Racing mountain bikes is an inherently selfish endeavor. Think about it: the self-promotion involved, the sacrifices you need your family and friends to make, the financial commitments, there's a lot of energy that goes into every single athlete's ambition, and it quite often doesn't leave much time or resources for anything else. It goes without saying that World Cup racing, mountain biking's highest level of competition, requires more singular focus than most professional athletic careers. When your income, livelihood, and future depend on your performance, it's understood that this mentality is simply a requirement for success. Somehow, despite being one of the most prolific and high profile athletes in our sport, Emily Batty has managed to buck that trend. To be sure, she is focused, committed to her performance, and would certainly acknowledge the sacrifices by many in her life to help her achieve success. But Emily also works hard to engage with the rest of the mountain bike community in ways that many of her peers are simply unable or unwilling to do.
Emily lives in Ontario alongside Adam, her husband and training partner, and their Welsh Terrier, Buddy. She's twice an Olympian, a 7-time Canadian National Champion, has several World Cup podiums to her name and finished third at the 2016 World Championships in Nove Mesto. The Trek Factory and Red Bull athlete has accomplished quite a bit so far and is only getting stronger and faster. While her racing ambitions certainly keep her busy, she has still found time to develop a charitable organization called The Emily Batty Project, with the goal of getting more of the world's youth engaged with cycling, and it's something that she has devoted quite a bit of time and energy to helping grow.
Emily was on hand at the third round of the Wisconsin N.I.C.A series held on Trek's private stash of trails in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Pinkbike carved out some time to discuss her recent injury at the World Championships in Cairns, Australia, as well as how her personal value system affects her view on the sport of mountain biking, and how the time she spends with young women and men aboard two wheels has helped shape her expectations for the future of cycling.
Can you walk us through World Championships in Cairns?
2016 was a breakthrough year for me, and I earned a bronze medal at World Championships to end it on a high note. That kind of set my benchmark pretty high for Worlds this year, of course, but all year long I've dealt with a bit of an Olympic hangover. You hear about the Olympic hangover all of the time, but it's really a thing.
I have experienced a lot of successes this year, but I also dealt with a lot of lows as well and then, of course, World Championships in Australia. I finished second there before, so I have had good success on the track and I definitely felt that I could pull off a top five and potentially a top three.
If I am being honest with myself, I didn't think I was in contention to win it just based on where I was physically and mentally, but early in the week I took a crash on, and I mean… the last time I took a really bad crash was at the London Olympics when I broke my collarbone.
I crashed on a high-speed flow section, after the rock gardens. I was having no trouble (through the rock gardens), was super confident, and having fun on the course, but then I got to the flow section and I was kicked weird on one of the jumps and ended up hitting my head really hard.
I think I lost about 12 minutes of time, and definitely had a concussion. I went to the hospital and I had X-rays on my spine and my neck and everything was fine. I was cleared by the doctors to have physiotherapists, our Canadian physiotherapist, conduct an amazing massage therapy just to kind of get everything back on track for the weekend coming up.
Tuesday, I had a sensitivity to lights and stuff and was a little bit foggy, but come Wednesday, I was completely fine and I had no symptoms. I stayed off of the track until Friday actually. I just did easy spins on the road and then I was feeling really good considering.
The race comes and I find myself in seventh position pretty quickly. We had just caught fifth place, so there were three of us; fifth, sixth, and seventh, and just judging where I was against the others, I'm pretty sure I would've come out in fifth. Unfortunately in the last rock garden, called “Jacob’s Ladder,” I took a pretty hard crash.
I found it was a really unique rock garden. It kind of affected everybody at some point in the week. It's a 14’ tall vertical descent. Your wheels stay on the ground, but they're kind of filing through rocks. You can't see your entrance either, so you come around the corner, see the ledge, and kind of just ping-pong down it with nothing to really gauge your line. You just kind of have your line at the entrance, drop in, and hope like hell you can come in on top. Up until that race, however, I had never had a problem with it.
So I went down in that rock garden. Crossed my bars on the top two. The crowd went nuts. Lots of cameras. I was pretty rattled, but I just kind of got the bike ready to go again. My shifters and all of that were all messed up, but I carried on down the hill. At this point eighth place had caught up to me, so I raced the rest of it on pure adrenaline and the desire of maintaining at least seventh place. I didn't know that I had sliced my knee open underneath my kneecap just shy of 6 inches straight across and it was right down to the bone.
I was cautious with what photo I decided to actually post to Instagram. I've got a couple where you could see the kneecap, the joint, the patella tendon, the bone, and virtually everything else inside my knee. It was really deep.
I crossed the finish line after having sprinted for seventh. Myself and a Swiss rider, seventh and eighth. So I got across the finish line and our team physician, Felice, was like, "Emily, you need to sit down," and I was like, "Please. Can I get my hat?" She's like, "No, no. You need to sit down." She started to go white.
So we called the paramedics over and then I went to the hospital right away and ended up being operated on by a surgeon who happened to be at the race, watching with his daughter. The infection rate in Cairns, Australia is really, really high, so they treated it like it was open heart surgery. It was a strict protocol we had to follow to make sure infection was not a concern. They had a drain in it, and I had a vacuum-like suction thing to make sure it sucked the infection out if it was empty.
What was the surgery?
The surgery was to get in there because I had a 6-inch slice, and also a puncture wound, so they had to finish opening it up and get in there to see what damage had been done because you really could see everything exposed. They had to check and see how things looked in there.
To see if there was any real structural damage.
They checked the structure of the ligaments and tendons, so they had to put me under basically to finish opening it up and look around and inspect the whole inner kneecap, and then just scrub it clean. They showed me some of the instruments they used, things you wouldn’t want to be awake for.
What's your recovery timetable?
We're done racing now for the year, so I mean, if you're going to have an injury, it's ideal at the end of the year, except now I'm held back with off-season sports like riding moto and downhill. Those are normally the things we would do this time of year, so it just gets pushed to the back burner for now until we get home and have some time to get back on top of that. The actual injury healed pretty quickly, but every day is a new adventure because I didn't realize the lymphatic system is as bad as it was. It's improving, but then there's still some work in the days ahead.
I’d like to go back to when you said that given where you were with your fitness and training, and your recognition that your own ceiling may have been a third place at World Championships. Can you touch on that mentality at the highest level of mountain bike racing? As an athlete, everybody is competitive and wants to be the best right?
Well, it's hard to describe. In men's cross-country, it's a given: Nino is going to win, even on a bad day. It's such a predictable race, but with the women, nobody has the confidence to say I'm going out there to win. They're going to want to try their best, but nobody can assure themselves they're going to get the win. None of us. It's such a gamble. So when they say “focus on the process,” that is the key to success in World Cup Racing.
Focusing on the process is such an old saying, but it's the only thing that can get you closer to the win and so while I can't speak for men, I'll only speak from a female World Cup racer experience: you kind of have a tendency to know based on where your training has been, how your daily workouts have been going, and you’ve got to be honest with yourself. Whether you were dealing with sickness, or you just haven't slept the same, as well as you should be. Every athlete knows where they're at within margins, and I believe there's always that bit of the unknown, whether it's your day to race for the win or for fourth. Like sometimes you go to the starting line trying for your best, but yeah, you might not always know what your best is going to be.
When I finished third at Worlds last year, that was my win. That was the best I could give on the day and even a bit more. A Polish racer and I sprinted for third and fourth and it was ridiculously close, so I found a bit more in the tank there.
It changes from race to race.
It definitely changes race to race. It changes from day to day. One day I'll have a good workout and feel really motivated, and then other days not so much. If you look at the trend, of the women that did well in Rio, most had a very high and low season. Not all of us had a very good year. Certainly not our most successful year of World Cup. Those who found the space to dig even deeper for the Olympics seem to have a little bit more repercussion this year. It's taken a little bit longer to recover from those efforts.
You have a proven track record for real success as an athlete, but there's this narrative shared by some in the general public that when it comes to Emily Batty, their opinions and commentary have less to do with your accomplishments, and more to do with your appearance. Is that noise at all a factor in how you prepare, and how you present yourself publicly?
Yeah, that's a good question. That's a fair question. I definitely devote every day to performance and to results. Do I take offense? No, because I think it's just how some people are. Some people can be a little bit bolder than others and some comments are just like, "Man, do they think we don't read these things?"
People will say what they will, but I don't know. I think it's hard for people to be themselves and I don't really take things so literally. I don't take them personally, I guess, but I can see how it can affect someone personally. The easy answer is that I put my focus into performance and if there's mention of looks or appearance, so be it. I just focus on being personable and reasonable.
I think it takes a lot of courage and energy to be personable, and that's truly who I am, I've always known that and I can't avoid it and I can't suppress that. I love interacting with people. Athletic performance and basic human interaction; those are the two most important things in my life.
When I was young, I had a really remarkable moment with Gunn-Rita Dahle, who I happen to race with now. I was around 14 years old going over to Mont-Sainte-Anne's World Cup, and she took the time to just sit and chat with me. I wasn’t even racing at that point. That helped to enforce the importance of just being available to talk with people.
I'm still a woman. When I'm not on the bike, I have other concerns and priorities. I just want to be true to myself and hearing comments like that on my appearance, I don't really care.
How seriously do you take the responsibility of being a role model in mountain biking for boys, girls, men, and women, while helping potentially shape how young girls and women carry themselves?
I think you just hit the nail on the head. I feel a sense of responsibility because I have character traits within me that I can't ignore. Being personable is part of who I am, and by not taking that time or passing up a kid or parent that wants to talk, I feel like I'd be cheating myself.
I feel like if anybody wants to give me the time of day, then I owe it to them to care as well and to give them that time because it's just cycling. When it's a crappy day and you get a comment that you're such a role model for a sport, that goes a long way. It does and when you truly feel passionate about it, it goes a long
way. So I do feel a sense of responsibility, and I know that’s not necessarily for all athletes.
They might not have the interest or the time or energy or whatever, but I think it's just an important matter for me. I enjoy making that time and keeping those relationships going because the sport is evolving so quickly.
I've been racing now for 17 years and when I first started, I had to ride with my brothers and their guy friends, and if I wanted to ride, I had to keep up. That was just how it was, but it was intimidating. But now the intimidation factor is going away, and more and more girls and women are riding.
I also think it's equally important for young boys to have female role models as well. While it's good that we're focused on getting more girls involved, and growing the camaraderie among females, I also believe that guys can learn a lot by riding with and receiving instruction from women. We don't want guys only looking up to other guys. We want them to be able to appreciate a woman's talent and their stake in the world.
What brought you to the Wisconsin N.I.C.A event? How did you end up getting involved?
Travis Ott, our sports mountain bike brand manager, had been telling me about how amazing this program is for a couple of years now. I'm in Toronto on the east coast of Canada, and he was describing a N.I.C.A event in Laguna Seca on the west coast in the US. We finally worked our schedules out, and I was able to get out there. My mind was blown. I think there were close to 1,400 high school students. 1,400 high school students all there on their own free will. We kind of learn how to rely on each other growing up playing ball and stick sports, whereas mountain biking is mostly an individual effort on race day, so seeing the level of camaraderie on display by everyone was incredible. It was such an experience.
I was able to get out to the third race of the Wisconsin League this weekend, here at the Trek private trails too, so it's twice as sentimental for me. It's just a matter of experiencing this league and getting to know people.
I helped lead some ride clinics today. We did a couple of clinics with the high schoolers, and tomorrow I get to stand at the start line and send each wave of racers off, before finishing with podium presentations in the afternoon.
Like I said earlier, I grew up with older teenage brothers and all of their teenage friends, but I didn't have the privilege that kids have nowadays with what programs are available. Girls tend to venture to areas where there are other girls but at these N.I.C.A events, it's a 50/50 split. It's amazing. It’s such a nice blend of everything: families, friends, and racing. It's a really incredible experience.
Do weekends like this help you to feel encouraged about the direction and the future of mountain biking?
Yeah, absolutely. What we've seen in the last five years, the involvement has grown so much and while I focus on performance and racing and training and traveling and recovery, I also need something else to think about and so my husband Adam and I just started the Emily Batty Project and that's to help youth cycling development initiatives.
There are so many youth programs out there right now, I never want to just choose one. I don't think we should discriminate against where you're from or what age you are, so for us, it was like, "Look at all these programs that are already in place and how do we ensure that they're sustainable."
That's what the Emily Batty Project is. We're trying to highlight free mentorship, bring awareness and funding to youth development programs that are already in place. Whether it's volunteering time to help mentor or bringing a camera crew in to make a video and showcase what their program is about so that viewers around the world can understand it.
The sport, in general—it teaches you so many life skills, like self-confidence, that we need when we're adults. We need it as kids too, and we need it in our workplace later in life. Obviously, technology is a huge part of our generation and I'm guilty of it too, spending hours on social media, on our phones, and in front of our laptops. We should never stop learning how to communicate, learning how to be sensitive, and learning how to be personable. There are just so many life skills that I definitely learned in sport. Learning how to talk to adults as a child. Perseverance is another huge one that I've gained from sport.
Nowadays we have so many opportunities, but we are so easily deterred or discouraged at the first setback. Mountain biking can help reinforce that when you get knocked down, you get back up. That's what I've learned time after time, and I’ve accomplished so many of my goals because of it. I want to see every kid have the same opportunity to learn through cycling.