An interview with Katie Compton, January 29, 2009
Katie Compton goes into this weekend's World Cyclo-cross Championships in Hoogerheide, The Netherlands as one of the hot favourites. Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins has been speaking to the US champion as she builds up for her best chance yet of a rainbow jersey.
Despite an early season injury, copious travel and conditions that haven't always suited her, Katie Compton has taken three rounds of the World Cup – including arguably the two toughest in Roubaix and Koksijde – and rarely been out of contention in any of the races she's entered. Throughout the 2007/08 season, this rider from Colorado Springs, Colorado was a regular on the podium of the biggest races; in 2008/09 it has been unusual for her not to be there.
Remarkably, Compton has excelled in the toughest conditions – where sand or thick mud slows riders to a crawl – like those in Nommay, her second World Cup win, or Gavere, her first European victory of the season. "Yeah, definitely gotten faster this year," she agreed, "definitely feeling stronger. I like the mud and sand better because it's more just power and there's less tactics involved, so I definitely like those courses over [others] where it's really fast and tactics are involved; positioning and sprinting and stuff."
"It definitely feels good to be consistently on the podium this year."
"I like the mud and sand better because it's more just power and there's less tactics involved." - Compton describes her ideal racing conditions.
In fact, when Compton fails to step onto the dais it comes as a surprise to her competitors. "It was funny," Compton laughed. "[At the World Cup] in Zolder I got fourth and everyone was like 'what happened? What happened?' But, you know I didn't have a great day, and I didn't ride the sprint well, and three girls [Marianne Vos (DSB Bank, Hanka Kupfernagel (Itera) and Daphny Van Den Brand (ZZPR.nl)] are faster than me at the finish line so what do you do, sometimes you can't have everything."
Minor "setbacks" like missing the podium at the Zolder World Cup notwithstanding, Compton has successfully made the transition from contender to favourite over the past two seasons. "[I've] definitely stepped up a level," she smiled.
"I think two years ago I struggled to stay with that front group and I was like 'I'm almost there', and last year I didn't have the training down as well as I did this year because I got sick over the summer. But, I think this year it's been consistent where I can stay on the podium and if I have good legs I have a good opportunity to win; if not I definitely have a podium opportunity."
The holiday period around Christmas and the New Year was a cold one in northern Europe. The usual mud-slick courses around Flanders in Northern Belgium were transformed into virtual dirt criteriums– albeit ones with obstacles – on the frozen earth. This can play into the strengths of some riders more than others, favouring riders with speed (road riders like Vos) over those with the power to slog through the muck.
After the race in Loenhout, Compton was wishing for the slop to return. "It was tough so there weren't any spots where you could get a gap and really put the power down," she said, "so it was kind of a fast race but it was a hard race. I like them hard where it's just like every lap you're just hurting, everyone's suffering and people are getting dropped. Today it was easy to sit on and draft.
"I hope that Roubaix and Worlds – I'd love it if they were muddy and heavy courses, hopefully – but we'll see. This isn't typical weather for this long, I don't think. It's been frozen for a while."
Making Worlds her home turf
Part of Compton's campaign to take her first rainbow jersey has been to make her European base in the north of Belgium, close to the World Championship course, just over the border in the Netherlands. "We're in Kalmthout – where the first World Cup is – so we're like 20km from Hoogerheide," she explained, "so I can ride over there and it's just like racing your home course, so I like that."
Such local knowledge should give her an edge over less local rivals, but she also knows that nothing can be taken for granted in a sport where so many other variables can come into play. "Obviously winning is the goal," she said, "it's always the goal – and hopefully everything comes together: I have good legs; not make any mistakes; I don't get any flats; no mechanicals. You know it's hard to get that win but it's something I really want so... I mean I'll be happy with the podium, but I definitely want to go for the win."
Obviously Compton is not the only woman who is focusing her season on the rainbow jersey at Hoogerheide come February the 1st, and it's clear who she expects her main rivals to be: those three riders who have joined her at the front in so many races this year, each one taking her fair share of major victories.
"You know, it depends on the course," she explained, "because Daphny [Van Den Brand] and Marianne [Vos] have been riding really well. Daphny's riding really well for this time of year because she usually gets a little slower towards Worlds – but she's riding fast. There's Hanka [Kupfernagel, the current World champion]... It really depends on the course and who's feeling good."
Vos had been unlucky to crash in the race at Loenhout, offering Compton an easier shot at the podium, but such an incident reminded her of one of the first principles of the sport. "She was [unlucky]," Compton agreed. "I lucked out because she crashed at the right time, but that's 'cross racing: you've got to keep it upright."
Two days after our original conversation in December, Compton would be heading back to the States for one last time this season before returning for a total focus on that rainbow jersey. "I'll come back for Roubaix," she confirmed, "and then two weeks training and preparation for the Worlds."
This latest trip across the Atlantic was the latest in a series of journeys between Compton's base in northern Belgium and her home in the US. One of those included a trip to Kansas City, Missouri where she successfully defended her stars and stripes jersey, taking the US championships for the fifth successive year, but much of the traveling has been for more personal reasons.
"Well, it was usually once a month," she said. "So, we came over end of October, went back; came over November, went back; came over December, then we're going back. We leave on Thursday – the 1st [of January] – for a few weeks and then we'll be back for Roubaix and Worlds.
"Then we're home for the summer."
"We do it because we have dogs," she explained, "and we want to go home and see them, and it's good to be home; to just sleep in your own bed and kind of check in and say 'hi' to friends and it's good to be home.
"So we like to go back and forth and it's not too bad: the travel."
A side effect of all this inter-continental traveling has been that Compton has missed a number of the season's big races. This, and a 'DNF' in her "home" World Cup race at Kalmthout due to the recurrence of a leg injury, effectively meant that she had no chance to challenge for the overall World Cup title. Being supported by a US-based company though means that she has been able to set her own priorities.
"My sponsors are really good so I can kind of pick and choose the races I want to do," she explained. "Spike Shooter is an energy drink in the states and they also do recovery drinks and endurance drinks and weightlifting supplements. So, they're like 'whatever you want to do, pick and choose the races you want to do', so I pretty much do the ones that'll get me some publicity."
With all the prizes and trophies she has picked up this season, accolades from fans are always appreciated and the biggest of these must be the annual CyclingnewsReaders Poll.
"That was really awesome!" she exclaimed over her victory in the women's cyclo-cross category. "It's such a huge US fan base and that helped, but still... it was pretty cool to win that! I can still put it on my resume," she joked.
And if she takes the World title this year or not: "Whatever. I got the Cyclingnews poll!
"I voted for myself..." she admitted, laughing.
On her return to Europe Compton's wish had come true and the cold weather was replaced by driving rain turning the World Cup course on and around the iconic Roubaix Velodrome into a quagmire. She promptly won the race and struck what she hopes is a blow against her three rivals who once again completed the top four.
"I like it, I'm really happy!" she said of the muddy conditions. "The harder the better, the more technical; I like these races, it's just fun to race that way you know. So I was pretty happy when I woke up this morning and it was raining."
Everyone will be watching the weather forecasts in the run up to this weekend, and Katie Compton will be one who won't mind if it rains on her parade.