Making history at the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships is something Katie Compton has been doing since 2009, the year she won her sixth-consecutive title and cemented her own reign at the top of the US scene after Alison Dunlap had won five titles in a row and six in seven years.
Compton had never been on the podium at nationals before she won her first title in Portland, Oregon, in 2004, beating Gina Hall and Ann Knapp. But since then she's put together an incredible string of titles that has seen a generation of riders pass into retirement while she takes on an ever-changing cast of contenders.
"As I think back on it," Compton said during a telephone interview from her home in Colorado Springs last week, "like the amount of years and the amount of times I've had really good days, and some days they weren't so good but I could pull it out - yeah, it's pretty great, pretty amazing.
"I just took one year at a time, and then they kind of kept on accumulating," she said. "Then it's like, 'I've got a good streak, I'm going to keep it going.' But, you know, it's got to end at some point, so I celebrate each time it happens again."
Compton, who turned 40 on December 3, hopes to celebrate her 15th consecutive title Sunday in Louisville, Kentucky, when she takes on the latest up-and-coming threats to her throne at the 2018 US nationals.
Over her 14-year run, Compton has seen multiple challengers come and go. In the early years, the riders pushing Compton were Knapp, Hall, Meredith Miller, Rachel Lloyd, Mo Bruno Roy, Amy Dombroski and - especially - Georgia Gould, who finished second to Compton four times at nationals.
These days, there are two main riders threatening Compton's streak. Kaitie Keough, a 26-year-old from Wisconsin who first finished runner-up to Compton at nationals in 2012, and relative newcomer Ellen Noble, a 23-year-old who has been on fire so far this season. After her 2012 second-place result, Keough has finished on the nationals podium four more times, including second again in 2015. Noble was runner-up to Compton last year, one spot ahead of Keough.
Noble has been ripping up this 'cross season so far, notching up eight wins in North America and six more podium placings, including second to Marianne Vos during the opening World Cup in Wisconsin. She was also second to Maghalie Rochette at the Pan Am Championships last month. Keough won at Jingle Cross in September, and she took two days earlier this month at the NBX GP of Cross. She was third at the Pan Am Championships and 10th at the UCI World Cup in Bern.
That constant infusion of fresh talent forces Compton to stay on top of her game.
"It does - I mean because they're always getting faster and stronger and growing up and getting smarter and more experienced," she said. "So it's good. It's good to see such an age difference between me and some of the younger riders who are in their early 20s and at the top. It's really a competition, and it's fast, and it makes for some fun, exciting racing."
Compton gets loose in the mud at the 2018 World Championships in Valkenburg (Getty Images)
Challenging season so far
Compton's 2018-19 season has not seen her usual level of success. She scored six wins and multiple podium finishes last season on her way to another US title and second place to Sanne Cant at the world championships.
So far this season, Compton has yet to reach the podium's top step. Her best result came at the World Cup in Bern, where she finished third behind Vos and Annemarie Worst. Compton told Cyclingnews health issues have plagued her season.
"I've pretty much just felt awful from day one," she said. "I haven't had a good race day. I actually haven't felt good since June. So I'm just trying to kind of come back. I went to race the [Tour of America's Dairyland] crits in Wisconsin in June, and then I got my leg pains right after that. So I took a month off in July recovering from that and then was just trying to get fit in August.
"I came into September actually fairly fit, considering, but then with all the allergies I had in the first two World Cups, I didn't finish those races. And then as soon as I was recovering, I went to Europe and I got third in Bern, so that was a good result considering how I felt."
Compton's rise back onto the podium was short-lived, however, as a lingering virus struck next.
"I got the stomach flu right after Bern, and that took me out," she said. "And that virus is still in my system right now. I had some blood work done with a team doctor when I was in Belgium, and the virus was still there as of last week. So that explains why I've been feeling so bad, but it doesn't help for getting results."
Compton was back on form for the World Cup in Koksijde, Belgium, on November 25, but an asthma attack knocked her out of contention again after a good start.
"It was a tough day for me," Compton said. "Technically I was pretty good, but I just couldn't breathe. I started having asthma issues like two-and-a-half laps in, and I just went backwards trying to lose the least amount of spots possible and just watching people ride by me as I'm standing still - so that's not so fun.
"It's frustrating, discouraging and just a hard place to be as an athlete," she said. "But what do you do? My fitness is OK as long as I can breathe well. So that's kind of right now the limiting factor for me: it's my body and what it wants to do on the day."
Despite the health issues, Compton was still the best-placed American in Koksijde, finishing 13th to Keough's 21st and Noble's 18th.
"That was actually super surprising to me," Compton said. "I don't think Kaitie or Ellen had good days either. I think we're all kind of struggling at this point. It wasn't a good day for any of us."
Compton greets the crowd on her way to finishing third at the Bern World Cup (Getty Images)
Once more into the breach
Keough returned from the brutal Belgium trip and took out two wins on US soil, while Noble has skipped racing for a block of training ahead of nationals. Compton has also been focused on nationals, but she did enter a race in Colorado earlier this month, finishing seventh in the Masters Men 40+ race at the Rocky Mountain Regional Championship in Longmont on December 8.
"I'm taking one week at a time and hoping to feel better and getting as much training as I can, as well as trying to rest and relax and do yoga that sort of thing," Compton said. "But yeah, I don't know. I don't know how nationals is going to go. I'm trying to stay positive, but it's definitely a hard thing to do."
The venue in Louisville is one positive factor for Compton. The course at Joe Creason Park was also the site of last year's Pan American Championships, where Compton won handily ahead of Keough. The often-times hilly track will likely be muddy and heavy on Sunday.
"I like the course," Compton said. "It's got quite a bit of elevation change, and it's kind of heavy grass. It does suit me. I'm a good power-strength rider. Hopefully that works in my favor for this year. It did last year for Pan Am Champs. I had a good race there. It was muddy and heavy, and it suited me.
"I know what to expect and how the course rides," she said. "I remember last year it was just raced hard. It was a hard course and a hard race, and it definitely takes it out of you. So, for me, I like these courses where you're kind of racing the competition, but you're also just racing to try to go as hard as you can on that course."
Naturally, Compton told Cyclingnews she expects Keough and Noble to put up substantial barriers in her quest for a 15th title.
"Ellen's having a really great season," Compton said. "She's riding well, and then Kaitie, too. She's struggled a little bit lately, but when she's fast, she's fast, and she's a great runner, too, so if it's muddy and there's running, she's better than me and Ellen at that.
"So it just depends on the weather, depends on the course. Ellen is riding great, and it all just depends on who's feeling better."
And for Compton, that's the biggest question heading into the weekend. Will she have another timely good day and add one more chapter to history?
"It's mostly the health issues," she said. "As long as I'm riding well and strong and feeling good when I come to the race, I have a really good shot at winning. But for me, it's either the asthma or allergies or my leg pains or just not feeling well. So that's kind of been the biggest thing I've had to overcome first and foremost. And I've been pretty lucky and just successful in the fact that I've trained well and done the preparation well and rested well to come into nationals with good health and fairly strong.
"But then there's also the competition, too, that changes every year as well. So usually if I'm riding well, I think about what I can do and not necessarily so much about how fast my competition is."
Whatever happens on Sunday, Compton said she doesn't expect any surprises.
"I've been racing my bike long enough to know how it's all going to end up, and with 'cross racing the beauty of it is usually the fastest and strongest person wins," she said. "So if somebody's better than me, there's not much I can do about it. As long as I do the best I can and put in the best I can do on the day, I might be disappointed, but at least I can kind of manage the emotions with that."
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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.
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