Sunday, August 1, 2004

Reaching new heights on mountain bike



She was so engrossed in the race, she never saw it coming.

Tonya Laffey was cycling at a fast clip in the National Mountain Bike Series in Mount Snow, Vt., June 19. Something - she still doesn't know what - was wedged in the trail, obscured by a thatch of grass. Laffey's bike struck it. She careened over the handlebars, tumbling headfirst to the ground.

Later, Laffey learned, her helmet was broken in three places. She had bruised her neck and back and sustained a concussion that kept her from riding for a week. Her front wheel was crunched into an awkward "C," and it was so contorted, "the announcer said it looked like a potato chip." But she was only halfway through the two-hour cross-country race.

"I stood up and made sure my limbs were attached and my head was attached to my neck," said Laffey, 31. "Then I got back on my bike. I didn't see a choice. I knew I had to finish."

Laffey placed 16th out of about 50 racers, cementing her hold as the nation's 11th-ranked pro women's mountain biker. Giving up in Vermont would have meant abandoning a chance to crack the top 10, and Laffey isn't the giving-up type.

The Little Miami graduate is among 100 pro women mountain bikers nationwide. After this weekend in Sandpoint, Idaho, she could climb the coveted notch to 10.

"She's one of the most stubborn people I know," said Troy Laffey, her husband, manager and mechanic, and a former University of Cincinnati student. "She's also a fierce competitor. She probably got back on that bike (after falling) just because other people were passing her."

Laffey, who resides in Colorado, competes in two disciplines. Cross-country racing is a two-hour race, half climbing and half going downhill for 16 to 30 miles. Short-track racing is a 20-minute race on a half-mile course.

Mountain biking was never a sport she imagined pursuing, having spent much of her life horseback riding, skiing and rock climbing. While in college in Montana 10 years ago, she bought a used mountain bike from a friend and was smitten.

In 2000, Laffey completed an MBA from Xavier and turned pro in mountain biking. She parlayed her business skills into her own company, MTB Chick Racing, a team of five professional women on the national circuit who teach clinics nationwide.

The Chicks will be in Fort Thomas for a clinic Sept. 11 and 12. They'll show participants at Tower Park how to ride over logs and down steep hills, plus racing techniques, bike maintenance and nutrition.

Laffey said the once male-dominated sport has become less gender-specific in the last 10 years.

"There's a ton of interest, and it's definitely growing," she said. "At the clinics, we offer an opportunity to get into the sport where it's safe and there's a lot of other women doing it. It's a lot of fun."

Although she has had her share of spills, nothing has been worse than the Vermont accident. Her second-worst injury was a cut that required 12 stitches to her elbow, sustained in Arizona last March.

Neither would stop her from being ranked among the National Off-Road Bicycle Association's elite, something Troy Laffey doesn't doubt. He said his wife's dedication and perseverance are behind her success - although he didn't expect such achievements when she launched her career.

"My friends and I used to wait for her at the top of a hill. Now she's waiting for us," he said. "It's just inspiring."

To learn more about MTB Chicks clinics, visit www.mtbchick.com.

E-mail srussell@enquirer.com




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