At the beginning of last year, Katie Compton and her fellow Trek rider Sven Nys were on top of the world: both started New Year's Day with victories in Baal, Belgium and were enjoying successful seasons. Compton secured the World Cup overall by winning in Rome, then returned home where she cruised seemingly effortlessly to her 10th US national championship. The year ended quite differently, however, and both she and Nys have struggled uncharacteristically in recent weeks. That doesn't mean that either of them are going to give up without a fight, and Compton has her sights set firmly on her 11th straight US title on Sunday.
“I've felt better, I'm not going to lie. It has not been the greatest season for me. I'm feeling a little better now, but I'm definitely not as good as I was feeling last year,” Compton told Cyclingnews from her home in Colorado ahead of the USA Cycling National Championships in Austin, Texas.
“It's still Nationals, and I want to win. I just want to have a good race, and have my body hold up to what I want to accomplish mentally. I can't predict the outcome, but I'm going to focus on the process and the race itself and see how it goes.”
Compton came into the season a little slower than normal, hoping to have a more gradual progression toward the world championships. She won half a dozen races in the US, and in the World Cup she won the opening round in Valkenburg in mid-October taking the first series jersey. Everything seemed on track.
“Then, in November I got sick and had to go on antibiotics, and it kind of took the wind out of my sails. I haven't felt good since Valkenburg. I've been trying to do the best I can to rest and train and race through it, but 'cross is such a short season, you don't have a lot of time to rest and try again.”
Compton fought hard to stay in contention in the World Cup, coming within a single point of regaining the series lead with her third place in Namur, but then she was forced to drop out of the next race in Zolder, succumbing to lung issues which have plagued her all year.
“I've been struggling from the get go,” Compton said of her season. “Hopefully I'll come around for Worlds. Mentally, I want to keep pushing and go harder, but I have to govern with my lungs. If I start having issues I have to back off. Even if my legs and my head want to go hard, my lungs are holding me back.”
Her international results aside, few American riders have topped Compton. Meredith Miller out-sprinted her in CrossVegas, and although she had disastrous races in Harbin Park and the Kings CX After Dark in Ohio, she rebounded to win the Pan American Championships that same weekend. Although she hasn't won since then, she is not ready to give up her aspirations to extend as US national champion.
“Not winning [nationals] is going to happen at some point - at some point I'll get beat, that's bike racing. But I'm going to do everything I can to make it number 11.”
With unexpectedly foul weather set to descend upon Austin for the weekend's championship races - weather forecasts are predicting temperatures just above freezing and snow or rain - Compton's chances might be improved by a slippery, technical course. Though the course lacks the extreme elevation changes of the Namur World Cup, Compton was able to use her skills and experience to pull out a podium finish there, despite her continued health issues.
“Namur was successful, but it wasn't a 'good' race. Of course, I tend to be hard on myself - I couldn't breathe well, but I raced well and raced smart.”
The time in Belgium may have been a challenge, but it is one that helped her prepare well for the kind of conditions riders will face on Sunday. “Every year 'cross nats is crappy weather, which is good - it is cyclo-cross, after all. But I think people wanted a break from snow and cold, and they're not going to get it. In Belgium, there's a lot of racing in 34 degrees and rain - you can't wear leg warmers because your legs get soaked to the core, but it's really cold riding with bare legs. Austin will be like that. It's going to be cold.
"Every race is a challenge. It's going to be a good race, going to be exciting. There will be quite a few unknown factors that will make it a good race," she said.
As for her main competition, Compton said a lot of the riders have had up and down seasons, but she pointed to Rachel Lloyd as the one she expects to be good given the course and her results this year.
“Rachel Lloyd will have a good race. I haven't seen her race lately, but she's in California and can train pretty easily. She had some good World Cups early [12th in Koksijde, 9th in Milton-Keynes -ed]. Katie Antonneau had some good races. We've all been so up and down this year, it could be a crap shoot more than anything. Then there's Georgia Gould. I don't know how she's riding, if she's just training or if she's racing it. She's always going to be a factor.”
In addition to those riders, Elle Anderson, who was fifth in Valkenburg and has been racing all season in Belgium, and a host of other consistently strong riders have raised the overall level of women's cyclo-cross in the USA, Compton said. “It's good to see. We've been racing well, and there are quite a few strong women. We'll have some good competition this year, there are people stepping up and getting faster. It's good for US cross and good for women's cyclo-cross in general.”
Have they done enough to put an end to Compton's decade-long, record winning streak? “It will depend on how people are feeling and how the course is, whether it's heavy and snowy or fast,” Compton said. “If I don't win I'll be disappointed for sure. Obviously I want to win again. It's important to me. Even though I have 10, it's always fun to win again.
“If I do win, it will feel good. I just want to win a race, to get some result. Winning nationals would achieve that. I'm tired of not feeling well and not getting the results I'm capable of.”
Like Nys, Compton's recent spate of misery in cyclo-cross hasn't stopped her from aiming at the podium of the World Championships next month, or from planning what she will do differently next season.
“I'm definitely going to keep going. I want to race well and feel better. I feel like I'm already going to start preparing for next year, and approach things differently next year. I'm still learning - it's funny, it feels like I've been doing this forever, but every year I feel like I learn something new about my body, or about the travel, or the racing. I'm going to make some changes for next year. I plan to do more racing here and go back and forth for the World Cups and spend less time in Belgium. The rain in Belgium and all the mould spores - it doesn't freeze there so the moulds get worse every year. I have to get out of that environment so I can train and feel better.”
Before she can get there, she wants to stamp out her health issues for once and for all, starting with Sunday's race. “I'm excited for it. I'm looking forward to the weekend. It will be good regardless. Whatever happens on Sunday, hopefully I can win again and feel good, and have a good race. If I don't I'll be pretty disappointed and have to drink some wine a little sooner.”