Kate Courtney is taking her sports career into her own hands. The newly crowned mountain bike world champion made the surprise decision to leave her long-time sponsor Specialized and branch out into a new and potentially game-changing environment at Scott-SRAM. She signed a two-year deal with the Swiss-based programme that will see her racing under the guidance of Thomas Frischknecht, and alongside seven-time world champion Nino Schurter, as she aims to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
"It was a multi-factorial decision, and a lot went into the decision, for me, personally," Courtney told Cyclingnews in an interview over the phone on Sunday.
"At this time, the Scott programme is a good fit for me, and I'm excited about the opportunity to work with Thomas Frischknecht and the legendary Nino. I think they have a lot of experience that will be valuable to me in my Olympic pursuits and my big goals coming up in the next few years. They also have a great team environment and share a genuine love for the bike, which is a huge part of why I also love the sport."
Courtney, 23, competed in her first season in the elite category during 2018. She won the Cape Epic with teammate Annika Langvad in March and the US national championship title in July. She went on to surprise the cycling community with a victory at the World Championships in the elite women's cross-country race held in Lenzerheide, Switzerland in September.
She has spent the majority of her cycling career with Specialized, starting under their athlete development programme and then transitioning to the racing team in the under-23 and elite categories. In total, she spent eight years under Specialized.
"I have been supported by Specialized since the start of my career. I started on their equipment as part of the Whole Athlete Development Team in my first year racing," Courtney said. "I was on that team for four years before signing with the Specialized Factory Program in my first year as an under-23 five years ago. It's been an incredible level of support, and I'm grateful they gave me that opportunity."
Courtney said that Scott-SRAM expressed an interest in signing her partway through the 2018 season and that conversations with the team continued after she won the world title in September.
"Conversations were still happening [after winning the World Championships], but I was approached and had conversations with Scott preceding that race, which meant a lot to me because it showed that they supported my trajectory and where I am in the sport," Courtney said.
"Obviously, winning Worlds was a huge accomplishment for me, but I still see myself as a top-10 or top-five rider in the coming year, so I think this is a really great place to make that jump, while still recognizing where I am, and hopefully how I can make steady progress in the coming years.
Asked if it was difficult to part ways with Specialized after spending eight years with the California-based bike manufacturer, Courtney said, "It's always a tricky thing, but this was the right opportunity and the right move for the coming years, to sign through 2020. It was definitely a decision that came from my side and one that I'm feeling really excited about."
Courtney said she's looking forward to starting a new chapter of her career with Scott-SRAM and that their cohesive team environment was one of the biggest draws. Courtney also wanted to learn from Frischknecht, who is a former multi-time world champion in the marathon and cross-country disciplines and an Olympic medallist. She believes that he will help in her pursuit for a spot on the US team for the next Olympic Games, particularly after his work with Jenny Rissveds, who won the gold medal in at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
"They seem to have a cohesive team environment; they train together a lot, they have training camps, and we are already making plans for the new year," Courtney said.
"Thomas has a lot of experience working with female riders; he worked with Jenny Rissveds when she won the Olympic gold medal, and he was an important part of her team, so I'm honoured and excited to have the opportunity to have him on my side, helping me find ways to improve as I work to make the next jump in the elite field."
Courtney said that she was up for a discretionary pick for the US team that went to the Rio Olympics, but missed out on the qualification. She is hoping to build toward the Tokyo Games and assure herself a spot on the team through the qualification process.
"[Olympic Games in] 2020 is definitely the focus for me, at the moment," Courtney said. "It's been a four-year plan, making progress every year and taking steps toward that Olympic goal. Right now the focus is on qualification, doing the best I can in the World Cups during the coming years, and doing enough to earn the automatic selection, but if not, enough to have a discretionary spot."
As Courtney embarks on a new season with Scott-SRAM, she looked back on a whirlwind 2018 that ended in the best possible high with the rainbow jersey. She spoke about what the world title has meant to her and what she hopes it will bring to cycling.
"It's been an amazing experience," she said. "One of the cool things that have come out of it is feeling connected to my community. It was a huge honour for me to bring the rainbow stripes back to America and a lot of people were excited to see them.
"Even now, when I ride around Marin or at home, people see the rainbow jersey and wave and celebrate, and that is really special to me. I hope it will ignite some interest, particularly in the women's side of the sport."
Courtney officially announced Thursday that she would be racing with Scott-SRAM in a blog post on her website. She gave Cyclingnews permission to publish her full blog, please read below.
By now, you may have seen the news that I will be leaving the Specialized Factory Team and moving to a new program for the coming season. It is with great pride and excitement that I announce that I will be racing for the Scott-SRAM MTB Racing Team in 2019 and 2020. This is a big decision and step in my career and I wanted to share a bit more about my transition and vision for the future as I take on a new opportunity and challenge.
First, I want to express my gratitude to Specialized for an incredible partnership. Over the past five years as a member of the Specialized Factory team and during four years prior as a member of the Whole Athlete-Specialized Development Team, I was lucky to have their support in my development as an athlete. With their help, I was able to capture multiple junior, U23 and Elite National Championships, become the U23 Overall World Cup Champion in 2017, win the Cape Epic with my teammate Annika Langvad and, most recently, take the 2018 Elite Women’s World Championship Title. I am very grateful for the opportunities I was given to race my heart out, learn from my teammates and competitors and develop as an athlete during my time as a member of the Specialized Team. I am very proud of what we were able to accomplish together.
In the coming years, I look forward to building on this experience and continuing to chase big goals as a member of the Scott SRAM MTB Racing Team. When I was approached by the team in the middle of this past season, it was an opportunity I could not ignore. Joining this program gives me the chance to work with the legendary Thomas Frischknecht and ride alongside talented teammates, notably current Men’s World Champion Nino Schurter. As I approach my second season racing in the Elite Category, my sights are set on having strong performances in the World Cups, World Championships and beginning the process of qualifying for the Olympics. I am honored to have the chance to learn from such knowledgeable individuals with a strong passion for the sport and a wealth of experience chasing big goals and achieving Olympic dreams.
I was also drawn to the unique team atmosphere which both maintains a champion standard and continues to spark enthusiasm and a love for the sport on all levels. Personally, I have always sought to balance my rigorous training and intense dedication to racing with my love for the sport and the core belief that cycling is something to be enjoyed and shared with others. This team provides an exciting atmosphere and level of support as I pursue my personal and athletic goals in the coming years.
With the support of the Scott SRAM racing program and a shared vision for the future, I am eager to get to work and see what we can accomplish together in 2019 and beyond. I am training harder than ever with renewed motivation to race in a new team kit with rainbow stripes in the coming season. Thank you to everyone following along for your continued support, cheers and belief! Let’s make some magic.