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Kaitie Keough can only recall a few scenes from her cyclocross World Cup victory this past Saturday. Much of the 41-minute race has simply faded into a blur.
The most vivid memory comes from the second lap of the race. Keough churns her pedals through the thick mud, just a few meters behind race leader Marianne Vos. In an instant, Vos loses her footing and slips, and Keough speeds past.
That buzz of leading a World Cup still hums inside Keough’s mind.
“I picture myself at the bottom of Mt. Krumpit riding up and passing her, and I’m like, ‘I’m winning. I’m in the lead,'” Keough says, recalling the scene. “I always imagined what it would be like to be in that position. How would my mind react? Would I freak out and blow the opportunity? Would I be OK? That whole moment is a strong memory.”
For years, North American cyclocross fans have also wondered how Kaitie Keough would react when leading a World Cup. Note that I said “when” and not “if.” For the last decade, Keough has been the perennial American up-and-comer, the youngster with the talent and raw power to someday land a big international victory. Her rise through cyclocross’s ranks followed the traditional pathway, with victories at the U23 level, major wins at North American races, and even her first World Cup podium at age 23.
She has been on the cusp of greatness — for a while now.
Of course, at some point every rising talent must claim the big, signature victory. Prior to Saturday, Keough had come close. Second place at the World Cup in Iowa. Second place at U.S. nationals. All Keough needed to do was punch through that last barrier.
So why was Keough able to break through in Iowa? Sure, it was wet and muddy, conditions that favor Keough’s skills. She learned her mud riding skills through practice, coaching, and by watching YouTube videos, she says. But there was something else. Keough was on great form, and she was hungry for a major result.
The day before the race, Keough had a hunch, a feeling: could Saturday finally bring her that elusive victory?
“I did a longer ride, an hour and a half on the road and then two laps of the course just to make sure I was opened up well. I did a few accelerations and knew I had really good legs,” Keough says. “I could go a lot longer than normal with my openers. I was pretty excited about that because I thought this could be really good for Saturday.”
There was another moment, weeks ago, when Keough had another premonition that 2018 might be the year for her big win. Keough lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, home of the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Cycling, and one of the country’s fastest Saturday group rides. On this Saturday, just a few weeks ago, Keough pedaled along in the group ride and saw that the four members of the U.S. men’s national pursuit squad had dropped in to test their legs.
Keough knew what that meant: it was going to get fast. When the attacks started, Keough hung tough.
“It was super hard, I covered some attacks and was able to get on the group,” Keough says. “I couldn’t pull through but I could also hang in there, so I knew I was going decent. It was a really good test of fitness. That ride is always hard.”
And then there was one final component that may have edged Keough to victory. Keough is from Racine, Wisconsin, two hours from this year’s World Cup opener in Waterloo. That race was to be her home event, an opportunity to race in front of her family and friends. And then, the week before the race, Keough fell ill and the virus simply lingered. It sapped Keough’s legs for the World Cup and spoiled her homecoming. She finished way back in 19th place, not up to her standards.
Keough was upset, and she knew the only cure for her ailment: rest. She went home to Racine, glued herself to the couch, and loaded up her Netflix account. She and her husband binged on the first and second seasons of American Vandal as they waited for the bug to disappear.
By midweek, the power had returned to her legs.
“I was with my dog, my parents, and Luke, and we just hung out and watched stupid TV and slept a lot,” Keough says. “I found this really good place in La Grange with mountain bike trails and went riding, went to a good sandwich place. Just fun stuff like that to keep my mind off of it.”
Stupid TV shows, group rides, and good sandwiches were Keough’s winning formula in Iowa.
There will be future marquee wins, of course, World Cups, national championships, and perhaps rainbow stripes. Keough still has yet to reach her peak, and she’s already the world’s best.
Keough’s win in Iowa was the first step, even if her memory from that day is a blur.