Like most kids, Kate Courtney started riding a bike when she was very young.
“I used to ride a tandem with my dad,” said the rising sophomore at Stanford. “I had these really, tiny clip in shoes. At the time, I just thought of it as a fun thing to do with him.”
Courtney still enjoys riding, but has taken the sport to another level. She has been racing for five years and won Division I national titles in North Carolina last fall on a mountain bike in short track and cross country competing for the Stanford Cycling Team.
“Super-exciting,” she said of the club sport.
She also races for a pro team called Specialized Factory Racing based out of Morgan Hill, Calif., which pays her expenses. Courtney is traveling the world to race in World Cup events, both with Specialized and as part of the USA National Team. Already this year, she has traveled to Australia, placed in the top ten of two European world cups and won the U23 National Championships in Pennsylvania just last week. Upcoming competitions include World Cups in Canada, New York and France and the World Championships in Norway.
Not that she has much time for sightseeing.
“It’s funny,” said Courtney. “I like to say it’s a windshield tour. I like to spend a week in each place and I see the course and hotel and hopefully a few other things.”
Courtney is from Marin County and attended Branson High School. She loved sports and competed in cross country and gymnastics.
“I wanted a spring sport that wasn’t track in order to stay in shape,” she said. “I found out that my high school had a mountain bike team. Once I started riding and did my first race, there was no looking back for me.”
That year, Courtney joined the Whole Athlete-Specialized Junior Development Team and won her first national title. As a junior, she started competing on the World Cup circuit and qualified for her first World Championship.
A human biology major, Courtney rides five times a week, anywhere from 25 to 60 miles a day, depending whether she is pedaling her road or mountain bike. One of her favorite rides is to Pescadero on the coast, where she often stops at spot famous for artichoke bread.
“Biking is my escape and I relax,” she said. “It’s almost meditative. Riding keeps me grounded.”
Courtney estimates the Stanford Cycling Team has about 50 members, many graduate students.
“I’ve started to become more involved with the team,” said Courtney. There are a bunch of collegiate races on the mountain bike.
“When I’m at school, I usually train by myself or with my boyfriend who goes to Stanford and is an awesome cyclist. I have a lot of structured training that makes it difficult to ride with other people. But when I can, I ride with the Stanford team.”
Courtney competes in three types of mountain bike races: short track, about 20 minutes plus three laps around a track, held mostly in the U.S.; cross country, usually about a 90-minute race and her favorite venue; and World Cup eliminator races, about a two-minute sprint.
As you might expect, Courtney has little down time between school and racing.
“It’s been a long year, but it’s really exciting to do them both,” she said. “I think it’s pushed me harder in cycling and definitely pushed me harder in school to just be on top of everything and be organized.”
Courtney can’t say enough about the great people she met in her dorm this year and is very appreciative of the friendships she has made.
“It’s the most encouraging group of people I’ve ever been around,” said Courtney. “When I say, ‘Oh, I have to go to bed early because I’m racing or traveling,’ or I need notes from a class, they’re always really understanding. They understand my drive to do well and respect that, so that’s really been helpful for me.”
Courtney is also a huge fan of Stanford football and attends every home game she can.
“My favorite time of the year,” she said.
Courtney’s father, Tom, a retired stock analyst, does most of her training rides with her when she is home from school.
“It’s been amazing,” said Courtney. “He took a three-week trip to Europe with me last summer and I finished third and fifth in World Cups. He trained with me every day. I wouldn’t be where I am today in the sport without my dad.”
Even her mother, Maggie, a retired lawyer, has gotten the riding bug.
Courtney said the toughest part about racing is mental.
“At big races, there is a huge amount of pressure,” she said. “At the World Cups, there’s an unbelievable atmosphere – usually 60-to-70 girls in my field, thousands of fans, and 100’s of athletes in other fields from all over the world.”
Naturally, she loves it.
“Specialized Racing is one of the best pro teams around,” said Courtney. “Riding for them has actually been really motivational for me and I haven’t felt too pressured. They want me to get results but are making it possible for me to succeed. That’s an environment in which I thrive.”
Prize money is modest, but that’s not what drives Courtney.
“My real reward, if I continue to be sponsored, is I continue to get to travel the world and race on the best bikes,” she said.