This interview first appeared in Issue 111 of Singletrack Magazine.
Pete tries to catch up with the speedy Scot to talk about the highs of pro-racing, and the dark day when she tried to call it quits on mountain biking.
Words and photography by Pete Scullion
With the 2017 race season fast approaching, Tweed Valley resident Katy Winton looks set to have an amazing year of riding bicycles. From a humble privateer landing a top ten EWS overall spot, Katy joined arguably the most star-studded factory team out there for 2016. Now a year more settled into the Trek Factory Racing outfit with some very capable teammates, a year wiser and faster, and a winter ironing out the inconsistencies, 2017 should see the number ‘6’ board tumble into smaller figures. Katy sits as the UK’s highest-ranked woman in the Enduro World Series, despite admitting that, by her standards, she had a lacklustre second half to the season.
For anybody who’s had the chance to chat to the only Trek lady to be racing every EWS round, they will know the smile or laugh that seems permanently etched on Katy’s face. Bikes are far from just a pastime – more a dietary requirement that sees this excitable lass shunning coffee as an unnecessary stimulant when bikes are in good supply. The future is bright indeed for Katy Winton. A wicked turn of speed, a true love of going fast on bikes, and a professional approach to both life on and off the bike that’s well ahead of her young years is a solid foundation for success.
Taking it back.
Rewind eight years and the racing picture, though similar, had an altogether different feel. A strong background in cross-country racing saw Katy join the Scottish Talent Team at the age of 14; the road ahead leading, inevitably it would seem, towards a home Commonwealth Games appearance and, from that, a potential Olympic squad opportunity. The following four years would see Katy solely focused on doing whatever it took to make that opportunity very much a reality.
Not too many people, let alone mountain bikers, get an opportunity to represent their country in a mainstream sporting event like the Commonwealth Games, even less a home Games. However, 2014 did not see Katy on a bike in Glasgow, in fact, we almost didn’t see Katy on a bike, full stop. Ever again. As is plainly obvious, the ending to this story is a happy one but the journey to the here and now considerably less so.
2012 was Katy’s first year in Elite and when things started not going in the right direction. A season of goals missed on top of random bouts of doing well where it didn’t matter (Scottish Road Race and Downhill Champs), was where things started to unravel. This lack of consistency in the most important races coupled with no answers as to why or what was happening began a downward spiral. Inconsistency led to uncertainty, uncertainty bred stress, stress caused inconsistency. The decision that she needed more process goals led to winter lab tests as a way to improvement on the track and upping her motivation.
A VO2 max test in October of that year set a baseline to work from. At that point, Katy was just out of off-season having done nothing for six weeks and with two months of training ahead until the next test, improvements would be expected. January came round, but, despite all the training, the results of further lab tests were not that positive. They revealed a drop in max power, only minor improvements in threshold and no change in body fat – this was not the result she was looking for. The plan had been to increase her power-to-weight ratio but this had failed and together with the move to remove carbs from the post-midday diet, was a catalyst for the beginning of an eating disorder. This year was critical to qualify for the Games, but a visible lack of improvement after months of hard work focused on the biggest thing in her life so far was beyond a crushing blow.
At this point, bikes were no longer something Katy wanted to do; there was no joy left. In excess of eight months of chronic stress meant no matter what training, her body was making no adaptations; her body was in survival mode.
A couple of months later the race season came round and still nothing had improved: “I was getting beaten by people who don’t even train. When you’ve trained full time all winter and you’re trying to be at the level to qualify for the Commonwealth Games it just didn’t make sense. It was utterly heartbreaking. I don’t remember a lot from that winter. There’s a few key moments that I remember, but I have blanked most of it out.”
Breaking points and epiphanies.
A snowy race at Sherwood Pines was the breaking point. Finishing races was something that Katy had always done; even in bad conditions strong legs can keep you rolling. A course like treacle and legs that did not want to play finally tipped her over the edge. “I got about three laps in and rolled over to my Dad as I came into the feed zone, put my bike down and fell into his arms. I just told him ‘I just can’t do this any more, not just the race, but any of this’. I was in total conflict because I didn’t want to do it any more, but I needed to finish the race. Dad told me I didn’t have to finish the race, as Annie Last hadn’t, that not finishing is OK. After this race and the winter I had, I knew I was done with cross-country racing and very nearly bike riding all together.”
At this point all Katy associated with bike riding was pain, but luckily her pals in the Tweed Valley were there to put the fun back into riding and begin the gradual climb out of the pit she was in. Hacking about the woods on a full suspension bike with good friends Gary Forrest, Lewis Kirkwood, Dick Hamilton and Geraint Florida-James would lead to what is now Katy’s sole focus, but back then, it was the only way she could face swinging a leg over a bike. Had it not been for this, then bike riding might well have slid into a painful memory, never to be looked at again.
Thankfully for Katy, and for us, the enduro bubble was expanding rapidly. With her pals she would head to local enduro events, and then onto those further afield. Rather than specifically going after an enduro race, this was more about what a group of friends just did together and it just happened to be a race. For Katy it was a strange transition going from riding a bike with very little suspension down hills somewhat carefully, to riding a bike with suspension and trying to ride as fast as possible. For her, it was just a better way to ride bikes.
The real turning point would be on the very first stage of the very first round of the very first Enduro World Series race at Punta Ala where the climb out of the pit would seem more of a realistic prospect. Having never been to the Alps or witnessed the true delight of a chairlift, trips to the Enduro World Series were the saviour. “I remember meeting all these girls for the first time, the Gehrig twins and Lorraine Truong, and we were just having a wee chat. I was lined up behind Lorraine. Normally, I would get nervous before a race, but I found myself just thinking I have never wanted to be better at anything more than this. I think you can call that an epiphany.”
A bittersweet end to the year saw Katy suffer a broken scaphoid in Finale. What initially looked to be a winter of counting the days until she could ride again was exactly the forced rest she’d needed. Over the course of the following months, the body recovered and it was clear to her that enduro was exactly what she wanted. This was the opportunity to step back from her recent experience and have the clarity to see that not only was riding bikes a possibility, but something she really wanted to do.
Back on the horse.
Despite the epiphany, the transition to enduro wouldn’t be the overnight success we might like to believe. It would be two years before Katy’s mind and body would be able to train again and train hard enough to be a genuine contender at the top of the game. This important process was nurtured by Geraint Florida-James, Professor of Applied Sport Science, Napier University, her coach at the time. Despite having missed the mark in cross-country, that competitive spirit, the need to push the boundaries and possibilities, had yet to wane. Preparing for 2015 off the back of doing nothing for months would be a slow, tentative process.
The 2015 season would see consistency return and Katy landed herself squarely in the top ten at the end of the Enduro World Series season. Lessons learned were put into practice and weaknesses were addressed with help of Chris Kilmurray at Point One Athletic. With enduro having wildly different requirements of an athlete, an all-round improvement of strength and flexibility was in order. It may also sound odd to know that riding bikes downhill fast isn’t something that comes naturally to Katy Winton. Anybody trying to stick with her back tyre wouldn’t believe this for a second, but January will see a three-month stint in the Land of the Long White Cloud [that’s New Zealand to us – Ed], focusing exclusively on hammering the downhills in the sun and dust of the southern hemisphere. They say a day out of Peebles is a day wasted, but not if you want access to chairlift-assisted runs in baking heat.
Coming into 2016 saw Katy going from privateer to full Trek Factory Team. That said, the approach to the season remained the same. The plan set in place with Point One changed not one bit – Katy making it clear that she will train as hard as possible for a coming season, proof positive that the pit has been scaled.
So what now?
So where does Katy Winton go from here? After a year handling everything herself, 2017 will see her more adjusted to a team that took a while to feel at home in – and the new luxury of being able to focus on nothing but racing, knowing everything else is taken care of. A ride for Trek is a chance to shine, and at the opening round of the Enduro World Series in Chile last year she found herself the only person representing in blue. Despite the new team, bike, and people around her, the only pressure, I am told, comes from within.
Anybody who is sixth in the world will no doubt be proud, but for Katy, she’d rather have had a year battling the full complement of ladies, and come out the other side swinging. Losing Anne-Caro, Lorraine, Raewyn and others early in the season made the EWS a less ferocious ground on which to do battle. Katy was looking forward to coming out of 2016 with all the tools at her disposal, into an EWS field that sees, in her eyes, a far more professional, organised set-up. Mirroring her status as a rider, the EWS has moved on from the raft of vans and cases of winging it as the organisers of each round probe the limits to see where enduro sits in the grand scheme of things.
When I asked ‘is everything better now than it was in 2012?’, the answer that it’s “225,000,000% better” could not be more emphatic. It does seem truly wild that a grumpy, overtired, irritable Katy Winton could ever have existed, and I am glad I never met that person. What we’re lucky to have is a young woman who has taken what was nothing short of a horrendous experience with bikes and turned it into a positive thing, both for herself and others. Bikes now run thicker in Katy’s blood than ever, and she’s taken that experience leading up to 2012 and turned it into a ‘Learning Through Failure’ talk that she delivers to school kids, championing the process, rather than simply the end result.
Not only is Katy Winton the UK’s brightest star at the head of an ever-growing band of fast female enduro racers, but one who can see what racers like Tracy Moseley (who Katy insists is the ultimate human being) have achieved both on and off the bike and has set about doing the same but in her own inimitable style.