Age vs experience: Compton faces hungry young rivals in battle for 14th title
American cyclocross legend Katie Compton was in the middle of unpacking and repacking her bags as I caught her on the phone. Still jet-lagged from her return to Colorado after having spent the last three months in Belgium, Compton is enjoying as much time at home before flying out to Reno for the 2018 US National Cyclocross Championships, taking place on Sunday, January 14.
Home offers an opportunity to recharge the vitamin D levels, courtesy of Colorado’s sunny blue skies, and walks with her dog Pixie.
And while masters, collegiate and youth categories have already taken to the nationals course in Reno’s San Rafael Park, Compton hasn’t so much as looked at the course profile.
“You can’t really tell what a course is really like until you get there,” she said.
Plus, after an astonishing 13 consecutive national championship wins, is there anything that could actually faze the defending champion?
“No, not really,” Compton admitted. “I just take each year as it comes and try to be my best on that day and make the most of it. Hopefully, I’ll come in with good legs and have a clean race. I don’t worry about the result; it is what it is and in ‘cross anything can happen.”
Not to be confused with nonchalance, this a statement of experience, confidence and acceptance of whatever the outcome may be.
With over 125 UCI wins — 23 World Cups, four Pan-Am and 13 national titles among them — Compton is the most successful cyclocross racer the U.S. has ever seen. And at 39 years old, she recognises that she’s coming toward the end of her career. With that said, Compton is showing no signs of stopping. In fact, she made history just this month. Upon winning the GP Sven Nys Baal on New Years Day, Compton became the first non-European, male or female, to win the DVV Trofee overall series title.
When she lines up on Sunday in search of yet another year in the stars-and-stripes jersey, she’s feeling better than she has in years yet recognises that her competition may also be the toughest yet.
She’s anticipating a hard battle and has made peace with the fact that maybe, just maybe, her reign could be in danger.
“I know [Kaitie Keough and Ellen Noble] are pretty much champing at the bit, chasing me down quickly,” she said. “It’s going to be hard day, and I think it’s going to be a good one for spectators.”
Of course, they’ll have to catch her first.
Racing in Belgium: On getting stronger and an historic first
Leg cramps, a thyroid imbalance, exercise-induced asthma — Compton’s well-documented health struggles have plagued her for most of her career, but the years following her last World Championships podium in 2013 have been especially erratic.
In 2016, Compton even decided to spend less time than usual in Europe, hoping that less travel and racing would lead to fewer injuries and other health issues. But upon her sponsor’s request that she races the entire DVV Verzekeringen Trofee series, Compton decided to head across the pond for a full European season focussed around the World Cup and DVV series.
“I was hesitant about racing in Europe at first,” Compton admitted. “But then I was also thinking that it’s getting close toward the end of my career and I haven’t committed to a full season in Belgium; it’s something I haven’t done before and so I wanted to try it and see how it went. I also wanted to race more in general and not having to deal with the jet lag and back-and-forth travel.”
Her World Cup ambitions came to an end quickly, however, when the first two rounds of racing resulted in her worst performances of the season.
Kicking off the series, Compton finished 19th at Jingle Cross. The next week, a bee sting and a subsequent allergic reaction saw Compton cross the line in 42nd place in Waterloo.
Compton groaned at the memory.
“It was pretty awful. I’m allergic to bees but usually it’s OK. If I don’t get my heart rate up, I can manage it. But for the World Cup I obviously have to breathe hard and push myself and I noticed that a lap and a half in, my body just gave up. It was really bad,” she recalled.
“I just wanted to finish even though I probably shouldn’t have. But it was a Trek World Cup, there was equal prize money and I just wanted to support that part.”
While her performances in the World Cup improved significantly thereafter, Compton shifted her focus to the DVV verzekeringen Trofee series instead. The prestigious series formerly known as Bpost Bank Trofee and Gazet van Antwerpen Trofee has been held for the past 30 years for men and 10 years for women.
“It’s a hard series because it’s eight races and they’re all very different,” Compton explained. “Plus it’s a [General Classification] series, which I think is pretty great because everybody races hard the whole time trying to not lose any time in the GC and then with spread time bonuses on the second lap of each race. It’s just kind of fun to think about ‘cross racing beyond your place in the race that day and focus on the actual overall time instead.”
Compton won two of the races and finished on the podium in five additional races, securing the overall title in the process and making history by becoming the first non-European rider to ever win the series title.
“I feel stronger this year than I have for quite a while. I haven’t won as many races as I have in years past, but I feel better, I’m racing well and the competition is stronger and faster,” Compton said.
And so living in Belgium has been worthwhile.
“I have been in Belgium since early October, and it’s been nice to be in one spot to train and all the races are pretty much within an hour’s drive. I’m not dealing with the jet lag and physically I’ve just been feeling stronger and stronger, she said.
“And then the racing also helps. When you’re racing against the strongest in the world weekend after weekend, you’re going to get stronger and faster…or smarter anyway. A little bit of both maybe.”
Racing age 40
Smarter. According to Compton, that’s the key to racing when you get older and compete against “kids” half your age.
Despite turning 39 just last month, Compton has the racing age of 40 (which is based on the age you’ll be on December 31 in the year in which the season ends), and she feels it.
“I think the older you get, the more experience you have. You get smarter and wiser and you know how to train more efficiently. But the recovery time and the ability to have that high end, it definitely gets harder. I know I have to train my sprint more and I have to train the high end because that goes away a lot quicker than it did when I was younger. It was naturally there when I was younger and I did not have to work at it, which was pretty great, but now the older I get I’m like, ‘I have to do intervals again?! How am I losing my top end so quickly?’,” Compton lamented.
“For me, what I have learned over the years is that I can’t take a month or even two weeks off the bike. I need to be consistently training, doing speed work and intensity because it takes time to get it back and I hate being out of shape.”
While there are a lot of young up-and-comers like Evie Richards, Annemarie Worst and Ellen Noble spicing up the competition, the top-10 in the women’s UCI world cup isn’t all that young, with an average age of slightly over 32 compared to 26 on the men’s elite side.
“You know, the women can go a lot longer. Usually with the women, the issue is they want to have kids and have families. But if that’s not the route you want to go, you can continue racing and have a long career into your early forties,” Compton said.
“You just have to have better quality training and really think about how your body is changing over years and how to adapt the training to still get everything out of your body.”
She’ll leave the bunny hopping, tail whips and other tricks to the younger generation, however.
“I think about practicing and training that stuff but — and I don’t want to say I’m too old for it — I just don’t feel like it,” Compton said with a laugh. “You know when you’re young and you’re super gung-ho about going and playing on your bike like that? Now, I just want to go ride my bike, get the training in and think about other stuff.”
“I probably should be practicing that stuff but I also kind of like getting off the bike and running. That’s always been a fun part for me. It’s really cool to see Pauline and Ellen hopping those barriers. I think it’s awesome. For me, I am efficient and fast at running them. There are only a few races where I might be losing a second or two by running them, but a second or two over a five-lap race is not that much when I can make it up elsewhere.”
Americans in Europe
Compton is far from the only American who’s making an impression in Europe these days. Once the lone strong American, there are now at least five American women sitting in the UCI top-20.
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 strongest compatriot — and biggest competition come Sunday — is Kaitie Keough (née Antonneau). Keough, completing her first full European season, is currently ranked second in the UCI rankings and World Cup series behind world champion Sanne Cant.
“Women’s ‘cross in the U.S. has been growing every year and getting more competitive every year. Women are getting more support and more attention, which I think helps the women’s racing progress in general,” said Compton.
“It’s great that more U.S. women are coming over to Europe to race ‘cross. Kaitie’s sitting in second right now in the World Cup. That’s pretty awesome because I know how hard it is to win the World Cup as a U.S. rider. All the extra travel and the back-and-forth, it definitely makes doing well in the series a lot harder than it would be if you live in Europe.”
Compton, Keough and Noble have been squaring off on European soil for the past three months, but the battle is about to come stateside.
“I think it’s going to be me, Kaitie Keough and Ellen Noble. I don’t know how it’s going to work out. I don’t know how the race will play out, but I feel like it’s going to come down to the three of us,” Compton speculated.
“Either way, it’s going to be an exciting race. I love seeing Kaitie and Ellen really riding well now and getting good results. This is the first year that Kaitie and Ellen have both beaten me at certain races, too, so they’re capable of it.”
Compton sees this not as a threat but rather a mere fact, a progression of the sport.
“It’s good for the sport. It needs to be that way. I have really enjoyed winning as much as I have — and having 13 titles is pretty awesome, I’m pretty proud of myself for that — but I’m 39 and I’m getting toward the end of my career. Kaitie and Ellen are young and riding really well and the tide is going to turn. At some point I’m not going to win. I understand that, I get that and that’s how it should be,” she said.
That doesn’t mean she’s ready to simply hand over the stars-and-stripes jersey though. It’s been hers for the past 13 years and if someone wants to take it from her, they’re going to have to fight for it.
“I’m obviously going to do everything I can to win,” she said with laugh.
“I’d love to win again, I’m feeling good and strong but it’s going to be a bike race. We all have a good shot at it.”
Does she get at all nervous?
“Nervous? No just excited. I’m eager, ready to go and ready to perform.”
In the mean time, don’t miss our features on Ellen Noble and Kaitie Keough.