Cyclocross
HEUSDEN-ZOLDER, BELGIUM - DECEMBER 26: Katherine...

Inside Katie Compton’s era of American cyclocross dominance

Katie Compton's winning streak at the U.S. National Cyclocross Championships spans 15 years. We spoke to Georgia Gould, Ellen Noble, Meredith Miller and other American 'crossers to better understand Compton's dominance at the U.S. championships.

After winning 15 consecutive national cyclocross championships, Katie Compton can be forgiven for forgetting the details from some of her victories. Still, we asked her to walk down memory lane to help us understand how she has been able to keep her streak alive, against generations of riders, in all weather conditions, when her form was good, and when her form was not so good.

Is there something different about Compton that makes her that much better than her competition, year after year?

“I’m stubborn as hell. And I think that’s good to a point. But it’s also dug my hole pretty deep sometimes. And I also am a fairly positive person. And I know things get better. No matter how hard it gets, it does get better—just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

“As many times as I’ve wanted to quit—and there have been a few times where I’m just like, ‘I’m not doing this, I’m done’—and then [my husband and mechanic] Mark talks me off the edge. He keeps me sane. And reminds me how much I love racing my bike.”

Compton en route to winning the 2014 cyclocross nationals in Boulder, Colorado. Photo: Brad Kaminski

As we talked with Compton about the past 15 national championship races, many of her memories were fuzzy. Brutal course conditions seemed to come back first, then the key battles became clearer. More often, however, she grasped vague snippets of time from a cold, muddy, icy track in some park in the U.S., where focus, grit, and skill inevitably came together to bring her another gold medal.

Overarching it all was one overwhelming emotion: joy.

“They were all really different, but they were all really fun,” Compton said. “I was struggling with some health issues off and on, and the weather was always different, but I can’t think of a nationals that wasn’t fun. Well, maybe Austin [laughs].”

It turns out that in Austin, Compton was suffering from undiagnosed food allergies. She woke up on what was scheduled to be race day feeling “really sick.” In a stroke of luck, the elite races were postponed by a day because of the heritage tree controversy. By Monday, Compton felt well enough to race, and she promptly trounced the competition.

So, luck. How much has luck played a role in Compton’s streak?

With characteristic self-deprecation, Compton lists three races in which she says luck played a major part in her victory.

“Louisville: That nationals followed one of the hardest seasons I’ve had, with being sick, and then allergies, and not being able to train properly,” she said. “Because of the conditions, it took what would have been a ‘fitness course’ and turned it into a pure technical course. Honestly, I won on the downhills. I didn’t win anywhere else. So that was weather. And that’s luck.”

Of course, we’d disagree, and say her victory was a function of her immense skill and experience in brutal conditions, but who are we to argue with a 15-time national champ?

U.S. champion Katie Compton (Trek Factory Racing) in 2013. Photo: Dave McElwaine

Any other lucky days?

“Hartford: Because it was snowy and icy, but I didn’t crash and I didn’t break anything,” Compton said.

Ditto on that whole skills thing.

And then Austin. We concede that luck may have saved her streak that weekend.

Before we turned to her competition for answers on why she’s so hard to beat, we asked Compton for her winning secret.

“What’s helped me win consistently is I see how my body’s feeling on that day,” she said. “I have no expectations of how I’m going to do, what result I’ll get. I’m like, ‘This is what I have to work with. How am I going to race to my strengths today to win?’ One year I had bronchitis, so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to dig that deep, I had to be really smart with my efforts and be super smooth. It helps having that kind of maturity to know what my body can and can’t do.”

Now, we turn to those who have finished second to Compton at one of the last 15 national championships.

Georgia Gould

2nd place, 2006 (Providence); 2008 (Kansas City, Missouri); 2010 (Bend); 2016 (Asheville)

Compton’s greatest strengths
“She’s obviously a very physically strong person who has great fitness. And then she’s also really a good technical rider, too. So she doesn’t really have a weakness there. She’s good no matter what the conditions are.
She also didn’t let mistakes rattle her. So, it’s that combination: She’s very strong, she’s technically good, and she’s tactically savvy. She knows when to capitalize on someone else’s mistake, or when to make a move, even on a course where she might not be so good.”

The battle in Asheville
“That was probably my best battle with Katie. It was one of the only races where we were evenly matched. And it was like that the whole race. It went back and forth and back and forth. It was exciting for me. I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ Neither of us knew who was gonna win. I’m a little better here. She’s a little better there. And then I made a mistake. And she was gone. And I was like, ‘Damn!’ But the crowd was going crazy. And we were just back and forth. And that was just an awesome, awesome race.”

Meredith Miller

2nd place, 2009 (Bend)
3rd place, 2010 (Bend); 2014 (Boulder)

Compton’s greatest strengths
“She can do it all. She has experience in road, track, mountain bike, and then can bring it all into ’cross. So all of these different skills, from the different disciplines, come together, and that’s part of what sets her above everybody else. And now she races cars, and she and Mark are always talking about how to hit the apex or set up for the next turn. How does that translate to bike racing? In different line choices. I think Katie is similar to Matthieu [van der Poel] or Wout [Van Aert], in some sense, where you’ll see them taking different lines. You might think that
people would just mimic that, but it’s not just about copying, you have to be able to pull it off.”

The importance of a good crew
“[She and Mark] are so dialed, and it’s rare, it’s special when a couple can work together. And it’s really funny being around them, because they can joke with each other, they can poke at each other, they can be sarcastic with each other. They can get pissed at each other, but they still know exactly how to get the job done. Mark knows exactly what Katie needs. He knows exactly all the little touches that make things special that may or may not make a bike perform differently, but it’s just those little things that are a psychological boost. He’s an integral part of her success.”

Compton’s longevity
“This past year [in Louisville], everyone thought, ‘Okay, this is the year [the streak ends.]’ And with the rain and the course, I think it set up just right for Katie. But still, I think there was a lot of doubt this past season. And the fact that she came out and won again is a portrayal of her true grit, determination, and never-give-up attitude. She’ll set up to do everything she can to win, regardless of whether people think she can or not. And then she showed everybody, ‘I’m not done yet.’

“I raced ’cross for eight years. So to come in to racing after she was already national champion six or seven times, and now she’s won three or four more national championship since I’ve left this sport, that’s a true testament to the kind of person she is and the passion that she has, and her strength, desire, and determination—and the motivation that she’s had after that many years.”

Jade Wilcoxson

Jade Wilcoxson powered through a tough course and avoided mechanical problems to finish second. Photo: Wil Matthews | www. wilmatthewsphoto.com

2nd place, 2013 (Madison)

Compton’s greatest strengths
“She’s exceptionally focused and determined, to maintain her level in the sport of cycling for as long as she has. It’s a level of focus that I have never known and will never know. And I think when you do it that long, you have to really love it. You have to love most aspects of it: She’s overcome health issues and bad years and disappointments, and she just keeps going back for more, which I think is phenomenal. I wish I had had that kind of drive and determination that she has. And then, finally, I also think that cyclocross is just perfectly suited to her and her body type and her ability to maintain a maximum level of exertion for 45 minutes to an hour.”

How the race played out
“I wouldn’t say that Katie Compton was necessarily in the picture for me that day [in Madison]. I’m really proud of that ride, and thankfully it got me a second place podium to Katie, which is pretty cool. But I wasn’t competing with Katie that day; I was just competing with myself to get the best result. Katie was—is—just at a completely different level than me, so it was hard for me to even fathom that I would be competing with her. It’s the same thing I experienced when I went to worlds that season. People ask you, ‘What’s it like racing with Marianna Vos?’ And you’re like, ‘I don’t really know. We’re not really racing with her. We just happen to be in the same race.’”

Elle Anderson

American Elle Anderson had a fantastic start and was briefly riding in the top 10 on the opening lap. Photo: ©Tim De Waele | Getty Images.

2nd place, 2014 (Boulder)

Compton’s greatest strengths
“The words stoic and formidable come to mind. She seems so calculated. Sure, she’ll have bad days, or she’ll have those races where she’ll have to pull out. But she’s just so consistent in that sense. I can only imagine the kind of precision with which she prepares. And the kind of formula she follows, and the discipline she has. To be that consistent for every national championship, must require such focus, such diligent preparation, such formulaic training, and a little bit of luck too. But it’s a little bit formidable to look back at that history.”

Race day strategy
“I just jumped from the gun, and I broke away from everyone. Especially at that time, Katie wasn’t great with her starts. She started slow, at her own pace, and let her body warm up before clicking into gear at some point. And I just went for it, 100 percent. I wanted to throw it all out there and really go for it. That was really fun. I definitely had a good gap for about a lap. And then Katie came by me so fast that I couldn’t even hold her wheel. But I remember the moment she passed. ‘This is great. I’ll hold her wheel and see what I can do for the next part of the race.’ And then it was like, ‘Well, can’t hold that wheel.’ She came steamrolling by me, and that was that. I never saw her again.”

Amanda Miller

2nd place, 2017 (Hartford)

Amanda Miller took some time to enjoy the closing meters with the fans. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

On winning silver
“It was definitely one of my biggest accomplishments in my career, for sure. Getting second to Katie is basically like winning.”

The importance of Compton’s streak
“It’s huge, because over the years people have come and gone that are fully capable of beating her, but she always comes through with the win. It’s cool to see. And to win 15 in a row, on the day, it’s a pretty incredible feat. I was a stage racer on the road, so I’m not quite sure how she does it. To be on form, for that one day of the year, every year, she’s obviously got the experience to make something special happen on the day of the race.”

Ellen Noble

Katie Compton
It didn’t take long for Compton to ride away from her young challenger, Ellen Noble. Photo: Wil Matthews

2nd place, 2018 (Reno)

From fan to rival
“The craziest thing has been going from being that adoring fan and geeking out so much when I realized that we had the same birthday, to then starting to actually become friends. She came over for a birthday dinner when we were all in Belgium at a World Cup. And I realized they’re just like us.

“I remember my first year racing nationals, my only goal was to not get lapped by Katie—I think I was the last rider on the lead lap. It’s been such a weird transition to now be racing against someone who I used to watch. You have to believe that you can win in order to win. You have to have that confidence that you can beat her, but then we were teammates at Trek CXC. I looked up to her so much. She was a role model and a mentor. So it’s such a weird position.”

Compton’s greatest strengths
“Consistency. People talk about [Marianne] Vos or [Sven] Nys as the greatest. And I’d put Katie’s name on that list too. But those other people still have bad days. Katie’s had bad days, but she’s been able to put it together for 15 years on this one day. Regardless of all the other bad races, it’s 15 years straight on one of the biggest days of the year.
“No one ever envies the person defending a title. It’s always easier to be the one trying to win and not being the one trying to keep it. But I think for Katie, at this point, she can’t lose. Even if she were to lose nationals, she’s won 15, or however many she ends up winning. There’s never really going to be a loss there. It’s still so untouchable. She’s been through everything possible in those 15 years. I don’t think she’s gonna see something that she hasn’t seen before. So there’s a confidence there.”

Kaitie Keough

Keough (right) was second to Compton in 2012 and 2015. In 2017 she finished third.

2nd place, 2012 (Madison); 2015 (Austin)

Generational dominance
“Both times I finished second were great races for me. I honestly don’t really remember much as they kind of all blend together when you continue to finish second and third for a handful of years… Though, finishing second in Madison was a really big deal because I was still pretty young then, and it was one of those rides that proved to me that I’m capable.”

Compton’s greatest strengths
“She is really strong—lots of horsepower, and she is really great at driving her bike. What I admire most, though, is her will to fight. She’s had a lot of shitty cards dealt her way, but she just keeps trucking.”

Sunny Gilbert

Sunny Gilbert secured her first nationals podium Sunday on a course that favored runners. @PinnedGrit/Wil Matthews

2nd place, 2018.2 (Louisville)

Compton’s greatest strengths
“Because she knows how to race in every condition. She knows how to protect her bike. She takes the time to learn courses and lines, not just for efficiency around corners, but to safely navigate through a course. She uses her equipment with care; she has the fitness and acrobatics to maneuver around a course and stay out of trouble. Anyone can ride fast in a straight line, it’s when you get on a ‘cross course and you have to learn ‘how fast can I actually go around this corner, and which line should I take, from a physics perspective, and still stay upright?’ And she can do all of that. She’s a real student of the sport.”

Is Compton’s dominance a psychological advantage?
“No, we’re annoyed that we can’t be that good [laughs]. When I first lined up with her, my goal was to not get lapped by her. As I got better, people were saying, ‘If you could just get a front row start, you’d be right up there with Katie.’ And then I started getting those first row starts, and I was right up with her. I immediately had the realization that there was something different—something I wasn’t doing, or something she did, the talent, the skill, an aura that she brings to every race, and she has every intention of winning every time she steps to the line. She has achieved a level of perfection in cyclocross.”