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We are less than two weeks out for the 2018 USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships and you can hear the familiar rumblings among racers and fans.
“Will this be the year that Katie Compton finally gets unseated?”
It’s the same question year in, year out, but for the past 12 years, Compton’s answer has been a clear and resounding, “not this year.”
And as the 39-year-old prepares for her 14th consecutive title on January 14th, she seems to be in her best shape in years. Competing against the world’s best in the UCI World Cup and DVV Verzekering Trofee series in Europe, Compton has been a regular podium finisher and kicked of 2018 with a win on January 1st at the GP Sven Nys.
But she’s far from the only American who’s been making an impression in Europe this season, and her competition at the national championships will be fierce.
There’s Ellen Noble, a four-time junior national champion who’s bunny-hopping her way to the pointy end of the races; and Elle Anderson, a regular top-10 finisher in the world-class Superprestige series.
But perhaps Compton’s biggest competition will come from Kaitie Keough (nee Antonneau), who’s currently ranked second in the UCI rankings behind world champion Sanne Cant.
Compton and Keough have been squaring off on European soil for the past three months, but the battle is about to come stateside. And it’s one that even their competitors are keen to watch.
“I think it’s going to be a battle of the ‘Katies’ —Kaitie (Keough) and Katie (Compton)— I think they are going to have a great battle that I would personally really like to watch, but unfortunately will be racing,” commented Ellen Noble.
A former junior national champion, Keough been a consistent podium finisher as an Elite racer as well, taking home two bronze medals and one silver. Coming into these 2018 nationals, however, she too is in her best form yet.
The Wisconsinite kicked off the season with a series of domestic wins on home soil, while also taking second in the World Cup races in Waterloo and Jingle Cross. Hopping the pond, Keough continued to deliver consistent performances to secure a second place in the UCI world rankings.
It’s a pretty stark contrast to last year’s rollercoaster season. In fact, the last time we ran a feature on Keough (then Antonneau) she opened up about her struggles with anxiety, depression and the pressures that come with bike racing.
One year, one wedding and several wins later, Keough talks to Ella CyclingTips about being in a better place, the effects it has had on her season and the upcoming battle for the stars-and-stripes jersey.
Ella CyclingTips: Last time we did a feature on you, we talked about you overcoming some dark monsters. Where are you today?
Keough: I’m in a totally different place but I had to work really hard on it. But that anxiety and that feeling down sometimes will never go away. I just had to learn how to manage it and work with it, and not feed it. So I did yoga teacher training, and learned a lot about meditating and learned a lot of tools that I can use to just be in a better place.
It’s [about] taking a step back too, and realising that there’s such a bigger picture than this little world of cycling and not getting all wrapped up in it all the time. Just having fun with it. My perspective on life has changed and so yeah, I’m in a much better place and it’s good.
Ella: And on the bike?
It’s been very good. After Zolder I had to pick myself up again but in general this season, there have been way more good days than bad. And that’s kind of cool because in the past I would have a random really good ride and the rest of them would be average, but this season, it’s been like the opposite where I have been consistently happy with my ride. I have never been quite this consistent in the past. I have worked really hard in training and everything so I think it’s a direct result from that and I’m happy.
You started the season strong, with wins and World Cup podiums at Waterloo and Iowa. What has been the highlight for you this season?
I think Waterloo and Iowa have been the highlight so far. All my family was there and I wasn’t really expecting [that success]. I just didn’t have any expectations — I just wanted to go out and do my best on those days — so yeah, that’s really cool. And having had those two good rides has helped me with the World Cup overall.
A top three in the World Cup overall has been on my goal list for a while so that’s helped carry me through the season too.
Being out there, battling with the world’s best at the front end of the race — that’s got to be good for your confidence as well.
Yeah, it really helps the confidence. It helps keep my anxiety levels low because I know I can do it. And you know, on any given day, the women’s racing is so competitive. There are so many top girls. There’s not just one woman who just walks away with the win. Sure, Sanne Cant wins a lot but the races are close and that’s exciting but it also helps with the confidence because you never know what’s going to happen.
You’ve been racing for a while now, have you seen a shift? Is the field getting more competitive?
Absolutely. The level has definitely been upped and it’s motivating. It definitely raises the bar, raises the standard.
With four Americans in the UCI Top 20 (and 6 in the Top 25), it seems that American cyclocross, at least for the women, is better than ever before and Americans have a lot to get excited about…
Absolutely 100%. Americans have a lot to cheer for. There’s Katie [Compton] obviously, Ellen Noble, Elle, myself — the level is high. I get kind of annoyed when you read comments like ‘Americans suck when they go to Europe.’
You’re just not paying attention because it’s just not true. It’s really good.
And how do you think that will play out at nationals this year?
Yeah it will be an exciting race for sure. You know Nationals is always funny because it’s just like one day, but you want that one day to be absolutely perfect. I think it will be a super exciting race and definitely one that will be worth watching I think.
Nationals has been my A+ goal since coming into this season and what we have pretty much based everything on.
This year has been different than the past because I feel like this season, it’s realistic. Whereas in the past I have said it, but never really meant it or believed it. I never really wanted it. I am in a different place now because I know in my head that I can and have beaten [Compton]. So I know it’s realistic, but everything has to come together on the day. I’m just going to go there and try my best and hope for the best. I’m going into that race better mentally than ever before and I am excited for the opportunity and to go for it.
So what needs to happen for everything to play out favourably for you?
You know, my body knows how to do the effort. For me, the biggest thing is my headspace. For the next however many days [till Nats] I just need to make sure that I’m OK up there and then everything should be fine. I think that’s going to be the biggest factor for me.
And the course?
Yeah that too. I haven’t seen it yet but this year I’ve proved to myself that I can be good on any course. In the past I struggled on the fast dry courses and I normally do better on the technical courses with elevation. But that is something I have been working on, and I’m definitely interested in how the course is going to be and what the conditions will be.
Do you have any tips on how to get into a good mental state?
Everyone is different, and I have tried a lot of different things, but for me it’s all about being focused but not obsessing over [cycling] all the time. So when I’m not training or in a racing environment, then I focus on taking my mind off of all that. I meditate a lot, I journal and I read a lot of entertaining books like ones that you kind of just get sucked into and so you’re not thinking of anything else.
It really comes down to researching and trying things that work best for you.
What were the biggest takeaways from 2017?
Well, I think one of the big things that I learned this past year was having the guts to be confident in things that I feel in my guts that I should do, even when others tell me I shouldn’t. You know, taking others’ opinions into account but being brave enough to make decisions myself.
It’s really paid off for me in my season so far and in my normal life.
Ellen Noble is hopping barriers, Mathieu van der Poel is doing tail whips, what are we going to see you do next?
[laughs] I play with that kind of stuff in training and whatnot and I think it’s awesome, but I have this thing where if I can’t do it 10 out of 10 times, I won’t do it in a race. I’ll stick to my boring ways of just pedalling.