Meet Kate Courtney, America’s Badass XC Mountain Biking Champion
Slideshow Photos (Respectively): Johan Badenhorst, Michal Cerveny, Paris Gore/Redbull Content Pool, Redbull Content Pool, Michal Cerveny, Paris Gore/Redbull Content Pool
It’s been a long time since Kate Courtney last felt totally relaxed. For the past four years, the 22-year-old Californian has been juggling two enormous commitments: one, an undergraduate degree in Human Biology at Stanford University; and two, her newfound status as one of the world’s top up-and-coming cross-country mountain bike racers. But today, Kate Courtney is relaxed. You can hear it in her voice. She’s done with school — well, almost. She’s knocking down a few last-minute credits in an online film studies course. Right now, the only thing weighing on Courtney’s mind, aside from having to dissect Pulp Fiction, is her white-knuckled determination to become the greatest cross-country mountain biker in the world. And she’s well on her way.
This September, in Cairns, Australia, Courtney placed second at the U23 MTB World Championships (her first-ever World Championship title); this July, at the American National Championships in Snowshoe, West Virginia, she won her first-ever elite cross-country title; in 2017, she won three U23 World Cup races and four USA Cycling Pro XCT races. Those are just a handful of her most recent victories. Since her racing career began in 2012, Courtney has been a podium-regular. She’s now gearing up to dominate in the women’s elite category and qualify in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. We caught up with Courtney to talk life on the racing circuit, the importance of mental fitness, her brand-new, sparkly, hot pink Specialized mountain bike and more, as well as glean a quick mountain biking-specific workout.
Photo: Michal Cerveny
Q: When did you realize you wanted to dedicate your life to mountain biking?
A: I had a slow courtship with mountain biking. I started out riding on the back of a tandem bike with my dad. He never pushed me to take up cycling. I actually didn’t even know bike racing was a thing until high school. I had done a lot of other sports. In my freshman year of high school, I was looking for a cross-country spring activity, and my school had a mountain biking league. That’s how I got into racing. I learned that cycling has this really amazing social and fun aspect. You can go out and explore new places, ride with friends and family, and that’s something I really value in the sport. But what really got me addicted was how much I loved racing. The tactical aspect, the intellectual aspect, the technical aspect — being on your bike and trying to go as fast as you can. It was something I got excited about, rather than feel the kind of nervous dread that I had felt in a lot of other sports, like running.
When I was racing in high school, the women who were racing were in their thirties. Now,  doesn’t seem very far off, but when I was 15, that was twice my age. It seemed so out of reach. I think it’s cool to talk to girls who are in the high school league and say I raced my first race as a freshman at 15 in the high school league. That’s been a powerful source of motivation for me.
Q: What does it take to survive in elite mountain bike racing?
A: Everyone is searching for that perfect recipe — the way to get an edge over everyone else. For me, I think it’s continuing to find ways to optimize and being really ruthless about my preparation this year. Now that I’m not a full-time student, I have a lot more time to focus on recovery and to take my strength training seriously. I’m getting a lot better at managing all of those things together.
It’s an expectation versus reality thing. With training, people think, ‘Oh, I have time, it will all go perfectly well.’ In reality, things are always adjusting. You have days when you’re more fatigued or days when you’re feeling better. Having the time and flexibility to stay on top of that — I think that’s what’s going to allow me to move up and feel confident in the elite field next year.
Q: What are you currently training for?
A: This is actually my first year that I’ll be racing in the Elite World Cup. It’s time to put on my ‘big girl’ chamois and log those longer training hours to really get ready for that next step up. I’m also getting ready for my first stage race this spring, and it’ll be a very long and hard one. That will be a nice secondary goal next to the World Cup series, which starts in March in South Africa.
More broadly, Tokyo is really on my radar. I was a bit too young and not quite at the right level to make it in 2016, but that really galvanized my interest in going to the Olympics. I worked toward that goal all year, but it was a little bit of a long shot. Almost qualifying in 2016 was the best thing that could’ve happened in terms of making me really motivated not just to qualify in 2020, but to go ready to compete, and to try to be one of the best at the Olympics — not just to get there.
Photo: Lucas Gilman/Redbull Content Pool
Q: How has your training regimen changed now that the 2020 Olympics is in your crosshairs?
A: It’s all about being on that four-year plan and having that bigger goal on the horizon. The first two years are ‘build’ years, for me. I’m training longer, really building up that base. In 2019, we start qualifying. That’s when your points start to count for the Olympics. Those races in the spring will be the biggest goal.
Q: Why is it so important to find a balance between pushing yourself and taking care of yourself?
A: When I was in school, my main focus was just doing the best I could with the circumstances I had. I’d get a ride and quick meal in before heading to class. A lot of times there wasn’t a lot of thought that went into my training. Now, on an average Monday, for example, I’ll spend a few hours in the gym and few hours on the bike. Now I have a lot more control over when I do that, how I do that, and what I do in between. It’s been a challenge to not just schedule out every hour of every single day, and to really just take the time I need to schedule a nap. That’s my biggest focus of the year — really dialing in recovery as a part of my training. I know everyone is working very hard, and there’s only so many hours in a day that you can ride, but if I can really maximize what I’m getting out of that training, I hope that will help me go further in the long run.
Kate Courtney’s 20-Minute Mountain Biking Workout
Indo Board Medicine Ball Squats: 1 set, 30 seconds. “This exercise targets balance, coordination and develops both core and leg strength,” Courtney said. “Mountain biking requires being strong in those muscle groups, but it’s just as important to be coordinated and balanced. This exercise can help you maintain a stronger, more stable foundation when descending a technical trail.”
Pull-Ups: 1 set, max reps. “Cycling uses primarily lower body muscles, making it very important to strengthen the upper body in the gym. I personally enjoy pull-ups,” Courtney said. “At the beginning of the offseason, I may struggle to get through a few reps — but by the end, I can see a lot of progress. This exercise functions in a few ways. First, it strengthens your ability to ‘pull,’ which mimics resisting the force of your handlebars as you climb or descend. Second, it requires a range of motion in your shoulders that is outside of the normal cycling position and contributes to injury prevention.”
TRX Push-Ups: 1 set, 10 reps. “I do TRX push-ups to work on my upper body strength as well as dynamic core stability,” Courtney said. “TRX push-ups look easy, but require a lot of functional core strength to stabilize your upper body and keep you from falling on your face. The TRX system also has two handles that you can place as far apart or as close together as you want — I choose to place them at a similar width to my handlebars to best target the muscles I use when I am racing. The lower you put the handles, the harder this exercise will be.”
Deadlifts: 1 set, 5 reps (heavy weight). “With proper form, deadlifts can be one of the most helpful exercises to developing the explosive leg strength required to excel on the mountain bike,” Courtney said. “The deadlift position is actually very similar to the position of your body on the bike. Deadlifts not only challenge my lower body strength but require a very strong grip as weight increases.”