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. 

Back to blog


Holy moly, do I need to edit those comments.

Joe Ajello

The Lance Armstrong story of 1999 to 2005 transcended the sport into the near universal consciousness. His comeback from cancer to win the “the most grueling of events” was some real made for TV movie stuff. The resulting superstardom probably would have happened regardless of whatever “most grueling of events” he participated in. Lance would have become LANCE had he been a triathlete, marathoner, or even an adventure racer.

His story and those millions of yellow bracelets transcended his sport, and the entire cycling industry was all-too happy to come along for the ride. He allowed to get away with what he did because he was a cash cow for the entire cycling industry. The cycling media, equipment industry, race organization, teams depending sponsorships, and even the governing body all directly benefited his hero’s arc. None of those people wanted to hop of that wave.

Joe Ajello

This is more of a comment on the state of professional mountain biking than anything else.

While “off road riding is all the rage,” I am not so sure that that professional cross country mountain biking is in the collective conscious of many in the cycling world, let alone general sports fandom right now. I’m willing to bet there are more than a few cycling enthusiasts who couldn’t name three American professional cross country MTBers – male or female.

Unfortunately, the MTB worlds isn’t an event that generates enough exposure to allow someone like Courtney to break through. I absolutely agree that if this was an Olympic gold medal, the exposure might have been enough to capture more attention.

Look at Jessie Diggins after this year’s Olympic gold medal in XC skiing. 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. She’s smart, she’s hot, she’d spank pretty much anyone reading this skis (and my “pretty much anyone” I mean “anyone”), and she’s an Olympic gold medalist. That’s the effect of Olympic exposure.

Joe Ajello

Agreed on all counts, Ben, but remember that when the LA era started it was road that was dead and mtb was huge and all that Americans cared about re: cycling.

I hope her media requests are blowing the f up, and we get many more stories about it. And I hope the douchey mansplaining comments don’t swarm those stories.


Give it a little time, and also keep in mind mtb racing is not high in American consciousness overall. If she wins an Olympic gold, that will be a big step, but still, it’s mountain biking, and despite how much cycling fans appreciate and admire her achievement, it’s not like she is going to rocket to early 2000s LA status overnight. Without an event like the TdF, there isn’t really something to build an MTB athlete up into a huge story that captures the attention of the casual sports fan. Europe knows her, though.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.