Cyclocross legend Katie Compton opens up about career struggles, retirement and upcoming European season

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“I think my biggest motivation is that I simply like to ride my bike and always have. I rarely need to find motivation to go training, it’s just inherently there.”

– Katie Compton

When 38-year-old Katie Compton kicks off her season later this month, she’ll be going after her 14th consecutive U.S. National Cyclocross title. Compton has been in the stars and stripes jersey for so long now, that it’s a sight we have grown accustomed to.

In 2004, Compton had surprised her competition and fans alike when she took the win. A stoker for para cycling events, she was prohibited from participating in UCI events, and therefore an unfamiliar name in the elite field. Nowadays, the US title is hers to lose, and whenever she lines up in a domestic field, she’s a shoe-in for the win.

And if you’ve ever watched her compete, you can see why. She simply dominates, powering away from her competition with such force that she’s in a league of her own. When the stars-and-stripes are on the line, Compton has been untouchable, year in, year out.

For some, Compton’s dominance has become a bore –“let someone else win’, they say, “Isn’t it time to retire?” – and we don’t hear or read much about her these days.

And that’s a shame.

If you ask me, we need more of her. Her spirit, leadership and experience is invaluable as the sport of cyclocross continues to grow in the US. When it comes to American cyclocross, she’s nothing short of legendary. And if you want to see someone else earn the title, well, take to the line and come get it, because retirement is not on Compton’s mind.

As we roll into the cyclocross season, we sat down with the champ to talk about her European season ahead, her childhood, her struggles and the future of American cyclocross.

Jen Agan for Ella CyclingTips: Another fall, another ‘cross season and we are seeing you once again return in the stars and stripes. What are your thoughts about all those people asking you about retirement?

Katie Compton: I’m 38, it’s a legit question. But, ultimately, it’s my decision. [Racing] has been good, and I like it. And if I’m still getting results, and I don’t’ want to have kids, I don’t see why I need to retire just to retire. I just signed another two-year contract with Trek. So, I’m in it for another two years. After two years, then I will reevaluate. There are a lot of things I’d like to do, and so sure, now is a good time to make the bucket list of races and do the ones I want to do.

Ella: 13 national wins already– do you have a favourite, one that sticks out to you and holds a special place for you?

KC: The first one in 2004 because it was such a great race, I loved the mud and coming from a last row start to win. It was also my first elite national championship, and the first one is always the most special. Last year’s win in Ashville is also a favourite since it was such a tumultuous season, a very close race and a huge relief when I crossed the line.

Ella: Dominant as you’ve been in the American cyclocross scene, it sure hasn’t been easy for you

KC: The amount of times I’ve wanted to quit bike racing and do something else with my life. Mainly when I was having so many bad asthma attacks due to allergies and severe leg pains as a result of my unknown (at the time) MTHFR gene mutation. There were many times within the last seven years where I was in such bad shape physically that I couldn’t get off the couch or even pedal 100 watts without having asthma attacks. Or the amount of days within the last 20 years that I would wonder and think my leg pains were returning with every trip down the stairs or during every interval workout or race if I had to dig deep.

| Related: Katie Compton’s painful path back to the World Cup podium

I’ve been training and racing with a governor on since I was a teenager and this is the first full year I’ve had where I’ve been healthy and able to train properly and travel without constantly wondering if my leg pains would be triggered or suffering from random super low energy levels from accidentally ingesting folic acid or eating a food I have a reaction to. I can do intervals and push harder than I ever have without worrying about triggering my leg pains and that is pretty amazing to me. It’s kind of unfortunate that at 38 years old, I’m still figuring out what my body can do now that I found out my leg pain issues and that’s pretty amazing after 30 years of riding and racing my bike.

At the 2014 World Cup in Nommay, France, Compton abandoned after an asthma attack.

Ella: So where then, does your desire and drive to continue come from?

KC: Honestly, I have no idea. I think my biggest motivation is that I simply like to ride my bike. Whether it’s on the road, mountain bike, ‘cross or track, I just enjoy everything about it, and I like to be fit. I rarely need to find motivation to go training; it’s just inherently there. Riding my bike was also a great way to procrastinate studying and writing papers in high school and college so I think that may have had a positive effect on how much time I spent riding when I was younger.

Ella: What did you want to be growing up as a kid?

KC: A veterinarian. Being around animals and taking care of them seemed like a great job to have.

Ella: What’s your earliest memory of a bike?

It would be the first bike I remember loving to ride. I think I was about 5 years old and it was a little gold bike that was just such a smooth ride and I loved it. I, of course, left it behind my neighbour’s car when I was out playing one day and she backed over it and it was crushed. I never left my bike behind a car again. It was a sad day and I still remember how it felt when I realised my bike was ruined.

Ella: I know your mom from races. What did she say to you when you first told her that you were going to race bikes for a living?

KC: My parents have always been the most supportive and encouraging parents I could ask for. They never pointed me in a certain direction with what I should do with my life, but they did give me the tools to make my own choices and also encouraged me to be independent from an early age. Going to college was never a question, but they never told me what I should study.

I don’t think I ever had that conversation with my mom, but my Dad did ask what I was going to do with a degree in Exercise Science, and I said I would probably go to grad school first, and then figure it out. He also told me that, “Life is what happens when you’re planning your future,” so while thinking about grad school, I moved out to Colorado Springs post-college and immediately used that Exercise Science degree and my many years of racing bikes to coach cycling, running and triathlon at Carmichael Training Systems (CTS).

My time at CTS led me to a variety of wonderful experiences and I learned a ton while working there.  I’m pretty happy that I’ve used my degree a lot since I graduated. I never planned on becoming a pro cyclist, but I set myself up well to have that kind of future with the choices I made along the way. Despite the many ups and downs I’ve experienced over the years, I wouldn’t change very much.

Throwback to the 2009 UCI Cyclocross World Championships where Compton earned the bronze medal behhind Marianne Vos and Hanka Kupfernagel.

Ella: If you were to write a book on your life so far, what would the back read?

KC: It would probably be a book of overcoming struggles. Overcoming challenges in my life and never giving up on wanting to be a healthy human being and successful pro bike racer. Each chapter would tell a story of one my experiences and what I learned from it.

Ella: How has this sport changed from when you first started? 

KC: It’s mainly gotten more professional and rule-oriented, I think. That’s both good and bad. The elite [level] is getting more serious –which is the normal progression when you bring more money and sponsors to the sport – but I also think it’s missing that grass roots feel like Portland still has. ‘Cross is much easier to try for new riders, but now it’s getting so serious that some of those newbies can be intimidated with the equipment that’s needed or not having the fitness for the speed of the racing. I mean, I remember my very first ‘cross race, I showed up on my mountain bike!

I don’t want it to lose that original grass roots feel it had. Progress is great, for sure, but it’s just interesting to see how riders — elites and even non-elites — are showing up to races with an A bike and B bike and four sets of wheels. I still want people to know they can come out, have fun, and not feel intimidated. I think ‘cross may be losing some riders to the ‘groad’ and gravel scene, because people want to have that adventure feel to it.

Ella: We’re still a ways away from being at the European level though. In your opinion, how can we bring more attention to cyclocross?

KC: We need to continue to develop the sport from the grass roots up, and bring more attention to it. We need more TV coverage, legit TV coverage and/or live streaming where you can actually watch and promote it. A great example is looking at the cross fit games [which featured cyclocross race this year] and how many viewers they had. People really liked it, it’s fun watching ‘cross races. We need to bring it to the people, and by doing so, we’ll produce more fans. It’s very spectator friendly and a safe way to race a bike.

Ella: It is growing, though, which is good to see. Which American riders have you ‘noticed’ in the past seasons that have really made themselves serious contenders?

KC: Ellen Noble and Stephen Hyde.

Katie Compton, 2016 UCI World Cup CX race in Iowa City, Iowa. Photo: Wil Matthews.

Ella: Do you ever wish you had a teammate or do you prefer racing solo?

KC: Yeah, you know it would be great to have another female to race with. I manage the budget, and it’s just more simple with just [my husband and mechanic] Mark and I.

I would only [add another ider] if If I could do it right. More riders means more staff. It doubles, I would want to pay the mechanic, for instance, a living wage… as well as being able to pay the rider. Not just pay them, but also cover food, lodging, etc. If I don’t have the funds for that, then I can’t do it right. And at this time, I can’t.

Ella: What about in a few years? What about maybe a development team?

KC: Mark and I have talked about that. And again, only if I could do it right. Could I pay the riders a fair wage? Could I pay the mechanic a fair wage?

Ella: Is it more difficult in today’s industry to secure and maintain sponsorships? And if so, why do you think that is?

KC: It can be, a lot of it depends on the industry as a whole and how products are selling. The bike industry goes through its ups and downs, sometimes there is plenty of money to go around to teams and riders, and sometimes the well is a little dry. Everyone and every team has experienced the ebbs and flows with sponsorship along the way, it’s just the nature of the bike industry and trying to find outside sponsors to help with expenses can also be a challenge.

I think it’s easier now to promote products and sponsors with social media and with more race coverage so that helps both parties. The great thing about bike racing is that the riders are actually accessible to the fans, unlike other professional sports. I think this can help sell product if the athletes and teams are approachable and willing to talk to people. Engaging with people and creating fans of the sport will bring more people out to see the races or access media to watch the races.

Ella:  How do you manage the personal (marriage) and business relationship with your husband?

KC: We try to balance the workload of life admin, work stress, training, and travel/race stress as best we can. It’s not always pretty, but we do a fairly good job of it. Since we spend a lot of time together, we are both respectful of needing alone time and encourage it. We both know we’re in it for through the thick and thin and plan to be married a long time, so we make it work even on the days we’re not particularly fond of each other. But, honestly, it’s pretty great most of the time, we get to share more experiences than most couples get to share in a lifetime and are happy together so that’s the most important thing.

Compton at the 2014 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Hoogerheide.

Ella: What are your goals for this 2017-18 season?

KC: I’m not really a specific goal-oriented person. For racing, I want to win as many races as possible and just enjoy it. Since I’m getting towards the end of my career, I just want to enjoy every minute of the racing and training and our lifestyle at the moment.

Ella: What – if anything – have you done differently to prepare for this season?

KC: (Laughs) I’m healthy! I adjusted my nutrition, and been riding more miles. I added more intensity, and I’m making sure I’m having fun and enjoying all of it. I’ve been doing yoga more frequently and focusing on good sleep habits.

Ella: What are you most looking forward to for this season?

Racing the full World Cup[series] again and competing in more Belgian races. I’m going to spend about 80 percent of my time in Belgium, and probably race quite a bit in Belgium next season, too. There are a lot of races I want to do there, and I haven’t been able to with my leg pains, travelling back and forth, and with the budget.

Ella: What does a ‘perfect’ bike ride look like to you?

KC: It would probably be 4-5hrs of single track on my mountain bike in the mountains with a group of friends.

Ella: What does the world need more of? Less of?

KC: More better drivers and less inconsiderate people

‘Cross is here! The 2017-18 UCI Cyclocross season kicked off in Australia last week with the Airport Toyota Melbourne Grand Prix of Cyclocross. Many will warm up their legs in China this weekend before things really get going with the Telenet UCI World Cup opener in the US on September 17. Check out the full UCI cyclocross calendar here.

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