Opposites attract

Volvo-Cannondale's dynamic duo tears up the downhill circuit

The Ride (6/10/2002)

Brion's comments:
'Never have I met two mountain bikers as different as former Volvo-Cannondale teammates Missy Giove and Kim Sonier. Of course, they get along famously.'

Feature article:

They’re diametrically-opposed peas battling it out in the same pod. If outward appearances were your only guide, you'd never picture Missy Giove and Kim Sonier, Volvo-Cannondale's devastating one-two punch on the professional women's downhill circuit, as a compatible pair.

Giove is all bombast, a barely restrained explosion of energy who rails against downhill courses like Don Quixote tilts against windmills. Her conversation mirrors her riding technique, with sentences coming at you like the report of a machine gun, as if her mouth has trouble keeping pace with the rapid-fire synapses upstairs. The 26-year-old firebrand is, in short, Cannondale's downhill poster child, a former world champion and one of the most decorated and highest paid mountain bike racers in the sport.

Sonier herself is a rolling contradiction. In the brash, rough-and-tumble world of downhill racing, Sonier embodies quiet confidence. Her style is all silk, smooth and precise through the most technically challenging courses. She races while reciting the soliloquy from Shakespeare's "MacBeth" or Jabberwocky from "Alice in Wonderland" in her head. At 35, she calls herself "an antique," one of the sport's elder statesmen, often racing against competitors half her age. She doesn't brandish tattoos, doesn't sport outlandish haircuts, doesn't litter her conversation with Valley Girl-speak. Getting her to talk at all is an accomplishment, though she's articulate and well-spoken when she decides to share her views. In short, Sonier is the antithesis of the Madison Avenue image of the radical, wild-eyed Mountain Dew-guzzling mountain biker.

The two couldn't be more different, right?

"I wouldn't want anyone else for my teammate," says Giove of Sonier. "She's a great person, and a hell of a rider."

"She's a really nice person , she cares about others," says Sonier of Giove. "Riding on the same team has been really good for me, and for her as well."

Huh? Even the agent they share, Ben Giove, Missy's father, isn't surprised how well the two get along. "Kim is a straight shooter and honest person. Missy appreciates that."

So the two belong to a unique mutual admiration society. But what Giove and Sonier also share is the ability to ride their bikes downhill faster than most women on the planet. Giove has long been regarded as one on the sport's elite riders, fearless on the steeps. She's currently locked in a tong war with French wunderkind Anne-Caroline Chausson for the UCI World Cup title, trailing the Sunn rider by 45 points with a single race left in Japan.

Sonier, though she concedes any hope of capturing the overall title, has again submitted a rock-solid World Cup season. Heading into the season finale, she's in sixth place, with only a single point separating her and a Top Five finish (currently occupied by Leigh Donovan of Mongoose). She's also raced in five National Championship Series events, submitting five Top Five performances, which placed her in a tie for 4th place with Yeti's Marla Streb heading into the finals at Mount Snow.

They are also both tough as nails. Giove's resiliency is almost legendary -- just this year she finished third on a brutal Snoqualmie, Washington, course after dislocating her foot in a trial run. In 13 World Cup and national races last year, Sonier never once finished out of the Top Ten, despite being handicapped with a severe hip injury that would require surgery in December. So impressive were her results that Volvo-Cannondale resigned her for this year knowing that the surgery was needed. Sonier hasn't disappointed her sponsors. She has recorded six Top Ten finishes in seven races. The only blemish on her record? An 11th place, after sustaining a flat tire in the final run.

Yet the two racers have a great deal in common beyond results -- New England roots, an indomitable positive outlook, and a love of competition and camaraderie. Though Giove is more outspoken, neither mince their words.

"I think me and Kim are a really good balance, that yin and yang kind of thing," says Giove. "She helps bring me back down on my feet. She's been a real good balance -- her calmness and my energy high are a good balance. I like having those people around me. ... She's really lovely, honest, and to the point. you need those kind of people in your life."

Sonier came to the sport late, after a gymnastics career that culminated with an ECAC championship on floor exercises in 1984 and her graduation from the University of New Hampshire in 1985. She then headed west for Arizona, and eventually earned her masters in mathematics in 1989. While in Arizona, Sonier took up mountain biking. The sport came naturally, with its similarities to motorcross racing that Sonier enjoyed as a youngster in Dover, New Hampshire. She eventually signed a contract with the all-women Team Kahlua, and later Ironhorse. She was soon racing head-to-head with the upstart Giove, the most outspoken of mountain biking's next generation ("the punks," as Sonier referred to them with a laugh in 1993).

"We were always considered arch enemies, but that was everyone else's perspective," says Sonier. "From 1991 to 1994, we pretty much dominated the U.S. downhill scene. We were slowly becoming very good friends. ... She's a lot more complicated person than it first appears. In the early years, there weren't many Americans racing in Europe, and riding the chairlifts we had lots of opportunities to talk. I can remember several deep conversations with her."

Likewise for Giove. The native New Yorker attended prep school in New England and Plymouth State College in New Hampshire for two years before leaving to sign on with Yeti. A young gun on the mountain bike circuit, Giove quickly made her name known among established stars such as Penny Davidson, Cindy Devine, Susan DiBiase and Sonier.

"I've raced with Kim a long time, and she's always been a rider that I respected and looked up to," says Giove. "She's kind of a Darth Vader, real quiet. I admire her for her perseverance."

That perseverance was sorely tested after Sonier was dropped from Ironhorse late in 1995, after most teams had already secured their rosters. She spent the next 18 months in mountain biking purgatory. She signed a contract with British-based Trick Racing, but the company never paid a dime in salary, and didn't cover most of Sonier's expenses.

"I ended up spending about six grand, which I never got reimbursed for," says Sonier. "Plus they gave me a really crappy bike, so I couldn't do well, couldn't win any money.

"My thinking was 'Why me?' I had finished Top Three in all three race series (including dual slalom) the year before, and I couldn't get a ride," she says, looking back on early 1996. "I have a good reputation. I'm not a troublemaker or difficult to work with. I was just getting frustrated."

What Sonier didn't have -- an outgoing personality -- Volvo-Cannondale already had in spades with its star, Giove. So when Myles Rockwell broke his kneecap and was lost for the 1996 season, a spot opened up on the team. Giove and her father, Ben, went to bat for Sonier, knowing her consistency could help Volvo-Cannondale garner a coveted team championship.

"Here was a top American racer without full support, and I thought that was nuts," says Giove. "Kim still had a great attitude. I think it's ridiculous not to support someone like that. When the chips are down, that's when you find out how tough someone is."

Sonier found the consistency of solid team support allowed her to concentrate on her riding. Though she admits that every woman downhiller outside of Chausson, Giove and Donovan is simply racing for fourth place, she says her skills and fitness have never been better.

"I think it's a perfect match," she says of her relationship with Team Sports and Volvo-Cannondale.

Regarding her new relationship with Giove as teammate instead of competitor, Sonier says "we each have our own goals. We have similar training in terms of the mental approach. We're alike in many ways, and totally different in others. Our styles are vastly different, but our abilities are very close."

As teammates, the two riders benefit from an almost unfair advantage of working together during training runs to find the best lines of a particular course, the quickest route to the bottom. Sonier said the two will often reverse their order to learn different techniques from each other, or slip behind a male teammate, like the recovered Rockwell, to get another perspective on a course.

"I think we have different strengths," says Giove. "She's really smooth, maybe more conservative about where she attacks the course. We have kind of an opposite theory, but it complements each other. She teaches me to take more calculated risks, and I teach her to take more risks. It's a give and take."

Giove, only a year into her second quarter century, marvels at her teammate's stamina as Sonier continues to notch Top Five finishes as she takes aim at the big 4-0. "She's a world-class athlete," says Giove of Sonier.

Ironically, it's Giove that seems more aware of how finite a mountain bike racing career is.

"I don't want to be racing when I'm 35," she says. "Am I feeling older? Fuck yes. I'm 26, and I'm not healing as fast as I was at 22. But age is reality. Age has made me a better racer and a better person."

Sonier, on the other hand, sounds exactly like a woman who's found a second lease on her racing life.

"The last year or so, I've really enjoyed riding. The last two years were horrible , with the contract problems (with Trick Racing) and the injury, it was more of a job. This year, it's fun again. I'm doing stuff on the bike that I haven't done before -- it's a fun, fresh adventure.

"Hey, as long as someone's willing to pay me to do it, I'm going to keep doing it," she says. "If you don't talk about retiring, they assume you're not. And I'm not talking about it."

Which is only bad news for Volvo-Cannondale opponents.

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