Finding your fight: The mental side of bike racing

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American Kate Courtney graduated from Stanford University in June 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in human biology. A month later, she won her first U.S. national elite cross-country title in Snowshoe, West Virginia. She won three U23 World Cup events in 2017, clinching the series title. She also won four 2017 USA Cycling Pro XCT events, taking that series title as well. In September, she took silver at the 2017 U23 MTB World Championships in Cairns, Australia. With an eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, she will be contributing to CyclingTips along the way.

It’s your day. At least that’s what I told myself standing on the start line of the 2016 U23 MTB World Championships in Nove Mesto Na Morave, Czech Republic.

I had worked harder than ever all year, taking two quarters off from college and dedicating myself full-time to training. I spent much of the year trying to convince myself that I was capable of being on the podium at this race. I woke up every morning with the mantra, “I can, I will,” and I was just starting to really believe when I rolled up to that start line. It was a course I loved. I was more fit than ever. My family was there. All the pieces were in place.

But sometimes that isn’t enough. Less than five minutes into the race, I slid out on a root and crashed, sending me to the back of the pack. I was crushed. In my mind, any good result was already out of the question. I never moved up after the crash and pedaled into my worst-ever international finish. I left Novo Mesto disappointed, having finished 18th. I was disappointed in the race, but even more in myself for giving up. I just couldn’t find my fight.

This race was a turning point for me. In hindsight, I recognize that the way I set goals and visualized the race actually just put added pressure on my shoulders. I was focused on results, not on the process to achieving them. As a competitive athlete, I always believed “grit” and “fight” were character traits. People either had grit and a champion mentality or they did not.

What I learned in the months of unraveling my 2016 World Championship race is that you can build grit and you can prepare to fight. Just like your physical fitness, being mentally strong in a race is something you can train.

After my race in Nove Mesto, I started working with a sports psychologist and spent a lot of time working on my mental game. I quickly saw that being able to stay positive and set realistic goals in racing is a skill you can learn, just like learning to navigate a rock garden.

Now, my pre-race preparation involves a lot more than just riding the course. I meditate every day, spend time visualizing, set goals, and evaluate my mental and physical performance in racing and training. Focusing on the process, and taking the time to work on my headspace, has become just as important as the physical preparations that go into a race week.

During races, I try to refocus again and again on the present moment. Often, this is a lot harder than it sounds. When I feel off my game, and all I can see is suffering, the thoughts that pop into my head aren’t pretty: I overtrained into this. Maybe I’m not as strong as I thought I was. That girl in front of me isn’t even breathing hard.

This year, when those negative thoughts came up, I had a plan. I tried to think of them as temporary sensations, and come back to the moment right in front of me. How can I get through this rooty section with the best line possible? How can I push harder on this section right here? I found that every time I was able to come back to the present moment, I could push a little harder. As my focus shifted away from results and disappointment, the sensations in my body changed. Slowly, but surely I was making progress.

another worlds, a new opportunity

When the time came to line up for the U23 World Championships, held September 8 in Cairns, Australia, I knew I was a completely different racer.

I woke up the morning of the race feeling oddly calm. I slipped quickly into my pre-race routine — reviewed my goals, visualized the course, ate my waffles — slowly switching my mind and body from thinking to doing. More than ever, I felt a relaxed sense of confidence. After a long season of hard work, racing and training, I was walking into battle stronger than I had ever been, mentally and physically. I was ready for anything.

It’s a good thing I had my head on straight that morning.

A few hours later, I stood on the start line taking one last deep breath. You can do this. I felt in control off the start, sitting second wheel protecting my position as we rounded the first corner. But as we charged down the first long straight, the rider in front of me quickly moved over. I saw it happening almost in slow motion, no time to react. Boom, my front wheel was taken out and I went skidding across the gravel. By the time I stopped moving, I saw the back of the field riding away.

In that moment, all I could do was grab my bike and charge. The World Championship course was primarily singletrack with few opportunities to pass. The start loop, however, was wide open. There was no time to think, if I wanted to make up places, this was the time. I was completely in the moment, focused only on catching the next wheel in front of me. I got through the start loop in 22nd place.

As we hit the first little descent, it started to click in my mind what had just happened. Thoughts flooded my mind: This dream is over. Am I going to DNF my first time this season at Worlds?

But as I had practiced over and over, I brought myself back to the trail in front of me. Any expectation or self-imposed pressure to have a perfect race, or a magical winning day, was gone. With nothing left to lose, I could focus on just racing the hell out of my bike. I looked ahead and set my sights on the next rider in front of me.

Fighting back: After a crash in the start loop, American Kate Courtney rode from the back of the group to take silver at the 2017 U23 World Mountain-Bike Championship in Cairns, Australia.

On the climb, I realized I had a bigger problem. As I shifted into my easiest gears, I thought I heard a stick hitting my spokes, but quickly realized my rear derailleur had been bent in the crash. It sounded pretty bad, but I was still moving forward.

Again, with nothing left to lose, I decided to keep pedaling as long as I could. Oddly enough, worrying about my shifting kept me present. I had to avoid my three easiest gears which meant paying close attention to my cadence and shifting on each part of the course. How can I shift ahead in this section? Where can I carry the most speed? Can I push harder in this gear? Unsure if my shifting would even hold up, I could only think about doing my best in this moment.

By the second lap, I was riding completely within myself, pushing a smooth, relaxed, focused pace that felt almost effortless. I felt that “flow” state we all chase, where the trail in front of me and the bike below seem to be the only things that exist. On the climb, I looked up to see my American teammate Haley Batten in front of me. She let me by immediately, and yelled, “You’re in second Kate. Gooo!”

I was shocked. I had completely lost track of positioning and had already let go of the thought of medaling. But I was still in the hunt.

I rode the next two laps alone, watching the time to the leader, Sina Frei of Switzerland. I charged hard, but the gap hovered around 40 seconds and it became clear I was racing for silver. On the last descent, I hit a sharp rock on the descent and knew I’d hit a rim. Miraculously, my tire sealed up and held enough air to get me to the finish. I crossed the line in second place to take my first ever World Championship medal.

While my result at Worlds was somewhat bittersweet, it was also one of my proudest races. It was successful not necessarily because of my silver medal, or even how I felt, but because I was able to reset and fight back. A year ago, the same setback left me struggling to finish in 18th place. This year, put in the same position, I stood on the podium. It was still a disappointing day, but one I could walk away from with no regret, knowing I prepared to the best of my ability and raced with all my heart.

For endurance athletes accustomed to quantifying and incrementally improving every aspect of performance, the mental side of racing is hard to wrap your head around (pun intended).

There is no secret recipe for a great race and so many things are out of your control. I am finding that when I am in the right mindset, I feel confident I can handle any challenge and find a way to learn from each race. Being able to fight back doesn’t come from some innate character trait I have, or by accident, or even because of my fitness. It is a skill I have built over time by setting goals, performing in the present and riding a positive mental race over and over since my challenging day in Nove Mesto.

I have by no means figured it out — finding that special headspace is something that requires continuous effort. But my performance at Worlds, and that silver medal, will serve as a constant reminder that even in the darkest moments, I can find my fight.

About the author

Kate Courtney is a professional cross-country mountain-bike racer for the Specialized Factory Team and is the 2017 U.S. national champion. Off the bike, she’s a self-described “huge nerd” with a degree in human biology from Stanford University. She’s a fan of any and all outdoor adventures, but is mostly in it for the snack breaks. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.

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