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Never mind Super Bowl Sunday — Saturday features the most exciting match-up for cyclocross fans, especially Americans.
The U.S. team will have its best opportunity to win a medal in the elite women’s race February 3 in Valkenburg, Netherlands. In fact, a number of insiders are calling the 2018 line-up the strongest elite women’s team that America has ever fielded for ‘cross worlds.
“I can’t think of a U.S. women’s team who’s been this strong ever,” says 14-time national champion and four-time worlds medalist Katie Compton.
Compton will lead the U.S. women’s team, which includes Kaitie Keough (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), Ellen Noble (Aspire Racing), Elle Anderson (Cycling.be-Alpha Motorhomes), Rebecca Fahringer (Stan’s No Tubes-Maxxis), and Courtenay McFadden (Pivot-DNA Cycling).
Coming off of a World Cup win January 21 in Nommay, France, Compton has had one of her best seasons ever. To reach her fifth worlds podium in Valkenburg, she’ll need to avoid the bad luck that derailed her race in Sunday’s final World Cup. There, in Hoogerheide, Compton slipped a pedal at the start, flatted on the first lap, and then had an asthma attack.
Stu Thorne, who runs Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com agrees that Compton is flying this season.
“Katie Compton, in my opinion, is in the best form in all the years I’ve known her and been to worlds,” he says.
Although Keough has yet to notch a major European win like Compton, she’s had a more consistent season, ending up second in the World Cup overall behind world champion Sanne Cant, thanks to four podium finishes in the eight-race series.
Keough is doing a rain dance ahead of Saturday’s championship. Muddy conditions would force riders to run more of the hilly Dutch track, and this will be good for a smaller rider like Keough, who isn’t as happy on raw power courses.
She thinks that Noble, 22, who will race her first elite worlds Saturday, is also primed for a top result. “Ellen’s really strong technically. I think when she’s on, I’ve seen her have some really impressive rides, for example when she got the silver medal in Luxembourg [the 2017 U23 women’s race],” Keough says. “I think top 10 is realistic if she has a good day.”
Similar to Keough, slippery, muddy conditions would be good for Noble who has honed her technical skills in both cyclocross and mountain bike races.
Anderson lives full-time in Ostend, Belgium. Her extensive European experience comes in handy when conditions deteriorate.
Fahringer remembers watching Anderson adapt to the unpredictable weather in Luxembourg at 2017 world championships by going out to pre-ride only one hour before the race start.
“I saw Elle go out the hour before the start,” Fahringer says. “At the time I was like, ‘That’s ballsy. What if she falls and breaks something?’” But it turned out to be the right call, as the slippery course actually improved for the women’s race. Anderson finished 11th that day.
Most of the riders recognize they won’t spend a ton of time together over the course of the worlds weekend. Those like Compton and Anderson have booked their own lodging and rely on personal support crews. Given the sport’s individual nature, there’s also a healthy feeling of competition among the riders, even if they wear the same Stars-and-Stripes skinsuits.
However, they share a sense of national pride.
“You definitely feel more pride. I always feel such pride for Katie Compton in a race or Katie Keough in a race,” Fahringer says. “I’ll be like, ‘Go win this for us!’”
And they have reason to be proud. American women have a long history of top performances in world cyclocross championships. Thorne says the 2018 team is “clearly one of the strongest,” rivaled only by the 2000 squad.
In that first running of the women’s UCI World Cyclocross Championships, Alison Dunlap was fifth, Carmen Richardson was eighth, Ann Grande was 13th, and Ruthie Matthis was 14th. Another pro mountain biker Shari Kain rode to 24th.
Geoff Proctor, USA Cycling’s Cyclocross Performance Consultant, notes that over the 18 years of women’s ‘cross worlds, the U.S. team has finished on the podium for the Nations Prize nine times. That award scores the top three finishers from each country.
He recalls the 2002 worlds in Zolder, where the elite women won the Nations Prize thanks to three top-10 finishes — Dunlap was fourth, Grande fifth, and Carmen D’Alusio was 10th.
“This year’s women’s worlds team reminds of that team,” Proctor told VeloNews via email. “They are going strong right now. It would be a great honor if we could earn a podium and win the Nations Prize for a second time.”
It’s subjective, though. The 2002 results were brilliant but didn’t include a medal. In 2013, Compton won silver at Louisville, while her teammates Keough (then Antonneau) and the late Amy Dombroski were 10th and 11th, respectively.
Top-10 finishes would be celebrated, but riders like Compton, Keough, and Noble surely have ambitions to make the podium.