© Bartek Wolinski
Last year, American cross country mountain biker Kate Courtney took her first elite world title, overtaking Annika Langvad on the rooty closing stages of the women’s elite cross country race to win gold at the 2018 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. It was her debut season as an elite athlete and her win (by 47 seconds!) marked America’s first gold medal in the event for 17 years.
I’m massively excited to have Kate (who is also the US national champion) on Lessons in Badassery today. She may have only stepped up from U23 racing last year, but with 9 wins in 2017 alone she’s already the consummate pro – helpful, humble and a dream guest. Enjoy the read.
Your first season of elite racing culminated in a UCI World Champs title – congratulations! Was a win on your radar approaching the race?
Winning the world title last season was an incredible end to my season and a huge step in my career as a cyclist. I felt very well prepared for the race in Lenzerheide and believed anything was possible, but my goal was for a top 5 finish. Winning was certainly beyond my expectations and was a dream come true!
Going into 2018, did you do anything differently in anticipation for the step up to elite racing?
Last season was a big year in my development as an athlete. 2018 was my first season racing fulltime after graduating from college in 2017 and with the added recovery time, I was able to significantly increase my training volume. I also participated in the Cape Epic in 2018 – my first stage race and one of the hardest on the circuit. My preparation for that event in particular required paying a lot of attention to my nutrition, hydration and recovery protocols which helped me succeed at the Cape Epic and beyond.
Did you take any learnings away from your first elite season?
Absolutely! It was a huge season of learning for me. At the start of every race, I saw first-hand what it took to be at the front of an Elite Women’s field and tried to understand where I was coming up short. The racing is so tight and competitive in the women’s field which means you have to fight for every last position and small mistakes or weaknesses can make a big difference. We are still working to address those weaknesses and continue to try and find my way to the front of the field more consistently!
Rewinding to your childhood, you used to ride on a tandem MTB with your dad on the trails of Mt Tamalpais, California. Did you stick with the tandem as a child or move to your own mountain bike?
Growing up, mountain biking was a fun weekend activity but I primarily focused on other sports – from ski racing to running. My earliest memories of riding as a kid were on the back of a tandem with my dad, but I also had a tiny mountain bike I would ride on my own. It wasn’t until high school, however, that I really began riding with any regularity or intensity.
From gnarly roots to rock gardens, XC mountain bike races involve a lot of challenging terrain. Does navigating technical terrain come naturally to you or have you had to work at it?
In the past decade, the technical aspects of mountain bike races – and particularly World Cup races – have become more of a focus. As courses have become more challenging, incorporating technical training has been a huge focus for me in the past few years. Many of the unnatural features on world cups, such as man-made drops or jumps, were incredibly tough and scary for me at first. With practice, however, I have been able to improve and learn the skills I need to succeed on those features. Skills sessions and camps are definitely a part of my preparation and there is always something to work on and master!
Ahead of a race, how detailed is your preparation?
My preparation is definitely very detailed. Between training, nutrition, mental preparation, mastering the course profile and equipment set-up, there’s a lot to think about during the week leading up to a race. Luckily, I have a great team around me and we work together to optimise every detail so that I arrive at the start line as prepared as possible.
You’re big on building a pre-race ritual – can you tell us about yours?
I have a pretty extensive pre-race ritual that helps get me ready to race my heart out! For me, those rituals include meditation, my pre-race meal and warm-up routine among others. Being as organised and relaxed as possible on race day allows me to focus on the task at hand.
During race season is your training very structured or pretty flexible?
During the race season, there is a lot of variety in the structure of my days. My training program on the bike, strength training and travel schedule can vary a lot and require constant adaptation to make sure I never miss a workout – or a nap!
Are there any training sessions you always look forward to and any you love to hate?
I honestly just love riding my bike! For me, some of the most fun days are long rides with good company. I always look forward to planning a new route and getting out for an adventure. While my hardest interval days might not be as ‘fun’, I look forward to those in a different way. Those days represent some of the most important steps towards reaching my goals for the season and I get excited to work hard and see that progress.
How often do you ride, and do you ever use an indoor turbo?
I ride every day! Luckily, living in California means I can always train outside. The rain can be a little unpleasant in the winter, but I am a big believer in layering up and getting it done.
Do you incorporate a lot of strength training in your training schedule?
Strength training has always been a big part of my program. Coming from a background in ski racing and running, I’m a big believer in supplementing my sport-specific training with work in the gym. It not only helps with injury prevention, but allows me to build more explosive leg power, core stability and upper body strength which is critical to racing. My sessions are pretty long and vary a lot in terms of what I do!
Your motto is #progressnotperfection – is this your mantra when racing and training?
I love that motto. For me, the idea of progress not perfection is really important in my pre-season training. I am so motivated in the off-season to chase my goals, but the only way to do that is to take it one step at a time and continue to seek incremental improvements. Things always come up – whether an illness, injury or just life stress – that make ‘perfect’ training a challenge. But there’s always something to be learned from adapting to the situation and continuing to move forward. The key for me is to focus on making progress every day and being relentless in the pursuit of my goals, even when I have to be adaptable along the way.
Have you set any goals for this year, and is Olympic qualification on your radar?
This year my focus is on the world cups and world championships with an eye towards Olympic qualification for 2020.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
I’m lucky to work with amazing sponsors and have great gear to get me through the training season and to the start line ready to rock. A few of my favourite things: Scott MTB gloves, Odlo base layers and Oakley Radar EVs!
Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
I am so honoured and excited to be racing for the Scott-SRAM MTB Racing team in the coming years. Their program has an incredible level of support and gives me the chance to learn from the best.
My sponsors include: Scott, SRAM, Red Bull, Oakley, Odlo, Garmin, Maxxis, Syncros, Topeak, Camelbak and WHOOP.
Follow Kate’s training and racing this year via her social media handles: www.instagram.com/kateplusfate, www.twitter.com/sparkleaddict and www.facebook.com/katecourtney130 or by visiting her website: www.Katecourtney.com.