2021 was the Year of Hattie Harnden

Hattie Harnden relives her favorite moments from an incredible season

Being a young pro rider is a turbulent existence. Setting goals and expectations with only a few years of elite level racing, and little frame of reference, is a nearly blind task. Every week can feel like a surprise when you have only a faint concept of your one abilities.

And for Hattie Harnden, those surprises were almost always pleasant. In 2021, she had what she calls her best year ever racing across three disciplines: cyclocross, enduro and XC. She exceeded her expectations across the board, from a confidence-boosting top 20 performance at the cyclocross World Cup race in Namur, to a U23 British XC title, to two wins and a very near final overall podium in the Enduro World Series, all at just 20 years old.

Harnden entered the year wanting to prove she belonged among the elite across multiple disciplines. She went beyond, establishing herself as one of the most exciting riders, regardless of experience, across cycling.

Hattie Harnden rumbling through the rock garden in Nove Mesto.

Harnden didn’t plan for that. She was both a driver and passenger to her success, pushing herself in ways she never had before and discovering she could thrive at a higher level than she ever thought possible. All the while, fans got to watch up close as Harnden underwent one of her most formative years as a rider.

To sum up a very busy year would take a long time, so we asked Harnden to pick out her favorite moments and tell us why they were special to her. Here is the Year of Hattie, in her words:

Hattie braving the Fayetteville rain and mud.

20th place, Cyclocross World Cup Namur - Dec. 20, 2020

You were 20th overall and ninth among the U23s. Did that result catch you off guard?

Hattie Harnden: I’ve always liked Namur, and I think I’ve always done a little bit better there. It’s normally really muddy, it’s a more hilly cyclocross race, and there’s a lot going on, like a lot of dismounting, remounting and a lot of running. So I had hoped to do well there. And it has always kind of been a goal to finish in the top 20, so that was really cool. And I think it was one of my first races in the national champs stripes as well, so that was quite special, even though they got covered in mud and you couldn’t recognize it. It was good while they were still white.

How satisfying was that result, and how much confidence did it give you early in the cyclocross season?

Harnden: It just gave me a bit of confidence knowing that I’m doing it right. It’s tough when all the under-23s are so good. Like, there were eight other under-23s in front of me.

I think it was one of my first races in the national champs stripes as well, so that was quite special, even though they got covered in mud and you couldn't recognize it. It was good while they were still white.

What is your relationship like with cyclocross compared to XC or enduro?

Harnden: I think racing in the mud is really fun. And it’s only like an hour of racing, so it’s not super long and it’s just flat out. I think there’s something very satisfying about just going as fast as you can, even if it’s only for an hour. And because it’s shorter, it’s often closer racing, so you’re always battling with someone. You don’t often get someone just shooting off miles ahead of everyone else. There’s normally positions changing, and you catching someone up on a different bit because you’re maybe better at running. So I think it’s always exciting racing, whether you’re in it or watching. 

What are your cyclocross goals for this season? I know you’re in a bit of a break right now after the U.S. races.

Harnden: I’d like to get back in that top 20. I got quite close with 26th in Fayetteville. And hopefully get selected for World Champs. I’d like to go better than last year, so definitely inside the top 10 would be awesome. And there’s national champs as well, so I’ll be trying to defend my national champs stripes, which I think will be very difficult.

Hattie leading out the race in Nove Mesto from a front row start.

5th place, U23 XC World Cup Nové Město na Moravě - May 15, 2021

Why’d you pick this race?

Harnden: It was one of the first races of the year, and it’s one of those things where you never know quite how it’s gonna go. And I think I just really surprised myself. Like it just went better than I expected, and it was just a great trip with the team as well.

You got out to a fast start at this race, leading out the first lap. Was it your plan all along to start fast, or was that your energy taking over?

Harnden: Yeah, I had a front row start, which I haven’t had before. And I just kind of was like, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing to lose, so just go with it from the start.’ Because it’s a slightly different start loop on that one. It was nice and wide, and I just went for it.

Post-race damage.

What was going through your brain as you were leading the group?

Harnden: I was a bit worried [laughs]. I was a bit worried I’d gone too hard too soon. And so after that I kind of settled into it, and a few people came back passed and then, towards the end, I picked a few more people off. It was a really different way of racing. I’ve not really been that close to the front before, I don’t think. So it was quite cool to do it, and experience it and know what it feels like. 

I think that’s important. In general I’m not really a great starter, I kind of like to try and pick people off and work my way up. And I think it’s a really good way to race as well because mentally, it keeps you really strong and focused because you’re catching people. But you’re not always going to be in that situation.

It was also a really muddy track, which seems to be to your liking.

Harnden: It kept raining, it was really quite strange. But I think it was quite important to be out front because then you were able to get the lines you wanted and be where you wanted. But I think just staying on the bike was important, too.

Chocolate milk for the champ.

1st place, Enduro World Series Round 4 La Thuile - July 11, 2021

You made a habit of late comebacks in EWS races, and this was your second in the same week after a late surge to take silver in Round 3. Where do you think that resiliency comes from?

Harnden: Physically, from my XC background, I like to think I keep myself fit. So I think I still have plenty of energy left at the end of the day, whereas I think it’s easy to go out too hard in an enduro. It sounds strange, but if you go too hard too soon on the descents, it will catch you up at the end of the day, and that’s when, if you make a mistake, you can put yourself in a nasty situation. 

And I think mentally, if you’re not the one that’s got everything to lose and you just go out and enjoy the last stage of the day, I think that helps as well. I’ve just gone and enjoyed it, and it’s gone well. I haven’t been the one that’s been right up there and suddenly I could lose it all.

La Thuile was impressive, too, because you were coming off a really dense period of racing. You had raced XC in Les Gets the weekend before, then another EWS round in the middle of the week. For the layperson, how hard is that to do?

Harnden: It was super hard actually. I’ve always just enjoyed riding my enduro bike, but I think I was trying hard not to make a mistake, because it is so steep in La Thuile as well, like if you go off you could just tumble down a hill. So I think most of all it’s keeping your brain focused. Like if your brain starts to drift and wander and get tired, then you lose your concentration.

"I always dreamed of that moment when I could be as good as Tracy."

Your gold was the peak of a four-race upward trajectory, from ninth in your first race, to third, then second, then a win. So why is this one of your top five moments as opposed to a number of great EWS moments early in the series?

Harnden: Tracy Moseley has obviously helped me a lot before I got on the Trek Factory Racing team, and she’s been a huge part of my cycling career already, and I always dreamed of that moment when I could be as good as Tracy. So I think accomplishing that in my first year wasn’t something I thought would happen, so I think it was extra special. And she was there with me, and she had been cheering me on. Like the weekend had all just come together, and I think that just made it a bit more special.

Did you tell Tracy that?

Harnden: We kind of spoke about it afterwards [laughs], but like, I don’t know how much of it sunk in with everything going on.

How did she congratulate you after the race?

Harnden: We both just had massive grins on our faces, and I don’t think either of us knew what to think. She was gobsmacked, she was so surprised, and so was I. So I think we were just in shock, really [laughs]. I didn’t think it would be something I could achieve yet, so I think that’s why it was such a big surprise.

Atop the British U23 XC podium.

1st place, British U23 XC National Champs - July 25, 2021

A couple weeks after that, you had a pretty dominant performance in Plymouth. How did that stack up among your best performances on an XC course?

Harnden: I’d say it was really high up. I think it was one that I was very nervous about, unlike the enduro races where I just didn’t have too much expectation and I was just going to do as well as I could. With that one, there were a lot of people there that I knew, and I’d known for years. At a national level, you always go back and you see everyone you haven’t seen for ages. And everyone was like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna win, you’re gonna win,’ which I think always makes it harder. I think putting the expectation on was quite a lot of pressure. And Anna Kay is really good and I knew she was going to be there.

Doing this sort of discipline shifting in mid-season stride, from XC to enduro and back, how difficult is that? And do you like it in some ways?

Harnden: It’s a little bit weird. Like the first day or two that you change, I get on my XC bike and my handlebars feel really strange, it feels like I’m on a little kid’s bike. But I think it’s really good. You, are still as capable, even if your bike is a bit smaller from enduro to XC. So you’re still transferring your skills, which I think is really important. And I think mentally, a change to a very different way of racing stops you getting bogged down if something doesn’t go quite so well. I think it allows you to kind of reset and do something different. I think it actually works really well, as long as you’re adaptable.

Everyone was like, 'Oh, you're gonna win, you're gonna win,' which I think always makes it harder. I think putting the expectation on was quite a lot of pressure.

The race was just a couple of weeks after La Thuile, and felt like the cap to an incredible couple months of success for you. What was that period like, and what was your confidence like afterwards?

Harnden: I think it stacks pretty high. It just felt quite special. I’m not really sure why [laughs].

The national championship felt special. I won a few national champs before, and it didn’t feel as special the last few times, but this time felt really special. I felt like I worked really hard for it. I felt like I’d given it everything. And I think because I was surprised I did better than I expected, it felt special. 

But for that whole block of racing in general, I think everything just kind of came together. I think I just trusted the process that I’d been going through, all my training. I knew all my hard work was coming into play. And I think I just went with it.

What were your expectations for that race if not to win?

Harnden: I kind of expected it was either going to be Anna or I that won. Like in cyclocross, we’ve had a few battles so I know she’s a strong rider. And mountain biking in the UK, it’s not like mountain biking on the continent. It’s quite mellowed down. It’s not super technical, there’s not really big climbs. It’s more flat, more like cyclocross. So I knew it wasn’t gonna be quite my thing, no technical descents or anything, which is normally where I like to think I do well. 

You said you felt like your training paid off particularly well for this race. Do you feel like you’ve worked harder this year than in the past?

Harnden: This year and last year I haven’t been at school anymore, I finished my education, and I’ve been riding full time as a bike rider. So I think last year, my training was really good, but I think this year we really got to grips with how much I can do and how much I can push myself, and set some really good goals. I feel like I trained really well, and I think that’s why I got the most out of myself.

Through the trees in Tweed Valley.

2nd place, Enduro World Series Round 9 Tweed Valley - Oct. 3, 2021

You got second in Scotland. A great result, but you could have picked another win for this story. So what was special about this event?

Harnden: It was in the UK, so that was super special. And I realized when I was there racing, how much we actually love cycling. Like you always bump into people when you’re riding, and you get people that don’t like cyclists and they’re all a bit down about it. But then you go to the event, and it is unbelievable how many people were there watching and cheering. Just people lined down the tracks. It was amazing, there were people everywhere. And obviously, there were a lot of people I knew. Like my parents came up, my best friend and his parents came up, and a lot of people I’ve known for years were there. 

And then to do really well was just a bonus. I didn’t think I was gonna do very well [laughs]. There were a lot of Scottish people riding, like Bex Baraona and Katy Winton and Ella Connolly, they’re all from Scotland, and they’re all reasonably local, so they all know the trails. It’s just a little bit harder when you only get to practice each stage once, so I wasn’t very confident. And we’d all come from racing in Europe for a while, so you’re used to fast European Alpine trails, whereas Scotland is very tight. You’re hoping your bars will fit between trees.

I realized when I was there racing, how much we actually love cycling.

You go to a lot of races, and not very many of them are so close to home. Why is it so enjoyable to race near your hometown?

Harnden: I find it quite comforting. Like having people around that you know. Sometimes you go away to an event and it’s quite intimidating when you’re somewhere where you don’t speak the language, and you’re not really too sure where everything is and who you need to ask and things. So I think being able to understand what everyone says and everything is great. It’s just special that everyone is coming out to enjoy it, as well. Cycling is not a huge sport. It’s not like football or rugby or anything. In the UK it’s not normally celebrated.

You ended up finishing very close to the final podium, just a fraction of a second away from winning in Tweed Valley and taking third on the overall. How motivating is that to you, and is your goal for next year to make that podium?

It was like three-hundredths of a second, and it was super exciting. Like I hadn’t been keeping up with it throughout the day and then I bumped into my parents just before the last stage and I had a look and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m leading, this is ridiculous.’ I hadn’t expected that. But then I made a mistake on the last stage, and I went out the tape, so then at the bottom, waiting for the results, I wasn’t quite so happy when I realized. I had kind of thrown the top spot away, which was a shame, but I mean that’s racing. Second was still amazing.

The TFR Enduro squad in La Thuile.

But yeah it was crazy close. Half an hour of racing overall, and three hundredths of a second makes the difference, I think that’s the closest they’ve ever had. I think that’s the closest in anything. Like, you watch the downhill and it’s a three-minute race, and it’s 0.01 seconds difference, but over half an hour that’s quite mind blowing when I think about it. It’s crazy when people start pulling out the stats and everything going into the last race of how everything could still change. It’s really, really exciting. 

Next year I’d love to get on the overall podium. Definitely the goal. And Scotland is the first round, so that is very exciting as well.

Across all the racing you did in 2021, to what extent did you exceed your own expectations?

Harnden: I think it’s been my best year of racing, so far. I just overachieved in everything. Well, not overachieved necessarily, but overreached my expectations in everything. I’ve had a lot of fun. It’s been an awesome year.