Before Haley Batten was able to catch her breath or wipe the mud from her face, people were already asking her what was next.
Batten had just clambered through an exceptionally sloppy cross-country circuit in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, to finish a stunning second place in just her second elite World Cup. Two days prior, the 22-year-old had won the short track at the same venue.
While the races in Nove Mesto would seal Batten’s place as the second confirmed member of Team USA for the Olympics team behind Kate Courtney, it didn’t change how Batten had approached her preparation.
“The season is so long,” Batten told VeloNews. “There are still World Cups, then the Olympics, then world championships. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Yes, I’m a first-year elite and I had a great early season, but how’s this training block going?”
That day-by-day approach is one of the reasons why Batten has risen to the top of U.S. cross-country mountain biking in what feels like a very compressed schedule. With her podium finishes at the opening World Cups, Batten outdid reigning U.S. queen Kate Courtney to become the most accomplished U.S. rider of 2021. Despite that success, Batten is keeping a cool head.
“I can’t get too far ahead of myself,” Batten said. “Yes, I had some really good rides and that’s becoming real to me, but nothing’s really changed. The work I do hasn’t changed, the team behind me hasn’t changed, so it’s keeping that same mindset and going strong for the rest of the season.”
Batten’s wisdom might belie her age, but her perspective reflects the many steps it’s taken to get to this point in her career. She’s no overnight success — far from it. Competitive on the mountain bike since she was nine years old, Batten owns a decade’s worth of noteworthy results, including junior and U23 national titles, U23 World Cup podiums, and stage race wins.
The successes this year as an elite are the product of years of dedication and preparation. Mistaking her top finishes this year for a rags-to-riches storyline is a mistake that Batten’s coach, three-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, is familiar with, too.
“I remember how hard it was for myself in Europe for so many years,” Armstrong said. “The minute I had a decent result I’m like ‘wow.’ Then, everything came a lot easier. You can spend years just getting pushed back and years wondering if you can make it up there and then it happens for you and things click. Haley isn’t new to racing, so it didn’t happen overnight. It went from ‘here is Haley,’ to now she’s on the podium in a pro race.”
Given her own athletic experience and that of coaching other elite cyclists, Armstrong has an intimate understanding of what goes into elevating a rider to her full potential. In the three years they’ve worked together, Armstrong has honed in on Batten’s unique set of strengths and weaknesses, and the alchemy plays out in how she competes today.
When Batten talks about it, she often repeats the phrase ‘off the bike’ as a catchall for all of the things Armstrong has her focus on that are not related to actually riding. Armstrong believes you have to keep the whole athlete in mind, not only what a training plan or a power meter says.
“Sure, I look at numbers but that’s only on paper,” Armstrong said. “You have to put everything together to perform.”
Batten sometimes struggled as an up-and-coming rider on the international stage. She was a regular contender for the victory or the podium in the under-23 races, but she missed winning medals at the world championships.
Armstrong said Batten had the training numbers and skills to win the races, but she simply struggled to put everything together. Over the past seasons the two worked to address a few areas of challenge. Batten underwent allergy tests which confirmed that she suffered from seasonal allergies that impacted her breathing.
And then, Batten moved from British Columbia, where she attended school in Squamish, down to Santa Cruz, California.
“She was in Squamish where it rained and snowed and time on the bike was an issue — sometimes we just did what we could to get it done,” Armstrong said. “It was limited to what her training is now in Santa Cruz.”
Batten qualified for the U.S. Olympic long team with her podium finishes in under-23 World Cups. But she was hardly a shoo-in to make the team. When the Olympics were delayed from 2020 to 2021, Batten got the added advantage of being able to race elite World Cups to show her stuff.
“If the team was chosen last spring, it would have been a long-shot,” Armstrong said. “Having another year under her belt was important.”
Still, neither Armstrong nor Batten knew what to expect for her elite World Cup debut at the season opener in Germany. Albstadt, the first World Cup race of 2021, became the duo’s perfect opportunity to test the on and off-the-bike training.
Batten lives by a simple mantra: “I don’t train every day to lose.” Still, prior to the World Cup opener, she and Armstrong decided to look at the race in Albstadt in a different way.
“Her tactic was ‘hey, don’t try to go out crazy because our goal is to continually improve on the races,’ and it worked out for her,” Armstrong said. “Everyone blew up and she started slower and didn’t blow up and kept on picking up people. That tactic worked out well. It wasn’t a tactic to go out and win, it was one to get her to have a solid result.”
Batten stunned the field by finishing third, and she confirmed her place in the inner circle of elite XC by finishing second a week later in Nove Mesto.
In the school of competitive mountain bike racing, Batten has proven herself to be an exemplary student. It’s a trait she carries into the classroom, as well. Batten is taking courses at Quest University in Squamish, where the courses are structured into intensive one-month blocks. “I’m on the long program for school,” she joked, although she speaks with the same self-assurance about her education that she does about mountain biking. Even if she’s joking, Batten knows exactly what she’s doing.
“I think school provides me with a lot of balance and perspective,” Batten said. “I want to have opportunities outside of racing, and I also love it. It’s one of my other passions, I love learning and challenging my mind, as well.”
Batten’s confidence that she will finish her college education matches the poise she possesses around her cycling career. She has no illusions that the impressive World Cup results or the Olympics qualifications are career-defining; rather, they just inform the next steps in the progression.
“Performing well now just changes the way I approach the rest of my career, it just changes the level I want to be at for a longer period of time,” she said.
After all, Batten is no stranger to challenging seasons and bad races. When she first met Armstrong, she had two goals: To win the U23 world championships in 2020 and to qualify for the Olympics. She fell short of the first, four places to be exact, and while she’s met the second, she does not consider this year’s Games a one and done.
“I just don’t want to get ahead of myself,” she said. “So I performed well at two elite World Cups. The athlete that I train to be is someone that is consistent and can consistently be racing at the top of the field and achieving big titles like world champs and Olympics. Those are all big achievements. I don’t think I’m that rider yet, but that’s the rider I hope to become. I haven’t even won a World Cup yet. It takes a lot to go from that to winning a big title like the Olympics and world champs. I think this is just a step in the right direction.”
Every time she catches her breath, Haley Batten is ready for the next step.