The weekly spin: Kate Courtney, an American in rainbow stripes

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It was not yet dawn on Saturday morning. My sleep had been restless. My wife and daughter were sound asleep. So were the pets. It really wasn’t a time to be awake, but there was a bike race to watch.

I checked the time. It was nearly 4:30am here in Colorado, the precise start time of the UCI women’s cross-country world championship in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. I’d made a mental note of the start time the night before, but I’d forgotten to set an alarm. And yet, there I was, wide awake. After missing the women’s World Cup final in La Bresse, France, two weeks earlier — a race some were calling one of the best women’s cross-country battles in history — I took this as a sign. I was meant to see this race.

If you’re not familiar with the free Red Bull TV live stream of World Cup mountain-bike racing, it truly is a thing of beauty, especially when paired with an Apple TV. And on this early Saturday morning it took me straight to the action just as the start gun had been fired. [A full replay of the race can be watched here.]

Right away, 2016 world champion Annika Langvad of Denmark was alone at the front, chased by American Kate Courtney, her teammate at Specialized Factory Racing.

If you’re still reading at this point, I’m going to assume you know how the race ended. If not, the highlight video below will catch you up to speed.

More on the race in a minute. First, a quick background on Kate Courtney, a columnist here at CyclingTips, in no particular order: She’s 22. She was raised in Marin County, north of San Francisco, and trains in the redwoods on Mount Tamalpais, the birthplace of mountain biking. A former competitive runner, she got her start in racing on the Branson High School mountain-bike team. She was part of USA Cycling’s development program and in 2012, at age 16, she became the first American woman to win a junior World Cup XCO event. In June 2017, she graduated from Stanford University with a degree in human biology. In her first season after graduating, she won the elite cross-country national title, which she defended in June.

Courtney rides for Specialized, is sponsored by Red Bull, and is supported by USA Cycling’s National Team program. She’s on the small side; her bio puts her at 5-foot-4 (162cm) and 115 pounds (52kg). She climbs well and is a very good technical rider. She lists her likes as sparkles, waffles, and tacos. Her Instagram account has 133,000 followers; one of her common hashtags is #sparklewatts. She’s coached by Jim Miller, the former USA Cycling VP of Athletics who coached Kristin Armstrong to three Olympic gold medals. She focuses on the mental aspect of racing as much as the physical, and works closely with a sports psychologist, Dr. Kristin Keim, who was there in Lenzerheide, along with her parents, celebrating at the finish line.

One more thing: She’s a very good writer. I would know, I (lightly) edit her columns. Recent topics have included pre-race rituals, meditation, and the challenges of balancing nutrition and body image as a female athlete. They’re compelling topics, and she files clean copy.

Courtney won four U23 World Cup races and the series title last year, and took a silver medal at the U23 world championship in Australia. But prior to Saturday’s race, she had never finished on an elite World Cup podium — a podium that runs five deep in mountain biking — and had not worn a rainbow jersey in either the junior or U23 ranks.

So Saturday’s world title was in many ways a surprise, but in other ways, not so much. It was a natural part of her progression, albeit accelerated on a day when she put together a perfect race when it mattered most. In editorial terms, she filed very clean copy.

“It was an incredibly special day,” Courtney said. “Racing in the national team kit in front of a spectacular Swiss crowd — and most importantly, in front of my friends and family — made this moment really magical. I knew I was coming into this race in good form, and focused on just executing my plan. To come away with a gold medal and the rainbow stripes for Team USA and Specialized was beyond my wildest dreams.”

The world championships always offers a unique dynamic as riders race for the federations rather than trade teams, but this was more so than usual; Langvad and Courtney raced side by side in Specialized colors at the Cape Epic stage race in South Africa in March, winning seven of eight stages in the women’s category as well as the overall. Throughout the 2018 World Cup season they trained, traveled, and raced together, the 34-year-old Langvad mentoring the 22-year-old Courtney in her first season in the elite category.

The chase: Kate Courtney in pursuit during the women’s elite cross-country event at the 2018 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

Back to Lenzerheide. Courtney was running second on the first of seven laps, a strong showing in her first elite world championship. It was a promising start, but there was room for doubt. She had a similar start at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Canada, a month earlier, running second behind world champion Jolanda Neff midway through the race before she was caught and passed by Langvad and then Canadian Emily Batty; a flat tire on the last lap put Courtney on the back foot, and she unsuccessfully fought to reclaim fifth place. Sixth was a doubled-edged sword, both a disappointment and her best-ever elite result.

Mont-Sainte-Anne was a missed opportunity, but also a positive sign of things to come. She showed true grace under pressure during that last-lap wheel change — a trait that’s not necessarily something that can be taught — and though she finished sixth, there’d been a period where she was running second, at an elite World Cup, with only the world champion ahead of her. In an email, she wrote, “I can’t wait to take another crack at making that front group. There are still a few big races this season, and opportunities to make some magic.”

Things looked to be shaping up similarly in Lenzerheide, as Langvad’s lead crept up to 35 seconds on lap 2 of 7; one lap later, Batty caught and passed Courtney, just as she’d done in Mont-Sainte-Anne. Still, Courtney was well within medal position, with a decent gap over Neff. A bronze medal in her elite worlds debut was a dream scenario.

But cross-country races aren’t decided on the third lap, and particularly on a technical course like Lenzerheide, anything can happen. And so it did.

Langvad crashed on lap 3 — blood trickled down her right shoulder and elbow — but her large gap had been such that she still led Batty by 12 seconds, and Courtney by 18 seconds. The Dane was in the lead, but the window of opportunity, which had looked as though it was closing, was suddenly open again, with a pair of North Americans wearing Red Bull logos on their helmets in hot pursuit.

With a determined surge, Courtney passed Batty on an uphill section on the fourth lap and moved back into silver medal position while Langvad drove on, alone at the front. After lap 4 of 7, Langvad led Courtney by 19 seconds, while Batty was 44 seconds behind, and it was looking very much like a Specialized 1-2 finish, with the Danish veteran poised to finish ahead of her American protege.

But Langvad was tiring. Her aggressive start was taking a toll. The post-crash adrenaline had worn off. With Courtney taking the A lines through technical sections while Langvad struggled on the B lines, the gap was closing. On lap 5 of 7, Courtney had pulled back to within eight seconds of Langvad, who’d had no company at the front since the beginning —no wheel to follow, no one to set pace. With 1.5 laps to go and Batty a full minute behind, Courtney was solidly in silver medal position, one Langvad bobble away from the rainbow jersey.

And that’s just what happened.

The catch: At the end of lap 6 of 7, Courtney caught Specialized teammate and 2016 world champion Annika Langvad, who had led from the start.

The two came together as they finished lap 6. And when Langvad, still in the lead, bobbled through an off-camber section laced with roots, Courtney made the pass, the first time any other rider had been in the lead. It was the decisive moment of the race, the instant in which a rainbow jersey was both won and lost. Langvad cracked, if not physically then mentally, and she would ultimately lose by 47 seconds — a larger margin than she had held throughout the race.

Arms aloft and a wide grin across her face, Courtney crossed the finish line and rode straight to her parents, Tom and Maggie, where she was handed an American flag to drape across her shoulders as tears of joy began to flow.

“It’s an absolute incredible feeling to win,” Courtney said. “I was so focused on executing my race plan, and to look up at the finish and realize that I was first was an incredible feeling.  I just focused on riding the cleanest lines I could, and I knew that was my opportunity.”

It was a watershed performance from Courtney, but Langvad could only be disappointed with silver. In the end, the world title came down to technical skills; the Dane’s mid-race crash and last-lap bobble was the difference. On Instagram, Langvad congratulated her teammate while acknowledging the pain of losing a chance to once again wear the rainbow jersey. “Close, but no cigar!” she wrote. “What can I say? Happy about my season, but honestly disappointed to come so close today. Kate rode well and deserved to finally clinch that big win. Congrats Kate!”

The victory: Courtney had plenty of time to celebrate her first world title.

With her win, Courtney became the fourth American woman to win the elite cross-country title, and the first since Alison Dunlap won in Vail, Colorado, in 2001, just days after the 9/11 attacks when flights across the United States were still grounded. Kate Courtney was not yet six years old at the time.

If Dunlap’s victory is regarded as a cathartic moment for the American mountain-bike community, Courtney’s win will perhaps one day be remembered as the dawning of a new era. As one USA Cycling executive put it, “Kate has arrived, and represents a new generation of American mountain bikers.” Either way, there shall no longer be speculation about her future potential. The Kate Courtney era has begun.

In June 2017, on a sunny day in California, Courtney graduated from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Fifteen months later, on a magical day in Switzerland, the 22-year-old American was the best in the world, rainbow stripes across her chest and a gold medal around her neck.

I’m so glad I watched it happen.

The weekly spin is a new column from our Editor at Large, offering commentary and analysis on topics ranging from racing to tech to industry to travel to simple observations from the saddle.

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