Missy Giove lived her life astounding those around her.
The iconic mountain biker, who resided in Durango for more than a decade, won 14 national titles and was the world champion downhill racer in 1994. She screamed down slopes on the edge of control, landing in either an ambulance or on the podium.
Her persona — she dangled a dried piranha around her neck and tucked her dead dog's ashes in her bra when she raced — and talent made her mountain biking's highest-paid athlete, earning her well over $2 million.
Then last month, six years after she formally retired from racing, federal agents busted the 37-year-old and an accomplice with 400 pounds of marijuana and $1 million in cash.
"Everyone in the circle of
According to authorities, on June 16, a team of federal drug cops watched Giove meet a confidential informant at a hotel in Albany, N.Y., and drive away in a rented truck pulling her own trailer. Cops had already found 350 pounds of marijuana in the trailer. Giove drove the rig to the Wilton, N.Y., home of Eric Canori, 30, where police found another 50 pounds of the weed and $1 million packed into a duffel bag in a hallway closet.
Mountain biking "rock star"
Giove bailed out of jail on June 22 on a $250,000 bond, facing a possible $2 million fine and up to 40 years in prison if convicted. She could not be reached for comment.
Days after her arrest, her public defender, Tim Austin, alleged the drugs were planted in Giove's possession, possibly by police. Her next hearing is scheduled Tuesday.
While it was shocking to hear of Giove's arrest, her friends say it is not that surprising that "Missy the Missile" would be found at the top level of anything she was doing.
"When she was riding, she was willing to throw it all out there. She was either going to win or crash hard," said Scott Montgomery, who, as vice president of marketing for Cannondale in the mid-1990s, enlisted Giove to ride for his team. "She was mountain biking's first rock star. She transcended the sport. She was larger than life."
She was sponsored by Reebok. She appeared on MTV, Conan O'Brien's show and David Letterman's "Late Show." She drew thousands of fans to formerly obscure mountain-biking events.
She was unquestionably gifted on her bike and carefully fostered her Dennis Rodman-esque image.
"That got her a huge amount of publicity, attention and money," said Alison Dunlap, a professional mountain biker who raced cross country during Giove's downhill blitzkrieg. "She knew what she was doing."
But she didn't roll like a rock star. Yes, she trained part time in the south of France. But in Durango, she drove a modest car and lived in a yurt behind a friend's house. It was her father, who died three years ago, who secured big dollars for his daughter.
Montgomery remembers a "shrewd and tough" Ben Giove, working with executives at Cannondale and Volvo on her sponsorship contract. She earned $250,000 a year after her world title in '94. In 1997, Cannondale-Volvo upped Giove's year-long contract to $450,000.
"The next year, (Ben) came back even more aggressively, and we had to cut her," Montgomery said.
Toward the late '90s, mountain biking's luster began to wane — and with it racers' income.
Invested in dad's restaurant
"She was still making some good money, and I think she took a lot of her money and invested it in her father's restaurant," said Brent Foes, who still has posters of Giove hanging in his Pasadena, Calif., bike-making headquarters. "If she had invested properly, she probably wouldn't be in the situation she is now."
By 2002, Giove's litany of injuries was catching up to her. By her own tally — reported in various bike magazines during her heyday — Giove suffered 33 fractures, including cracked ribs; broken wrists, collarbones, legs, vertebrae, heels, knee caps; and a cracked sternum. She endured concussions regularly. During the 2001 World Cup races in Vail, she went airborne, twisted and landed on her head. The blow knocked her unconscious and caused her brain to bleed.
It was "the very worst I have ever seen her crash," said Glaspell, who raced with Giove on the professional circuit for almost a decade. "I don't think she was the same since then."
Giove retired from racing in 2003 and left Durango. But she didn't stop racing. While she lived in the East, most recently in Chesapeake, Va., she would show up at local races, handily beating all comers. She briefly worked peddling indoor bike-training equipment at cycling shows.
"She really didn't know what she wanted to do after racing. She once said she wanted to be a rapper and this and that," said Foes, who would occasionally help her out with a bike to keep her racing.
Staunch drug foe
The most shocking aspect of Giove's arrest, say people who knew her, was her longtime anti-drug stance. Back in the early 1990s, drugs were part of the counter-cultural scene that went with mountain biking.
"Missy was always the one who was giving people crap about it, saying, 'Don't drink, don't smoke, stay clean and stay focused,' " said Montgomery, who now manages Scott USA's bike division.
As a fledgling racer in her early 20s, Giove coached other young racers on how to eat healthy and stay strong, Glaspell said. She pushed natural diets and meditation and a strict training regimen.
"I never ever, ever saw Missy smoke pot, never saw her do any drugs. She was always into super heavy hippy homeopathic (stuff)," Glaspell said.
That leads many to wonder whether, if the charges are true, the adventurous thrill of drug-running appealed to Giove.
"You are one step away from going to federal prison. The challenge of getting away with it, making money at it, I am sure that is incredibly invigorating and thrilling," said fellow bike-racer Dunlap. "Maybe for Missy, when she was used to that kind of feeling when she was racing, not having it anymore was a like a withdrawal from a drug."