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It is the sort of dominance rarely seen in sport — 11 times national champion; more than a dozen World Cup victories; an untiring face at the front of elite women’s cyclocross racing for more than a decade. Katie Compton (Trek Factory Racing) comes into this national championship, as she has every edition since 2004, as the fire-breathing dragon every other woman wants to slay.
Who can challenge her? The women’s field is deep in Austin, Texas, and riders are itching to snatch the jersey off Compton’s shoulders.
There’s Meredith Miller, returned from a short retirement to a stellar season with Noosa Pro Cyclocross, who houses a diesel engine worth watching on any boggy course. Elle Anderson (Kalas-NNOF) is fresh off a season in Europe, flush with the fitness and skills Belgian racing imparts. Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), 23, is known for her technical prowess but perhaps more tuned to a hillier course than the one found in Zilker park. Then there are fresh faces in the elite field, like young Ellen Noble (JAM Fund/NCC) who has already surprised women nearly twice her age this season.
Compton, for her part, will be watching all of them.
“I think Meredith (Miller), Rachel (Lloyd), Elle (Anderson), little Katie (Antonneau), those are the top riders right now,” Compton said. “I always have my eye on everybody because you never know. If someone gets a good gap, that’s not good. I’ll be watching everything, trying to stay at the front.”
Compton’s greatest adversary may be lady luck, according to Tim Johnson, who will be sitting out of the men’s race on Sunday with an injury. With a deep field, Sunday’s winner will need a near-perfect ride.
“You have to be trouble-free, and [Compton] really hasn’t had trouble-free races all season,” Johnson told VeloNews. “It’s really difficult to pass, and if you have a problem it’ll last a whole race.”
Georgia Gould (Luna) has put the fight to Compton before, but hasn’t raced as much cyclocross in the lead-up to nationals as she has in previous years. Her form is questionable, though her skills certainly aren’t.
The course may not have enough elevation gain for Katie Antonneau, according to Johnson, her teammate on the Cannondale squad. “I want to see little Katie — our Katie — do well, I think it’s technical enough for her, but the elevation gain isn’t that much,” he said. “It’s surprisingly flat even with the two big run-ups.”
Anderson returns to American racing for the first time since September, and the skills and fitness gained on the European scene could be a benefit on Sunday. But she also may be tired, and the Austin course may be too fast, even if wet, for her mud-tuned legs.
“I think the one thing Elle might be missing is a bit of hop in her step, because it’s been difficult what she’s been doing,” Johnson said. “She’s going to have to hope for a stiffer, harder race than what is out there. You really need to be fast and jump on the wheel and get into the draft. To do that you need the light motorpacing kind of training, you don’t get that riding through the mud.”
Pressure, Anderson says, won’t be an issue after the cooker of a European campaign. “Europe has dealt me the most difficult and technical courses, the toughest competition, and the most pressure to perform I’ve experienced so far in ‘cross. From this environment, I definitely feel like I’ve become a better racer while also knowing I still have a lot to learn,” she told VeloNews.
And to beat Compton?
“To beat Katie Compton, I would need to learn to jump barriers like Pauline Ferrand-Prévot,” Anderson said. “I have my work cut out for me …”
Logan VonBokel and Chris Case contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.