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In 2018, for the first time in many years, Americans cracked the upper echelon of European cycling, earning consistent results all season long and scoring the sport’s biggest prize.
This was not at the Tour or the Giro. In fact, it didn’t happen on the road at all. American cycling’s international renaissance occurred in mountain biking, and the country’s female cross-country racers made it happen. That’s why we’ve named American female mountain bikers our Comeback Riders of the Year.
America’s female dirt heroes earned strong results throughout the year, from the Absa Cape Epic stage race in March through the world championships in September. This year of success was punctuated by Kate Courtney’s thrilling victory at the world championships, which brought U.S. cycling its first off-road world title in 17 years.
Courtney was not alone. Chloe Woodruff (Stan’s-Pivot) and Erin Huck (CZ Racing) each had stellar campaigns in 2018.
Apart from the first round in South Africa, Courtney never finished outside the top 10 on the World Cup. Woodruff finished in the top 15 in five rounds of the series, her best-ever result. And Huck, despite breaking her hand at the Germany World Cup in May, came storming back late in the season to finish in the top 15 in two World Cups and 12th at worlds.
The Americans benefit from the new World Cup format, which starts each round with a Friday short-track event. (Most U.S. cross-country racers grow up racing short track, while the format is still relatively new for European riders.) A top-eight result in the discipline earns riders an all-important front-row start position in the cross-country. Woodruff was fifth at the short track in the Czech Republic and went on to finish 13th in that difficult cross-country event.
Just as importantly, the American women raced this season for more than just bragging rights and prize money. The chase is on for UCI points to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. The top countries are hoping to start as many riders as possible in the 2020 Games.
So far, America’s female cross-country mountain bikers are in contention for the maximum number of spots: three.
To earn three slots for the Olympics, the U.S. needs to be ranked in the top two in the world. To date, the American women are in fourth place, just behind Denmark.
This recent success is a continuation of a tradition of top female American mountain bike racers that dates back to Juli Furtado, winner of the first world title in 1990. Throughout the years, America has produced a cadre of Olympic and world championship medalists: Ruthie Matthes, Susan DeMattei, Alison Dunlap, Willow Rockwell, Georgia Gould, and Lea Davison.
Davison says that young riders today are given a better chance to learn the craft of cross-country racing from an early age.
“The development pipeline comparatively is so much better now than it was when I was coming up in the ranks,” said Davison, who won bronze at the 2014 world championships. “It was just junior and no under-23 — I wasn’t racing internationally until I was 25.”
Back when she raced for Specialized with Courtney, Davison helped the world-champion-to-be adjust to European racing, in much the same way that she was nurtured and inspired by the previous generation.
“It’s having your peers break through to that level of success, and I started believing I could do it, and I did it,” Davison said. “Hopefully my success is breeding more success, and I’m sure Kate [Courtney] believes that.”
Courtney’s worlds win has U.S. mountain bike fans hoping to see three women in stars and stripes toeing the line in Tokyo. It also means an Olympic medal might be attainable.
“Even if Kate hadn’t won worlds, I think she was on a really good track for Rio,” said USA Cycling’s mountain bike program director Marc Gullickson. “Now we see she’s not afraid to win big races. That’s mentally a big piece.”
And at just 23 years old, Courtney has many big races to come.