Marin’s mountain biking roots run deep in Olympian Kate Courtney’s heart – Lamar Ledger
Mount Tamalpais rises above Tom and Maggie Courtney’s home like a green-carpeted playground where their daughter Kate first experienced the adventure of balloon-tire biking.
The 2,572-foot headland was very much present in Courtney’s active childhood as an inviting open space beyond her backyard in Kentfield.
You don’t have to squint or even turn your head to see Mount Tam from Courtney’s house.
“We live just below the mountain,” Tom Courtney said on the phone from his patio with birdsong in the background.
The origins of modern mountain biking can be traced along Tam’s bumpy fire roads and chamois-lined single track trails that helped make Kate Courtney, 25, a world-class cyclist.
She is the last Marinite to reach the Olympic stadium and competes in the women’s cross country race on Tuesday in Izu City, Japan as a true medal contender. Susan DeMattei of Mill Valley won a bronze medal when mountain biking made her Olympic debut in 1996 and Mary McConneloug of Fairfax finished in the top 10 at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
Courtney, a Stanford graduate now living in the foothills of the peninsula, has become America’s top horsewoman in nearly two decades. In 2019, she became the first American to win the overall World Cup title in 17 years. Courtney also won the 2018 World Championship race in her first season at the senior level.
Growing up, Courtney couldn’t wait to walk the wooded and hilly trails with her father. Father and daughter would pedal out of the driveway, turn left on a shaded road, and within a quarter of a mile would be on a mountain that holds a mythical place in the annals of mountain biking history.
“Growing up at the foot of Mount Tam and seeing the value of being outside and pushing towards the top of that mountain is something that has shaped my way of seeing the world,” she said.
Mountain biking started in 1973 with Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey, Joe Breeze and a few others riding Tam.
According to Otis Guy, one of the originals and director of the Marin Mountain Biking Hall of Fame, the friends grew up hiking the mountain and racing bikes in Northern California. They also played with old bikes they called “clunkers” which they eventually tested on the spider web of Tam trails.
The one-speed Schwinn Relic bikes couldn’t withstand the rough terrain. So the men added hand brakes, multiple gears and finally sturdy but light frames and big tires. Within a decade, innovations have catapulted Fisher, Ritchey and Breeze into internationally renowned mountain bike builders.
“Otis and these guys figured out this thing 30 to 40 years ago,” Tom Courtney said. “Then Kate comes in and has the right frame of mind, the right body type and loves it.”
Courtney didn’t fall in love with running until she joined the Branson High School mountain bike team in first grade.
“That first race she went out and destroyed everyone and then it got fun,” said Tom Courtney.
Guy, who coached Archie Williams High School (formerly Sir Francis Drake) to multiple California state mountain biking titles, saw Courtney’s potential in his first season.
“You knew if she wanted to do it, she could do anything,” he said.
Courtney was a candidate for the Rio Games in 2016, but was not part of the squad. Two years later, at 22, she won the world championship and then joined the Scott-SRAM team to work with the Swiss Thomas Frischknecht, one of the greatest mountain bikers of all time.
Frischknecht, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist, knew all about Tamalpais’ place in the tradition of mountain biking. He came to the Bay Area in 1990 to become a champion while racing for Team Ritchey.
Frischknecht shared what it was like in the early days of professional racing, helping Courtney understand her connection to the history of the sport.
“It’s special to be part of a community that shares my love of sport,” she said. “It has kept its authenticity.”
Courtney remained connected to the Bay Area during the COVID-19 pandemic after much of the World Cup season was canceled and officials postponed the Tokyo Games for a year. While running, Courtney crashed at the 2020 World Championships in Austria, forcing her to retire due to concussion-like symptoms.
She had a promising start to the 2021 World Cup in May. But another accident interrupted his pre-Olympic racing plan. Courtney broke a forearm bone while falling in wet weather in the Czech Republic.
She was able to continue driving in the Bay Area but had to stay on the roads. Courtney described it as “three out of 10 for fun but 11 out of 10 for fitness.”
The latest setback has highlighted just how different Olympic preparation has been over the past 1.5 years. But Courtney looks back on the lockdown with gratitude as she has had more time to share Olympic preparation with her family as well as to train in one of the best places in the country for the sport.
The forced break gave Courtney time to reassess what an Olympics appearance means to her. Courtney, who earned a degree in human biology, has seen other Olympians feel adrift after spending four years pursuing a singular goal.
Courtney doesn’t expect a post-Olympic disappointment as she has a wedding to plan. Will Patterson, captain of Courtney’s high school cycling team and also a Stanford graduate, proposed in February 2020. He asked for her hand on a ride while his sponsor Red Bull made a marketing video.
At the time, Courtney plotted 2020 like this: get engaged, have a dog, and win a gold medal.
“We had a dog and got engaged,” she said.
The last piece could arrive on Tuesday.