“That was the most fun I’ve ever had,” a beaming Kate Courtney said to her mother at the finish line. “I’m never running again.”
This was 2010. Courtney, a promising 14-year-old cross-country runner from Marin County, Calif., had just competed in her first-ever mountain bike race.
She’d won. By a lot.
Courtney, then a high school freshman, had only intended to ride a bike as off-season training for her running. But after ripping around all that Northern California dirt, there was no looking back.
“That was it,” her mother, Maggie, recalls. “She was done. It was mountain bikes.”
Flash forward, nine years later. On Saturday, Courtney, now 23, will take to the start line at the 2019 UCI World Championships in Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebec, and will do so as the UCI’s No. 1-ranked women’s cross-country mountain biker…and the defending champion of the world.
Courtney won the cross-country world title—and the sport’s prestigious “rainbow jersey”—last September, in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, her first season racing at mountain biking’s elite level.
Sometimes, a rainbow jersey is seen as a curse, the weight of which can crack a rider. It hasn’t been for Courtney.
“Wearing the rainbow has been a joy,” she says. “There’s lot of pressure and uncertainty that comes with it, but since [winning worlds] was a bit of a surprise, and came early in my career, it was just fun. It’s been so cool to share it with my family, to share it with the community.”
“People want to take pictures, or they see [me] at coffee shops and ask if it’s real.” Sometimes, she says, hyper-competitive riders will “think I bought it at a thrift shop and try to race me.”
Courtney laughs. “All of that is part of the experience.”
Courtney, who now rides for the Avengers-like Scott-Sram superteam with seven-time men’s world champ Nino Schurter, is the first women’s cross-country world champ from the U.S. since Alison Dunlap in 2001. She’s won three World Cup races this season and still has a shot at winning the overall UCI women’s World Cup title when the season wraps in Snowshoe, West Virginia, next weekend. In 2020, she is expected to be a serious medal contender at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
We haven’t even mentioned Courtney’s degree in human biology from Stanford, where she graduated in 2017. Or her nearly 300,000 followers on Instagram. Or the fact that she’s an impressive writer, filing a recent essay about her year in the rainbow jersey for the publication Cyclingtips.
“She’s just the full package,” says her coach, Jim Miller.
What makes Courtney’s ascension extra stirring—even a bit sentimental—is where she grew up. When Courtney looks out the window at her family’s Kentfield, Calif., home, the first thing she sees is Mount Tamalpais, a.k.a Mount Tam, Marin’s highest peak and hallowed land in the history of mountain biking. Mount Tam is where an eccentric generation of late ‘60s and ‘70s daredevils rode fat-tired paperboy bikes down the slopes, and tinkered in their garages, kicking off a whole new genre of cycling.
Courtney is from the home of mountain bike legends—and the legends are proud.
“Her rise to success is just a wonderful thing,” says Tom Ritchey, the bike builder and a godfather of the sport. “It really warms my heart.”
“Kate’s an immense talent,” says Gary Fisher, another Northern California pioneer.
“It’s great to have a champion who sprouted here,” says Jacquie Phelan, a trailblazing rider in women’s mountain biking and an inaugural member of the sport’s Hall of Fame. “Kate will go far, on great legs, lungs, and mostly brains.”
Courtney is well aware of this local heritage; where she rides, it’s inescapable. Some of her first bike rides were journeys up Mount Tam on the back of a tandem bike piloted by her father, Tom. The Mountain Bike Hall of Fame resides at the Marin Museum of Bicycling in Fairfax, which wrapped its exterior in rainbow stripes last year to recognize Courtney’s victory at worlds.
“There’s just a really cool cultural connection to the history of sport,” Courtney says.
“It’s like a Hollywood script,” says Jim Miller. What Ritchey and other Marin figures did for mountain biking, he says, “is so iconic. Now you have this girl, who literally lives at the bottom of the mountain, and she’s American…it just all comes together.”
Another one Courtney’s mentors is Thomas “Frischi” Frischknecht, a former three-time world champion who manages the Scott-Sram team. Admired as a wise Obi-Wan figure to younger riders, the Swiss-born Frischknecht was a hugely influential force for the growth of the sport in Europe. But he, too, came of age as a mountain biker riding in Northern California.
“She basically trains and lives at the place where I started my career, riding the same exact trails,” says Frischknecht. “Being connected to this place through Kate, it closes a circle for me.”
“This is [where] his mountain biking dreams came true,” says Courtney. “Mine came true in Switzerland.”
From the outside looking in, Courtney’s victory in Lenzerheide may have looked like a stunner. To the people who followed her closely, it was less so. Courtney—a product of the impressively-booming National Interscholastic Cycling Association, or NICA—had a steady rise from the grass roots. She’d already won multiple World Cup races at the under-23 level, and in her elite season debut, she’d been hovering around the top 10 for most of the summer.
Still, when she rolled across the finish line in first place—and into the arms of her parents—it was a staggering moment for U.S. racing. Then Courtney went out and won the first two World Cup races in 2019, putting an emphatic exclamation point on her breakthrough.
“I’ve heard a lot of men talk about how awesome Kate is, and I love that,” says the 1996 mountain bike Olympic bronze medalist Susan DeMattei, who grew up in Marin. “She just seems to have a level head.”
“It changed her life,” says Tom Courtney. He still rides with his daughter, even though it’s getting harder.
“I can barely ride with her on her easiest day,” he says. “I’m just trying to survive and have as much fun as I can.”
One of the first rides Kate and Tom Courtney did when Kate came back home with the rainbow jersey was up Mount Tam, the climb she grew up doing, which she could always see from her window.
“Where it all started,” Kate says.
It never gets old.
“I have always loved being out on the mountain,” she says. “It’s a huge part of who I am. When I see a mountain, I want to climb it.”
It makes sense. It’s where Kate Courtney is from.
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Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com
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