Chloe Woodruff competes at the Cycling - Mountain Bike Tokyo 2020 Test Event Oct. 6, 2019 in Izu, Shizuoka, Japan.
Before the novel coronavirus banished us to our homes in March, four American women mountain bikers were circling the globe on an “Amazing Race” of sorts. It was a race for UCI points, and they chased them around the world.
That goal? To move the U.S. into the top two in the UCI nation standings. A top-two ranking would earn the women three Olympic berths in Tokyo (instead of two).
“When they announced for the first time (in 2018) that the top two ranked nations would get three spots, we were like we have to do this,” said Lea Davison, who at age 37 is aiming for her third Olympic Games.
In previous Games, the top nations could only send two women. The rules were changed for the 2020 Games for gender parity; the top two nations for the men have always been allocated three spots.
Going into the 2018 season, the U.S. women were ranked third in the world with 2,890 points—behind Switzerland with 4,322 points and Germany with 3,217. It was a significant leap up the rankings from 2016, when the U.S. women sat in sixth going to the Rio Games.
The top three riders per country in individual UCI rankings contribute to a nation’s standings. Points are earned at UCI-sanctioned races, with the maximum number earned at world cups (250 points for the winner and on down to 30th place). The UCI classifies other sanctioned races according to a ratings scale, with more difficult races, such as multi-day stage races, offering riders more points.
To move into second place, the Americans would have to compete not only in the UCI World Cup tour, but also in as many other UCI-sanctioned races as they could handle—the more difficult, the better. A tough endurance sport with competitions almost year-round, mountain bike racing can leave athletes physically and mentally drained. The goal was to pick races before and after the world cup season where they could maximize UCI points.
The plan was hatched actually long before the UCI’s Olympic qualification announcement in 2018. During the Rio Games in 2016, USA Cycling’s Jim Miller and the mountain bike program director at the time were discussing how the U.S. could qualify more riders for the Olympic Games. The women’s mountain bike team had earned the maximum number of two, with Davison and Chloe Woodruff racing for Team USA in Rio. The men only earned one spot.
“We have good athletes coming up, but they don’t get the opportunity early in their careers to compete at the Olympics,” said Miller, now chief of sport performance for USA Cycling. “By the time they get that opportunity, you want them to have the knowledge of what it’s like to go to the Olympics and compete, not just be there.”
So Miller and others at USA Cycling developed a strategy: the NGB would fund three women to compete on the world cup tour (in previous years, big-budget factory teams sent riders to world cups, but teams have smaller budgets now and most focus on domestic races). They would join Kate Courtney, the 2018 world champion on the Scott-SRAM team. The NGB would also cover travel costs for races outside the world cup tour where these women—who compete for domestic teams—could continue accumulating UCI points.
So 2016 Olympian Chloe Woodruff (32, from Prescott, Arizona, on the Stan’s-Pivot Pro team), Davison (from Sunderland, Vermont, on Team TWENTY20), and Erin Huck (39, from Estes Park, Colorado, on the Stages Cycling-Scott team and the lowest ranked of the three women after two years struggling with a broken hand, then a broken ankle) looked at the UCI calendar and strategized.
“It didn’t make a lot of sense for us to travel together and do the same races because inevitably, you end up taking points away from each other, competing against each other,” added Woodruff.
It was, in Huck’s words, a giant chess game.
By the end of 2018, the U.S. had moved into second place—but only a scant 30 points ahead of Canada. Denmark sat 138 points behind, with the Netherlands 311 points in arrears. A couple of good races by world cup stars Emily Batty (CAN), Annika Langvad (DEN), or Dutch duo Anne Tauber and Anne Terpstra and the U.S. would quickly fall down the standings.
Thanks in part to Courtney’s stellar 2019 season—she won five world cup races and became the U.S.’s first overall world cup champion in 17 years—the Americans held their second-place ranking throughout last season. But the Netherlands, now in third place only 240 points behind, was “a little too close for comfort,” said Davison.
In other words, the Dutch were one world cup win away from bumping the U.S. to third by the close of Olympic qualifying (which at the time was May 2020).
So in early September 2019, the three women sat in Woodruff’s condo at world cup finals and strategized again. Woodruff and Huck could collect big points racing in Epic Israel, a four-day stage race for teams of two riders. From there, they would fly to Tokyo for the Olympic test event on October 6, 2019.
Meanwhile, Davison, who took time off after world cup finals to celebrate her first anniversary with Frazier Blair, would fly around the world in the other direction. After the three competed in the Tokyo test event, Woodruff and Huck would “pass the [points chase] baton” to Davison, and she would fly to Greece for two stage races in mid-October.
Four months later, in February 2020, their “Amazing Race” started up again, with Courtney, Huck, and Davison in Europe competing in a handful of stage races, and Woodruff winning UCI-sanctioned mountain bike races in Puerto Rico.
Their efforts racked up an additional 1,080 points (although only Davison’s and Woodruff’s points counted toward the nation ranking because only the top three riders per nation count).
With Olympic qualification points frozen until 2021, the U.S. is currently ranked second with 4,378 points—134 points behind Switzerland and a comfortable 477 ahead of the Netherlands.
“We have, so far, achieved the goal we set out to achieve,” said Woodruff. “There’s a lot to be gained from that process, but it does feel good to have met that goal up to this point.”
As of now, the 2020 world cup season has been truncated to three races in September, followed by world championships in October (individual organizers may cancel these events as conditions warrant). So as not to penalize riders who can’t get to Europe this fall because of covid-related travel restrictions, the UCI announced that Olympic qualification will not resume until the first two world cups of the 2021 season.
The Kate/Lea Effect
Key to the effort has been Courtney’s results. The first U.S. rider to win a junior world cup race and the 2017 U23 overall world cup champion, Courtney, 24, burst onto the scene in 2018, winning the world title her first year in the senior ranks. Her UCI points helped move the USA from sixth to third in the nation rankings.
Perhaps more importantly, she gave her American teammates hope.
“Kate wins the world title, wins the world cup, and shows what’s really possible for American women,” said Miller. “Those American women really bought into it. If Kate can do this, then I can do this too.”
Woodruff watched Courtney come up through the ranks, from a junior to her current spot at the top of the women’s elite rankings, and raced against her before she was a regular on the world cup podium. Woodruff told VeloNews that Courtney’s success inspired her to win her first world cup last season.
“It’s one thing when you see riders from other countries reach a certain level,” Woodruff explained. “But when it’s someone who you’ve raced with and you know, it doesn’t seem as impossible for yourself.”
Before Courtney blazed the trail, Davison was showing what was possible. Davison won bronze and silver world championship medals in 2014 and 2016, respectively, and in 2015, finished third overall in the world cup tour. Davison and Courtney were teammates on the Specialized team, with Davison mentoring the younger rider.
Woodruff credits Davison with sharing her “wealth of experience.” And now the three women share information and their experiences with each other—an unusual act in an individual sport.
“That has, at least in my case, helped me learn and improve,” Woodruff said.
The downside of this four-person points chase is the obvious math: four women have (hopefully) earned three spots for the Tokyo Games.
Courtney earned an automatic nomination to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team after finishing fifth at the 2019 world championships. The other three women can earn another automatic spot by winning the first world cup in 2021, as long as it is held between the dates of January 1 and May 24, 2021. If no American wins that race, then a U.S. rider finishing second through eighth can earn an automatic nomination to the Tokyo Games. A third athlete will be nominated by coaches’ discretion.
With three riders aiming for the last two spots, the game of chess will become musical chairs, with one woman left out.
But the women don’t view it as a downside. The points chase solidified them as a team. They are not just racing in Team USA kits; they are also rooting for each other—again, unusual in the cut-throat world of mountain bike racing.
“I didn’t feel as if I had to race against Chloe,” said Huck. “The better Chloe did, the more points that we got, the more likely that three of us could go. It helped us to empower each other, which I think ultimately raised everybody up.”
Indeed, in the past two seasons (Huck’s injuries aside), she and Woodruff have had some of the best results of their careers. And Davison—struggling back after a near fatal career blow when the Specialized team dropped her in 2016, even after she won a silver medal at world championships and finished seventh at the Rio Games—is back on form.
“I really value teamwork, that companionship and camaraderie that comes with it,” said Davison, who competed on Middlebury’s NCAA Division 1 alpine ski team in college. “It’s a firm belief of mine that we all progress when we all are working together.”
Woodruff and Huck credit the teamwork with extending their careers.
“I don’t think I would still be racing [if we hadn’t teamed together],” said Huck, who works as biomedical engineer for Medtronic in Colorado. “Once it was announced we can send three, and we could all work toward a common goal, that was really inspiring and motivating.”