Haley Batten competes during the women's cross-country race at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 27, 2021 in Izu, Japan..
TOKYO — Walking the 2020 Olympic mountain bike course last week under blue skies, Kate Courtney tweeted, “This mountain bike course is just as beautiful as I remember it.”
But after the remnants of a typhoon blew through on Monday night, with rain finally stopping around 11 a.m. Japan time, the course — in Izu, about two hours south of Tokyo — was a different animal altogether.
Heavy rain left the many rock gardens and technical sections, plus 500 feet of climbing in each of the five laps, very slick. And the women were only given one hour to practice on the wet course before the race started.
In her first year as an elite mountain biker, Haley Batten scored the best finish for the American trio of riders, finishing ninth — almost four-and-a-half minutes behind Olympic gold medalist Jolanda Neff who led a Swiss podium sweep.
“That was definitely the trickiest, trying to stay in the zone in your flow, but also trying to give as much as you can, but sometimes the course just throws a curveball,” said Batten. “That was the hardest part.”
But Batten, who commented earlier this week that she loved the Olympic mountain bike course, was happy with her race.
“Honestly I love the course, and I love the chaos,” she said, “so I had a lot of fun out there.”
Batten — a 22-year-old who scored her first world cup podiums this spring — is coached by three-time Olympic time trial gold medalist Kristin Armstrong. To find a reason behind previous inconsistent results, Batten underwent allergy testing recently to help address a breathing problem. She also moved from the cold, wet climate of British Columbia to Santa Cruz, California, where a moderate climate provided more consistent training.
Former world and overall world cup champion Kate Courtney crossed the line in 15th place, over six-and-a-half minutes off the lead. Erin Huck was lapped by Neff and pulled from the course.
From the start, Batten, Courtney, and Huck seemed to struggle with the muddy, slippery course.
As the group of 38 riders hit the first rocky, technical section in the start loop, the Americans were caught in a traffic jam as riders ahead of them either fell off their bikes or got off to walk the section. Courtney was in 15th place, Batten in 16th by the end of the start loop, 24 seconds off the lead.
From there, it was a game of catch-up on a humid day with temperatures in the 80s. In places on the 3.85-kilometer main loop, the course resembled a cyclocross race, with racers dismounting and running up the steep, slippery hills.
“It was hard to know if I should get off and run, or if I should try and ride [the steep corners], and some of the little rocks just threw you off,” said Batten. “They're so steep, so when you're trying to just give your all and dig in and then all of a sudden you just slide out, and you're just trying to stay on your bike.”
Neff, who thrives in muddy conditions, went off the front early and maintained her lead, while her Swiss teammates, Sina Frei and Linda Indergand worked together to stay in medal contention. Frei ended up with silver, Indergand bronze.
"Someone said to me that whoever wins this race is going to be a worthy champion because you're going to have to know how to ride your mountain bike — you need skills, you need everything,” said Neff after her winning race.
Although the 2020 Olympic mountain bike race did not go the Americans’ way, Batten knows she has a bright future in mountain biking.
“Early this season I surprised myself with my ability to race for the podium,” she said. “That definitely motivated me and gave me a glimpse of what I'm capable of.”