Kelly Catale just wasn’t quite feeling it at the Pro XC race at US MTB Nationals. Perhaps it was because she’d already won a National Single Speed Championship the day before. Maybe she was feeling like she’d already done more than she’d hoped to do. Could have been the fact that she’d thrown out her back earlier that morning. But consummate professional she is, Catale still lined up and started.
Then at the top of the hardest climb on the second lap of the race, she found the inspiration she needed. A group of juniors and their families that she had coached and mentored were cheering her on. And it wasn’t just the boilerplate words of encouragement that waft from the sides of race courses. No, these kids were chasing alongside the tape, yelling the words of encouragement that Kelly yelled at them throughout their training and racing together:
“Make yourself proud!”
“Give yourself the chance to surprise yourself!”
“Loosen your shoulders and head up!”
It nearly made her cry, while wheezing for breath, and it was just the motivation she needed. It kicked her into high gear, and she went on to finish ninth. More importantly, it was a magical moment where she realized that all the time she had put in with mentoring and coaching young girls on mountain bikes was truly having an impact.
Like most pro racers, Massachusetts-based Kelly Catale has the fitness and riding chops that have yielded some stellar achievements throughout her career - three selections to the USA’s MTB Marathon Worlds squad, a 16th place at an XC Marathon World Cup, and a Stage Race victory at the Transylvania Epic. But over the years, she realized that defining oneself by results can be a dangerous and self-sabotaging game. She also realized that she’s always wanted to do something bigger than just riding a bike fast and chasing individual achievements.
That opportunity arose when she was put in touch with a local teenage mountain biker who loved to ride and compete, but struggled with the stresses and anxiety that accompany race day. These are obstacles that Kelly herself had overcome, and she started riding and meeting up with the youngster to help the positive and fun aspects of cycling win out. Their first couple sessions went so well that Kelly wanted to hold a clinic for a larger group of girls. When she saw the impact it had, she knew she needed to build a structured program that would invite more girls into mountain biking and give them the positive experiences that would make them lifelong cyclists.
After getting unanimous support from sponsors to add a devo squad, Kelly decided that 2023 would be the year that she started her own MTB development team for girls. Thus KellCat Devo was born, consisting of 14-year-old Tessa, 17-year-old Claire, and their pro coach and champion of positivity, 33-year-old Kelly. The trio work as a team supporting each other, with Kelly acting as a mentor and a coordinator of resources to not only help them be successful bike racers but happy cyclists overall.
Their twice per month team rides look like a lot of other training sessions for kids on bikes. Out in the woods. Working on fitness with hill repeats. Chasing each other down descents. Stopping at challenging spots to talk about line choices. It’s a mix of focus and fun in a low pressure environment where they can grow without consequences of losing or hurting.
But the vision for the Devo team is about much more than just riding around in the woods physically preparing for races. She’s a strong advocate for mental health and ensures that the kids’ approach to training and racing is a positive one. That’s why she organizes resources off the bike to help the girls get the most out of their riding and racing experiences. They meet with a sports dietician to give them a good relationship with food and fueling. They work with a strength and conditioning coach to build a solid foundation and help prevent injuries. The team has a sports psychologist that they all talk to. The girls meet to discuss their experiences and challenges, and Kelly also has sessions to figure out how to best support the girls. It’s a comprehensive approach to ensuring the best possible time on and off the bike.
While the competitive events form the structure of the program, the intention of the program is much broader than that. It views bikes as tools to be healthier and happy. And to achieve this, the girls and Kelly started out the season sitting on the floor with puff paints and magazines, creating vision boards to help set their intentions and expectations for the season in a fun and collaborative way.
The program stresses that race results are never the sole focus or measure of their worth to the team. Being a good, supportive teammate is valued above all else. If the girls are being good representatives of the sport and enjoying cycling in a healthy way, that’s the measure of success for KellCat Devo.
Being a good teammate and a supportive mentor means celebrating the achievements of the girls on and off the bike. Claire competes on her high school’s track and field team, and Kelly and Tessa have watched live streams to cheer her on. She’s also the kicker on the football team, and Kelly and Tessa celebrate her achievements there as well. When Tessa graduated from eighth grade, the team went to celebrate her achievement also. The strength of the team comes from the support they all share beyond just the bikes.
The holistic approach to cycling and character-building has been exciting and rewarding for Kelly to watch throughout the year. The girls have grown mentally in ways that have been astonishing. They’ve been self-aware about things they’ve struggled with surrounding racing, and they’ve faced them head-on bravely. They’re conquering the challenges that have held them back in the past.
Even though there will never be an end to the challenges, learning how to use their capabilities to overcome these hurdles is a skill that will endure long after they leave the team. They’re learning how to thrive without their minds holding them back.
The vision board that Kelly made for herself at the beginning of the season sits on her desk. It’s there to remind her of her intentions for racing and the surprising ways in which the program has worked its magic. Magic that pops up in the funniest of places, like the top of the climb at MTB nationals, where two of the young girls who Kelly has mentored have in turn rejuvenated and remotivated their coach to get more girls on mountain bikes and keep them happily there for the rest of their lives.