Little Bikes to Big DH Dreams

How Erice van Leuven went from chasing her brothers to chasing podiums

Words by Justin Henehan, images by Boston Bright and Lewis Parkinson

It was winter 2017 and a gloomy day in Wellington’s western hills. Despite the weather, a 10-year-old girl was up early and excited to ride. Her brothers sheepishly shuffled into the room as she sat down to breakfast with Mum, Dad and sister Laurel. A video they’d filmed and posted online had gone viral overnight.

“Um, so we’ve had four offers from bike companies for Erice to be sponsored.”

Everyone wanted a piece of Erice: There were messages from websites, magazines and some big bicycle brands. Her parents were shocked, but Erice had no idea what was going on—she’d just been having fun riding her bike.

That was the official start of Erice’s mountain biking adventure, but she’d been tearing it up well before then, largely because of her heroes, her big brothers Finn and Ben. They’d got into mountain biking a couple of years before through a kid at their high school. They’d done some races and were having a great time pushing their limits and progressing.

Like all brothers, though, the hottest competition was between each other. And everything was a competition. Their backyard soon became a racecourse littered with little wooden ramps and drops and the Tirohanga 16-inch bike championship, the event of the year, was born.

Always there, following not far behind, was their little shadow, Erice.

“Erice would’ve been 5 or 6, learning to ride on that little pink Specialized that a friend had given us,” Finn recalls. “She was a really premature baby, so she was really little as a kid, but a bit of a rocket—just running around, playing sports and all that sort of thing.”

It wasn’t long before Erice’s booster jets were pointed at her brothers’ backyard racecourse. Erice just wanted to do what her brothers were doing, but Finn and Ben soon saw what she was capable of. She took to riding those wooden ramps fast, so Finn and Ben began taking her along on rides at Wainuiomata’s trail centre. The progression was amazing, Finn says.

“She was hitting the Beeline drops when she was, I dunno, 7 or 8 years old, but she was the size of a 5 or 6-year-old on a 16-inch, coaster-braked bike.”

They quickly realised that not only was Erice fearless, but she was also pretty damn good at bikes. It wasn’t long before was entering races, still on the 16-inch, coaster-braked, kid’s bike. Of course, Erice’s engines were on full blast the whole time.

“A story Dad loves telling is the time Erice was riding down Beeline at the Wainuiomata Super D,” Finn recalls. “She sent the drop but stacked it quite good. We were there with quite a few other people watching. As the story goes, my brother and I ran over and people were like, ‘That’s nice, they’re running over to make sure their little sister’s OK.’ But we pretty much grabbed her and said, ‘Get back on your bike, get going’. And she got straight back on and took off.”

Onlookers were a little bit shocked, Finn says, but he and Ben knew what Erice needed: encouragement to keep going rather than encouragement to quit. The hugs would come at the finish line.

Erice says she just remembers the fun of racing with her dad and being exhausted after a big day on her little bike: “I got through it all in the timeframe,” she says. “And I think I won.”

She credits her brothers for pushing her in those early days, but they’d only push when it was something they knew she could do, she says. She’d often end up in front on rides, she explains, her older brothers yelling encouragement from behind.

“Just every time we’d go out, they’d be like ‘Erice! Pedal, pedal, pedal! Hurry up! Come on! You’ve got to do this feature; you can do it’,” she says. “I loved it straight away. It was really fun to go out and be with my cool bros.”

Around that time, Finn and Ben had begun making riding edits of each other. One day, for a bit of fun, Finn thought, “Why not make one of Erice?”

“I thought we’d get her in Rotorua sending it. This was before Instagram was a big thing, but Facebook was kind of big. I didn’t know how to make it go viral, but I thought that we would put it on YouTube, and we’ll put a link on Facebook, and put it on the old Welly Tracks webpage, and just sort of see what happens.”

What happened was a sensation. The video was widely picked up by mountain bike media and beyond, and shared thousands of times.

“My older brother just put the video online, and the next morning he told Mum and Dad ‘We’ve just got an offer for Erice to be sponsored,’ and it went from there,” Erice says.

The messages kept coming and, by the next day, they had multiple offers on the table.

“That was the moment when we were like, ‘Shit, this is a possibility for something pretty big. This could be something really cool down the track.’ Erice was really stoked on it,” Finn says.

The decision to go with Commencal was purely practical. Erice was small for her age, so finding a bike that would fit her and had decent geometry was proving difficult. Commencal’s 20-inch bike had short chainstays and a relatively slack headtube angle, so would probably handle well for someone Erice’s size, Finn explained.

It was all new to Erice, who really just wanted to ride.

Erice's first Commencal

“At first, they’d send me a bike for free and I’d have to put a few videos up and tag them in some posts. It was really low-key.”

That low-key deal developed into a five-year relationship that’s opened doors to racing at a higher level. Finn is still involved as a kind of unofficial manager, dealing with sponsors, contracts, and much of the gear admin.

“As a young kid, it’s pretty overwhelming,” Finn explains. “It’s quite easy for sponsors to get quite a lot out of a young athlete without offering them very much. I’ve continued to help her with it, but it’s
become a bigger job now that’s she’s got a few bikes and heaps of spare kit.”

Through Commencal, Erice has travelled to Europe to shoot promotional videos and ride with their other sponsored riders her age. She was invited back in 2020 and 2021, but the Covid-19 pandemic prevented her from traveling. However, in August this year she returned to Europe, this time to race the French Cup in Chatel.

It was a tough trip, she says. She had been in Germany visiting family and friends, so the jump to France wasn’t big, but the schedule was tight. She arrived on a Thursday and went straight to track walk, then Friday was practice, Saturday seeding, and Sunday was race day.

It was a tough trip, she says. She had been in Germany visiting family and friends, so the jump to France wasn’t big, but the schedule was tight. She arrived on a Thursday and went straight to track walk, then Friday was practice, Saturday seeding, and Sunday was race day.

What she didn’t count on was getting sick. There was some sort of bacterial contamination in the town’s water source, so half the people at the venue got sick. Erice fell ill the night before the race. Then the next day, after just a few hours’ sleep, she had to wait five hours in the scorching heat for her run.

“It was kind of annoying because the track changes a lot in that time, especially with elite men practicing in between. I just slept in the back of the van because I was done in. I’d had no food, because I’d just spew it back up.”

Up at the start gate, exhausted and dehydrated, she went through her warm-up and tried to get her energy levels up and mind focussed.

Then it was time to drop in. She still felt mentally drained, but physically better for the scraps of sleep snatched in the team van. Halfway down the course, she started to find her rhythm.

“The bottom section was more technical, and that was my favourite part, but by then I was physically exhausted because I had no food on board. I just tried to finish without falling off my bike. When I finished, I was just had-it and just lay down,” she says.

She had no idea how competitive her race run was, she was just glad to have survived.

“I didn’t really know what would happen. I hadn’t ever ridden with those girls, so I didn’t know how good they were. But I was super stoked to get a podium.”

Erice downplays her result but coming third was an amazing achievement for a 15-year-old who was ill and riding a strange course in a foreign country against some of the most well-resourced young racers in the world.

That incredible result was off the back of her first proper downhill race outside of Wellington, at the Rotorua round of the New Zealand Downhill series, where she won the under-17 category. Her time was fast enough to put her on the second step of the elite women’s podium with an 11 second gap to third.

“That was awesome,” she enthuses. “That was like, ‘holy moly, I’m actually kind of up there’. Up until then, I’d just been doing enduro races at home. I hadn’t really done downhill races, so I was nervous to see how well I’d go.”

After the French Cup race at Chatel, she went straight to a Commencal training camp in Morzine, where she spent a week working on timed training, pacing efforts, and practicing getting into the mindset needed to race at World Cup level. At the end of the camp, she had a few days of coaching with Cecil
and Cedric Ravenal.

“I learned how serious it is, what I have to do in practice before a race run, and a lot of warm-up stuff for riding. Just all the stuff that happens behind the scenes before a race run.”

The progression and invitations keep coming for Erice. Next up was Canada, where she rode in the Dark Horse Invitational, an event aimed at fostering young, female, freeride talent. That was followed by the Hang Time Women’s Jump Jam at the legendary Blue Steel jump line at Galbraith Mountain in Bellingham, Washington.

“I’m super excited because I hadn’t done a freeride event before, and it’s with other girls who are super passionate about jumping and freeriding. And it’s an event rather than a competition, so that’s cool too,” she explains.

Rolling up to the course on day one, Erice was nervous. There aren’t many opportunities to ride big jump or freeride lines in New Zealand, she explained, but riding with her brothers and a couple of sessions at Queenstown’s Dream Track had put her in good stead. Erice greased the course, ticked off all the lines and tricks on her list, and impressed the other riders and judges so much that she took the Dark Horse Invitational title.

“When Casey (Brown) called my name at the awards, it was an insane feeling. I totally wasn’t expecting it and I was over the moon,” she said. Erice turns 16 in late 2022.

That’s old enough to race the UCI World Cup Downhill circuit as a junior. It’s no secret that her dream is to be the fastest and win at that level, but a lot of things need to fall in place before that becomes a reality, Finn says.

“I suppose that dream keeps me pushing,” Erice says. “I love it and I get to ride with cool people.”

Whatever happens in the next few years, Erice says her favourite day out riding is still with her brothers.