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Despite the murmurs and the anticipation of a potential new champion in American cyclocross, Katie Compton (KFC Racing p/b Trek / Panache) won the 2018 US National Cyclocross Championship the same way she won the 13 previous years edition: solo.
To her credit, second place finisher Ellen Noble (Aspire Racing) — making her Elite championships debut — came closer to the 39-year-old than anyone has before, relentlessly reeling in the gap, second by second until crossing the line just seven seconds short.
Also riding solo for the vast majority of her race, Kaitie Keough (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) rounded out the podium.
“[Winning Nats again] is pretty awesome actually, it’s a little bit emotional…I think it’s probably my hardest one yet, especially with the younger competition too, it’s just getting faster and harder to do,” Compton told Ella CyclingTips.
“Ellen was riding really strong and I was still able to slip up and finish in front of her at the end. So I’m pretty happy with that.”
How the race unfolded
Sun and mild conditions for several days leading up to the championship week’s pinnacle events meant that Reno’s San Rafael Park course was dry, rocky and rutty. Thousands of amateur, masters and collegiate racers had already conquered the course throughout the week, and flats had plagued riders as clear groves and ruts formed.
A hard run-up, a tricky off-camber descent and loose turns meant that the winner would have to possess speed, power and technical skills as well as some good fortune.
As the women’s field lined up, there was only question on people’s mind, “is this the year that Compton can be beat?”.
Compton, the greatest rider US cyclocross has ever seen, has been in a league of her own at Nationals for the past 13 years, but this year her competition had been nipping at her heels all season long, even beating her on the international stage at times.
“I know [Kaitie Keough and Ellen Noble] are pretty much champing at the bit, chasing me down quickly,” Compton told Ella CyclingTips before the 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.”
And so all eyes were on 22-year-old Ellen Noble (Aspire Racing), a four-time junior national champion who’s bunny-hopping her way to the pointy end of the elite races, and 26-year-old Kaitie Keough (née Antonneau) who’s currently ranked second in the world-wide UCI standings, after stellar performances in the UCI World Cup.
When start whistle blew, it was Noble who took the lead first with Compton on her wheel. Noble led through the first few turns and sandpit, and even rode up the Belgian stairs while everyone else dismounted.
Keough followed just seconds behind.
On the fast flats, Compton took to the front but Noble stayed on her wheel and passed the 13-time national champion again on the long Shimano run-up.
Keough meanwhile struggled as couldn’t quite get to the two leaders. And behind her, Courtenay McFadden (Pivot Cycles-DNA Cycling) led the rest of the blown-up field, but the race leaders were determined early.
Just 11 minutes into the race, Compton made her move. On the flats, she turned on that powerful engine of hers and did what she’s done so many times before: she motored away from Noble, who was unable to match her speed.
But Noble never wavered and stayed on the gas.
With the confidence and stone-faced expression that comes with decades of experience, Compton motored on. Mechanicals and mistakes not withstanding, this looked like yet another dominant win for the veteran of American cyclocross.
Still, Compton routinely looked behind her, checking for her competition. She wouldn’t see anyone until the last lap, however, when Noble was diminishing the gap second by second.
With the effort of the chase showing on her face, Noble was coming up fast.
And then Compton slipped. A small fumble on the tricky off-camber forced Compton to unclip, losing precious seconds in the process.
But the course would run out for Noble.
With a short, clean run-in to the finish, Compton took one last look behind her before sit up, arms in the air, catching her breath as confetti showered down for her 14th consecutive championships win.
Just seven seconds behind her, Noble smiled widely as she crossed the line, having made an impressive elite championships debut and coming away with the silver medal.
After a lonely 50 minutes of racing, Keough finished 1:37 behind Noble, having to make do, yet again, with the lower steps of the podium.
McFadden took fourth and Amanda Naumann rounded (SDG – Muscle Monster) out the top five.
“I was concerned the whole time”
As mentioned above, Noble got closer to beating Compton than anyone has during her 14-year reign.
“I was concerned the whole time. Ellen has been riding really strong. I know she wants to win really badly too. She’s young, she’s got a ton of energy and technically she’s good so yeah, I knew she was always there and I knew I had to ride smooth and I tried to make as few mistakes as possible. I knew she was there and I wasn’t easing up,” a winded Compton said in the post-race interview.
“I made a few mistakes, I made a mistake at the end like at the final downhill towards the finish, I lost like 10 seconds. And so I had to really rally and sprint to the finish because Ellen wasn’t too far back and so I think that kind of made it a lot closer than I thought it was going to be. And that kind of added to the excitement of it for me for sure –I had to do a full sprint to the finish.”
If you missed the race, you can watch the full replay on YouTube thanks to USA Cycling.