2009 was a banner year for pro mountain biker Willow Koerber. In July, the Asheville, N.C. native placed second in the U.S. National Championship cross-country race in Colorado, then went on to win the Pro Cross Country Finals in New York in August. Even more impressive, Koerber out-cranked the best women in the world at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Canberra, Australia, earning a bronze medal and becoming the first American female medal at World’s in eight years.

rocky-chrismillman-subaru- copyCongratulations on the world championship medal. Did you expect a podium finish?
Absolutely. I went in with the intention to win. And I rode that way. The only way you’re going to medal is if you plan on winning. There’s no time for settling in during those races. Everyone wants a medal. If you go in looking for third, you’ll get tenth.

How long is your season?
It runs from March until September. And you’re racing that entire time, not just training. On average, I’ll do about 25 races, and travel 225 days a year. That’s a lot of travel. This year, the world cup started in South Africa and ended in Australia. You have to be a gypsy to succeed at this. My family and friends are always wondering when I’m going to settle down and establish roots, but you have to find the roots in yourself. It’s not about the house and picket fence for me right now. If you have those material things, you find yourself wanting to go back home to them, and that’s not an option.

You grew up in Asheville, riding Pisgah, but you recently moved to Durango. Do you miss Pisgah at all?
Pisgah trails are my roots. That’s where I learned to ride and fell in love with it. That dirt is still in my blood, but now, I’m getting used to the loose rocks and open terrain out here. The riding in Durango is amazing. And I can ride everything from my house because I live downtown. It’s kind of a sister town to Asheville in a way. Lots of healthy hippie stores, punk groups, and a huge mountain bike culture. The first world championships were held here. I’ve even gotten to go on some rides with Ned Overland. It’s a different kind of riding, but it worked out perfectly for the championships in Australia. That course was rocky, sandy, loose, open terrain, just like Durango.

I understand world cup races can be kind of brutal with racers jockeying for position early on.
Absolutely. My start was crazy. I got behind a big crash on the road and a group of 12 girls jumped ahead. You go in hoping for a perfect race and then right out of the gate you’re way behind. I had to make a lot of passes just to get back into position to race. It’s stressful. Everyone’s adrenaline is going, everyone’s dreams are on the line, girls are screaming at you. It’s easy to stress out, but you have to put a bubble of light around you and focus on your own ride amongst the group of screaming girls.

You switched to a 29er late in the season. What made you decide to go big?
I never really considered riding a 29er before because of the myth that small people can’t ride those big bikes. Sam [Willow’s brother] was always pushing me to get on a full suspension and do gnarlier things. You know how guys are. But I saw one of my teammates, Heather Irmiger, was on a medium frame Fisher 29er, so I figured if she could ride a medium, I could probably ride a small. And the 29ers were actually lighter because they’re made from carbon. That sold me. I got second at a Vermont race on it, won the next race, and then bronze at the World Championships. I’m never going back.

So now you rest until next season?
I wouldn’t call it resting. My coach thinks I’m going to do some cyclocross races, but I’m not. He doesn’t know that yet. I need to have time to come down from the adrenaline. I need to just lay here for a second. But I’m riding and I love trail running. I have to be active. It’s the only thing that keeps my mind right. But I’m not doing anything structured until January. That’s when training begins for 2010.

I’m always surprised at the amount of road riding pro mountain bikers do.
Not me. I don’t ride roads, unless I’m in some place like Maui and it’s really nice. But I’m not gonna freeze on a road ride through winter in North Carolina or Colorado. It’s 10 degrees? No thanks. I’ll stick to the trails.

What are your goals for 2010?
My big goal for 2010 is to win the world championships in Canada. It’s very “East Coast” riding; dirty, rocky, with lots of potential for cuts and bruises. That’s the stuff I like. Other than that, I want to have fun. If you’re having fun, the results will follow. Like my coach says, “When Willow’s happy, Willow’s winning.” •