Katie Compton has been undoubtedly the most successful US rider on the world's cyclo-cross stage but the time has come to wind down her professional career. The 42-year-old will close out the season with her 15th straight appearance at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Ostend.
Although Compton plans to race one more season until the next World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Sunday marks the end of Compton's last full season in Belgium.
It has not exactly been the triumphant farewell tour for which she might have hoped. Most of the World Cup rounds were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, races have been held without spectators and riders have been faced with numerous COVID-19 tests.
Compton, who has some 130 UCI victories to her name, has yet to crack the top 10 this season. Her best finish was 11th in Bredene in December, and she admits it's been tough and a top 10 at Worlds would exceed her expectations.
"It's been a struggle. It's been a rough year, with the stress of COVID. I think I trained pretty well, I just stayed home and enjoyed some good training over the summer at home. Once I got here, it just wasn't very good. I kept thinking the next race would be better but I just didn't feel that great and I couldn't figure out why. I just felt blocked and loaded, I just can't go fast. That's been frustrating."
In past years, Compton has struggled with various health issues but one up-side to all the coronavirus measures is that she hasn't gotten sick. But the pandemic, the summer of unrest and the contentious election in the US have been an emotional strain. "Health-wise I'm good, there are no excuses except maybe stress. That's my only idea of what it could possibly be."
Before last weekend's races in Hamme and the last World Cup, Compton was hoping to salvage the season with some good races, but ended with a 14th in the Flandriencross and a distant 42nd in an exceptionally hilly course in Overijse, but had already made her decision to head home after Worlds.
"I'm tired. As much as I enjoy racing I think I've had enough struggling and beating my head against the wall trying to get better," Compton said, adding that she's looking forward to getting back to Colorado sunshine after three months of dreary weather.
"I think Colorado spoils us – I think we have seen the sun twice in one month here. That wears on us." The pandemic has also meant that the usual breaks to have sunny mid-season training camps were off the table.
"When you can't leave and go to Spain for a couple of weeks to get some sunshine – let's just say I'm done riding in the rain. I can't wait to see the sunrise and it's not just one shade of grey from nine in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon."
After over a decade at the top of the sport, the attention has turned away from the 15-time national champion now that compatriot Clara Honsinger has taken both the stars-and-stripes jersey and the spotlight with two World Cup podiums. Compton has hardly even featured in the television coverage of the races but still commands ample respect as the most successful US racer, male or female, in cyclo-cross.
She's one of the most decorated in the sport, with five Worlds medals, 24 World Cup race victories, twice the World Cup series winner and an estimated 130 UCI wins to her name.
When an interviewer asked Honsinger in Namur about being the first US woman "in a while" to step onto a World Cup podium, Honsinger was quick to correct the commentator that Compton was on the podium in Nommay just last season. It was one example of the measure of regard other riders have for Compton.
"I loved Clara's response in that interview - they forget quickly that I was actually on the podium in Nommay [last season]. Yeah, I haven't seen the podium as much but I'm also 42 years old. I found it funny – US riders have been on the podium and it's pretty hard for us to do it – with jet lag, being set up in Europe and having all the support and equipment we need.
"I was the first US woman to be consistently good in Europe and the first woman to medal at Worlds - to be in the thick of it and have success," she said, adding that other US riders like Kaitie Keough and Georgia Gould have also won World Cup medals.
Concomitant with her success, the status of women in cyclo-cross has vastly improved over her 16-year career so far. When Compton started, the elite women raced in the morning with the junior men, their races were not televised, prize money was paltry and start contracts rare.
In 2005, after her first US title, Compton told Cyclingnews that she couldn't make a living racing - there wasn't even a World Cup for women until 2005-2006. Now – without COVID-19 shutting down the lower categories – there are elite, U23, and junior races at Worlds for women.
Racing now pays Compton's bills, which is helped by the fact that women's races have moved from early in the schedule to prime time before the men. Their races have also gotten longer, their calendar more extensive, and there is more prize money.
"The UCI pushed to help with women's racing, to make us more equal. It's definitely been a slow process – it doesn't happen overnight – but from 2007 until now it's been a massive change in how far women's racing has come. You see it with how fast the racing is, how deep the competition is, it's more international although it's still Europe-heavy.
"For the US, especially for the women, there's been a lot of excitement and a push to also come to Belgium and race here, too. I think the TV coverage has helped because Americans can watch Belgian races every weekend. It's wonderful for women's racing, you can see the progress has been huge in the last three or four years. The racing is fast and it's so dynamic to watch – I think it's better than the men's racing, to be honest."
After spending the winter in her base in Kapellen, Belgium, Compton will head home to rest and prepare for her final professional season, which will include mostly North American races, provided the pandemic doesn't lead to mass cancellations again. With Worlds in Fayetteville her last race, Compton said she might do some European weekends but isn't planning to spend a full season in Belgium again.
This means saying goodbye to week-long stretches of rainy, grey days but also leaving behind some positives: proximity to almost all of the top races, not having to pack bikes and gear into flight cases, and a countryside replete with excellent trails for training.
"I'm going to miss the forest rides and the singletrack here," Compton said when asked what she would miss most. "The training here is really great, the 'cross bike riding is probably some of the best I've done. Where we live in Belgium we have so much fun singletrack to ride that's hard pack, sandy, berms, it's just great riding. I don't have that at home, in Colorado we either climb up or go down. I'm going to try to ride it a couple more times before we leave."
It also means returning to a country where the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage and the political climate, while less heated since Joe Biden was sworn in as president, led to the US democracy being seriously undermined by the former president's misinformation campaign. When insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol on January 6, Compton said, "I was amazed. I couldn't believe it – I mean, I could but I couldn't. It was like, 'It's come to this?'
"It's kind of nice to be missing out on that stuff [in Belgium] – I could follow it when I wanted to but didn't have to deal with the everyday stress that every American has been dealing with for the last four years. I wouldn't be surprised if that is part of the stress coming into the season with COVID, the protests, there's so much going on with the politics in the country that it just wears on people. We're ready to move on and hopefully have some good things happen."
Even though her last full season in Belgium hasn't exactly gone to plan, Compton is still enjoying the process of training and preparing for competition and living life as a professional athlete.
"There are so many positives to it that I struggle walking away from," she admited. "It's just fun - when you have a job that you like - there are ups and downs for sure - but it's pretty darn great. I'm just lucky I've been doing it for as long as I have and to retire how I want to. I feel very grateful for that, for the sponsor support that's allowed me to do it this way.
"It's been a fun adventure that unfortunately is going to come to an end, but that's the way it goes. A cycling career can't last forever. I'm kind of managing some of that change, some of those emotions now," she said.
On the flipside, there are some things to look forward to, like "waking up and if I don't feel like riding, I don't have to ride. That will be a nice change. I can't think of the last time I've woken up and not thought about training."
With one year left to race, Compton hasn't made firm plans about what she'll do after retiring but plans to keep racing at the Masters level – "I'm not done racing completely - just not at this level. I love racing too much" – and to take on some coaching clients.
"I have learned so much, if I don't share it with the new generation it's kind of a waste," she said. "I'm not quite sure if I will do it as a full-time endeavour but I'll definitely keep athletes."
Another idea is to go into nursing – a field with serious worker shortages, a situation that the pandemic has only highlighted. "I've always loved the medical field. When I was in college it was something I was interested in but I was too focused on bike racing to put too much energy into it. It's something I've been thinking about for the last 10 years. It's one of the only fields that can engage me for hours on end."
Until then, Compton hopes that she can once again enjoy the unique racing scene in the US again and see the friends and fans she has been missing for the last few years.
"Hopefully COVID doesn't take the fun out of it once again. It's a little bit less serious than being in Belgium. The fans are great here, too – it's just different. This is a serious professional side while in the US you can get beer hand-ups. It's a more laid-back atmosphere and that'll be a nice way to finish up my career, with low-key domestic racing."
Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news.
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