By Matt Ruby and Noah Throop July 25, 2021
For many Americans, it might come as a surprise to see mountain biking in the Olympics this year. Yet cross-country mountain biking is not new to the Games. The sport debuted in Atlanta in 1996, and is today, dominated by Europeans.
But, recently, chances that an American cyclist could reach the podium and take home a medal have dramatically increased, thanks to Kate Courtney, whose success hasn’t been rivaled by other U.S. cyclists in decades.
Born in Marin County, Calif., the birthplace of mountain biking, Courtney grew up biking in the hills behind her house. In her first year in the elite field, she achieved something no American, man or woman, had done for 17 years — winning the world championships. The following year, 2019, she won the Overall World Cup title, taking the top spot in three of the seven World Cup races in the process.
These achievements are the pinnacle of the sport, and winning them has propelled Courtney to the front of the pack. Still, Olympic medals are nothing to scoff at. And for Courtney, who is in her prime, an Olympic gold medal is the remaining achievement.
In Europe, where the sport has robust grassroots support and participation, the top athletes in the field are considered celebrities. Local races often bring out large crowds, and World Cup races attract thousands to Germany, the Czech Republic, France and Slovenia. Every season, a majority of the sport’s race calendar takes place in Europe.
Here in the United States, it’s a slightly different story. When Kate Courtney started racing mountain bikes in 2009, NICA, a scholastic cycling league, had less than 1,000 participants across the country. Today, it has over 14,000.
While that growth is impressive, to put it in perspective, the number of high schoolers participating on a swim team in 2018 (the last year a national survey was conducted) was over 138,000 for boys and 175,000 for girls. Outdoor track and field for both boys and girls had over one million participants combined.
Still, mountain biking has come a long way, in no small part due to the success of figures like Courtney. A vocal proponent of the sport, in 2020 she started a scholarship for four high school seniors, to help them attend college and continue to compete in mountain-bike racing.