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VALKENBURG, Netherlands (VN) — Five years ago, during the 2010-11 cyclocross season, Katie Compton, who balances her time on the bike with time as a coach, started talking about the talents of a young American named Kaitlin Antonneau — Kaitie — she had been working with.
“Kaitie is awesome,” Compton said after Antonneau’s first ever World Cup race, in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, in January 2011. “She’s such a hard worker and a talented rider; just a really nice girl. She’s learning fast, and she’s got so much potential. She’s going to develop as a bike racer on the road, on track, on the mountain bike, and in ’cross. I just want to see her develop as a bike racer, and 10 years from now, be an Olympian.”
Antonneau, then 19 and riding — as she does now — for the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com team, and simultaneously balancing life as a bike racer with life as a student at Marian University, finished 31st in that race.
“I was really scared and nervous,” Antonneau said of that first cyclocross race abroad. “But after the first half lap I started to relax. It was really hard, but I expected that and knew that was how it would be. So I had fun — as much fun as I could have.”
In the nearly five years that have passed since then, Antonneau has made steady strides forward, edging ever closer to Compton’s complete domination of the American women’s field. Antonneau’s 10th-place in Namur, Belgium — one of the hardest and most dangerous courses in Europe — in December, 2011, confirmed the prescience of Compton’s assessment of Antonneau’s potential. Sevenths, in Namur and Nommay, France, during the 2013-14, and another in Milton Keynes, UK, in 2014-15, were among the best results ever posted in the World Cup by an American woman other than Compton.
On Sunday’s second round of the World Cup here in Valkenburg, Antonneau announced her arrival at the highest level of the sport with a second-place finish behind Italy’s Eva Lechner, the best-ever World Cup result at the elite level by an American other than Compton.
It was a day of firsts for the 23 year-old Antonneau.
“Going into today I was excited because I had a front row start, and that was a first for me,” she told VeloNews afterwards. “So I was just looking forward to that.”
Whatever fears there were when she first dipped her toes into the water of European racing have long since melted away. On Sunday, Antonneau said she relished the chance to race on a course as difficult as the one in Valkenburg.
“The harder and more technical I think the better for me,” she said. “I was confident after pre-ride and I just focused on my race and kept in mind a bit of advice I got beforehand, and just tried to stay relaxed. As it got closer to the end, I was trying not to think about that I was in the top three, because I didn’t want to mess it up. But coming through those last turns the last lap, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to get on the podium!”
But podiums are becoming familiar. Antonneau took wins in the Category 1 Ellison Park Cyclocross Festival in Rochester, New York, in September and the Trek CXC Cup in Waterloo, Wisconsin, just a week ago. She said with experience — including a long stint in Europe, racing in both Belgium and Switzerland, last season — she had become both a more skilled and more mature racer.
“My confidence [has really improved], I think,” she told VeloNews. “I’m more comfortable handling my bike. Stuff like that. I think the biggest thing this year is just believing that I can and not limiting myself, I guess…. Just going out and doing my best. Today this was my best, and it was pretty good.”
And though she has yet to develop her mentor Compton’s consistency, Antonneau has clearly emerged as an heir apparent in the last several years. But Sunday’s race was no coronation, she said, even though Compton, on a long, slow early season build after an extended summer layoff, managed only 13th in Valkenburg.
“It’s a long season,” Antonneau said. “Katie is still Katie Compton. I still look up to her and, you know, I’m younger, I guess you could say I’m the next generation. I’d like to follow in her footsteps. I learned a lot of what I know from her. So I will always look up to her.”
Antonneau said on Sunday she didn’t like to name specific goals, but she clearly has them, and you can bet she’ll be looking to build on her success so far. She sits in third in the World Cup standings, and overall leader Eva Lechner is focused on next year’s Olympic mountain bike race in Rio de Janeiro, where she won a test event just last week. A place on the overall podium is a very real possibility if Antonneau can continue to race with the poise and determination she showed on Sunday.
For now, Antonneau said, she continues to chase success one race at a time. Still, Sunday’s race was another auspicious step in an already auspicious year, a fact Antonneau couldn’t help but acknowledge.
“This is kind of a dream of mine, imagining myself on a World Cup podium,” she said. “I didn’t really believe it, I think. I’m ahead of where I thought I’d be. This is good. Cyclocross is my favorite, and it’s what I want to be successful in. I want to go as far as I can. This is a very good step forward.”