The weekly spin: Kate Courtney and the joy of wearing rainbow stripes

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Joyful. That’s the word Kate Courtney chooses to describe her experience thus far wearing the rainbow jersey of world champion.

It helps, of course, that she’s been winning while wearing the rainbow jersey.

Winning a world title, as Courtney did in Switzerland in September, can be a career-defining accomplishment. Winning in the rainbow jersey, as Courtney has done several times this season, against the best riders in the world, is something else entirely. It’s confirmation. It’s vindication. It’s also, as she says, jubilation.

When Courtney won her world title, it was rightly viewed as an outlier. She was just 22, and had not reached a World Cup podium in her first season racing at the elite level — a podium which runs five deep in mountain-bike racing. Her stated goal at the outset of the 2019 season, which began with a transfer from Specialized to SCOTT-SRAM, was to consistently reach World Cup podiums. She’s done that and more, winning the XCO events at the first two rounds of the World Cup series, as well as the STXC event at the season opener in Albstadt, Germany.

It’s all the more impressive considering she’s yet to have a flawless race. In wet conditions in Albstadt, Courtney started strong and went clear on the first lap. She held a 30-second lead into the second lap, but lost traction on a wet wooden bridge and hit the deck. She remounted and methodically stretched out her lead for the remainder of the race, finishing 49 seconds ahead of 2017 world champion Jolanda Neff to become the first American woman to win a UCI World Cup XCO race since Alison Dunlap in 1999.

A week later, across the roots and rocky descents at Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, Courtney had to fight her way back to the front of the race after an early puncture. After bridging up to Neff on the fourth of six laps, Courtney caught up with leader Anne Tauber, who crashed several times in the final lap. In the end, Courtney finished 36 seconds ahead of Australian Rebecca McConnell.

Kate Courtney overcame a bad start and an early puncture to take the victory at Nove Mesto on May 26. Photo: Armin Kuestenbrueck/Ego Promotion.

Together, these victories offer a study in the mental acuity required to win under very different circumstances — the pressure involved in leading from the front on the first lap, and the belief required to chase back from an early setback. Courtney would say the win at Nove Mesto was one of the most special in her career, calling it “one of the deepest digs of my entire life… it took every ounce of my physical and mental strength to stay focused, positive and keep pushing until the very end.”

Winning the first two rounds of the World Cup has come as a bit of a relief for SCOTT-SRAM, the Swiss team run by Thomas Frischknecht. The team’s star rider, Nino Schurter, is yet to register a World Cup victory; he finished an uncharacteristic sixth at Albstadt, and was beaten by a superior Mathieu van der Poel at Nove Mesto, the Dutch rider’s first XCO World Cup win. Schurter, a seven-time world champion and six-time World Cup series champion — he’s won both worlds and the World Cup title in the same season on five occasions— now sits third in the World Cup standings led by van der Poel.

I spoke up with Courtney upon her return to her home in Northern California to discuss her fantastic start to the season, working alongside Frischknecht and Schurter, the 2020 Olympic Games, how life in the rainbow jersey has changed things, and much more. What I found was an athlete who is actualizing and redefining her goals in real time, and doing her best to enjoy every step in the process.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Kate Courtney is enjoying her season in the rainbow jersey. Photo: Paris Gore/Red Bull Content Pool.

CyclingTips: Prior to the world championships, you had not been on the podium of an elite race. You’re three for three in international XCO racing since then, and won your first STXC as well. What’s changed? Obviously you’re on a new team. You’re on new equipment. You’re wearing the rainbow jersey. But from your perspective, does it feel like a switch has flipped? What do you attribute it to?

Kate Courtney: It was always that kind of monkey on my back that I haven’t won a World Cup, but was wearing the rainbow stripes. So it was nice to be able to back that up. I think that for the people within my immediate team who have seen how I work, and have been working towards these goals with me for a really long time, it wasn’t like an overnight crazy, surprise thing that happened. It is, of course, still exciting. I definitely surprised myself at worlds last year. I definitely surprised myself at the start of this season, but I think it’s something that I’ve been making steady progress towards for a long time. So it’s really exciting to break that rock and finally get up there, but I think it was the accumulation of a lot of small changes, not maybe one huge thing.

I will say that my new team has made a huge difference for me as well. Being able to learn from Thomas Frischknecht, and to ride with him, and to have his help on the ground on race day has been really incredible as well, as being back with my mechanic, Brad Copeland, for this season. I think I just have the best support and the best team around me. I think that is both what allowed this season to start so positively, but has also been contributing to really consistent results this season.

CyclingTips: For those who aren’t as familiar with the dynamics of mountain-bike team as they might be with what goes on inside a road team, can you talk a little bit about the support that you get, and how it’s helped you become a better racer? 

Kate Courtney: I think the interesting thing about a mountain-bike team is that it is an individual sport. The teams don’t have as much of a formula. I think teams are different, and it’s really a matter of fit. I think I’ve found my perfect home on the SCOTT-SRAM team. It’s really one that values high-performance, but is like a family. Being in this environment, where I can really learn and feel supported and believed in, has been a huge help for me. But yeah, on race day it is an individual sport. So while we’ll travel together as a team, and occasionally train together — I’m usually training with Frischy and the boys train together — on race day it’s an individual sport.

CyclingTips: I know, from columns that you’ve written for CyclingTips, that you spend a lot of time on the mental side of the sport. Do you feel that winning that world title has instilled a newfound confidence in yourself? 

Kate Courtney: Absolutely. I think it’s really hard, especially when you’ve moved up a category, just to feel that you belong there, and that you belong at the front of those races. For me, a lot of it has been really taking confidence from my preparation and knowing my power numbers are better this year, or that I felt better, I’ve been more recovered, or I’ve been descending faster. Really taking confidence from those things, but also, of course, from having those results. Having the world champ’s stripes to look down at is the best reminder in the world that anything is possible, and that it’s possible for me to be out there on any given day.

CyclingTips: Are your power numbers demonstrably better in the last six months than they have been in the past?

Kate Courtney: I wouldn’t say that. We’ve used data for a long time. It’s definitely something that I focus a lot on. And they’ve really consistently improved. But I think I’m getting better at using it, I would say. So being strategic in races, and understanding what it takes to make selection in the first lap, or to have a really strong last lap. I think that’s the next level, and the next phase of my career is not necessarily just trying to get the highest number on that interval, but having a really well-rounded kind of database.

CyclingTips: Your coach is Jim Miller [former Director of Athletics at USA Cycling], right?

Kate Courtney: Yes. He is the best. I started working with him in my last year as a U23, in the fall. He’s been incredible. I think Jim is, again, a really great fit for me. He loves the data, but he also understands the mental side of racing and likes to push his athletes in training. That’s something that I’ve responded really well to. I think we make a great team. He also works really well with Frischy. I think that’s something I’ve learned this year, that’s really been amazing, is just having that team of Jim having on the training, data, numbers side, and Frischy on the actual race-day, skills, performance-directing side. I really have a well-rounded team. They’re both so knowledgeable, but also really humble and great leaders. I they work well together and are really helping get the best out of me.

CyclingTips: Tell me a little bit about the two wins this season in terms of what might’ve been similar, or what was different. Of course every race is different, but the result in those two races was the same — the world champion won, alone.

Kate Courtney: They were both really exciting but very challenging races. I think at the first one, I was a little shocked to find myself out front so early alone. That ended up being, of course, a really mental effort. Just really pacing well. I had actually a pretty big crash midway through the race. My lead went from 50 seconds to 15. I really credit that one, as well as my win in Nove Mesto, with the mental preparation that I’ve done. Also, it’s just believing in the physical preparation that I’ve done, because to have something go wrong and be able to slowly pace back and extend my lead again and hold on for the win was something I was really proud of.

In Nove Mesto, that was quite a different win for me and I think one of the most special rides in my career because I went into it feeling really strong, and confident after Albstadt, and kind of got blown out at the beginning and wasn’t feeling great, I was riding stiff, I just didn’t feel like myself on the bike. I made some mistakes, ended up getting a flat tire, and dropped back to sixth place halfway through the race. I think I was 36 seconds off the leaders at that split and was able to just kind of like snap out of it. I used my wheel change as a good break, a recovery period, and came back super strong in the second half and caught Anne Tauber on the last lap. Then, unfortunately, she had mechanical so we weren’t able to keep the battle going to the line, but I found myself again in the front.

That victory for me was really amazing because it just was one where I had to stay so focused and positive and really did not know what was going to happen and was kind of blown way that I was able to come back from such a rough start and the mechanical.

Those experiences make a huge difference and I think just teach you really great lessons about how to respond when it’s going great, and how to respond when it’s maybe not going so great.

CyclingTips: After winning the world championship, and then winning the first two World Cups, you have to be considered a big favorite for the Tokyo Games. That’s a ways off, but it’s not that far off now. Did you always believe that you could be an Olympic medal favorite at this point in your career? Or has this progressed more quickly than you anticipated?

Kate Courtney: Generally, I think there is an element of surprise in myself this season, just being able to consistently be towards the front. I’m working really hard to try to stay up there near the front and keep working toward that Tokyo goal. I mean, honestly, the first goal is just making a team, which is a lot easier said than done, especially with some tricky criteria, as always. But I would say, for me, the goal in 2016, when I didn’t make the Olympic team… it was a discretionary pick, and I thought I had a chance, but I really didn’t do enough to earn that spot. And I remember having the realization, when I found out I wasn’t going, that it really mattered to me, and realizing how badly I had actually wanted to go. But I think, in a lot of ways, for the wrong reason.

I wanted to go because I wanted to be an Olympian. I wanted to have this experience. I remember having a moment where I was like, “I don’t want to go in 2020 just to go. I want to qualify automatically. I want to be one of the best in the field. I want to go to compete and to be a real competitor at that race.”

Of course, I was really far away from that goal at that time, and I’m still far away from that goal in terms of, I think I have a lot to learn about how to deliver on the most important days, and I think I have a lot to learn about just continuing to try to be consistent, and handling that pressure in the next couple of years. But I do think I’m a lot further towards that goal. Also, I have definitely set the goal to go to compete and race, not just to go to participate.

Kate Courtney led from start to finish at the XCO World Cup season opener in Albstadt. Photo: Max Fuchs/Ego Promotion.

CyclingTips: Some riders from other nations have posted on social media that they’ve already punched their ticket for Tokyo. USA Cycling’s Olympic selection criteria is different, but I would’ve assumed that that a World Cup win in the season before the Olympic year would be an automatic qualifier.

Kate Courtney: USA Cycling really wanted to set the selection races closer to the Olympics. I think in past years, I might have qualified, but yeah, it’s the world championships this year and the first World Cup next year [in Nove Mesto on May 24, 2020] that are the selection criteria. If those races don’t produce an automatic qualifier, then it goes to discretionary. [A top-10 overall in the final 2019 World Cup rankings is also an automatic qualifier.]

CyclingTips: There are many schools of thought about how Olympic selection should work, and the risk of putting selection races too close to the actual Olympic race. The thought being that once an athlete knows that they’ve been selected, that they can relax and structure their training and racing around that day.

Kate Courtney: I mean you’ve got to play the game. This is what makes the Olympics special, and really hard to qualify for.

CyclingTips: You’re the world champion, you’re leading the World Cup series against the best women in the world, and the Olympic Games are 14 months away. You’re not an underdog anymore, you’re an Olympic medal contender. How does that change things, mentally?

Kate Courtney: I mean it’s definitely a different circumstance. I think there’s a lot of things that are really exciting, and a lot of things that are really challenging. I think, for me, I always end up finding a way to be the underdog, even if other people don’t think I am, like getting a flat, or falling back early. In all these scenarios, I think you can set yourself up to surprise yourself. That always has a little bit of that underdog mentality. For me, at this point, I think really coming into the confidence and the belief that I can perform is actually going to be a huge asset to me. It’s something that I think will help me try to replicate these consistent, really great results.

I think another thing that’s really helpful for me is where I’m at in terms of my team situation. Being with someone like Thomas, and on a team with someone like Nino, comes with a lot of experience, not just in setting those goals and delivering off the top level, but in terms of managing the life stress and managing to live well, and be happy, and remember why you ride your bike while chasing these really big goals. I think, for me, that’s a huge part of what drew me to this team. I think now, more than ever, I’m so grateful to be a part of it.

I think it really is the best thing that I’ve found in terms of keeping me grounded and helping me balance my personal desires to do well and put pressure on myself with realistic expectations and a bigger perspective on life.

CyclingTips: You had been with Specialized your entire career. How extensive was the transition to joining a new team?

Kate Courtney: It’s been a really great, and pretty easy, transition partially just because of the team around me. A lot of the personal team side of things — my coach, sport psychologist, strength coach — that stuff doesn’t change. I think I still maintained a lot of consistency in terms of my training. But I think equipment is always one of the biggest ones. For me, the transition has been really smooth. Actually, I find that sometimes when you change all these things at once, it can be a bit of a process and nerve wracking, but I actually uncovered a lot of things that I could change for the better, or just to learned new things about my bike and have that chance to really start from scratch. Understanding how things work, and make decisions about, “Okay, what actually is the best saddle for me, or what actually is the right shoe size?”

Those questions are things that, if you’ve been on the same brand for a number of years, you just picked something, you got used to it, and you’re reluctant to kind of throw things up in there and change it. But when you’re forced into that position, I think you actually uncover a lot of ways that change can be good and can help you as an athlete.

CyclingTips: Can you talk about how your life has changed since you won worlds? It might come with some pressure, but I have to imagine there are some perks as well. You have 260,000 Instagram followers, that’s quite an audience.

Kate Courtney: I think for me it’s been, honestly, just so joyful to wear the rainbow jersey this year. Every time someone asks me about it, it’s always like, “Is the pressure getting to you? Is it terrible wearing this jersey?” And of course the visibility can sometimes be challenging. If I’m at a race, walking around the venue isn’t so easy in that jersey. But for me, I think the overwhelming experience has just been this outpouring of support and this appreciation for what I feel like I achieved, but also what I achieved with this team of people and with — oddly enough, I know this sounds really weird  —but with all the people who followed me on Instagram.

When I won, I had these people who responded, and commented, and sent me messages, that really felt they were part of that win, and would say things like, “I’ve liked and commented and followed you through all the hard work.” They saw my stupid balance videos in the fall and my long training rides and my stupid Kate Epic and all those things. They comment and engage with it. And when that hard work results in something, they feel a part of it.

And on a more personal level, of course, my family, my coaches, my boyfriend… being able to wear that jersey and have it as a symbol of what we’ve all dreamed about for a really long time, what everyone put so much energy and love and joy and fun into, it’s been really special. I think that’s been a huge source of positivity and motivation for me this year. And as I’ve started to have some success in the rainbow jersey, I feel that outpouring of support even more.

CyclingTips: I don’t know if there’s much talk about it on the mountain-bike side, but on the road side, there’s this superstition — the curse of the rainbow jersey. It must’ve felt good to get that first World Cup win in the jersey. No matter what happens, for the rest of the season — for the rest of your career — you will always have that photo, arms in the air, alone at the finish line in the rainbow stripes.

Kate Courtney: My dad has a saying, “Play with the lead.” It’s a real motto on my coaching team, with Jim and I. I think, for me, the rainbow jersey in some ways gave me a little lead last year where I came into this season not feeling like, “Oh, I need to prove myself and earn my keep,” not feeling all this pressure to deliver. I actually felt like, “Okay, by showing up in the rainbow jersey, I’m already doing a great job.” It frees you up to feel you can just go out and perform and take some of the pressure off. I feel that way about these first two World Cup races where, it’s been a really successful season for me, and I’ve seen what might be possible. Now, I can just focus on improving, because I love to do that, and training, because I love to do that, and racing a little more relaxed. I think, actually, when I can do that, I race my best.

CyclingTips: This is probably a no-brainer question, but spinning it forward, how much of a priority is the World Cup series title?

Kate Courtney: It’s kind of crazy to find myself in a position to be thinking about that. It certainly wasn’t… I would say it wasn’t the stated goal at the beginning of the year. The stated goal was to get on the World Cup podiums. I feel like it’s time to move on and think of a little bigger thing to set my sights on. Of course, the World Cup overall is in my opinion the test of who the best mountain biker is for the year. I think the world championship is an amazing one-day event, but the rider who can deliver consistently throughout the season and ride near the top is, in my opinion, the best in the world.

You know if there’s seven races, you can’t have perfect luck at every race, and you can’t be in perfect shape at every race. I think that goal really sets you up to focus on consistency and preparation, as well as on performance.

[The series title] is certainly something that’s on my radar. But I think, for now, I’m just really trying to take it one race at a time. I think that’s where having people like Frischy and Nino around me is really helpful because they have that perspective. They don’t get ahead of themselves. I think they’ve had really amazing seasons, and they know that bike racing can be really challenging as well. While that overall is certainly in our minds, and we’re preparing the best we can to put myself in a position to compete for it, I think it’s also going to be about just learning as much as I can and staying focused on each individual race.

CyclingTips: Years ago, the NORBA National Series final carried double points. To win the series, you had to be consistent all season long, but the final race carried more weight, and the winner of the series was crowned national champion. There was a good chance that if the standings were tight, the person that won that series finale would be crowned the NORBA champ, but it also rewarded consistency, rather than deciding the national champion in a one-day race.

Kate Courtney: Well, I think there needs to be both. The Olympics is a one-day event, and that rewards someone who can perform on that day. The world championship is like that as well. I just think, for me, in terms of a career goal, the overall is something that I think reflects how I work as an athlete. I’ve always aimed to be really consistent and to prepare in a way that’s reliable and really allows me to race well throughout the season. If that doesn’t happen this year, okay, there’s a lot that has to go right in order for those goals to line up. But long term, I would say that’s one of my biggest goals as an athlete.

CyclingTips: The women’s cross-country field is deep, and there have also been some names coming and going. Annika Langvad pulled out of Nove Mesto and then crashed and broke her hand, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot is returning from iliac artery surgery. Is there any particular rider who you see as your biggest rival? Or is it not like that?

Kate Courtney: I would say one of the cool things about our field is that anything can happen because everyone is so strong and there are a lot of women who are capable of competing for the win. And that makes it really exciting for all of us. Of course, Jolanda Neff won the overall last year, and multiple times before that. In my opinion, she is one of the most-skilled and well-rounded riders. She’s someone that I have been competing against for a long time and… never underestimate her, let’s put it that way.

Jolanda Neff and Kate Courtney at the start of the XCO World Cup in Nove Mesto on May 26. Photo: Jan Kasl/Red Bull Content Pool.

I would also say never underestimate Annika Langvad. She’s had a really busy start to the season with all of the road racing. She’s obviously had great success on the road. I think that if she’s taking a rest now, she might be someone to really watch at the end of the season because as many riders have seen before, getting injured or being sick or needing a break mid-season can often catapult riders to a crazy level of fitness by September.

I just took a really big break, I’m trying to learn from my little knee injury last year and really take not just that physical rest but the mental rest to spend time with family, see friends, do yoga, and maybe not ride your bike so much for a week, but really trying to build up to be strong at all of those World Cups. Whereas, I know Annika with her not being in the overall, could pick and choose a few to peak for, which is a really different kind of approach.

CyclingTips: What did you make of Annika Langvad’s performances on the road this spring? I don’t know how much attention you pay to road racing, but second at Strade Bianche, fourth at Amstel Gold, and third at Flèche Wallonne is pretty phenomenal for a WorldTour rookie.

Kate Courtney: I do pay a little bit of attention. I mostly follow individual riders. One of my best friends, Katie Hall, is on Boels-Dolmans this year as well. I love following her team. I was obviously teammates with Annika, and have great respect for her as a racer. I think I was particularly excited to see her step out and do something new. I think she’s usually good at anything she tries, but this was a particular challenge. It’s so different. I think it takes a lot of courage to be the best at one thing and try to expand your horizons and learn something new and be willing to be the rookie in the field. It’s something that I really admire. To see her do so well is really exciting, and I think will definitely inspire some more mountain bikers to try a new discipline.

Annika Langvad finished ahead of Erin Huck and Kate Courtney at the Sea Otter Classic cross-country race in April, just before top-five finishes at Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne. Photo: John Holderness/Above Four Media.

CyclingTips: We’ve seen Mathieu van der Poel go from winning the world championship in cyclocross in February to amazing performances on the road in April to taking his first XCO World Cup win in May. In 2015, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot was world champion in all three disciplines at the same time. I know Tokyo is a big goal of yours right now, but do you have any desire to try road racing, or cyclocross?

Kate Courtney: I love riding a bike, so I think riding any kind of bike is something that appeals to me. I think there’s a lot to be learned from just the skills of doing cyclocross races or the tactics of doing a road race. But currently, I’m just completely possessed by mountain biking. I’m so full-throttle focused on that goal that it’s going to work better for me, at least through Tokyo, to just stay really focused and to put all of myself into that one goal.

After that, or depending on how things shake out, I’m not sure exactly what the timeline will be, but someday, I’d love to try other disciplines. I’m sure I’ll race cyclocross, even just for the skills. As Frischy pointed out, I’ve really bad at getting on and off my bike. We’re working on that already, but I think there’s a lot to be learned even if I don’t really do it necessarily to be competitive on an international level, just to kind of hop into a few different disciplines and learn what I can. I think I’ll definitely be doing that. Long term, I think trying to do a different discipline would be really fun and something that I’d definitely consider.

In Nove Mesto, Mathieu van der Poel defeated Nino Schurter in a two-up duel to take his first XCO World Cup victory. Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool.

CyclingTips: What can you share about being on Nino Schurter’s team, in terms of Mathieu having beaten Nino in a two-up duel at Nove Mesto, and finishing ahead of him at Albstadt?

Kate Courtney: I think, in our camp, there’s nothing but respect. I think that’s one thing that I continue to learn through Nino is just he is the epitome of a great champion. He sees riders that challenge him as making him better, and as motivating him, and as encouraging him to be better. I know he said in multiple interviews that, in past years, the performance he gave at Nove Mesto would’ve won easily. To have that perspective as an athlete that, “Oh man, this was a really great performance by me, but this person is also fantastic and is challenging me. I’m going to have to step up my game if I want to beat them,” is what fuels us in sport.

I think to be able to do that as someone like Nino, who’s won everything and who has had so much success for so long in the sport, and to be able to evolve and go back to the drawing board and appreciate the challenge of other athletes, and also believe that you can achieve and improve and continue to evolve as an athlete, is something that makes him really inspiring. I think this is what makes our sport special. I think there’s no trash-talking, hopefully. There’s not too much trash talking at least. There’s just more respect and the desire to improve and achieve individually.

CyclingTips: I thought Nino was very gracious in defeat. What’s said in front of the cameras doesn’t always reflect what’s going on behind the scenes, but in the interview that he gave right after the race, I thought both he and Mathieu were very respectful of one another. There seems to be a lot of mutual respect between them.

Kate Courtney: Yeah. Nino is really like that. I think it’s also comes from his experience. For me, that’s one of the biggest things that I’m learning is just to have a perspective that no win is so big, and no loss is so big. I think he really has an appreciation when a great race comes together, of what that takes and what that means, but we move on. You start training again, and you look towards the next weekend.

For me on this team, I’ve had a great start to the season, but the fact that they celebrate those wins, acknowledge them, and then I’m back on the bike, getting lessons on how to get on and off my bike again. That’s what really drives me and what is really making this team a great fit for me.

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