After winning the UCI World Cup overall in 2018 and becoming XCO World Champion in 2019, American Kate Courtney had a somewhat rockier season in 2020 — right alongside most of us. She lined up for the 2021 races in Germany ready to refresh her previous winning streak, earning 4th place in both the short track and XCO events that first weekend of the season.
The following weekend took elite racers to the Czech Republic, where heavy rains made one of the toughest cross country events on the calendar even more difficult. Courtney finished in 9th position in the short track event on Friday which earned her a second-row starting position in Sunday’s longer competition. She wouldn’t waste that spot at the sharp end of the field, quickly moving up to third place out of 128 starting riders in the slipper root strewn forest.
To everyone’s dismay, Courtney’s front wheel was swept by one of those slimy roots, and the subsequent crash snapped her brake lever into a useless shape. She hopped up and rode the bits of the track she could. From the camera footage on Red Bull TV, it looked like she had to take some of the steep rock chutes very carefully, with only a front brake to manage speed.
Courtney’s mechanic and close friend, Brad Copeland, heard the TV announcers mention her “bent lever,” and knowing that carbon fiber doesn’t bend he began preparing tools and spares to replace the lever once she made it to the pit area. He walked over to a piece of the track where he could see Courtney and confirmed that the lever needed to be swapped as she rolled by shouting “brake lever, I broke my brake lever.” Copeland said he had only seen a brake or lever exchange in the pits once or twice before, and knew this could be a tricky fix.
Having interviewed Copeland a number of times I can undoubtedly say that he is the person you want in your corner when stuff explodes and needs to be repaired properly and precisely. He’s so calm and collected in fact that he was able to remove a new SRAM brake lever from a pre-bled spare brake system without losing oil, pull Courtney’s busted lever without losing pressure in the system, and reattach the new lever gingerly enough so that the brake was fully functional again. With the help of a fellow pit mechanic from another team, the full swap was complete in roughly two minutes, and Courtney was pushed back into the flow.
Courtney would go on to pass more than half of the riders who had sped by while her bike was in triage, finishing in a very respectably 41st position after the 1:34.46 total race time. While her athletic performance is always astounding, this pit repair was also a uniquely impressive feat. The Scott bike Courtney races has internal brake routing, so replacing the full rear stopping system would have taken far more time, but swapping the lever without accidentally flicking oil out of the tube or tapping the lever slightly and losing pressure in the cramped workspace wasn’t a simple solution either.
This fix required the capable hands of someone who can perform under maximum pressure. With multiple television cameras trained on his hands, and his athlete aching to get back in the race, Copeland managed the surgery without issue and pushed Courtney through the tech zone for a sprinting restart. Maybe he can use that footage on an application to a cardiovascular degree in the future?
Courtney later suffered a puncture on one of the many rock gardens that punctuate the Nove Mesto course, making her result even more impressive and adding the second swap in the tech zone. The following men’s event saw her teammate, Andri Frischknecht, break his chain right alongside another rider near the start, totaling three mechanical issues for the Scott-SRAM squad. Copeland was in the tech zone to hand out bottles and clean glasses during the muddy race and he was able to help Frischknecht with the chain swap.
Copeland called after completing a day of suspension testing with the team in Switzerland and I got a chance to ask what it feels like to manage all that pressure. He said that “the good news is that most of the time we don’t have stuff like this happen. I like to take the time on the front end, before the race, to make sure that everything is as perfect as it can be. So, barring a severe incident like this one I don’t really have to see Kate too much during the race and we can just hang out afterward.”
I was also curious what the cognitive process was like to assess the issue and determine the best course of action in the minutes before Courtney made it to the pit. “That was one of the bigger things [repairs] that you could actually do in a race. So, first I thought, what is the actual problem here? Often the announcers don’t really make an accurate call of what the problem is, and they kinda didn’t in this case. I was fortunate that I could actually see it, and that I had the time to kind of anticipate what I was going to do and to think about what procedure makes sense. Then to go back to where my tools are and have them all set aside in the order I would need them.
“When I first started I would get very nervous. Even for a flat tire, something you can fix in 20 seconds if you do it cleanly and don’t rush it. Of course, you want to do it quickly, and of course, it’s not an ideal working scenario, where you have all the tools and a work surface, so there are all kinds of variables that aren’t present in a shop. It’s kind of a hot mess, but if you just sort of go zen and don’t really look around at what everyone else is doing, or the people filming you for TV — those are things that used to make me really self-conscious, but I don’t even think about that now. For me, it’s just a matter of salvaging what we can.”
Skip ahead to minute 48:53 of the Redbull race footage for another look at Copeland swapping that lever while Courtney checks over her wounds from the crash.
Copeland and Courtney are headed back to the USA for a couple weeks before returning for the World Cup in Leogang Austria June 11th and 13th.