The story behind the first of Katie Compton’s 13 national titles — and why a rainbow jersey is still within reach

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It was 2004. I was at my first national cyclocross championships, held in the middle of a weeklong rainstorm in Portland, Oregon.

My memories of that wet weekend include losing a shoe in a thick, deep mud puddle, an epic battle between Ryan Trebon and Jonathan Page, and the first national title for Katie Compton.

After years of dominance by Alison Dunlap — the 2001 world mountain-bike champ had taken her sixth title in seven years in 2003 — the women’s race was, finally, wide open.

The pre-race favorite was Ann Knapp, the 2002 champion and winner of five of six U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross events. Other pre-race favorites included Rachel Lloyd, silver medalist in 2002 and 2003, Gina Hall, bronze medalist behind Lloyd those same years, and Olympic mountain-bike racer Mary McConneloug.

Many of the people in attendance — racers, fans, and journalists — didn’t know anything about Katie Compton. But I did.

Compton, a 26-year-old cycling coach with Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs, had spent that fall racing local races in Colorado’s Front Range. Just as Dunlap had done, Compton would race in the men’s Cat. 3 events, regularly placing in the top 10, and then go on to win the women’s races later in the afternoon.

At a November 2004 race in Boulder, she finished second in a 32-rider deep men’s Cat. 3 race and then went on to trounce mountain-bike pro Gretchen Reeves by a minute-and-a-half. “That girl will win nationals,” Reeves told me. “You watch.”

As the sighted pilot of a Paralympic tandem team, Compton had not competed in a single UCI event all season; Paralympic rules barred riders carrying UCI points dating three years back from competing in Paralympic events. At the 2004 Paralympic Games, Compton and her stoker, Karissa Whitsell, had won two gold medals (in the 3km pursuit, where they set a world record, and in the combined road race/time trial), a silver (the kilometer time trial) and a bronze (match sprint).

Carrying a higher level of fitness than she had in years, and encouraged by then-boyfriend and Masters cyclocross racer Mark Legg, Compton decided to give cyclocross another shot; she had walked away from elite-level racing in 2001 due to a muscle condition that provoked incessant cramping.

A week before those 2004 nationals, Compton won the Colorado state championship. But because she had been prohibited from racing at the UCI level, she was an unknown factor against the nation’s best.

Compton started that wet and wild nationals race wearing bib number 64, without a single UCI point to her name. Bypassed during call-ups, she nudged her way into the second-to-last row before the start gun was fired. Compton reached the front quickly — by the time the paved finishing straight turned to dirt, and took the lead before the first lap was over, opening a gap of eight seconds.

Knapp worked hard to bridge across, but crashed shortly after making contact. In the end, Compton won by 16 seconds ahead of Gina Hall, with Knapp in third. It would be the closest margin of her 13 consecutive victories.

After the race, Hall, admitted Compton had never crossed her mind as a threat. “Katie went by and I was like, ‘I don’t even know who that is,’” Hall said. “I was concerned about Mary and Ann, and then this new person. It threw in a different factor.”

Following the awards ceremony, Compton turned down her automatic spot on the U.S. world championship squad, preferring to stick with Paralympic cycling. “This is pretty much as far as I can take cyclocross, but I can live with that,” she said at the time.

Compton and Whitsell remained together for another two years; following the 2006 Paralympic world championships, Compton made the decision to pursue cyclocross full-time. After winning her third national title, she accepted her spot on the national team for the world championships; she took silver, missing the rainbow jersey by one second.

Podium, 2011 world cyclocross championship, Sankt Wendel, Germany. From left: Katie Compton (USA), Marianne Vos (Netherlands), Katerina Nash (Czech Republic). Photo: Wessel van Keuk/Cor Vos.

A love/hate relationship with the world championships

Compton has won nationals every year since 2004 — a reign that has, quite literally, spanned an entire generation. Hall, the silver medalist at Compton’s 2004 victory, was born in 1967. Kaitlin Antonneau, the silver medalist at Compton’s 2015 victory, was born in 1992.

Compton, born in 1978, has matured since earning that first stars-and-stripes jersey, from a 26-year-old unknown, riding on raw power, to a 38-year-old veteran, experienced on every course and in all conditions.

The leg cramps persisted, but over time Compton learned how to train, and race, around them. However the health issues kept on coming; she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in 2010, and started having problems with allergy-induced asthma in 2011.

During the summer of 2015, she discovered that she has a genetic defect — her body lacks the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase enzyme (MTHFR) needed to convert folic acid into the usable form of methyl folate. Without this enzyme, folic acid builds up in the blood stream to toxic levels. After almost 20 years of complicated health issues, the solution to Compton’s problems was simple — taking methyl folate supplements, and avoiding foods enriched with folic acid.

Since then, everything — training, racing, sleeping, traveling — has improved. While scaled back compared to years past, Compton’s 2016-17 season has been almost perfect. She’s been on the podium at every World Cup she’s started. She won the Pan American Championship. She won nationals. She won USA Cycling’s Pro CX series title. She’s currently ranked third in the world.

Katie Compton leading the 2016 CrossVegas World Cup event, where she finished third. Photo: Cor Vos.

“The season has been really good,” she says. “I still make mistakes with my nutrition. It can be hard to eat on the road. I hate to be that person that can only eat a salad, and I’ve made some mistakes, where I’ve eaten something, and can feel it for a week, I can’t breathe. But now I know what’s wrong, and what I did, so it’s more about pushing through it and knowing I’ll come around. I’m not worried about leg pains, so I’m sleeping better, because I’m not waking up in the middle of the night wondering about leg pains. And most importantly, I’m not in pain all the time. That lowers the stress level. I’ve enjoyed it more this year. I can train normally, and that makes your performance better.”

When Compton won her 13th consecutive national cyclocross championship in Hartford, Connecticut, on January 8, winning by 28 seconds ahead of Amanda Miller, I was reminded of a thought I’ve had numerous times — maybe this will be Compton’s year at the world championships.

I also thought of the many times I’ve had that thought — and written that preview story. What’s left to say?

Indisputably one of the greatest women to ever race cyclocross, Compton has won the overall of the UCI’s Cyclocross World Cup twice, in 2013 and 2014 — the only American to ever claim the title. She’s won 121 UCI races, and finished second at worlds on three occasions — in 2007, 2011, and 2013.

After her a silver medal at her first worlds, in 2007, behind France’s Maryline Salvetat at Hooglede-Gits, Belgium, it seemed a rainbow jersey was inevitable.

That was 10 years ago, and it hasn’t happened. Since then, Compton has taken three more medals at worlds, all behind Marianne Vos — bronze in 2009 in Hoogerheide, Netherlands; silver in 2011 in Sankt Wendel, Germany; and silver in 2013 on home soil in Louisville, Kentucky.

Compton says the 2007 silver was the only worlds result she’s fully been satisfied with; one tactical mistake, on the final lap, was all that stood between her and a world title.

For all of her success, the world championship race has been an annual albatross around her neck; the rainbow jersey an elusive, final accolade in an accomplished career.

“There’s been a lot of stress with worlds,” Compton tells me. “I haven’t always handled the pressure, mentally, as well as I could have.”

For every medal, there has also been a result to crawl away from: At Hoogerheide in 2014, she finished ninth; at Tábor, Czech Republic, in 2015, she finished a miserable 27th. Last year, at Zolder, Belgium, she finished 13th.

“I’m at point where I don’t really care any more about worlds,” Compton says. “I mean, I’ve raced how many times and I haven’t won? Yes, I’d love to win, but it’s not the end-all, be-all.”

And isn’t 13 national titles enough? Isn’t a pair of World Cup series titles enough? Doesn’t four medals at worlds, three of them behind the greatest woman to ever race a bicycle, tell the story of a superlative career?

“After the last few years of really wanting it, I’ve let go of that,” Compton said. “I’m successful. I love what I do, and I’m content with that. Of course I want to win, but I’m not so stressed about it. I know that if I don’t win, the world will continue to turn the next day.”

Yes, Compton is now 38. Yes, she’s disappointed at worlds more often than not. Yes, she’s been plagued by health issues. No, you shouldn’t bet on her.

Then again, maybe you should.

Katie Compton (USA), winner of 2014 Cauberg World Cup in Valkenburg, Netherlands. Photo: Anton Vos/Cor Vos.

Heading into the January 22 Hoogerheide World Cup, before the world championship race in Bieles, Luxembourg, on January 28, Compton had started three of eight World Cups, finishing on the podium each time. She beat Caroline Mani to win in Iowa City, finished second, six seconds behind Sanne Cant, at Zeven, and finished third, in a three-woman sprint, behind Sophie de Boer and Katerina Nash in Las Vegas. She was disappointed to see the Koksijde World Cup cancelled to due heavy winds; she’s won on that sandy course on four occasions, and says she had felt very, very good during her course-preview rides.

There are at least six women that should be considered pre-race favorites in Bieles: De Boer, ranked number one in the world and the leader of the World Cups series; Cant, the Belgian national champion and winner of the World Cup series the past two seasons; Nash, the winner in Namur who has not finished outside the top four at a World Cup this season; and Thalita De Jong, the defending world champion, European champion, and winner of the Valkenburg World Cup.

And then there is Marianne Vos, the seven-time world cyclocross champion, who has won the only two World Cups she’s entered this season, in Zolder and Fiuggi Regione Lazio. Vos has won six of eight races she’s done this season, finishing second and fourth on the other two occasions.

Based on experience, and talent, betting against Vos would be unwise.

“Marianne is riding great,” Compton says. “You can see it in her riding style, in her accelerations, in her technical riding. It’s amazing how smooth she was riding [at Fiuggi Regione Lazio], she made it look super easy.”

Is Compton a favorite? Does it even matter?

She wasn’t considered a favorite at that 2004 nationals race. She’s won every year since.

She has, it appears, finally straightened out her health issues.

And perhaps most importantly, she’s accepted that a world title may not be her fate. And with that acceptance comes clarity.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since that 2004 national title, it’s that you never, ever count out Katie Compton.

Katie Compton (USA), ninth-place finisher at the 2014 world cyclocross championship in Hoogerheide, Netherlands. Photo Davy Rietbergen/Cor Vos.

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