Why is Kate Courtney not already a superstar?

This is a totally out of character post whose axis is along the pro racing lines, but it's something I keep wondering about so here goes.

Kate Courtney won the UCI Cross Country Worlds last weekend. That link <- goes to the UCI site. Because except for a Velonews Q&A (and they've covered it, but they must not be getting enough clicks because the stories come down quickly) with her, none of the sites I normally read have anything prominent about it. There are a lot of sites I don't read and maybe they are lighting it up but a 2 second Google search didn't show anything remarkable. 

(picture stolen from katecourtney.com)

When Lance Armstrong was all the rage, a bunch of sorta-but-not-very cycling aware friends asked me why all the fuss, and why was he allowed to get away with what he did. My answer was always "he's a good looking guy with a seemingly All American story, he's got a name that DC Comics couldn't improve for a superhero's alter ego, who's showcasing a sport that's underperformed in the US at a time when probably the world's most valuable demographic (US baby boomers) is most likely to want to try cycling, and he's bringing Nike and Oakley money into the sport, so if you were the UCI it would be awfully hard not to protect that golden goose." And for what it's worth I think the UCI was COMPLETELY complicit in his deal, but that's neither here nor there for this. 

So screen that against Kate Courtney. She's a good looking woman with an All American story with a name that DC Comics couldn't improve on for a superhero's alter ego, who's showcasing a knobby-tired segment of the sport when riding off road is all the rage, she's got the Red Bull sponsorship, and she's won the Worlds after a long period when US women have been quite good in the sport, but never quite at the top. It's surprising to me that that's not more of a winning recipe. 

She wrote an article a while ago in CyclingTips about body image, nutrition, and performance not long ago (and I should mention that it seems the media has done a creditable job of showing her story, but modern media is awfully responsive to clicks), and it was good. Compelling personal story with useful usable info. The comments made me want to puke. One guy butts in about how a Red Bull sponsorship kind of negates the whole thing, another guy chimes in with "back when I was racing this might have been useful but now I'm old and I don't train and this doesn't apply to me." Let me call the f-ing whambulance for you guys. Would you respond the same way to an article written by a dude? Do you have any idea how big of an issue this is for female athletes? In my "spare time" (I don't sleep) I coach the URI sailing team, a sport which is equally as weight sensitive as cycling, and we do backflips trying to find a happy place between helping athletes manage that fact and not spiraling into the problem zone. It's a big f-ing deal. But no, we have to hear about some guy fighting his middle age spread is more expert than a woman who at the time was well along her path to becoming a world champion, who has an amazing array of world class resources helping her with this stuff. 

She's smart (Stanford grad), she's hot, she'd spank pretty much anyone reading this on a bike (and my "pretty much anyone" I mean "anyone"), and she's a world champ. Can dudes just not handle that? Is she too threatening? Does an apparently comfortable and supportive upbringing not speak to enough struggle and overcoming in her story?

But there's also that if she was a he, I don't think it would be a big story either. Probably bigger, and with less of the annoying fake male expert BS, but still not big. Mountain bike racing isn't a big story, even if it's way better watching than road racing (only cross is as good a watch), and the whole light and heat in the sport right now is around "not road" riding. We sell somewhat more mountain bike related stuff now than we have, but I think some of that is down to a really awesome product that we've not had before. 

Maybe if she wins the Olympics the story will blow up? Maybe she needs to win more stuff over a longer time frame (this was, after all, the present peak of what's been a really fast rise in the sport). I don't know, on the one hand, mountain biking isn't a huge venue and I get that. On the other, this is a big deal, and Kate seemingly has the perfect storm of ingredients to bring some excitement and attention to mountain biking. 

Enjoy your day. 


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  • Dave on

    Great comments, everyone, thanks. And yeah, the video coverage of the XCO stuff the past couple of years has just been incredible. Plus with the Friday night short track for starting grid spots, so awesome. But now the big question is what’s Kate’s team deal going to be for next year? My guesses: 1) it won’t be Trek, they’re too loaded up already 2) it could be Scott, but I don’t know why they wouldn’t have already signed Neff (who’s ridden for minor brands/teams lately, except did she ride for Giant recently) 3) it could EASILY be Giant 4) is there some Specialized trick up everyone’s sleeve and they’re going to announce a women’s specific brand (or some other similar thing) and lead with this piece? But this is the only rider transfer for 2019 that holds any significant interest for me. We’ll see…

  • Justin T. on

    Like running, cycling doesn’t inspire most competitive athletes to follow the elite level of their sport. Most marathoners and cross riders and XC riders are content to get their miles in and go home and tolerate a little NFL football on TV. Downhillers watch downhill, but that’s an insanely niche and difficult sport. Endurance athletes are different unfortunately, and in this age of excellent streaming video, its a crime not to watch the sport you participate in. XCO is more niche than ever in the US and I don’t see that changing.

  • Jay M on

    This is a great piece. There are some cases where endemic sexism applies but critics will seize on one little part of the puzzle to explain why…naaaaahhhh…it can’t be sexism. In this case it’s sexism. The naysayers can’t point to any part of the puzzle as to why her story isn’t just as compelling or well received as a male athlete. She ticks every box to ba a media darling except that her plumbing is different. So you’ve hit the nail on the head. Good on you for calling it out. The women’s UCI XCO series this year was so much more compelling to watch than the men’s and her winning the race was an unexpected, awesome, kick ass, top level moment for American cycling. I wish her and all the women cyclists the best of luck and thank them for an incredibly exciting season of racing. (Also though I don’t drink it RedBull is amazing for live streaming the races!)

  • Tim on

    What a great op-ed on a segment of the sport I’ve really only started following over the last couple years. I’m primarily a roadie but I also ride mountain and gravel bikes. Back when Lance won his first Tour, his story was amazing because of him just recently overcoming a near-death bout with cancer. As he won again and again though, the hype did nothing less than boost bike sales and participation in cycling in the US. Around that same time we started seeing more US located stage and single day races like Tour de Pont, and now Amgen Tour of California. I’d love to see more UCI XC mountain bike races in the US which would be needed for this market to connect with the stars of the sport and therefore boost professional mountain biking here as well.

  • Oscar on

    I agree with Dave. I been following cycling for a long time I ride both road and mountain and occasionally I watch mountain and cyclocross races. Kate Courtney is a remarkable athlete and person, I watch the race last week when she won her Worlds Championship, and it was awesome came from behind and on the 7 last lap went up front first and it was game over, I believe she won by 17 seconds. I too like Dave try to find more information about her win, but there was very little, and that is too bad because Kate Courtney deserves more and better treatment the press and cycling community here in the USA have given her. Congratulations to Kate for her Worlds.



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