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Inside the collaborative mindset driving the U.S. women’s Olympic MTB long team

How Kate Courtney, Lea Davison, Erin Huck, Hannah Finchamp, Chloe Woodruff, and Haley Batten are pushing each other to be ready for Tokyo 2021.

Pro cycling is a sport of rivalry, cutthroat tactics, and a winner-takes-all mentality, right?

Not always.

The six women on the U.S. Olympic cross-country mountain biking long team are currently pursuing a collaborative effort that bucks the sport’s tradition of individual glory and solo accomplishments. Kate Courtney, Lea Davison, Chloe Woodruff, Erin Huck, Hannah Finchamp, and Haley Batten race for different sponsors and trade teams. On paper, success for one woman denies another woman her shot at Olympic glory.

Yet the six are working together toward Tokyo 2021 with a collaborative spirit. Last year I wrote about their group effort to chase UCI points across the globe to help win the U.S. the maximum three berths in the Olympic cross-country race. That all-for-one mentality has continued into 2021. When COVID-19 canceled the season’s early U.S. races — which represented the only opportunities for hard, all-out competitive efforts before the World Cup season opens — the six decided to hold a training camp to push each other to get those race pace efforts. Davison, Huck, Finchamp, and Woodruff went to Tucson, while Batten joined Courtney in Marin County for a mini-camp of hard sessions on the bike.

The goal was to make all of the women stronger so that all of them would be at their best — even though doing so might jeopardize their individual shots at an Olympic spot.

So, why did they do it?

Courtney embraces fellow American Lea Davison after the World Cup finals. Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

I’ll let Kate Courtney explain:

Kate Courtney: You don’t want your competitor to fall down the rock garden and not finish the race. You want her to have her best race, and then to beat her. And that’s a very particular type of mindset. I think all of the women on this call have that mindset. And you have to have that mindset in order to benefit from the training that we’re talking about here. You’re willing to go to your limit and have someone else go to their limit, and you want to see if they’re better than you. And you want to see where you can improve and where you can be better. That takes a lot of confidence, and also a growth mindset [where] you believe you’re always capable of improving, and you want everyone to be giving their best. You want to race people at their best. You want them to do their best. And you want to have done the work, to be that little bit better or stronger where it counts. I think there is a really cool mindset – for the six of us, it sounds like a given. But it’s not in all groups or all races.

I think there’s a lot to learn from these women. You can hear my full interview with them on this week’s episode of The VeloNews Podcast. I’ve called out some of their best words of wisdom below, and I hope their passion helps motivate you for whatever challenges you face in your own life.

Batten (right) training with Courtney and Katerina Nash in California. Photo: Haley Batten

There’s a benefit to training with female peers that cannot be replicated by training with men or by training alone.

Haley Batten: I’ve been doing a lot of riding with guys in general, and I think a lot of us find ourselves in that position. It doesn’t happen often that you have a strong, world-class woman to ride and train with. And I think that changes your perspective on training, and what you’re capable of. When you’re riding with a guy uphill or downhill, you have this attitude like, ‘OK, I’ll try but I might not be quite there.’ You give yourself that extra space. When you’re with a strong-ass woman, and you’re together and training hard, it changes your perspective of what you think you’re capable of. And that is a really cool thing. It’s special that we can connect in that way. It doesn’t always happen in that way. It doesn’t happen often that you have six strong women in the USA, who are world-class and strong, and it adds a lot of what w can do together.

Hannah Finchamp: Especially these harder, all-out intervals, which is some of the stuff we’re doing to get ready for racing on the horizon, it’s easy to think ‘Oh I’m going all-out,’ [when training alone] because 95 percent feels really, really hard. But it’s that extra five percent of effort that makes the difference, and it’s just easier to find that extra five percent when there’s someone next to you. You find those extra five watts because you don’t have an option. It’s nice to have that before you line up to race. Because that’s when you want to know that you have those extra five watts and you’re not wondering if you have them.

Davison, Finchamp, Woodruff, and Huck riding through Tucson. Photo: Allen Krughoff/Hardcastle Film and Photo

The canceled races represented a setback for everyone. Rather than create individual plans, the riders came together.

Erin Huck: Chloe, myself, and Lea had been working on different strategies over the past three years because the three of us had done a lot of stage racing and points chasing and we had this group chat started about general logistics. When Bonelli and Temecula [Pro XCT races] were canceled at the end of January, we were like, ‘OK what are the odds we’ll have any racing in the U.S. let’s take things into our own hands to see if we can get that race intensity and not rely on races happening.’ Lea was going to be in Tucson. Chloe lives in Phoenix. Hannah and I will go wherever it’s warm. We picked Tucson hoping that people couple make it.

Kate Courtney: One of the things I appreciate about this group is, for all of us individually and as a team, decision-making has been hard. We haven’t known enough about the variables to make clear decisions early in the process, given that there’s a lot that can change in the schedule. If my schedule had worked out differently, I’d love to be [in Tucson]. My schedule came together last-minute, so I couldn’t make the drive out. But I know I can bounce ideas off of these women and get honest feedback, and I can offer feedback to them that I know they will take.

Huck and Woodruff training in Arizona. Photo: Allen Krughoff/Hardcastle Film and Photo

The team took inspiration from the U.S. women’s Nordic ski team

Haley Batten: I would give a lot of credit to Lea [Davison] for making this collaboration take place and for putting in the work to organize stuff. I think a lot of this motivation came from the U.S. Nordic ski team. The Europeans were owning that sport, and they decided that ‘OK, my weaknesses are here, yours are there, maybe we can work together to raise the whole tide.’ It’s taken years to do it, and a lot of hard work, but they’ve gotten there.

Lea Davison: I’m obsessed with the U.S. ski team. It’s a similar sport — it’s an individual sport, even tho they have more team relays. Kikkan Randall was the trendsetter, and she forged this path for Americans — hey, we are good at this! And once one person starts having success, then the next generation that comes in is like, hey, [success] is expected. We are good at this and we’re going to work together to push each other. I get to see that with the ski team because most of the women train in southern Vermont and they roller ski right by my house. We talk on the lawn and I see them training together. And I’m wildly jealous, because if we got to train together all the time, how powerful and cool is that? With [the ski team], they’re like, “You train alone most of the time?” I’m like yeah. We can make this a team sport. We don’t need to be siloed in different places focused on competing against each other. We can work together and celebrate each others’ success.

Davison, Huck, Woodruff, and Finchamp in Tucson. Photo: Lea Davison

The collaborative effort could lessen the impact on those riders who don’t make the Olympic team.

Chloe Woodruff: I think it’s about finding that joy in the process. You do everything you can, and you have to be content day to day with everything you do and the hard work, but also not complacent. We have an incredibly competitive team and group of women here. That’s motivating. If this process can be motivating and not threatening, then that’s the right place to be. I think about that a lot.

Lea Davison: I think it’s more stressful to try and qualify for the Olympics than even to compete and when you can make it happen, it’s the best thing on Earth. I’ve never automatically qualified. I’ve always had to mentally approach it from the standpoint of, if I do the best that I can, and do that every single day, and work the hardest that I can, and do every single thing, and check all of the boxes, then I’ve done everything I can to qualify. I’m not in control of the result, and I’m not in control of the Olympic selection committee. Whoever ends up going has earned it. So, if I’ve done all of that for myself, then you just hope it works out.