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PRESCOTT, Arizona (VN) — Mountain bike fans might still be getting used to seeing Kate Courtney aboard a Scott bike, as she switched from Specialized to the Scott-SRAM team at the start of 2019. For the reigning world champion, the change has kicked her progression into overdrive, in large part thanks to team manager Thomas Frischnkecht, himself a former world champion.
We caught up with 23-year-old mountain bike phenom in Prescott, Arizona, the day before she won the Whiskey Off-Road. We start by talking about this major marathon race, which is a departure from her usual schedule of World Cup cross-country races. She goes in depth on how crucial Frischnkecht has been in her progress so far this season. Plus, we talk about the Olympic chase as things ramp up for the 2020 games in Tokyo.
VeloNews: What are some of your memories of the Whiskey Off-Road?
Kate Courtney: Whiskey is one of my first longer events. So I think the first time I came here I was just excited to throw my hat in the ring and get some experience racing over our normal cross-country time. It was a great first longer race. I learned so much and had a really awesome experience. I was excited to come back last year, but unfortunately had some mechanical issues. As you know it can be unforgiving out there. Had a little bit of a hot and long day, but still managed to come in fourth. I mostly just love the atmosphere and the chance to test myself in a different way. It draws on skill and a level of fitness that’s a little bit different than the cross-country races. It’s a chance to get out, have fun and test those areas, knowing that I’m using it as training for the big World Cups and definitely training through these kinds of events.
VN: Well, I think you’re underselling it because you won the first time you came here in 2017. What was that feeling like, being in a race that was an unknown to you?
KC: It was definitely a little bit of a time that I surprised myself. Some of your best races are when you’re forced to dig really deep kind of against yourself. I found myself off the front super early, and I was like ‘Oh no this is exactly what I wasn’t supposed to do!’ As someone who hadn’t raced that long. I think the other girls were like ‘Oh, she’s going away too early.’ I really, really dug, especially on that Skull Valley climb. I think I got eight minutes on that climb. I really dug deep on that one. I didn’t know where the other racers were. It really became a — let’s see what my best effort is like on this day. I think it opened my eyes to the possibilities of endurance racing for me. I think I’m a younger rider but I do enjoy the longer stuff, and I think that led me to do the Cape Epic last year and hopefully some more endurance racing in the future.
VN: Were you scared to be off the front like that?
KC: I think I was definitely nervous, but it’s also a different kind of racing, you don’t have the same expectations. In cross-country racing, you’re nervous about all these things going wrong that you know can happen and you’ve experienced. Whereas with this race, it was who knows what’s going to happen? In some ways, it took some expectations off, took some pressure off, and I was just open to the experience, which sometimes is when you have your best day.
VN: You’re on the Scott-SRAM team this year, Thomas Frischknecht is in charge of that team. What are some specific things that he’s taught you?
KC: It’s been an incredible experience for me so far. It’s a huge opportunity to work with the biggest names in the sport and to have a level of support that’s really unmatched. One of the things you might not know about the team is the really great fun and relaxed atmosphere everyone has. Obviously, they’re some of the best racers in the world and they’re serious and they take their preparation very seriously. That goes not just for the athletes but for our mechanics, our soigneurs, and our team manager, everyone’s really trying to be at the top of their game, but there’s really great camaraderie. We had the hashtag “fun is fast” at our training camp. I really feed off that energy, the positive, mutually supportive environment. I think that’s going to be a huge asset for me going into the World Cup races, really feeling like I’m part of a team and we’re working toward a goal together.
More specifically I think there’s been a couple of big changes for me this year. One is having Brad [Copeland] as my full-time mechanic. That’s been a huge opportunity. We’ve done all these U.S. races together. That means not just having the best support here but we can start testing things and dialing in. When I get to these bigger World Cup races, we’ll have the issues ironed out and have really made some big learnings in terms of equipment setup.
And also having Thomas Frischknecht as the team manager. Frischy’s been unbelievable in terms of coaching me, giving me real practical technical advice and tactical advice at races. He works closely with my coach Jim Miller, and Jim’s in charge of all my training, but I think Frischy has a really good eye, and has watched so many mountain bike races, and knows so much about it, and has raced in so many mountain bike races. That level of experience is kind of unmatched and is something that has been a huge positive addition to my preparation this year.
VN: Has anything that he’s told you come as a surprise?
KC: I think generally descending is something that’s been a focus for me this year. He’s super helpful in terms of pushing me in technical descents and helping me master real skills that will enable me go faster. I think one of the biggest surprises has been the role of equipment in that. Having the lockout, also some other changes on the bike have enabled me to be more confident. Working with Frischy, he is able to really connect what equipment I’ve been using to how it’s performing on real trail. For me, knowing I can run this tire pressure and take this line in a corner and trust that everything is set-up right and that I’m empowered to do that has enabled me to ride faster downhill. It’s not just the equipment setup and just the skills but the melding of all those different things that enables you to have a smooth ride.
VN: The current crop of U.S racers might be able to secure three start spots for the Olympics. Talk to me about this group that you’re part of.
KC: I’d say we have a really talented pool to pick from. If we earn those three spots, we’ll really have earned them and can send three really capable riders, which would be super exciting and also might give the opportunity for maybe a younger rider to go, or for people to get experience that might be bigger contenders later on, which I think always has great value in terms of the longevity of our cycling success in America.
I think it’s great that we have this level of competition because it keeps us all on our toes especially early in the season. For me, I always feel like I come into the season focused on those later races but really challenged at the beginning of the season, and that’s something that pushes you to grow and get better. Whereas a lot of top riders in other countries are kind of walking away with it often early in the season. For me, it’s been a huge asset to have such competitive racing here in the States and to use it as preparation early in the season.
In terms of my own Olympic journey, it’s definitely in the back of my mind and has been the goal for a number of years already. I think the way the selection is crafted this year and the way I’ve been riding, my focus is really on those bigger World Cup and the world championship goals that would already be the focus. For me, if I can stay focused on what I’ve been doing and those process goals for me, hopefully, we will get those three spots and the selection will take care of itself.
VN: Tell me about the shark fin. A lot of pro riders have their personal logos, and now you have this one with shark fin in yours.
I just am a huge fan of sharks. I remember watching “Shark Week,” we’d always go to Mont Sainte-Anne when we used to race junior World Cups there. My friend Kayley Blevins and I would always watch “Shark Week.” We didn’t have Internet, we just had cable TV and it was always “Shark Week.” That’s kind of where it started. I’m just a big fan of sharks, so why not have a little extra inspiration?
Sharks have been known to attack. I have sometimes, occasionally been known to attack!
This interview was edited for length and clarity.