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Haley Batten was the top-finishing American in the women’s cross-country mountain bike race in Tokyo on Monday. And, rather than lamenting a non-medal-worthy finish, the 23-year-old shook her head in bemused disbelief.
“I can’t believe I got ninth at my first Olympic Games,” she said at the finish, mud-splattered and smiling.
Batten’s top-ten finish was the best from Team USA, and all of the skills and attributes that have made her such a compelling rider to watch in 2021 were on display.
She skillfully navigated technical sections, made more difficult by wet and slippery conditions, clawing her way through an extremely challenging day on an already difficult course.
“Some of the climbs had some really steep corners that, after this rain, were really slick,” Batten said. “I think it was hard to know if I should get off and run, or if I should try and ride it. Some of the little rocks just threw you off. They’re so steep, so when you’re trying to just give your all and dig in and then all of a sudden you just slide out and you’re just trying to stay on your bike.”
Batten wasn’t able to navigate around the lead riders on the narrow singletrack during the start loop, coming through that lap with Kate Courtney in 15th and 14th respectively. However, she chose to stay calm and settle in.
“The start loop was super challenging,” Batten said. “This course, there’s minimal passing, and you’re just stuck where you are for a bit. It’s so technical and there’s so much singletrack that it’s hard to get by people. I think what kind of happened to me was that I got stuck in a spot and settled in at that pace.”
These are the types of situations that Batten has been studying diligently with coach and three-time Olympic gold-medallist Kristin Armstrong. While the two rarely talk about the technical side of mountain biking — “thank goodness, because she doesn’t want me teaching her how to descend,” Armstrong said — they are constantly honing in on how and where Batten can outwit other riders who are often just as adept.
In the last two laps of the Olympic cross-country mountain bike race, Batten did just that.
“Once people just started to pop after the effort that they put in early on, I felt that my body still felt really strong,” she said. “That’s where I just started making my moves. I could still ride super technically smooth. I was slowly just gaining on people. Then I was like, ‘Alright two to go. It’s the Olympics and I’m just going to give everything I have.’ I just went all in those two laps. I think I was so in the zone, and I didn’t want to have any regrets, so I left it all out there.”
Batten’s mental management, coupled with an obvious command of the technical side of mountain biking, isn’t a skill she just happened to harness in Tokyo. It’s a huge part of what she and Armstrong have been focusing on all along.
And it’s likely why Batten was so quick to celebrate her top-ten finish; she just keeps moving toward even bigger dreams.
“The athlete that I train to be is someone that is consistent and can consistently be racing at the top of the field and achieving big titles like world champs and Olympics,” she said. “Those are all big achievements. I don’t think I’m that rider yet, but that’s the rider I hope to become.”