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Katie Compton – Rainbow of Worlds

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Jan 25, 2016 – For most people one set of parents is more than enough. But Katie Compton, America’s cyclocross phenomenon, has doubled up. She has Belgian parents as well as her real parents, and they’ve been critical to her success over the last decade. From her base in Colorado, Compton flies regularly to Europe to compete in World Cup races. Such long stretches of travel can be arduous for a professional athlete – the jet lag, the long periods of inactivity and the constant anxiety of germ-filled cabins – but having a permanent set-up on the other side of the Atlantic lessens the stress considerably.

Words: Paul Maunder. Images: Marshall Kappel

Bikes, tools, kit, vehicles – it all resides with her Belgian family in Kalmthout, the small town which is also home to Belgian star Kevin Pauwels. There are good tracks for training, and the location gives easy access to most of the Belgian and Dutch races. When I ask her how important this support structure is to her, Compton is emphatic: ‘There’s no way I could have got to where I am without them.’

It’s a challenge that all elite American racers have to face – how to combine American and European racing programs without compromising both. A logistical challenge as much as a physical and mental one. Why wouldn’t you just move to Belgium full-time during the winter? I asked Compton. By posing the question to her as she shivered in a tent at the Koksijde World Cup, with ominous black clouds gathering over the beet fields, I kind of answered myself.

‘I like living and racing in the U.S. too much. I also really like seeing the sun every day and the blue skies. I get sad and depressed if I stay in a place where the sun doesn’t come out frequently.’

Kalmthout and Colorado Springs certainly are markedly different places. About as far north as you can go in Belgium, Kalmthout sits on the Dutch border, surrounded by dense forest. During the winter the days are short and gloomy. Colorado, of course, is surrounded by some of the finest mountains in the country and sees sun on three hundred days of the year (or so the Colorado marketing people would have you believe).

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy was taken from drab grey Kansas and transplanted into bright technicolour Oz. Katie Compton’s world is an inversion of that scenario. I put it to her that perhaps she’s happiest when out riding her mountain bike through Monument Valley Park, or any of her other local Colorado trails.

‘No, I’m just like a lot of pros,’ she says. ‘There are times when I just want to be at home, riding easy, but then as I get fitter that urge to compete comes back, and I want to race. I love racing.’

The 2015/16 season has been a redemptive story for Compton. Her health has always troubled her, specifically severe leg pains and exercise-induced asthma, but in the summer of 2015 a saddle sore that turned into an infection brought her to a new low. The physical pain was underscored by a period of depression. But there was a silver lining. Being unable to train meant that she could spend time researching her ailments, and after listening to a podcast about thyroid issues, Compton began to investigate the root cause of her problems. She discovered that she has a genetic defect, causing her body to not properly convert folic acid. Blood tests confirmed her self-diagnosis, and with a fairly straightforward change in diet to control her folic acid intake, her problems were solved.

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Meaningful training didn’t start until September, and she came into the early season races under-prepared. But the form has come, slowly. Compton finished third in the Koksijde race, fourth at the Namur World Cup just before Christmas, and then second at Zolder just after. Earlier this month she took her twelfth straight victory in the US National Championships in Asheville. Most importantly, she is highly motivated. In past years, the combination of a heavy race schedule, travel and health issues has meant that by late January she’s tired, both mentally and physically. This year she’s still keen to race.

The World Championship is the only accolade that eludes Compton, and on paper this year represents one of her best chances to take home a rainbow jersey. Marianne Vos and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot are not riding, so Compton will be up against the same women she’s been racing all season – Sanne Cant is the favourite, given her dominance all season, but Nikki Harris and Ellen Van Looy can’t be discounted. Compton, ever the competitor, stubborn (her own word) and tenacious, will be focusing on victory. Nothing less. But there is also a sense in which she doesn’t need to win the World Championship. After so many years at the top of the sport, after over a hundred UCI victories, twenty-two World Cup victories and two overall wins, she has nothing left to prove.

I just hope that they give World Champions more than one rainbow jersey, because Compton will want to give one to all her many parents.