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It’s hard to remember what Katie Compton (KFC Racing-Trek-Knight Composites) looks like without a Stars and Stripes skinsuit. That’s because the last time anyone other than Compton wore the elite women’s national championship kit, George W. Bush was president.
In his first term.
Compton, 39, is again the favorite to win the U.S. title, which will be held this coming weekend in Reno, Nevada. In the last month of racing Compton has proven her winning form, scoring four podium finishes and one victory at some of the toughest races on the European calendar.
“I feel better than I did last year so that’s a good sign,” Compton told VeloNews on Monday. “Racing more helps too. Last year I stayed home and didn’t race after December 4. That’s six weeks to nationals, and training isn’t same as racing.”
While she raced exclusively in the U.S. through the fall of 2016, Compton took a new approach to the 2017 season. She switched her focus to the European theater, spending only one weekend stateside to race. Compton set up a base in Kalmthout, Belgium — something she’s never done in her lengthy career — and raced in Europe starting early October.
In cyclocross’s heartland, she was perhaps not as flawless but still very successful. She won four European UCI races, stood on the podium seven other times, and only finished outside the top-five once, apart from two DNFs.
Above all, she’s been enjoying the hard-fought racing that’s made elite women’s cyclocross far more unpredictable than the men’s racing. Compton battled for the victories alongside a host of top female racers, such as Sophie De Boer (Parkhotel Valkenburg-Destil), Helen Wyman (Xypex-Verge Sport), and reigning world champion Sanne Cant (Beobank-Corendon).
“The racing was really fun over Christmas ‘cross — I’ve really enjoyed it,” Compton said. “They were exciting for the riders too. Granted Sanne [Cant] wins a lot of the races, but we don’t know if she’s going to win until the last 500 meters.”
The competition won’t be quite as stiff on Sunday, yet Compton does expect a challenge.
During her reign, Compton has faced and defeated a long list of strong Americans at the national championships. She won hard-fought duels with Olympic mountain bikers Georgia Gould and Mary McConneloug, battled against full-time cyclocrossers such as Elle Anderson and Ann Knapp.
This year, Compton faces a challenge from two young faces: Ellen Noble and Kaitlin Keough. Compton has raced against both riders throughout their comparatively short careers. Noble is just 22 and Keough is 26. Compton has seen each rider progress through cyclocross’s muddy ranks. Keough was second to Compton at the 2012 U.S. national championships and third last year. Keough is also currently second overall in the World Cup after a consistent season.
Both riders have their specific strengths. Noble excels in thick mud and technical terrain. Keough is in a class of her own on the climbs.
Compton likes her chances but said the battle may come down to the course profile. She has yet to ride the new course in Reno and therefore isn’t certain how the race will play out.
“It just depends on how the course is set up how much elevation there is,” Compton said. “Kaitie [Keough] is a better climber than I am. I know that, and she knows it too. If it’s a climbing course she can play her cards there.”
Compton’s 13-year reign as national champion has stretched through much of her rivals’ lifetimes. Noble was just nine years old when Compton won her first title. They might have to wait another year to dethrone the longtime queen of U.S. ‘cross.
Compton said she is feeling strong and confident. But even Compton knows that all winning streaks come to an end.
“The times going to come when I get beat,” she said.