The short, bright career of Katie Hall has reached its end
Katie Hall had one of the brightest, shortest careers in women’s cycling. A career capped by COVID and an unfortunate, but not altogether sad, ending. It began in college, racing against small and inexperienced fields, and rose to the Giro Rosa, the only “grand tour” for women, and the Tour of California. Her career is proof of her continuous growth. A graph of her results would show a slow but steady incline.
In September, Katie announced that she was done racing. Only seven years from tip to tail, it was a relatively short career, and impressive because of what she was able to achieve.
It was mid-June, the summer of 2013, when I first met Katie. We were both selected to race on a composite team at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, a UCI race in Minnesota. After collecting my bike bag and suitcase I went to stand outside on the curb. The air was thick at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport, much different than Colorado. In my gut I was nervous, but the kind of excited nervous that is almost annoying. This would be my first team camp, something I only knew about from following the websites and Facebook pages of my favorite professional cycling teams. The camp would be different, a rag-tag group of collegiate women invited after the Collegiate National Championships. Some of the girls were experienced, I’d heard of them, some had never raced a UCI race, myself included.
Hanging around the airport pickup I kept my eyes peeled for any other bike bags. I’d never met the girls who would be my teammates for the next two weeks. I only knew of one of them, a climber from UC Berkeley. We’d raced against each other once, at the Collegiate National Championships a few months ago. She was one of the two other collegiate girls starting the camp with me today, the rest would come later.
As the van pulled up to where I stood and a woman jumped out and introduced herself to me two more people with bike bags emerged from inside the airport. We all piled into the van, none of us making eye contact. Cool, I wasn’t the only one who was nervous.
We drove to a house in the country where we would stay for a week to get to know each other and probably do some racing simulations and drills. I turned to the girl sitting next to me, always keen to make new friends. After we introduced ourselves to each other I asked her the only question on my mind, “do you want to be a professional cyclist?” She looked at me, dead serious, and responded no, she hadn’t really thought about it. I was shocked. It was the only thing I’d been thinking about for a year. The daydreams that had caused my grades to plummet. My constant obsession. I could see myself in the HTC-Highroad kit, hanging out with the likes of Ally Stacher and Evelyn Stevens. I’d just assumed that everyone at this camp wanted the same thing as me, to race in Europe against the best of the best.
Even though she hadn’t yet considered a career in cycling, the way Katie rode the Nature Valley Grand Prix in 2013 made it obvious that she had something special. From early on in the race she wore the “best amateur” jersey, reserved for the fresh blood. Even after she got a cold mid-way through the race she never stopped fighting. When we would get back to the house each night she would have her head stuck in a pot of boiling water trying to clear her sinuses.
Later that summer, the news came out that the UnitedHealthcare Professional Cycling was going to add a women’s squad for the following 2014 season. I got a text soon after from Katie. She had been tapped to join Mara Abbott and Alison Powers, two absolute legends of the sport, on the new team. Katie hadn’t considered being a professional mere months earlier, but the opportunity had fallen into her lap, and she was taking it.
When she received her contract she was in graduate school at UC Berkeley. She wasn’t loving it, and as her research stalled her cycling started to take off. Prior to riding for the Collegiate All-Stars at Nature Valley Grand Prix, Katie didn’t realize someone could make money riding their bike. “I didn’t see where my research was going and I learned you could get paid to race your bike and that you wouldn’t have to spend all your time in a windowless basement laboratory,” she said. It was something of a lightbulb moment.
>>> Listen to Katie Hall discuss her retirement in this episode of Freewheeling:
The 2014 season was an interesting year for Katie. Still in her graduate program at UC Berkeley, she couldn’t properly commit to cycling. One of a team of 13 riders, some who had been in the sport already for eight years, some who were also relatively new to the highest level of racing, Katie was surrounded by women who were solely dedicated to cycling. “I had done two years of collegiate racing and racing locally in NorCal and I was suddenly on a team with all the superstars of American cycling: Alison Powers, Mara Abbott, Coryn Rivera, Ruth Winder. I remember being very grateful for, and terrified of, Powers who I reached out to help improve my bike skills, and I remember her trying to run me off the road while teaching me to fight for a wheel.”
Ahead of her second year on UHC, Katie quit school and dove headfirst into being a professional athlete. Slowly and steadily the results followed. In 2015 she won the climbers classification at the Tour of San Luis. After finishing second on the final stage of the Tour of the Gila she also took second in the general classification. Over in Europe with the National team, Katie won a stage of the Internationale Thüringen Rundfahrt.
“When she started with UHC she was obviously a talented climber, but very green in most other respects, she struggled with positioning and moving around in a peloton, and in the crits that make up a big part of US racing, getting to see the front just once in a race could be considered a success,” said Rachel Heal, the team director for UnitedHealthcare for the entire run of the team. “She had a determination to succeed, one that saw her build on her strengths and work to overcome weaknesses and developing her from a talented climber to an accomplished stage racer and a world-class climber.”
The following year, 2016, Katie started the season flying and then just kept going. In January she won the overall at the Tour Femenino de San Luis. After returning from her first Classics campaign in Europe Katie raced the standard American calendar, Gila, Amgen Tour of California, Philly Classic, and Nationals before heading back to Europe and winning the mountain classification at the Aviva Women’s Tour.
Katie worked with the same coach, Ben Day (of Day By Day Coaching) for her entire career, beginning when she was about to start her first season with the UnitedHealthcare team and ending, well, when she just retired. “As is so often the case with someone who is so naturally talented, they’re too strong for their own good,” Day said of her early racing years. “Being able to dominate local races with those attributes is possible, but doing that in the bigger leagues requires a full spectrum of skills and diligence to patience and efficiency. This is still the number one thing that has left an impression on me about Katie. Whenever she was confronted with things that shook her confidence, things that would be confronting to hers and anyone else’s ego, she would open up with me, confronted those issues head-on, and overcome them. I greatly respect her courage in doing that. She didn’t turn her back on things when they were hard.”
Many riders have a good start to their career and then peter off a bit, but Katie continued to grow and transform as a rider. Her fourth year on UHC saw some of her biggest achievements to date. She was second overall at the Amgen Tour of California behind Anna van der Breggen by only one second.
2018 may have been one of the best years of Katie’s career, and not just because of her results. “We had the most wonderful group of women on UHC in 2018,” she said. “Lauren Hall was really instrumental in shaping that team into a team that really built each other up and supported each other. She encouraged us to use the confidence our teammates had in us to find the confidence we needed in ourselves. I really thrived in that environment.” That confidence led to general classification wins at the Joe Martin Stage Race and Tour of the Gila.
When the Tour of California rolled around Katie was a clear favorite, and she ended up winning the second stage and, with it, the overall.
“Katie was easily one of my favorite riders I have worked with, her win at the Tour of California will probably always be my favorite day as a DS,” said Heal. “You could see from year to year her confidence growing in her ability and what she could achieve, and her expectations and determination grew with it.”
That was when Boels-Dolmans called. They weren’t at the race, but they’d been watching Katie and they wanted to sign her for 2019. Initially, Katie was planning to call her career after the 2018 season. She had gotten into PT school and having won every major race the US had to offer, plus with the news that UHC would fold at the end of 2018, she thought her time in the professional peloton would end naturally.
“I was into PT school but then after I won California, Boels called me and I thought heck, I’ll give Euro racing a try. This is the only time in my life that I will do this. I had heard so many good things about racing for Danny [Stam, the team’s manager] and the chance to go to Europe on the best team in the world convinced me to race a bit longer”.
Katie went full hog into the European scene. She moved to Girona, leaving her husband and two cats in California, setting up in an apartment with her good friend and former teammate Leah Thomas, who had signed for Bigla. In February, Katie started her season at the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana, from there she did a handful of the one-days before heading back home to prep for the Amgen Tour of California, where she would take second on GC behind her now-teammate Van der Breggen.
Katie’s first Giro Rosa came in 2014, as a key climber in Mara Abbott’s quest to win her third Giro. In 2019 she returned to Italy in a similar role, to help Anna van der Breggen win the overall. Even though she only participated in the Giro twice, Katie the Giro was her favorite race. “First of all, I just love stage racing,” she said. “I feel like I am kind of slow, and at the end of the week, it’s like who has slowed down the least. I just love the traveling circus that is the Giro. Going from city to city in Italy and how much they decorate and how excited people are about cycling”.
At the end of 2019, Katie re-signed for Boels-Dolmans. She had been named to the long list for the Olympics and was planning to race one final season in Europe before going to PT school and settling down in the States. She started 2020 racing in Valencia like she had the year before, but before Strade Bianche she got the call from her director that the race would be canceled. Katie decided to go home for the three weeks before Trofeo Alfredo Binda, she left her apartment in Girona and returned to California assuming she would be back for racing relatively soon. “I went home, and I have been home since then. It was kind of a crazy departure from Europe, a lot of my stuff is still there”.
The call to return to Europe never came, and as the racing resumed without her Katie decided to stick to her original plan. The Olympics had been moved to 2021, and she didn’t get to race the Giro again, but her plan to attend PT school in September of 2020 remained. “I got into the University of Washington this year and it was an Olympic year, full season, last race of the year is usually the World Championships September 26th, and my class started September 29th. I was going to wrap up an awesome 2020, try to go to the Olympics, race the World Championships, but that didn’t happen but school still started.”
Although Katie didn’t get her final season on the traveling circus, she is really excited about this next chapter. She didn’t want to postpone for a second time and potentially not make the Olympic team. “It was a plan that had been in the works for a long time, and I didn’t want to change it,” she said.
“Sometimes I miss it, I miss just being a really fit cyclist and having all the time in the world to ride my bike, but now the times I get to ride my bike I’m just ecstatic. I fit in an hour here and there and just getting outside and getting away from a computer screen is huge. I am really excited about what I am doing right now, and getting the skills to help other people move better”.
It wasn’t the way any rider would dream of ending a career, to head home temporarily then have the temporary turn permanent.
“It was not a fitting way for Katie’s career to come to a close and I was sad to know it was over,” said Day, her coach. “But on reflecting, I realized the end is not the point, it’s the journey that matters, and she had a beautiful story. I could only look back on the things she achieved in her cycling career with pride and awe. I was lucky to be along for the ride. Katie’s champion qualities will still be there and present, as she throws herself into the next phase of her life with Stephen and her physical therapy career.”
“Chapeau Katie Hall, thank you for you.”