What drives elite athletes to perform? We caught up with Kate Courtney in the pits at the XCO World Cup in Nove Mesto.
In terms of the competitive world of team pits in mountain bike racing, things don’t get much bigger or better than Specialized S-Racing’s European set-up. Essentially, it’s a lorry trailer which unfurls into a race shop, rider prep area and bike showroom. Just about every surface is clad in the official Morgan Hill-approved scarlet, two mechanics work on a fleet of custom-coloured race machinery and low-fi house music thumps along in the background.
Various team and staff members lounge around a big table grazing on bowls of lentils and piping hot espressos. Providing food and caffeine for so many people of course requires a kitchen and it’s in this kitchen that we find Kate Courtney.
The 21-year-old Californian is tiny, her diminutive frame almost lost amidst the piles of water bottles which festoon the kitchen’s seating area. But her lack of physical stature is more than made up for by the ball of energy which seems to surround her.
In a display of racing sure footedness up there with the best in the game, Kate had just completed a domineering victory over the U23 women’s class at the opening round of the UCI XCO World Cup in Nové Mesto, Czech Republic.
Indeed, her lap times were never more than two seconds outside of those set by her teammate, the reigning elite level World Champion, Annika Langvad, who dominated the previous day’s elite women’s race.
“I rode a practice lap with Annika that felt like 110%!” Kate laughs feigning disbelief. “I was just hoping that she was on really good form because, if she wasn’t then level she was riding at was impossible! It was really cool for me to see that I could ride at her level, even if it was only for one lap.”
Despite her tender years, Courtney is already one of the most experienced pilots in her class. “This is a very special venue for me as it’s where I raced my first ever World Cup, five years ago as a first year Junior,” she beams.
“It was the first one I got the opportunity to go to with Team USA. I’ve had all kinds of races here, both good and bad. I had my first ever U23 World Cup podium here. I’ve had probably my worst race ever at the World Champs here last year. It’s really special coming back to such a great course with great fans and having such a great day.”
Battling in Nove Mesto
The Vysočina Arena is a notoriously cruel mistress and plays host to a race which commands a high level of respect. Nové Mesto deep in the rolling golden fields of the Czech Republic swells with 25,000 spectators for each UCI World Cup round it hosts. Its track boasts several wickedly steep yet relatively short climbs which take it in turns to pummel the riders into submission. To win amongst its knife-edge roots and rocks requires unerring focus, lap after lap.
“I love this course, it’s one of the best on the UCI World Cup circuit, no doubt,” Kate says.
“What really works here for me is that there’s so much to focus on. There are so many roots, so much riding to do, you have to really focus and be in that moment and riding at your best at all times to go fast. That pushes you to stay present and push for every second as opposed to getting distracted and getting off pace. I think, for me, especially mentally, it really is a great track. You have to split it into little pieces.”
The win at round one represents the first step on the long road to the overall title and a good crack at the World Championships but for Courtney it is the first piece of a much bigger jigsaw.
“Starting working for the Olympics, four years away, it’s actually a really special mind set,”
Kate says flashing her red, white and blue nail polish. “I was a really long shot for the Olympic team last year and I got a lot closer than I thought I was going to get and that pushed me to set bigger goals. My goals have now shifted from simply qualifying to qualifying and being competitive when I get there in four years. That motivation can be a lot of pressure for some people but for me I think I need to focus on the progress and the process towards that goal which is really special.”
A strong focus on what lies ahead
As we talk, mechanics occasionally wander in and out but what is obvious is the young American’s complete focus. When she speaks she masterfully walks a tightrope of assured certainty and casual amiability. That she has turned up to round one and performed so well is no great shock to Kate, she made big changes to her preparations in the off-season and they’re now bearing fruit.
“My motto for today was ‘It’s not the courage to win but it’s the courage to prepare to win that matters’,” she smiles.
“I did absolutely everything I could to be on form here and luckily I had that special day that you always hope for.
“Pre-season, I changed a lot. Going into that four year Olympic cycle I really wanted to chase those 1% gains and get my team dialed. I had some changes in coaching and guiding and changed my nutritionist, got a new sports psychologist. I changed a lot. It was a big risk and a lot of changes for one season but I really feel like they’re all going to be pushing me to be at my best both physically and mentally.”
Any would-be title rivals amongst the U23 ranks could be forgiven for being shocked at the consummate performance laid down by Kate Courtney at round one of this year’s UCI World Cup. If, however, they got wind of the dominance she has planned for the upcoming four years worth of racing then they would have every right to be deeply concerned.