They’re coming for Katie Compton.
The next generation of great American female cyclocross racers has taken a leap forward in 2017, and now Kaitie Keough (neé Antonneau) and Ellen Noble look poised to challenge Compton’s longtime spot atop the country’s mountain of ‘cross talent. Over her career, Compton has battled back strong American rivals from multiple generations, from Ann Knapp to Georgia Gould and Elle Anderson. Compton has bested them all, winning 13 consecutive national titles since 2004.
So is 2017 the year that someone finally dethrones the American queen of ‘cross?
“I got the young’uns chasing me down pretty quickly, and now they’re really close,” Compton told VeloNews this week. “It’s unfortunate for me because I like to win races but it’s really good for [the country] because we need that young blood coming up.”
Both Noble and Keough shrugged off suggestions that they are now on-par with Compton. After all, both racers were children when Compton began her run atop the U.S. cyclocross standings, and have looked up to Compton throughout their respective careers.
“I hope someday I’m at her level,” Noble said. “I don’t feel like I’m there just yet.”
In terms of results, the younger stars have already surpassed Compton in 2017. Keough owns two second-place finishes at the opening rounds of the UCI World Cup, as well as a win from Friday’s KMC Cross Festival and the opening race of Iowa’s Jingle Cross festival, both UCI-C1 rated races. Noble scored a third place at the World Cup round in Waterloo, Wisconsin, as well as at Cross Vegas, which boasted C1 status this year.
Compton, by contrast, has struggled through a forgettable early 2017 campaign which has been marred by crashes and calamity. She crashed hard during the opening laps of the Jingle Cross World Cup, injuring her shoulder. The following week, Compton’s efforts at the World Cup in Waterloo, Wisconsin were derailed when she was stung by a bee the day before the race. Compton says the sting triggered an allergic reaction that caused her to finish a distant 42nd place.
Rather than chance a lengthy recovery, Compton has opted to treat the reaction with Prednisone, and is foregoing competition for at least 10 days until the corticoid is out of her system. The decision forced her to skip this weekend’s KMC Cyclocross Festival in Connecticut, which is the opening round of the new Sho-Air U.S. Cup-CX series.
“As much as I wanted to race KMC I’d probably have a bad day anyway because my body hasn’t recovered,” Compton said. “At some point, I need to stop being stubborn and just rest.”
Results aside, there are other signs that the next generation is ready to take on Compton. Keough now races with the calm confidence of a seasoned veteran. During Friday’s opening night of the KMC Cyclocross Festival Keough was forced to chase a surging Maghalie Rochette (CLIF Pro Team) during the midpoint of the race. After catching the Canadian, Keough did not burn her legs with an attack on the flat, fast course, which catered to drafting and road race tactics. Instead, Keough matched Rochette’s surges on the long run-up, and then drafted on her until the final straightaway, where she unleashed a powerful sprint to the line.
Keough attributes her change in attitude to a leap forward in fitness.
“My mental game and my strength have really improved this year,” Keough said after the race. “My confidence is much better. I’m not off the back in the beginning. So now I can settle in and just race instead of chasing.”
Keough’s first win of the season came in a head-to-head battle with Compton on the opening night of Iowa’s Jingle Cross festival. Keough matched Compton’s power on the early stages of the race, and then distanced the reigning U.S. champion on the final lap. The win gave Keough a huge boost of confidence heading into her 2017-18 campaign.
“I’ve been waiting and trying really hard for a few years to have a race like that against Katie where nothing happens mechanically to us and we can just race,” Keough said. “It felt pretty awesome to do that.”
Noble is a few watts behind Keough, and at 21, believes she’s still a few years from challenging for elite national titles. She is still learning to go gauge her efforts during fast, tactical races, she said, and must remind herself to save her legs early in the races. Noble excels on sloppy, technical courses, and believes that the proper conditions could propel her to the same level as Keough and Compton.
“It’s possible with some of the races that I can put it all together on a day,” Noble said. “I could still use a bit more raw power—I know that the numbers I currently have aren’t up to where the other women are.”
All three riders will head overseas this year to race on the UCI World Cup rounds in Belgium. Compton will spend the lion’s share of her season racing overseas, while Keough and Noble will race the full U.S. Cup-CX series and target select World Cup rounds. So the next time the three battle in a head-to-head race will likely be the 2018 U.S. national championships in Reno, Nevada.
And that’s where Compton could still hold the upper hand. Throughout her career, Compton has been able to maintain racing fitness throughout the grueling cyclocross season and still peak at the national championships. Her younger rivals are strong in September, but will they have the same pop in January? Only time will tell.
Despite her early disappointments, Compton says she’s ready to defend her title. The new talent will just force her to work harder, she said.
“Having that competition, knowing that there are these people working really hard to beat me, that’s what makes me step it up,” Compton said. “It’s hard but I think it’s exactly what we need.”