Interview: Cross-country racer Willow Koerber

First American to lead the World Cup series since 2002

If one percent or less, physically, separates the top dozen or so athletes in any given discipline of world cycling competition, every little nuance of training, equipment and mental outlook makes a difference as to who ends up on the top step of the podium.

Subaru-Gary Fisher cross-country pro Willow Koerber knows this. Her successful handling of all three factors made her the runner up at the first and second rounds of the 2010 UCI World Cup series and its current leader.

Koerber is the first American woman since Alison Dunlap won the series in 2002 to wear the World Cup leader’s jersey. BikeRadar caught up with her at home in Durango, Colorado, where she has two weeks' rest before the next round in Offenburg, Germany.

“I let myself get excited about it last night,” said Koerber of having the leader’s jersey. “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 special is seeing all of the emails, Facebook messages and phone calls from everyone who’s so excited for me.”

Koerber was second at the first two rounds of the World Cup, giving her the series lead

Starting point: 2009 Pro XCT, Windham, New York

Last year, Koerber put her finger on two of these three very important components of competitive success: her equipment and, most importantly, her mindset. At the Windham, New York round of the ProXCT series, the petite racer figured out that if she wanted to win, all she had to do was 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, and says 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 ProXCT races], Myles and I were hanging out and he was like, ‘let's just put it out there that it’s okay for you to win,” she said. That’s when it started.

“My whole attitude to lining up these days is: I want to win,” says 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." 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,” she says. “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 2009, Koerber started riding a 29in-wheeled bike – a platform her bike sponsors Gary Fisher have been evangelical about for a decade. “I just feel so comfortable on my bike,” she says. “Fisher really have 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's a huge confidence builder because 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 tyres. 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 26in or 29er course; I don’t like that kind of stuff.”

Koerber says her big-wheeled Gary Fisher Superfly is a key to her raceday confidence

Off-season ’09/’10 keystone: Training

The final piece of the puzzle for 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 your 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 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. “As far as training and my winter approach, those things were definitely different for me,” she says. “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 towards the end of our conversation. “I so don't think 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. I want to win the world championships. That’s my big goal.”

When talking to Koerber it's 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.

At Houffalize, Koerber donned the World Cup leader's jersey

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