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Chasing Katie: can anyone topple the giant at cyclocross nationals?

December 2003 in Portland, Oregon, was the last time anyone other than Katie Compton won a women’s elite U.S. national championship in cyclocross.

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USGP Planet Bike Cup #2, Andrea Smith, Georgia Gould, Meredith Miller, Katie Compton
Andrea Smith, Georgia Gould, Meredith Miller and THE woman to beat, Katie Compton

BEND, Ore. (VN)_ December 2003 in Portland, Oregon, was the last time anyone other than Katie Compton won a women’s elite U.S. national championship in cyclocross. That makes a record-tying six wins for the Planet Bike-Stevens rider, winner of two World Cups this season. The 2010 national title is on the line Sunday and Compton is the 800 lb. gorilla in a deep women’s field.

Can the Luna Chix Georgia Gould or Amy Dombroski outpower Compton? What about Portland local Sue Butler? The Hudz-Subaru rider is at home in the sloppy conditions awaiting riders in Bend, Oregon.

If anyone is to unseat Compton, they’ll need a strong slingshot and the perfect sized rock to do so.

Bike eating puddles and more

2010 Cyclocross Nationals Course in Bend, Oregon
2010 Cyclocross Nationals Course in Bend, Oregon

As mentioned in yesterday’s men’s elite preview, the Bend course is partially redesigned for 2010 and features a mix of power and technical sections, as well as a stair run-up and a pair of steep, off-camber, traversing 180s.

New for 2010 are a number of weaving, off-camber sections, three new straightaways and a rideable flyover. With such variety, the course isn’t suited to one particular riding style over any other and each of the top favorites should enter the race on equal footing when it comes to the course design.

Course conditions may be another story. The giant pools of water marking the course on opening day were still there Thursday. Overnight freezes, high temperatures in the upper 30s and low 40s and rain/snow mix are in the forecast for the weekend and the puddles could stick around and turn into cold mush by race time Sunday.

The sleeping giant

Compton is the prohibitive favorite to win a record-breaking seventh straight title. The Colorado Springs, Colorado, based rider sat out last weekend’s U.S. Gran Prix of Cycloross finale in Portland to recover from a return trip from Europe after winning the Koksijde World Cup by more than two minutes. The strategy has paid dividends for Compton this fall as she’s been able to avoid the travel-induced leg cramps she has suffered with in previous seasons.

“Coming into nationals I’m feeling better now than I have in a long time, better than I have the last couple of years, so I’m really excited to race on Sunday,” Compton told VeloNews.

Previous champions

2009 Katie Compton
2008 Katie Compton
2007 Katie Compton
2006 Katie Compton
2005 Katie Compton
2004 Katie Compton
2003 Alison Dunlap
2002 Ann Grande
2001 Alison Dunlap
2000 Alison Dunlap

Before her latest Belgium trip, Compton had only lost one race she’d finished in the States this season – the first day of the USGP New Belgium Cup to Czech champ Katerina Nash (Luna). Other than that day, when an unfortunate mishap in the pits arguably cost her the win, Compton has destroyed the field in most of the contests she’s entered.

Resplendent in her stars-and-stripes jersey, Compton pulled convincing wins at the USGP Planet Bike Cup, UCI3 Festival, day two at New Belgium and the Colorado Cross Classic, despite crashing hard when course tape caught her bars at top speed.

The day after that crash was the one time this fall that Compton showed weakness. An on-form Gould won the Boulder Cup after Compton abandoned with another crash. As she treated her wounds after the race, Compton told VeloNews that she thought Gould would have won regardless.

“I never take my competition for granted,” she said. “I always give them respect because there’s no guarantee that I can go in and win a race. I have to be sure to bring my A game and race well and be smart and have a clean, competent race to win. I always take the approach that everyone can have a great day any day of the week and I have to have a great day too. That’s how I look at every race I do.”

Compton is as complete a ’cross racer as there is. The new power sections on the Bend track suit her. But so do the slick, off-camber corners. The nationals course requires a full toolbox and no rider carries more hammers than Compton.

Gould is No.1 Hunter

The women’s elite field is stacked for podium contenders and Georgia Gould (Luna) enters the weekend atop the list of would-be Compton beaters. Gould has finished on the podium at ’cross nationals three times (2nd in 2006 and ’08, 2rd in 2007) and is hungry for the jersey.

“I know that I can win races,” she told VeloNews. “I’ve won and I’m hungry to win. That’s my goal whenever I show up to a race.”

A year after burning out midseason, Gould narrowed her focus to the USGP and nationals in 2010. The approach appears to be working. The pro mountain biker won four races en route to the USGP overall title, sweeping the Louisville and Portland weekends. Gould and Compton faced off most recently at the New Belgium Cup and Compton was forced to make violent surges on a long climb each day to snap Gould’s leash.

“Georgia’s riding really well this year and it’s good to see her come back after struggling last year,” Compton told VeloNews. “I think it’s going to be a good race. I hope she’s feeling good and we can push each other and make it a really exciting, hard race. I get extra excited to race against her when we’re both riding well.”

In a poll of riders, Gould was the only one to respond affirmatively that she was out to beat Compton this weekend. That confidence – and technical skills every bit as good as Compton’s – could be just the weapons Gould needs to topple Compton on Sunday.

According to Gould, when it comes down to it, beating Compton is simple. “Ride faster, make fewer mistakes,” she said. “That’s how you do it.”

Podium fighters

Beyond Gould, the women’s field is deep. The front row will include Laura Van Gilder (C3-Athletes Serving Athletes), who sat #1 on the UCI world rankings earlier this year, Sue Butler (Hudz-Subaru), who returned from a six-week sinus infection last week, and last year’s silver medalist Meredith Miller (Cal Giant-Specialized).

Front row

Katie Compton (Planet Bike)
Laura Van Gilder (C3-Athletes Serving Athletes)
Sue Butler (Hudz-Subaru)
Sally Annis ( Cycles)
Georgia Gould (Luna)
Meredith Miller (Cal Giant-Specialized)
Andrea Smith (LadiesFirst)
Amy Dombroski (Luna)

Riders are seeded based on UCI points as of December 7. Compton receives the first call-up as defending champion.

Van Gilder’s teammate Deidre Winfield isn’t on the list of registered riders, meaning three-time U23 national champ Amy Dombroski (Luna) should find the front of the grid as well.

“It’s been cool to see so many different faces at the front of races in the U.S. this year,” said Gould. “Some of those East Coast riders that didn’t do the USGP’s like Sally Annis and Andrea Smith (could contend for a podium). It’s sloppy and Mo (Bruno-Roy) always seems to ride well in those conditions. It just depends on who rides well on the day.”

Last weekend was a microcosm of Dombroski’s up-and-down season. She called Saturday one of her very worst days on a bike, but on Sunday she rode to a solid third-place behind Gould and Nash.

“I expect to be on the podium. Well, I don’t want to say expect. I want to be on the podium and I would be happy with a podium finish,” she told VeloNews. “I think my fitness is definitely there, so it’s just a matter of having everything go right – getting the right pre-race routine in.”

One of the things to love about ’cross is the fact that anything can happen at any time. Compton’s six-year reign could come to an end in a second with an ill-timed mechanical and Gould will lead the nation’s top riders as they do their best to keep the favorite tied with Alison Dunlap at six titles.

BHolcombeEditor’s Note: Brian Holcombe is a reporter with VeloNews. He covers all things racing in the U.S. and has been accused of attacking too much on the VN lunch ride.