- Kate Courtney won her first UCI World Cup race on Sunday, taking gold in the cross-country event in Albstadt, Germany.
- She became the first American to win a cross-country World Cup race since 1999.
- It was also the 23-year-old world champion’s first World Cup victory.
Kate Courtney, the 23-year-old mountain bike world champion, just added more sparkle to her trophy case: On Sunday, she became the first American in 20 years to win gold in a cross-country event at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup.
Courtney, who recently impressed us with her core strength workouts, powered away from the field to a commanding solo victory in Albstadt, Germany. It’s her first elite World Cup win—a career milestone arriving only eight months after her triumph at the World Championships, something that had also eluded American riders for nearly two decades. And it likely won’t be her last.
“This race was about staying focused and taking things one step at a time and overall, I’m very proud of both my mental and physical effort on the day,” Courtney said.
Overnight rain had left the Albstadt course layered in thick mud. Off the starting line, Jolanda Neff—last year’s overall winner and the 2017 cross-country world champion—jumped the fastest and led the field through the first corner, with Courtney glued to her rear wheel. Attacking the first climb, the pair rode steadily away from the rest of the field. It very much looked like a two-woman race.
And then there was only one. On the day’s second climb, Courtney slid ahead of Neff and powered away from the Swiss rider. Though she sailed down descents, Neff struggled on the climbs, and soon Dutch rider Anna Tauber overtook her for second.
Flying ahead, Courtney held a 30-second advantage over Tauber as they finished the first full lap. A hard-charging Neff followed 21 seconds behind. Courtney appeared to have the race well in hand, but it nearly slipped away when she crashed descending on the second lap.
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In an effort to make the course safer in wet conditions, organizers built wood features through one of its steep, twisting descents. Once the wood gathered a layer of mud, however, it became nearly as treacherous as the bare dirt. As Courtney came around a tight corner, both wheels slid out from under her.
But the world champ didn’t panic, picking up her bike and remounting quickly. With her characteristically positive attitude, Courtney later dismissed the crash as a “blessing in disguise… Racing off the front for so long can be a huge mental challenge and requires focus. The crash was a good reminder to protect my lead and ride within my limits on the descent.”
Confident in her climbing, Courtney focused on extending her lead whenever the course turned upward. As the laps ticked down, she steadily added to her advantage, leaving herself plenty of time to celebrate at the finish. As she approached, she shook her head, as if she couldn’t believe it, and grabbed a tiny American flag that a fan held out to her. She rode across the line solo, flag held high.
“Crossing the line, I could finally sit up and be proud of my ride and of achieving one of my biggest goals,” Courtney said.
Tauber, who held second for much of the race, slid out and crashed on the same wood features that had ensnared Courtney. The crash broke Tauber’s rhythm, and Neff caught her. Forty-nine seconds after Courtney’s win, Neff finished second, while Ukraine’s Yanna Belomoina overtook Tauber to finish third.
American Chloe Woodruff spent the race battling in a chase group behind the leaders and placed sixth. An Olympian who competed in Rio in 2016, Woodruff is among the women aiming for three slots on the 2020 U.S. Olympic team.
“It was a great day for the USA women, with two elite riders in the top 10 and a podium in the U23 race,” Courtney said. (Denmark’s Laura Stigger won the U23 category, while American Haley Batten finished third.) “I think we are seeing a huge resurgence in the sport in America, and it gives me motivation to push hard and continue to chase big goals.”
Courtney’s victory is the first for an American woman at a cross-country World Cup event since Alison Dunlap in 1999. (Dunlap also took the overall title in 2002 by reaching the podium at every stop of the series, though she never placed first.) The two racers share an additional tie: Dunlap became the UCI world champion in 2001, a feat that went unmatched until Courtney took the rainbow jersey in Switzerland last September. (Juli Furtado was the first American to win the world title in 1990).
On the men’s side, the last cross-country World Cup wins are even further in the past. Results from before 1999 are difficult to track down, but mountain bike legend John Tomac took two races and the overall in 1991, plus two more the following year when he finished second overall. Perennial hardman Tinker Juarez took a World Cup race in 1993, while David Wiens, now the executive director at IMBA, also won two events in the 1990s. Recently, American men have had better luck in the downhill events, with Aaron Gwin winning multiple races and five overall titles in the last decade.
That’s not to say Americans haven’t found success in cross-country racing. Notably, Georgia Gould won a bronze medal at the London Olympics in 2012, and Lea Davison finished second at the World Championship race in 2016. Adam Craig finished on the World Cup podium in 2008. But until Courtney’s victory in Albstadt, the top step has eluded Americans at the international level for years.
Courtney will defend her World Cup lead next weekend in Nové Město, Czech Republic. The women’s short track race, which determines the seeding for the cross-country start grid, takes place on May 24. The cross-country race begins at 11 p.m. EDT on May 25, with live coverage available at Red Bull TV.