A Look At Kate Courtney’s Impressive Journey To Mountain Bike World Champ In Her First Elite Season

By Peggy Shinn | Sept. 14, 2018, 12:53 a.m. (ET)
Kate Courtney celebrates winning the women's elite cross-country race at the 2018 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships on Sept. 8, 2018 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

 

Before Kate Courtney rolled up to the starting line of the 2018 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships last weekend, her father, Tom, gave her some advice.

“Focus on the last 10 months of hard work, not on the hour and a half ahead of you,” he suggested to his daughter, the youngest competitor in the field.

The advice helped Courtney shift her perspective. In only her first season in the elite women’s mountain bike field, the 22-year-old rider with an easy smile thought, “Why not me?”

Why not indeed?

On the final technical section of the course in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, Courtney passed Specialized teammate Annika Langvad (the 2016 world champion) as the Danish rider bobbled on a web of tree roots.

“Looking back, it’s way more stressful than it was to be in the moment,” she said by phone from Italy, where she is preparing to compete in the UCI MTB Marathon World Championships this weekend. 

“In the moment, I was just focused on executing my race plan, and I just thought, ‘OK, you have this opportunity, just ride smooth,’” she added. “I focused on giving my best effort and really riding to the best of my ability over those tricky little sections, and I felt that if I could really execute that, then I’d at least have a shot.”

Courtney rode into the finish stretch in the lead, and although she glanced over her shoulder several times — certain that Langvad would be there with each glance — she crossed the finish line with no one in sight.

Courtney’s win is the first for a U.S. mountain biker since Alison Dunlap won the world title in 2001. That win 17 years ago gave America something to celebrate shortly after 9/11.

Besides Courtney and Dunlap, only two other U.S. women have won world championship titles: Juli Furtado won the first UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in 1990, followed by Ruthie Mathes in 1991.

But the U.S. has not been devoid of world championship or Olympic medals in that time. Since Dunlap’s win, three other women have stood on the world championship podium: Willow Koerber (bronze, 2009 and 2010), Georgia Gould (bronze, 2012) and Courtney’s former Specialized teammate Lea Davison (bronze in 2014, silver in 2016). Gould also won Olympic bronze in 2012.

Davison raced in the 2018 world championships (finishing 24th) and was the first person to run up and hug Courtney as she stood on the podium.

“The USA gets the rainbow [jersey] for a year,” Davison tweeted. “YASSSSS Queen. SLAY.”

Courtney represents a new generation of American mountain bikers who, unlike the Olympic and world championship medalists who came before her, started mountain biking as young children and began racing as teenagers.

As Davison told VeloNews in August (for an article titled “Courting Greatness”), “I wasn’t racing internationally until I was 25. Already the international race experience she has is so much more — season upon season — compared to where I was in my career [at her age].” [Davison’s mountain bike racing career began after she graduated from college.]

The wheels of Courtney’s career began turning on a tandem bike with her dad when she was 5 or 6 years old. From their home in Kentfield, California — in Marin County within sight of Mt. Tamalpais, known as the birthplace of mountain biking — Courtney and her dad would ride up Mt. Tam, then have pancakes.

“It was just a fun thing to do,” she said. “It didn’t have any competitive motivation, it wasn’t tied to how fast we were doing it, it was for the joy of riding a bike. That’s something that my dad keeps alive for me. I always can go home and ride on Mt. Tam with my dad, and it’s my favorite thing to do.”

Courtney also did the usual smattering of childhood sports, including alpine skiing, horse riding and gymnastics. But she was drawn to individual sports and when it came to competition she liked the mentality of running.

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Freshman year in high school, she had a promising cross-country season. That spring (2010), she decided to join her high school’s National Interscholastic Cycling Association mountain bike program to stay aerobically fit for running.

She soon realized that mountain biking was better than running. She could push herself as hard as she did in running. But the tactical side and the mental component of staying focused on the trails’ technical sections made it more interesting.

“You have to execute your race plan, but you also have to have all the pieces come together on the right day,” she explained. “I was really drawn to the challenge of mountain biking but also to the fun part.”

The analytical side of cycling, with its power meters and heart rate monitors, also intrigued her.

“I am a data nerd, a big data nerd,” she admitted with a laugh. “I think I’m a nerd in general. But in terms of cycling data, I certainly spend a lot of time on it. And it’s a huge part of what I like about training — being able to see that progress, being able to analyze power curves and improve and keep making steps towards my ultimate goal.”

Courtney won her first mountain bike race and moved up from the freshman division to JV.

A few months later, she won her first U.S. junior national title. And in 2012, she became the first American to ever win a junior world cup race. She was 16.

One of Courtney’s strengths is her mindset. She began digging into the mental side of mountain biking after racing her first junior world cups. The competition and technical courses at that level were a step beyond what she had previously seen. She had to “figure out what process is going to get me to the start line ready to perform.”

Since then, Courtney’s career curve has shot steadily upward — even when she was a full-time student at Stanford studying human biology with a concentration in public health and technology innovation (a field of study sparked by living in Silicon Valley, she said). She was also competing for her school.

By 2016, she was winning world cups as a U23 rider. But in some ways, that year was pivotal. She took off two quarters from school to try to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team but narrowly missed qualifying.

“It was a hard moment and really made me motivated to qualify in 2020 and also to set my sights higher and to not just make the Olympic team but to aim to perform well at the Olympics,” she said.

If her 2017 season is an indication, she will be a medal contender in Tokyo. She won almost every race she entered, and at 2017 U23 world championships she won a silver medal. She also graduated from Stanford that year.

This season, Courtney made her debut in the women’s elite field. Her goal for 2018 was to finish top 10 in the world cup rankings. By May, she began consistently finishing in the top 10.

In June, a knee injury threatened to derail her season. But the opposite happened. Two weeks of rest mid-season helped her peak for world championships. She just didn’t think her peak would lead to a gold medal so early in her career.

“I don't want to say I didn’t think it was possible, but it was just beyond what I thought would even happen,” she said. “To have that opportunity and to have that amazing race where it all comes together was a really special feeling.”

After Courtney crossed the finish line, she rode straight over to hug her parents. Her older brother Jack was also at worlds.

Then from the podium, she gave her dad the world champion watch that she received.

“To win worlds with him there was really special,” she said.

As she tweeted earlier this summer, along with a picture of her dad, “Through the highs and lows, this guy has my back. Thanks for the cheers dad.”

And the advice, too. And probably those pancakes.

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.