a little out of control, beyond their
abilities. Whereas Missy is bombing down holding on for dear
life, Anne is more surgical, carving and cutting the course,
staying on the best line at a high speed."
While obviously effective, Chausson's style elicits plenty of
snarling from other riders. Want to wipe the smile off the face
of the usually effervescent Giove? Drop Chausson's name, and the
Missile becomes hostile. "I don't like her style," she huffs,
evoking Drucilla, the stepsister of Cinderella. "I think it's
ugly. She's not even fun to watch."
"We are not the best friends in the world," Chausson says of
Giove. "I took her place on the team."
Indeed, the Missile's disdain for Chausson goes beyond
aesthetics. In the mid-'90s Giove was downhill's dominant
figure, both for her ability (she won the '94 world
championship) and her eccentricity (before races, for example,
she would sprinkle the ashes of her deceased dog in her bra).
Two years ago, though, Volvo-Cannondale dropped Giove and
replaced her with Chausson, who had begun beating her regularly.
"I tried to befriend her," says Giove, recalling her rival's
early days on the circuit. "I wanted to help her not just be a
winner but a champion, help her give back to the sport." These
overtures, Giove felt, were rebuffed. "At first I thought it was
because she was so young, then I thought it was because she was
shy, then I realized it was because she's French. I'm more the
humanitarian; she's more the machine."
Giove is not alone in regarding Chausson as a kind of
velo-cyborg. Leigh Donovan, another top U.S. downhiller,
describes herself as one of Chausson's closest friends on tour
but that friendship doesn't keep her from leveling this
criticism: "Her style on a bike is awful. She looks terrible. I
use more finesse; she's very aggressive. She rides like a man."
These criticisms leave Chausson a bit mystified. "Whatever is the
fastest way down," she says, "that's how I want to go."
While her colleagues experiment with shtick and tricks, Chausson,
solemn as a solicitor, continues to shock the cycling world,
leaving an indelible--though not fuchsia--mark on her sport. In
doing so she is, however inadvertently, heeding the advice of her
countryman, novelist Gustave Flaubert, who wrote, "Be orderly and
regular in your life, so that you may be violent and original in
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Going my way? Her peers complain that she rides "ugly," but Chausson can hold lines that are beyond her opponents' abilities.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Extraordinaire! A native of Dijon in the hills of central France, Chausson is almost unbeatable, having won 77% of her races.
COLOR PHOTO: DAN CAMPBELL No love lost Chausson took the place of the eccentric Giove (right) both on the victor's podium and on the Volvo-Cannondale team.
She was Cyclist of the Year in '99, beating out Lance Armstrong,
who had merely survived cancer and won the Tour de France.
"Everyone's terrified of her," Streb says of Chausson. "She's got
a lot of people beat before the race begins."