VeloNews editor-in-chief Fred Dreier contributed to this story.
In her first year on the elite cross-country mountain bike circuit, Haley Batten is exactly where she set out to be.
Despite a few fits and starts in early season European races, the 22-year old made it to the podium in three out of four World Cup events in May; her second place finish in the Nove Mesto XCO race also sealed her ticket to the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Yet Batten, who’s been racing since she was nine, didn’t become a phenom over night. Rather, her evolution has been gradual, with certain aspects of her racing — like technical riding — outpacing others, like nutrition and health.
However, over the past three years, she’s been tying it all together, with the help of someone who is all too familiar with the process. Batten is coached by three-time gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, whose most salient advice has to do with what Batten does off-the-bike.
“She’s told me I have to be realistic with how I want to approach the events,” Batten said. “I need to be aware that I’m a first year elite. I need to race smart. A lot of what I’ve learned from her is that everyone is doing similar training. Yes, there’s gains to be made and small details but a lot of it has to do with how you prepare, making sure you’re putting everything in place. I think she’s taught me a lot of how to train well, how to train hard, but also how to look beyond the bike — more than anything it’s your head, the perspective. I know what I want to do, want to achieve, but I need to do it with a mindset that actually allows me to get there.”
We asked Armstrong for her take.
What’s your history working with Haley?
Kristin Armstrong: I started working with her third season as a U23. She had two more years as a U23, so it’s been over three years now.
I am really particular with who I coach because I only have so much time. What I do is spend time talking with them and about their goals. One of the first things I do is look at the data. A lot of times people are on Training Peaks so I can go in and really ask “Can I really help them? What have they been doing, and where can I lean in?” There’s a lot for ways to get someone to a certain level, but you need to know the background to see if it’s the right fit.
I had a few conversations with her, and I can tell you something: she knew exactly what she wanted. She could tell me and it wasn’t like beating around the bush: “I want to win U23 worlds and go to the Olympics.” I’m like, “You’ve gotten a top 10 at a World Cup how many times?” She’s like, “Why does that matter?”
What’s Haley’s personality like?
KA: I would say she’s kind of this mix of driven — she has a lot of grit — and at the same time she is super chill. This is the first time I’ve worked with a mountain biker, and I think that’s who they are. People are like, “She’s not a road cyclist, she’s chill!” She has this laid-back part of her and then this other part of her that can’t stop. We have a joke: “Haley, when I give you a day off, quit sending me a dozen questions. Why do you have to turn this stuff back on me when you have a day off?” Just last week I sent her questions and she’s like, “Back at ya!”
The way she speaks is another thing. She is so fun! She brought joy back into coaching. When you talk about someone who loves life and has passion that’s Haley. There’s nothing down about her. She picks the good out of her bad ride. She always knows about the positive. I fill her bucket but she also fills mine because she’s a compliant athlete and she’s just really fun. She’s on an adventure.
Coaching someone at this level is super fun. When she has a World Cup at 3 AM on a Sunday and I’m waking up at 3 AM to watch her but even the 24-48 hours before I feel the same way I did as an athlete It was really nervous even though it’s not my TT and I think it’s because I care a lot. I think it’s because I only coach a handful of people, and the women I coach are all in different disinclines, which makes it fun for me as well.
Did you expect her performance at Albstadt? What do you chalk it up to?
KA: I was scratching my head for quite some time. I have her power numbers, and her power numbers are some of the best I’ve ever coached. I also know her technical skills are there, thank goodness, because she doesn’t want me teaching her how to descend. So I’m focused on the fact that she has the technical skills behind her. She doesn’t talk about her technical skills other than she has fun, but other people have told me, “Kristin you realize how technically gifted she is?”
So, I was always perplexed why her numbers weren’t matching her race outcomes when she was a u23. Gosh, I know that MTB numbers are different, but she’s so strong, what’s up? Two summers ago we realized she had some allergies going on. I knew that it was a matter of time before it came together and the last piece was twofold. She worked really hard on figuring out a solution around the allergies. She didn’t know she had them. If you saw her at the races a lot of times, people would hear her breathing. People would send me videos of her breathing. I didn’t realize it because I’m not traveling with her. I started looking into where she was and what did it look like for allergy counts. Sure enough there was some seasons that were higher than others for grasses and trees.
So, we got some of that figured out in the last year and she’s been working really hard. But her training hasn’t changed. We took it up a notch when with COVID. If the Olympic team was chosen last spring, it would have been a long shot. A year under her belt was super important.
How did you two debrief Albstadt and then plan for Nove Mesto?
KA: I look at numbers, but that’s only on paper. You have to put everything together to perform. We would go through the stages of what it was going to take for her to be up there. The first two races in Europe this spring weren’t awesome. Top 20 and a top 15 and I kept telling her, “Hey we need to set realistic expectations and right now this is where we are.” We talked a lot that the races that really matter were the first World Cup races.
We kept talking about it, and she had a lot of fun at the short track races last year, First and foremost, being on this new team she has some of her team staff like Ian who is helping in with tactics. So, we all talked through tactics and she got into it, she got really excited. Her goal was to get as many points as she could to get a short track start.
For the first World Cup XCO she got a second row, how awesome was that? I said, “Haley, I’ve coached enough people and I know you’re capable, you just have to put it together.”
The first race was the climber’s course and she showed herself that even though it wasn’t like Nove Mesto she could perform on that. That race was interesting because her tactic was “hey, don’t try to go out crazy because our goal is to continually improve on the races.” And, it worked out for her. The lap times and the results — everyone blew up, but she started slower and didn’t blow up and kept on picking up people. That tactic worked out well. It wasn’t a tactic to go out and win, it was one to get her to have a solid result.
And then she’s on the podium again in Nove Mesto — twice! She was surprised, were you?
KA: Her response was like, “Kristin, what just happened?” I’m like, “You just put it together!” She was not expecting it. I think that she wanted it, but I don’t think she was expecting it. You spend years just getting pushed back and years wondering if you can make it up, and then it happens for you and things click. It’s like you learn to win races and get on the podium and now your mindset is just different.