If one-percent or less, physically, separates the top dozen or so athletes of any given discipline of world cycling competition, every little nuance to training, equipment or mental outlook makes the difference as to who wins a given event.
Subaru-Gary Fisher pro Willow Koerber knows this. Her successful combination of all three components made her the runner up at the first and second rounds of the 2010 World Cup series and its current leader.
Koerber is the first American woman since Alison Dunlap won the series in 2002 to wear the leader's jersey.
She's back in Durango, Colorado, where she lives, for two weeks, before the next round in Offenburg, Germany. BikeRadar caught up with the World Cup leader by phone.
"I let myself get excited about it last night," said Koerber of what having the leader's jersey. "Whenever anything happens to you it's different. I've been dreaming of being at the front of these races for a long time. I've had glimpses of it through my career. For me it's not unbelievable because I've been working on it for so long. What's really been exciting for me and special is seeing all of the emails, Facebook messages and phone calls from everyone that's so excited for me."
Starting point: Windham, New York
Last year, Willow put her finger on two of these three very important components of competitive success: her equipment and most importantly her mindset. After the Windham, New York round of the US ProXCT series, the petite racer figured out that if she wants to win, all she really needs to do was to open herself up to the possibility — to give herself the chance in her mind to win.
She credits former world downhill champion Myles Rockwell, her boyfriend, and Rick Crawford, her coach, with helping her to find the desire to win within herself. Koerber says that Rockwell has helped her believe that there are no limits.
"Before I went on the road [the 2009 Canadian World Cups, Mount Snow and Windham Pro XCT races], Myles and I were hanging out and he was like, ‘lets just and put it out there that it's ok for you to win'," she said.
That's when it started.
"My whole attitude to lining up these days is: I want to win," said Koerber. "Wanting to win is the difference. I don't have the goal of a top five or a podium anymore. I really want to go for the win."
"It's not going to happen by accident. The attitude is totally necessary and it can't be faked," she said.
Koerber also has a new perspective on what winning means.
"I know a result isn't going to make me feel any different that whole illusion is gone," said Koerber. "I'm out there for the fun of it and I'm really enjoying the racing. This is my time. I'm having fun experimenting with how much I can torture myself; it's actually kind of awesome. Before I worried about how the start or a climb was going to hurt. Now it's like all I want to do, to see how bad I can make myself hurt, trying to cross into that next level where it doesn't hurt anymore, like nirvana and I'm having those moments out there racing."
As a secondary revelation, which also came in the latter half of the 2009 season: Koerber started riding a 29-inch wheeled bike, a platform her bike sponsor, Gary Fisher, has been evangelical about for a decade.
"I just feel so comfortable on my bike," said Koerber. "Fisher really has the geometry down and I think anyone who isn't quite feeling the 29er… maybe the geometry isn't quite right.
"I feel so comfortable on my bike and that is a huge confidence builder I can go out there and use my legs and lungs and not worry about anything else. There's no course it's not good on, which is good because I don't like switching around. I don't even like to switch tires. There's a way I ride and I like the confidence of knowing exactly how my bike is going to feel going into a descent or corner. I like having the one bike; it takes a lot of the stress off too. I don't have to figure out if it's a 26 or 29er course, I don't like that kind of stuff."
Offseason '09/'10 the keystone: training
The final piece and key to Koerber's early season success came together during this past winter. She, like many mountain bike racers and domestic road racers, found that training like a Tour de France pro, isn't always the best tactic, especially if you're goal isn't to race the Tour de France.
"I took a lot of time off the bike and I cross country skied all winter, snowboarded and stayed in Durango," said Koerber. "I didn't travel around seeking sunshine and nice weather. I was content to be here."
She didn't even get on her road bike until the first week of February, which was partly due to the severe winter and record-breaking snowfall that Durango experienced this year.
"When I did ride, I rode hard," she said. "I'd go out with Myles and he's a machine so I basically motor paced all winter behind his wheel and it was all on the road bike too, which was new for me."
Koerber said that in years past she always trained on her mountain bike, even through the winter. She says that training on the road this winter gave her more power and an ability to push a bigger gear, but also a greater hunger to ride her mountain bike because she missed hitting the trails, which happened to be under a deep blanket of snow, anyway.
"As far as training and my winter approach those things were definitely different for me," she said. "I'd never spent a winter at altitude either, so all of this stuff has worked out really well for me. I loved just doing something different."
End Goal: World Champ
"Do you know what's awesome?" asked Koerber toward the end of our conversation. "I so do not think that this is a peak. I want to get better, faster, stronger and I know I can do it. I've got a really good team around me, not only Subaru-Gary Fisher, but coach, friends and boyfriend. I'm in a good place and I haven't really been able to ride my mountain bike this season, so we've only just begun, really."
"I want to win the World Championships," she said. "That's my big goal."
When talking to Koerber it is apparent that she believes the sky is her limit when on a mountain bike. If she can maintain this attitude, which seems to be the ultimate key to her success, she leaves no doubt that she won't achieve her goals.