My year in rainbows: Kate Courtney reflects on her season as world champ

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With the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships on tap this weekend in Mont-Sainte-Anne, my year in rainbows is coming to an end. For me, it is an exciting time as I look forward to the end of the season, but it also feels appropriate to take a moment to reflect on this special time in my career.

This time last year I surprised myself on the biggest stage in professional mountain-bike racing, as I looked over my shoulder again and again in disbelief, crossing the finish line to become the first American world champion in nearly two decades.

The crowd in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, was one of the loudest and largest showings of support ever at a mountain-bike race, and I will never forget the feeling of hearing them cheer me across the line. Among the crowd were my parents who embraced me in tearful joy. It was one of the most emotional days of my life and one that I will forever look back on with equal parts awe and pride.

Kate Courtney (USA) won the women’s elite cross-country event at the 2018 UCI MTB World Championships in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. Photo: Craig Dutton/courtesy USA Cycling.

After the madness of Lenzerheide and completing the Marathon World Championship the next weekend, I was able to take some time to travel in Italy. It was on this trip that the meaning of what had just happened started to sink in. My first ride in the rainbow jersey was up the iconic Stelvio pass. I ate gummy bears and pastries and cried when we got to the top.

A few days later we traveled to Lake Como and rode the pilgrimage to the Ghisallo Cycling Museum to pay homage to the Madonna del Ghisallo, the patroness of cycling. I remembered doing that same ride in high school when my dad and I were in Europe for a race trip. This time I rode in the rainbow stripes and took dorky pictures next to the wall of signed Italian jerseys. Cyclists on our ride yelled out “campione” or congratulations, asked to take pictures, or quizzically inquired if my jersey was real. It was clear this special symbol of cycling’s best was not lost on the Italians.

On that trip, I felt connected to the sport and its past in a way I never had before. Italy was the perfect place to begin my journey in the jersey on beautiful roads where cycling history has been made again and again.

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When I finally arrived home, I was struck by the fact that it had been nearly two decades since an American cross-country racer wore the rainbow jersey on home soil. My first ride was with my dad on Mount Tamalpais and this time, he was in tears as well. I was able to share the moment with someone who has been there for every step of my career, raising me on tandem mountain-bike rides and snack stops on this very mountain. Saying it was special is the understatement of the century.

Our next ride took us through Fairfax, the birthplace of mountain biking and where I grew up riding after school with my high school mountain-bike team. There, the Marin Museum of Bicycling and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame houses an incredible catalog of cycling’s history. Unlike in Italy, the jerseys on the walls and bikes in cases in Fairfax are primarily from American riders who played a large role in the foundation of the sport.

That first weekend home, I was humbled and honored to see that rainbow stripes already adorned the outside of the building, a celebration of bringing the title home to the very place that both the sport, and myself, planted roots.

Weeks later, a party was hosted where hundreds of neighbors, friends, former teammates and cycling aficionados came to eat tacos and celebrate the homecoming of my rainbow stripes. I felt like I had been given this special gift — partially earned through hard work and partially given through opportunity and support — that I got to share with my community.

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Just riding with local high school racers and taking photos felt like magic unfolding before my eyes. The community could see how much this jersey meant to me as an athlete and I, in turn, got to see for the first time what this jersey meant to them as fans, supporters or even just followers of my journey on the bike.

After the fall celebrations, it was time to get back to work and focus on the next season. With an incredible opportunity to race for a new team and my second season in the elite category ahead of me, I was extremely motivated. For many world champions, their year in the rainbow jersey has been described as cursed — plagued by injuries, bad luck, or an overwhelming pressure that stifles good results.

Several post-race interviews focused on how I felt I’d handle the pressure, or the curse of my new outfit. My answer at the time, and to this day, was that, for me, the rainbow jersey is a symbol of possibility. I could look down on any day of racing and know that no matter what was happening, I could take confidence in knowing that at some point in history I had lined up and been the best in the world.

That confidence and belief transformed my riding this season. The racing came with a lot of excitement, a healthy dose of pressure and seriously hard work with big goals in mind. It also brought the new opportunity to race with the Scott-SRAM Team and race alongside another set of rainbow stripes worn by my teammate Nino Schurter. With this team behind me and the stripes on my back, I went on to have my most successful season to date.

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I started the year with a few wins at California Pro XCT events and by taking the Pan American Championship title in Mexico. This early success put the curse of the rainbow jersey firmly out of my mind and my confidence began to grow. As I approached the World Cup season, the rainbow bands reminded me to believe that I belonged in this field and that my goal was to race at the front. The racing in the women’s field has been intense, tactical, and exciting both for the racers and for fans. My goal for the season was to make it on to a podium and try to hunt down a victory.

In Albstadt, Germany, I started my second World Cup elite season with a win in the short track, surprising myself with some improved tactics and a successful sprint finish. That weekend I went on to win the cross-country event, crossing the line with a tiny US flag in hand to become the first American woman to win an elite UCI cross-country World Cup race since Alison Dunlap in 2001.

In Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, I had one of the greatest rides of my career, coming back from an off day and a puncture to overtake the leader in the last lap and extend my lead in the overall. It was an emotional ride and a trip that made me feel worthy of the jersey for maybe the first time.

Kate Courtney won the UCI XC World Cup in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic on May 26, 2019. Photo: Jan Kasl/Red Bull Content Pool.

The rest of the World Cup season has been a mix, as it always is. I was top 10 in Andorra after some struggles with altitude, but came back strong the next weekend to take both the short track and cross-country wins in Les Gets, France. A very hard training camp left me struggling in Val di Sole, Italy, where I was 17th, but I found my legs again for a 7th place in Lenzerheide.

Overall, it has been a year of learning both as an athlete and person, filled with successes beyond my wildest dreams and hard-earned lessons in training and racing that can only come from experience. But with the world championships approaching this weekend followed by a final World Cup race on home soil in Snowshoe, West Virginia, I still see this season as far from over.

This past weekend, I rode one last time on Mount Tamalpais with my dad to celebrate all that this year has meant to us both. We took photos at the very same place we rode a year ago when I took out my freshly minted jersey for the first time. The jersey wasn’t quite as white, but the smiles on our faces were as bright as ever. No matter where I am in the world or what kit I am wearing, being out on bikes with the people I love will always be my favorite thing in the world.

A year ago, my dad and I would have never imagined the results I would achieve in this jersey. We spent most of that first ride together giggling about how on earth I had managed to pull this off, but more importantly, we would never have imagined the sheer joy it brought to my own life and to the lives of those around me. We will forever look back at these magic moments as something special.

If I never get to ride in the rainbow jersey on Mount Tamalpais again — and I sincerely hope I do — we will know that we made the most of bringing bright colors and big smiles to every ride this past year.

My year in rainbows has been a joy. It has been a chance to connect with people all around the world and in my own community who love the sport and see it as a symbol that anything is possible. It has been a daily celebration of the hard work it took to reach that moment and the contributions and belief of my family, team, friends, supporters and beyond. Everyone can see a bit of themselves in this crazy thing we managed to pull off.

While I hope to earn this honor again in my career, I will never again experience it in the same exact way. This year has helped me appreciate what a gift it is for everything to come together on the right day. Winning at the highest level requires preparing with all you’ve got, lining up with the courage to take what comes, and everything coming together in just the right way as the race unfolds moment by moment. You have to believe that an opportunity will present itself and you will be there to seize it, armed with the hard work and skills you’ve developed over years of focus on the sport.

I can guarantee I am doing everything I can to maximize those first two — I’ll be lining up with the confidence that comes from ruthless preparation and putting my whole heart into the journey. And as for the last one? Well, the magic lies in the mystery.

Over the past few seasons, Kate Courtney has shared her journey to the top with CyclingTips readers. Follow the link for more.

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