With trails open and wildflowers blooming, riding a mountain bike in the Bay Area is one of the nicer ways to spend time sheltering in place.
“So many people are pulling their bikes out of the garage,” Kate Courtney said. “It’s really a positive for the cycling community.”
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Courtney is also out on her bike. But with a different goal than the rest of us.
Courtney, a mountain biking world champion, had already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics when the coronavirus pandemic unfolded around the globe. She had expected late spring of 2020 to be spent racing in Europe, fine-tuning her training in order to peak on a specific day.
“On July 28,” Courtney said of the original date of the mountain biking medal race in Japan. “All those races were for building toward being in the best shape on that date.
“The biggest challenge is knowing what timeline you’re training on. As a professional athlete, you’re training to deliver a peak performance at a certain time.”
This was anticipated to be Courtney’s year. Her coach, Jim Miller — also the head of elite athletics for USA Cycling — expected the 24-year-old to contend for a gold medal. If she fulfilled her goal, Courtney would become the first American to win gold in the sport that was introduced to the Games in Atlanta in 1996.
Courtney’s trajectory in the world of mountain biking has been dramatic; in 2018, at age 22 and in her first season racing in the elite field, she pulled away in the world championships in Switzerland to win, becoming the first American woman in 17 years to become world champion. Last season, she won the overall title.
“She’s definitely the full package,” said Miller, who has trained cycling champions in the past including three-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong. “She’s physiologically very talented, mentally tough, a warrior in her own right. She has the ability to do a large amount of work.”
Courtney was raised in the birthplace of mountain biking, at the foot of Mount Tamalpais in Kentfield. She started riding on the back of a tandem mountain bike with her father. She joined the mountain biking team as a high school freshman at Branson School in Ross, as a way to cross-train for cross country. But running soon took a back seat to biking.
“Growing up in the home of mountain biking gave me a unique appreciation for the history of the sport,” she said, noting that after her 2018 victory a celebration party was held at the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in Fairfax. The rainbow stripes that signify a world champion still line the outside of the building.
“It was really a special chance to connect with the local cycling community,” she said. “They always put a smile on my face when I ride by.”
Courtney went to Stanford, where she majored in human biology. She turned pro while in college and spent her final years of school balancing academics and a full racing schedule.
She was thrilled in September when, though she wasn’t able to successfully defend her world championship, her fifth-place finish in the race was good enough to earn her an automatic qualifying spot for the Olympics. For six months, that was her laser focus, until late March when the Games were postponed.
“Obviously it was a huge disappointment,” she said. “But without a doubt it was the right thing to do. I want to compete with the best athletes, with everyone able to be their best on that day. There’s no way to have equitable preparation. I live in California with sunny weather and open roads. It has to be fair.”
Like all Olympic athletes, Courtney has had a reset. But unlike many, she has been able to continue to train effectively.
“In the sport of cycling, our sports tech and wearables are 15 years ahead of other sports,” said Miller, who spent two years with a sports performance company — TrainingPeaks — before returning to the national team. “In terms of our ability to measure load on the body, we’ve been doing for years and years what professional sports teams are just starting to do.”
Under normal circumstances, cyclists train by themselves much of the time so the adjustment to abnormal times has been relatively smooth. Miller, who is based in Colorado Springs, writes Courtney a training program. Courtney downloads it onto her computer mount on her bike at her home on the Peninsula, and then chooses her route. At the end of the day, she uploads the results to Miller, who analyzes them with a sophisticated software program.
“I’ve been able to train really well,” she said. “I feel fortunate to be able to get out on the roads and trails so easily.”
She’s been using a buff as a face covering and has been cognizant of her proximity to others.
A revised mountain biking schedule has recently been released, with a slate of European races in September and the world championships in Austria in October. Of course, nothing is certain, not even the Olympics rescheduled for July 2021, on a course that Miller describes as “punchy,” and a good fit for an athlete like Courtney who he said can go 100%, recover and go all out again, over and over.
“As an athlete, don’t worry about what you can’t control,” Miller said. “There are so many what-ifs right now, you can play the ultimate mind game with yourself.”
So, for now, Courtney focuses on what she can control. She is working on her weaknesses. Using the extra time to get better.
She knows that as a young athlete she has years ahead of her. Miller said Courtney is in a better position than, say, Armstrong would have been if these circumstances had happened in 2016. Armstrong had come out of retirement for the Rio Games and won her third gold medal the day before she turned 43.
“My first thought, when the Olympics were postponed, was for the aging athletes who are on the other end of the spectrum,” Miller said. “If this had happened to Kristin in 2016, she didn’t know if she could make it another year. When you’ve done if for 15 or 20 years, 12 months can seem like an eternity. It’s a lot of work to maintain.”
But at 24, Courtney is just starting a career in which the normal peak is after age 30.
“I do expect to have more opportunities at the Olympics,” she said.
For the moment, she’s out on her bike, a buff over her face, taking in the wildflowers and sunshine. Just like a lot of us. But with a lot more at stake.