To Kate Courtney, the rainbow jersey is a reminder that she can beat the best in the world — it is motivation, not pressure to perform.

On Saturday, a 22-year-old made history in her debut at the elite level in the world mountain bike championships, breaking a 17-year drought for U.S. cross-country riders.

Kate Courtney (Specialized) won world championships with calm focus and brilliant pacing. She thrilled fans with a late surge at the end of the seven-lap race in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, floating over roots and rocks to beat former world champion (and her Specialized teammate) Annika Langvad on the final lap.

We caught up with Courtney on Monday to hear more about how she stayed focused and motivated even when it seemed like the race was over, why she likes being the underdog, and what the world championship jersey means to her.

VeloNews: You’re the first American to win a cross-country mountain bike world championship in 17 years. Are you familiar with Alison Dunlap’s 2001 win?

Kate Courtney: I’ve definitely heard a lot about that event and it’s something that’s super cool to be connected to. It’s exciting to look back on, and hopefully I can carry on the torch.

VN: Up until now, your best elite World Cup result was sixth at Mont Sainte-Anne. It’s a huge jump from there to the podium, let alone a worlds win. What did that take?

KC: This season has definitely been one of learning for me. I had my first elite season in the World Cup field. And it’s so much more competitive. It’s a really different style of racing. It’s close, it’s tactical, and it’s extremely challenging. I took away huge learnings from each race. I kept being really close. In Mont Sainte-Anne, I was third going into the last lap and got a flat, had to get a change, crashed, ended up getting sixth.

I kept really getting close and knocking on the door, showing off good fitness and racing my heart out. It just didn’t quite come together. But all those learnings certainly came together and helped me have that one special day where I performed to the best of my abilities. Just to have that good of a ride for me was really special, but then to have that ride be enough to take home the stripes was more than I could have imagined.

Before the race my dad said don’t think about the next hour and a half, think about the 10 months that you’ve been working towards this.

Kate Courtney
Photo: Kenny Wehn | Stan’s NoTubes

VN: Back in April, you told me that your training for Cape Epic was motivated by the unknown of that race, as well as some doubts people had in your ability. Did you draw on a similar motivation for worlds either in training or during the race itself?

KC: Definitely that’s accurate for the Cape Epic. It was a huge challenge and something I didn’t have a baseline for. I didn’t know how my body would respond to stage racing, how it would respond to the volume. That was a different kind of pressure, a different kind of excitement.

Whereas world championships, it’s in the same field, it’s the same girls as the World Cup, the same type of a course. I’ve raced World Cups at Lenzerheide. In terms of the kind of unknown part of it, it’s a bit more familiar, but with it being world championships, there’s a whole new level of pressure. This race was really special because it was my first year as an elite. I had a really successful World Cup season. I ticked a lot of boxes and met a lot of my personal goals. Worlds was an opportunity to just see what would happen.

I didn’t go into it with huge expectations or huge pressure. I went into it a little bit as the underdog, and that’s definitely a role I thrive in. For me, it was just believing it was possible. I don’t think anyone would have said, ‘No you can’t do that.’ But only the people that were really, really close to me and have been in my village for a long time were telling me, ‘No no, you can win a medal. Don’t count yourself out.’ In the race, those people, their voices were very important to helping me recognize the opportunity when I had it and keep pushing forward when I might have settled for second or third.

VN: When did you realize you were racing for a podium finish?

KC: Whenever I have my best results, I always am not paying attention to the outcome. I was really focused on being in the moment and racing to the best of my ability. Also, I had watched a lot of races that had happened at Lenzerheide, the past couple of World Cups. Those races played out pretty interestingly and in a similar fashion where the course beat a lot of people. People went so deep on that climb and started making mistakes or couldn’t maintain momentum in the technical sections. After watching that I knew, for me, I knew it would be about riding my own race and chasing my own personal best performance.

I trained so hard. I really was focused on, what power can I maintain on this climb? How can I ride this technical section better? Not on the girls around me or what position I was in. For me, that was key to be really internally focused and tap it back on that first climb when I needed to and stay within my limit. And I think that it gave me a lot of power towards the end of the lap where it really counted, and I was able to execute my race plan without necessarily having thought too much about what position I was in. I just tried to ride the best I could. I looked up at the finish line and realized that no one else had crossed the line in front of me, which was a pretty crazy moment and a really amazing feeling.

Kate Courtney
Kate Courtney rode to a brilliant world championship title in her debut season at the elite level. Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

VN: You had a bobble in those final laps on one of the climbs that forced you off the bike. How do you keep that sort of mistake from breaking your rhythm or your confidence?

KC: First of all, I think it’s way more stressful to watch that race than it was to be in it. My parents were at the finish line and they couldn’t even watch. They had to go back and watch the replay afterward. It was a really intense half-lap.

I had done a lot of mental training. I focus a lot on how I can race in the present. And really bring my attention to what I am doing in the moment.

I had my sports psychologist there at the race, but the plan for that day was really to ride my own race and that’s something I know how to execute. I know how to ride the root sections clean. I know how to bounce back from a mistake. Just keep moving forward one step at a time. When you’re just plodding along, you don’t realize you might be just one step away from the rainbow jersey until you take that step and all of a sudden everything has come together.

The key in that last lap was just staying focused. I really didn’t think about the jersey but I knew I had to ride like I deserved to win if I wanted to win.

VN: And of course, the most exciting part of the race, Langvad bobbles on that off-camber and you take the lead. I could see on the broadcast that you got a boost of adrenaline. That must have felt amazing.

KC: It was a pretty crazy moment. I think the fact that I was able to stay within myself on that climb, once I descended down and the point at which I caught Annika, I had really recovered. I was kind of ramping back up. Also for me, I spent a lot of time on the line choices on the second half of the course. I felt really comfortable on the A-lines. I had spent a lot of time working on carrying momentum in the saddle through those seconds. I kept telling myself, ‘This is your section, this is where you thrive. Just ride it the best that you can and everything else will take care of itself.’ I knew if I rode those sections as best as I possibly could that I had a pretty good chance of staying away. Still, I had no idea, I never looked back, I had no idea how far away she was. Watching the replay with my parents was so stressful — I did not know she was right there!

Kate Courtney
Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

VN: You said that you thrive on being an underdog — are you still the underdog? Seems like that might be changing.

KC: I think I have a long way to go. That race, things came together and it was a really special day. It wasn’t an accident, my fitness was the result of really, really hard work. I have a lot of things to improve if I want to perform at that level consistently throughout the World Cup season.

People talk about the pressure of the rainbow stripes. It’s a symbol that when I work really hard and when things come together, it’s possible for me to be the best in the world on the day. It’s really going to be special. I get to wear the stripes on my jersey next year but I get to wear the stripes on my sleeves forever. It’s for me something that’s really motivational. I don’t feel it’s a thing that adds pressure. It’s a constant reminder that anything is possible, and when you believe in yourself you can be the best on the day.

VN: Marathon worlds are next, this weekend, right?

KC: After the race at worlds I was like man, maybe I shouldn’t have planned to go to marathon worlds the next weekend because it was a really overwhelming experience, but I think being here this week for me it’s a good reminder that the coolest part about winning or getting to do this at all is that it’s truly what I love to do. I just get to do it in a fun outfit next year. Being here at marathon worlds gives me a chance to get out on my bike in the mountains and really reconnect to why we do this.