Park City mountain biker Haley Batten an Olympic favorite due to her COVID summer

Park City mountain biker tested her legs and lungs in the Alps, surrounded herself with “the right people.”

(Photo courtesy of Bartosz Wolinski/Red Bull Media) Haley Batten of Park City celebrates reaching the podium in her first UCI World Cup women's long course race as an elite in Albstadt, Germany, on Sunday, May 9, 2021. Courtney placed fourth. Both will represent Team USA in the Olympic race in Izu, Japan, early Tuesday morning, along with Erin Huck.

Haley Batten was riding hard but breathing harder. Her quads burned from yet another ascent up a Swiss alp. Her red bike was so muddy as to be almost indistinguishable from the coffee-colored single-track trail she had been following.

Soon, though, she would cross the finish. Then she’d have just four more days and 33,628 feet of lung-searing climbing to go.

This was how Batten, who grew up in Park City, spent her pandemic bonus year. She trained in Austria and competed in the few World Cup cross country mountain biking races held nearby. And for one arduous week, she gleaned all she could — including more than a few splotches of mud — from Danish racing great Annika Langvad, her partner in the annual five-day, 207-mile Swiss Epic stage race.

And this, at least in part, is how Batten went from a pretty good U23 rider to one of the favorites to win an Olympic medal in women’s cross country mountain biking Tuesday in Izu, about 100 miles outside of Tokyo.

“I learned a lot that season. It was my last year under 23 and I think to continue to race and yeah, obviously, racing with Annika was such an incredible experience and I learned so much during that race,” Batten said. “... Just having that opportunity to learn from her and do one of the hardest races was a great learning experience.”

Batten, 22, has climbed the UCI World Cup rankings faster than she climbed the Alps. She went from a UCI rank of 45 in 2019 to 21 in the truncated 2020 season — her last racing in the U23 age group. Then, she vaulted to as high as No. 2 in the world this season by climbing the podium in her first three World Cup races as an elite. That included her first short-track win and a second-place finish in the Olympic qualifier in Nové Mesto, Czech Republic, that secured her a place on the start line in Tokyo.

Racing alongside her for Team USA will be Kate Courtney, the 2019 World Cup overall champion, and Erin Huck. Loana Lecomte of France is the heavy favorite for gold after the first-year elite won every World Cup this year. Sweden’s Jenny Rissveds, the defending Olympic champion and the second-place finisher in the two most recent World Cups, will also race.

Batten, who grew up in Park City but has since moved to Santa Cruz, Calif., began mountain bike racing when she was 9, around the time her dad started entering Intermountain Cup races. Not until her family became more involved with the sport when she was a teen, though, did she really take to it. She often found herself going cleat to cleat with the boys, and not just because they were her best friends.

“It was definitely pretty cool to watch her progress,” said Keegan Swenson, the current men’s national champion who came up in Park City a few years before Batten. “I remember watching her race and she would beat up on the 14-year-old boys. She was too fast to race with the girls, so would race with the young guys and still spank ‘em. I was like, ‘Oh wow, she’s going to be good.’”

Until COVID came into the picture, though, Batten was just one of a pack of talented women vying for one of Team USA’s three Olympic berths. Now she’s one of mountain biking’s rising stars.

Rob DiMartini, the USA Cycling CEO and a Park City resident, said Batten’s steep trajectory impressed him.

“I don’t think that’s at all a typical path,” he said. Still, he said it wasn’t a complete shock, either. “Her auto qualification was a pleasant clarification, but she’d certainly been on the radar.”

So, what happened? What it boils down to is that, much in the way she has become skilled at riding away from the competition and finding higher ground on the podium, she ran away from coronavirus-related closures and took her riding to another level.

It started with a vacation to Squamish, British Columbia, Canada, to visit her boyfriend before COVID-19 closed the international border. While there, as coronavirus cases rose, the odds of races being held in North America began to plummet. So did the chances of her traveling to any races that weren’t domestic.

“The racing in Europe started to pick up, and I basically just decided that there wasn’t going to be any races in North America,” she said. “And if I went to Europe and things went crazy, I would always be able to get home. But if a lockdown happened before that, then I wouldn’t be able to get to Europe where all the other athletes were racing. So I actually just decided to go to Europe from Canada.”

Batten competed in two World Cup races and the world championships. It wasn’t much, but it was more race experience than most North American riders got. The majority of her growth, however, came from spending five exhausting days glued to Langvad’s quickly rotating rear wheel in the Swiss alps.

Batten said she especially treasured the experience after Langvad, a five-time world champion and two-time Olympic qualifier, announced her retirement from racing following the 2020 season.

Langvad no doubt could see what kind of talent was coming up through the ranks after racing the Swiss Epic with Batten.

“Needless to say, she’s super talented. She has a bright future ahead of her,” Langvad told Swiss Epic organizers. “She has a very relaxed way of approaching things, which I believe will take her far.

“It’s easy to get confused or derailed in the world of professional sport. Knowing what works for you and sticking to it even during tough times is not easy. A key part of this is having the right people around you. I believe Haley is good at navigating in this and that will take her far.”

Batten proved that true within a couple months of returning to the United States when she joined Courtney for an ad-hoc training camp in California. The other four members of the national team, meanwhile, were getting together for their own training session. It was a coordinated, athlete-led effort, the idea being that, even though they would be competing against each other to represent Team USA at the Olympics, they could learn from each other and become better as a whole.

Courtney, who at that time was the only member of the team to have qualified for Tokyo, said Batten made the most of the experience.

“I think of anyone on the Olympic long team, it has probably benefited her the most,” she said.

It has at least helped get her this far.

Batten posted photos of the Olympic mountain bike course on her Instagram account since arriving in Tokyo. The 2.5-mile loop looks not too dissimilar from some of the terrain in the Swiss Epic race, though considerably less hilly.

In this race, though, Batten won’t have to save any energy for the next day. And, when she finishes, maybe her bike will be covered in less mud and more medal.