In her hometown of Peebles, deep in the Scottish Tweed Valley, elite enduro racer Katy Winton is the very definition of a home-turf hero. But what drives the girl who went up a hill, and came down a mountain?
Is there something inspirational about growing up in a valley? does always looking upwards for the horizon instil a desire to climb to the top? Perhaps that’s the reason that Scotland’s Tweed Valley produces an enviable share of the elite mountain bike racers on the world circuit.
Over the last five years, the Enduro World Series [EWS] has become the nucleus of that international racing scene, challenging the world’s fastest racers in some of the most exotic and iconic destinations around the globe. Chasing podiums with the Trek Factory Racing team and currently sitting in third overall is the Queen of the Tweed Valley, Katy Winton.
Within minutes of meeting Katy, you’re struck by the contrasting sides of her character. Openly effervescent, excitable and fun-loving, she slips effortlessly into reflective wisdom and level-headedness that can only have come from exposure to success, and failure, from a very young age. Katy was always destined to be a bike racer, raised by a bike-mad family, in a bike-mad region. What is it about this small pocket of Scotland that inspires such fierce competitors? Katy is quick to explain “The Valley for me was where it all started, exploring Glentress and the hills as part of Peebles Cycling Club. Riding here opened my eyes to different trails, a different landscape and new horizons, it’s where it all began, and where it’s still going on for me”. In the beginning, the hills surrounding her home must have felt like mighty mountains, achievements to be conquered. Now they provide training and a break from intense racing on some of the most challenging trails in the world.
Though she’s only 25, Katy has already amassed a wealth of racing experience. As we stand on the summit of Cademuir Ridge – just a stone’s throw from Katy’s house – she recounts her first-ever victory. “It’s funny, I can still remember forcing myself out of bed at 6 AM for the entire week before the race, just so as not to be surprised by the early start on race day.” It was the Junior British XC Championships, and on her home trails Katy smashed to victory by over two and a half minutes. That was the pivotal moment when Katy knew she was going to be a professional mountain bike racer! Luckily she lives next to the jewel in Scotland’s trail centre crown, Glentress, and the famous trail centre certainly had an influence on Katy’s career development. “I remember when Spooky Wood first opened, as kids we journeyed all the way to the top, it was so amazing to be finally there, at the top of the hill. I love going back even now.” Katy’s tone softens “There’s a unique connection to the land here that I love, whether you’re on a bike, on a horse or just on foot, being in the hills is life to me. You can go anywhere, explore and escape, no matter if you’re young or old, they will always be the same, the hills will always be there.”
For a long time, I could not believe there were hills higher than the top of Glentress.
From those early adventures into the hills around her house, Katy has now become a fully-fledged megastar in the Tweed Valley, the very definition of a home-turf hero. Nobody gets a bigger cheer during the popular Tweedlove races than ‘Miss Winton’. Navigating through a sea of over-excited kids all clamouring for a high-five from their idol, it’s clear that Katy is a local treasure. Her success on the racing circuit has been an inspiration to many youngsters, but more so perhaps, is her commitment to spreading the joy that cycling can bring. Frequently volunteering with school groups and clubs, Katy is always happy to talk about her experiences and is the first to admit that school was never easy for her. “Cycling for me has always been a huge part of my life, when I was younger it was my escape. I found school really hard, so for me, going out on my bike and riding fast and doing well was really rewarding, it finally felt like I was putting the effort in and getting something out. It was my thing. Something I could do outside of school that made me feel good.”
“It’s an amazing experience going back into the schools and talking now. I feel like I am talking to my twelve-year-old self, telling the younger me what I needed to hear. To explain that it’s alright to get it wrong, the whole school system is simple, you either get it right or you get it wrong, and if you get it wrong you’re a total failure. For me, I’ve learned that if you get it right, that’s great – you move forward, but if you get it wrong that’s OK too, it’s not the end. You still have the choice to move forward, when you’ve experienced this and accept that it’s an OK part of life, it gives you the confidence to do exciting things. For me, cycling gave me the opportunity to do that and to get a different perspective on everything.”
This change in perspective took her to race Junior XC World and European Championships, taking two British XC Championship titles and two silver medals at both the Scottish Elite Road and Downhill Championships in the same year. Despite her early successes, it was elite enduro racing that would steal her heart. It’s clear that cycling has always been more than just competition for Katy, it has a far deeper meaning. “Cycling can have a huge impact when you need to recharge, simply getting out of the house and finding space is such a positive. Mountain biking is especially beneficial as it frequently puts you in a position where you’re scared and don’t want to do something, a difficult situation to recreate in ordinary life. Sometimes on your bike, you find some trail and start to doubt yourself, then you do it or get closer to doing it and the feeling of achievement is just incredible, for mental health it has huge implications.”
“One of the greatest things about coming from Scotland is that the weather is a nightmare. It really sets apart the people who want to do it and the people who really want to do it. You need to sacrifice and push through the weather to make it count. I think it creates a great resilience and grit for people to put in the extra mile, and that really counts when you come to the top level and need to perform.”
As a racer, Katy is now ranked amongst the very best. Anyone who has stood outside the tape will know that the EWS sits somewhere between trail riding and full-blown downhill, and occasionally it strays dangerously close to the extremes. Some of the rounds this year have pushed the riders far out of their comfort zone. Even though this has been Katy’s most successful season yet, she recounts her experience at the pointy end of the race field. “This year has been different. As the EWS has progressed we have pushed the limits of how long a race can be, how physical and far you can climb, each time coming back to find the optimum. It feels like this year it has pushed to find out just how technical the tracks can be. Of course, there’s always one section in a race that frightens us, a nasty corner or drop. However, this year, for the first time, I have felt actual fear at the top of a stage, a real genuine fear of how am I going to get down this? In these cases you don’t have a choice, you just have to find it within you to get down the track.”
“What helps is the camaraderie in the women’s field, even though most of us have been pushed to breaking point, we all have each other’s backs, we’re always there to pull each other through. We all love the sport and we want more women to be in it. The more supportive we can be, the better the sport becomes. We’re a crew, and there are not many sports like that. You’re not really racing against each other, you’re racing against the clock. It’s you and the clock, not you and the competition. It’s not an aggressive thing, it’s more you go and do your best. I will do my best and let’s see who can ride it the fastest.”
Few of us can imagine what it feels like to be sitting on the start line of an EWS stage, staring down at a trail filled with savage corners and loose rock; knowing that every second counts and one mistake will be the difference between a step on the podium or obscurity. “Last year in Finale, I had gained a 45-second lead going into the second day of racing but I had somehow lost it all, it was the final stage and Anita Gehrig was three seconds up on me in third place. It’s funny standing on the start line as all you can do is your best. All I strive for is to stand at the bottom of the track and know that I gave it everything I could. I rode that track as fast as I could, and actually loved it. It turns out that I had beaten Anita into third, but only by 0.05 of a second, 0.05! I could not believe it. I was very grateful to have found my zone that day.”
Preparing for another EWS campaign in 2019, Katy will once again be fighting for her chance to stand on the podium with the fastest racers in the world. Back in the Tweed Valley, the bike-mad residents will be glued to the live feed, cheering their hero every step of the way. Every corner will matter, every millisecond will be precious. But after the champagne has been sprayed and the EWS circus retreats to hide from the winter, Katy will be back riding in the ‘valley of the bike people’ with her biggest inspiration. “My dad has been amazing through all this, he was the guy who got me started and supported me every step of the way, keeping the dream alive at times. It’s amazing to return to riding in the valley together, this is where we started and it’s so special to reconnect with him, to remember the time when it was not a job, it was just us.”
Katy Winton is an ambassador for ENDURA Clothing. This production was supplied by ENDURA as part of their “Home-Turf Heroes” series.
More information at endurasport.com
This article is from ENDURO issue #037
Words & Photos: Trev Worsey