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Kate Courtney is back to having fun on her bike

And this weekend, she'll be in Colorado racing for the stars and stripes

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For the past few years, Kate Courtney has been a notable absence at the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships.

It’s not that she doesn’t want to race nationals — “it’s a big deal of a race,” she told VeloNews — but with the seasonal juggle of World Cup racing and the fact that for the past few years, the date and venue of the event haven’t been conducive to many pro riders’ schedules, she hasn’t been able to.

This weekend, however, Courtney will be at the start line in Winter Park, Colorado for both the XCC and XCO races. It will be the 26-year-old’s first appearance at nationals since winning the stars and stripes in 2018.

While racing in Colorado was always part of the plan this season, Courtney will also toe the line with a decidedly different mindset than she left the 2021 season with: “at the moment I’m just really having fun,” she said.

New year, new goals

After the end of a 2021 season that Courtney said left her “exhausted and not having fun,” the former world champ has been working her way back to a place that feels right.

“I would say this year is all about getting back to having a consistent foundation,” she said. “I had a few tough years, the pandemic, then last year had a tough end. This year the focus has been getting back in striking distance and being consistent. Once you are solidly in the top ten, you’re able to take risks and aim a little higher.”

Last year, Courtney never really got to that point. A combination of the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic, training that wasn’t paying off, and “basically doing the Olympic media tour twice,” she was flailing. She finished 15th in Tokyo and ended the World Cup season 17th overall. 

The results, she said, were the symptom. Courtney wasn’t having any fun.

“It’s a sign,” she said. “Everyone has fun when they’re winning. If you’re in really good shape and your training is working and you’re well-fueled and you’re healthy … it’s fun. Bike racing is fun. So it’s a sign of other things, when the scale tips too far to one side or another.” 

Currently, Courtney’s feedback loop is positive: she’s getting out of her training what she’s putting into it and thus she’s having fun. She is, in her words, getting back in striking distance.

Courtney at the UCI XCO World Cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland on July 10, 2022 (Photo: / Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool )

Now 12th in the World Cup rankings, Courtney is fresh off a solid weekend in Lenzerheide where she finished seventh in both the XCC and XCO races.

Courtney has a certain ease in her voice when she speaks — perhaps it’s because she’s back home in California with her fiance and their dog, but she sounds relaxed and content when talking about both the challenges of last year and the possibilities of this one.

Furthermore, with a big chunk of time in North America looming before she heads back to Europe for the world championships in late August, Courtney knows that she has certain important variables in her control.

It’s been a learning process to recognize how much racing is too much racing, or how much time on the road doesn’t bode well.

“There are things I’ve learned that now we take into account when planning,” she said. “One, I never perform well when I’m gone for more than five weeks. At the time, it seems like it might work, and I want to do it, it’s like, ‘oh, if my mom comes, of my fiance comes,’ but for me and my nervous system, I need to be home every five weeks.

“It’s a non-performance thing — I just need to go home and see my dog and be around my family. In the long term, making those decisions allows you to be successful, but also to have fun and be motivated and race and train.”

Thus far in the season Courtney has been happy with her choices. She said that the focus on getting her body and mind back to full health meant a conservative start to the season training-wise, but that has allowed for room to grow rather than a sense of lagging behind.

“I said last year felt like I was on a treadmill that was set one level too high and I was struggling to stay on, whereas this year it’s like, ‘kick me up a level,'” she said.

After nationals on July 23, Courtney heads to two “hometown” World Cup races — Snowshoe on July 29 and Mont-Sainte-Anne on August 5. Then it’s back to Europe for worlds at the end of August.

In both body and mind, Courtney feels a world apart from how things were at this time last year.

“I was just so tired,” she said. “I’m proud to be in a place now where I’m having fun and racing solidly.”