In search of the perfect day: Katie Compton takes another run at ‘cross worlds
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the October 2014 issue of Velo magazine. On Saturday, November 22, the cyclocross World Cup resumes with round two in Koksijde, Belgium. With her win in Valkenburg, Netherlands last month, Compton is once again atop the World Cup leaderboard.
The track was slick with mud, but she felt her leg pains — she’s adjusted her training, like she was floating on air. The course was lined with fans, but she heard nothing. Her bike, body, and mind — everything was firing in unison. Knowing she wouldn’t likely beat Marianne Vos in a two-up sprint, American Katie Compton attacked, opened a gap, and held it to the finish, to win alone, 24 seconds ahead of the world champion.
It was the Rome World Cup, held January 5, and American Katie Compton was on a perfect day.
“I felt good, physically, I had some good training in Mallorca before the Christmas cyclocross races, and I carried the form through into Rome,” Compton said, eight months later, on the cusp of the 2014-15 cyclocross season. “The weather was pretty ideal, it was warm, but muddy, and the course got more technical as it cooled.
“I had a good start, I was in fourth or fifth position from the start. I rode smartly, and was patient. Marianne and I had a gap after a few laps, and I just put my head down and kept the pace hard. I committed to going 100 percent, and I was able to attack on the last lap, open a gap, and carry it through to the finish. I was surprised, but happy. My technical skills were good. I was on the new [Trek] Boone. I felt strong. Everything came together.”
Compton finished first, in the white World Cup series leader’s skinsuit, ahead of Vos, in her white rainbow-striped world champion’s skinsuit. It was the two best racers in the world, finishing first and second, with the American on top.
In fact, not only did Compton beat the world champion for the third time in three World Cup races, she also secured her second consecutive World Cup series title — the only American to have ever achieved the feat.
The concept of the “perfect race” is important to Compton, and not just for the positive reinforcement that comes from practice made perfect. Over the last 10 years, Compton is undefeated at the U.S. national cyclocross championship, and over the past two years, she’s been the most consistent winner at the World Cup level. (She won five of seven World Cup events last season; Vos won the other two.)
When it comes to worlds, Compton has finished on the podium four times, including three silver medals, without taking home the big prize. For such an accomplished rider, there’s only one accolade missing from Compton’s palmares — a rainbow jersey.
Putting it all together when it matters most is something Vos seems to have mastered.
“For me, sometimes I have technical issues, or physical issues, or mechanical issues; we all have them, but sometimes you can hide them from anyone,” Compton said. “I ride through it, I take a pit bike, and I can still have a good day, maybe win a race or make the podium. Marianne seems to have everything go her way… Sometimes I wonder if maybe she’s such a great racer she can just hide that, and cover it up, and maybe nobody knows of any issues, besides her and her support staff. She certainly seems to have everything dialed in.”
Compton knows that in order to beat Vos, a seven-time world cyclocross champion and the most dominant woman to ever race on two wheels, the 35-year-old from Delaware, now living in Colorado Springs, will need to have a perfect day.
For Compton, that means no issues with what she simply calls her “leg pains” — un-diagnosed burning, stabbing pains that render her barely able to walk — and no issues with allergies, a problem that reared itself at the 2014 world championship in Hoogerheide, where Compton missed a pedal at the start, was tangled up in an early crash, and struggled to breathe deeply; she finished ninth.
Given her allergies — grasses and pollens are particularly troublesome — her poor result at worlds didn’t come as a surprise, not to her anyway.
“I knew as soon as I got to Hoogerheide that I was feeling bad,” Compton said. “Come race day, once we got into grass, it didn’t take long before I couldn’t breathe. The whole week was just really bad; I couldn’t really train. You can tell, warming up, that you can’t take a deep breath. I felt weak and tired, and I couldn’t breathe. I knew it wouldn’t be a good day, but I thought, ‘Maybe it will be okay, just try to put it behind you.’ But as soon as the race started, I just couldn’t recover, and then I was stuck behind that crash…”
Just as Compton has learned to work around and her travel, to make sure her legs are never overly taxed — she is now learning to work with her allergies. “I find myself being mentally tough, but sometimes my body doesn’t get the memo, and it tells me to slow down,” she said.
She’s adopted a low-histamine diet, and also avoids anything containing wheat. “I stay away from fermented foods, cultured foods, yeasts, wine… no cheese or yogurt. Spinach, eggplant, avocados, and tomatoes are all high-histamine foods, so I’ve really had to cut out a bunch of different foods.”
In addition to her new diet, Compton also has changed her approach to the upcoming race season — a lesson she learned last year, when her leg pains, and a bacterial infection, forced her off the bike for most of July. She started her 2013 race season badly out of shape, and though she suffered through the early-season races, she peaked in late December and early January. It’s a strategy she hopes to replicate this year, which is why she spent much of the summer off the bike, forcing herself to relax.
“This year I’m coming in a little slower than in years past,” Compton said. “Last year I was sick or injured most of the summer. I think that helped me come January. Had I not had bad allergies, I would have been good at worlds. I’m approaching this season similar to last year, and I think that will help me come January. To put myself in that pain cave for 40 to 50 minutes, it takes mental strength to put yourself there, to turn yourself inside out, every weekend, for four months. I think coming in slower will help me in January, and especially in that heavy period of racing in late December, which is intense and hard. It’s an important time to be riding well.”
Compton will strive for a third consecutive World Cup title — “Of course I’d like to defend it” — and has signed a two-year contract with Trek Factory Racing, meaning she’ll race through the 2016 world championship.
Whether Compton’s perfect day comes at the world championship in Tabor, Czech Republic, in February, or in Zolder, Belgium, in 2016, or never, it’s something she refuses to dwell on.
“Of course I want to win a world championship. Everyone wants to,” she said. “Especially having been so close. But if it never happens, it doesn’t happen. I have had tons of success, I have overcome a lot of physical issues, and I have been able to win, and do well, and I am pretty proud of that. I’m not going to keep doing this forever, trying to win worlds… one of these days, I’m either going to be retired, or I’ll win one. We’ll see. I’m okay with what I have accomplished, and where I am. I am still striving to win worlds, but it’s a hard thing to accomplish. I hope to have that perfect day.”