Katie Compton's journey to the top of the cyclocross world
Apr 24, 2018 02:13PM
By Steven Hoffman
When Katie Compton returns to her hometown of Newark―which is about once a year these days―the fond memories of her cycling adventures in Delaware come flooding back.
“I grew up in Newark,” she explained. “I went to the Sanford School and went to college at the University of Delaware.”
Compton, 39, is the most successful U.S. cyclocross athlete in the history of the sport―she has 14 consecutive U.S. elite national championship wins, 23 world cup wins, and has been an elite competitor on the world stage on courses in Rome, Japan, and New Zealand. But she first learned to love the sport in her hometown.
“It's amazing how great the trails are around Newark,” Compton explained. “There are four parks within a 20- or 30-minute bike ride where you can have single-track rides. People don't think of Delaware for mountain biking, but the trails around here are great.”
Compton and her husband, Mark Legg, call Colorado Springs, Colorado home, but she travels extensively to compete in the sport that she still loves as much as when she first started. She'll usually compete up and down the Mid-Atlantic region from the end of September to December before heading to Europe for the season over there in January through March. Late March and April qualifies as the brief “off-season” before everything ramps up again in May. Compton has won over 100 International Cycling Union events during her career thanks to her strong work ethic and a diverse skillset that is uniquely suited for her chosen sport.
She was a natural athlete growing up, just like her parents and brother. Her father, Tom, enjoys bike racing. Her mother, Deborah, favored running marathons. Her brother, James, was very good at several different sports, especially hockey and wrestling. He even played lacrosse at the collegiate level. Compton herself tried a little bit of everything growing up―field hockey, lacrosse, basketball even figure-skating. But her life went on a new course when she got her first racing bike at the age of 10 or 11.
“I played everything you could think of, but as soon as I got on a racing bike I just loved it. I loved that bike,” she said with a laugh. “My dad just kept raising the seat on it as I grew. I rode that bike a lot.”
She rode on local trails and at a velodrome. At the age of about 16, she got a mountain bike and started riding with a few groups of local riders. She really enjoyed the camaraderie and the competition of riding with a large group of other cycling enthusiasts in the area, many of whom were affiliated with Newark's Wooden Wheels store, which sponsored teams.
“As a 16-year-old girl, it's hard to go out mountain biking on your own,” she explained. “I was lucky to have a good group of friends who rode, and I could go out with them.”
She always enjoyed the solitude and peacefulness that she could find along the twisting trails and rolling hills of one of the parks in Newark or the surrounding areas.
“I really like the freedom,” she said. “I like the alone-time, the time to spend two or three hours in the country just riding. You can cover a lot of ground. It's an adventure.”
By the time Compton graduated from the Sanford School in 1997, she was already a member of the Junior National Team. For four years between the ages of 15 and 18, she would travel to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado to train extensively. She kept up a very busy pace, but she was doing exactly what she wanted to be doing.
“I look back at it now, and I was very serious when I was young,” she said. “My parents really supported me. But they never pushed me.”
When it was time to go to college, Compton considered several different options, but ultimately decided that the University of Delaware was the place for her. She graduated with a degree in exercise science, which also helped her with her training as she dedicated herself to the full-time purcuit of a cyclocross career and the rigors that come with it.
Cyclocross racing courses include pavement, wooded trails, grass, steep hills, and obstacles. Whenever a rider encounters an obstacle, he or she must dismount, navigate the obstacle, and remount. Cyclo-cross bikes are similar to road racing bikes in that they are lightweight and have narrow tires and drop handlebars. Compton rides a Trek Boone bike that she helped to develop specifically for her.
“I really enjoy riding it,” Compton explained. “I've always enjoyed their bikes. Every bike of theirs has always been fun.”
The skills necessary to succeed at an elite level in cycling are as diverse as the courses themselves.
Compton is about five-foot-six, which is almost an ideal height for her sport. A competitor who is taller would have a higher center of gravity, which isn't good, and a shorter bike racer might have a hard time finding a bike that would be a perfect fit.
According to Compton, there were several things working in her favor to succeed in the sport.
“I have natural athleticism and a good core strength,” Compton said. “You need to be able to ride fast, and have the technical skills to ride efficiently through mud or around turns. You have to be strong enough to carry the bike up stairs. You can be a good rider, just because of your natural ability, but to really excel at the sport you need the work ethic.”
Compton's work ethic is what has helped her achieve such a level of success.
There could be between 35 and 100 competitors in the elite-level events that Compton takes part in. Each rider will enter the race with a game plan, but there are so many variables to a race that there can't just be one plan.
“In bike racing, you have to be adaptable,” she explained. “You might have a game plan to start, but that can change in turn two. I will always be thinking tactically―how can I pass this person?”
Preparation before a race helps with that decision-making. She spends at least 20 hours a week training, and that's in addition to the competitions.
“There are times when I practice skills on and off the bike. That part of the training doesn't change,” she said. “I keep the technical stuff the same, but there might be subtle changes here and there.”
The start of the cylclo-cross race is the part when the riders are going their fastest. If they are doing six laps, they might be able to do one lap in an eight-minute clip. The course conditions during a particular race can have a big impact on how quickly the riders will be able to complete the laps. Then it's on to the trails, where the course can have many twists and turns.
Compton said that it's very difficult to pass another rider once the trails start to twist and turn.
“You're racing against yourself, but you're also racing against others,” she said.
During her career, Compton has been consistently excellent. Over a ten-year period from 2007 to 2016, she competed in Worlds in seven out of the ten years, missing out on a few occasions because of nagging injuries. She finished in second place three times, and took third place once. Compton's success has come against elite-level competition. One example is Marianne Vos, a Dutch cyclo-cross, road bicycle, and mountain bike champion who took home the Olympic gold medal in the 2012 London games. Vos is widely considered the finest cyclist of her generation. Bike racing is the national pastime in places like Belgium, so the level of competition is fierce.
“Europeans ride their bikes everywhere,” Compton explained. “In the U.S., it's a lot cheaper to drive than it is in many places in Europe. So in European countries, they grow up with bike riding. They will ride their bikes everywhere.”
Compton has suffered through some minor injuries―a sprained knee and a separated shoulder among them, but overall she has enjoyed good health throughout her career. She dealt with a lingering issue from 1997 to 2015―her body doesn't ingest folic acid, so she is succesptible to suffering from a severe burning sensation in her muscles. This could impact her during training and during competitions. She made numerous changes in her diet through the years in an effort to resolve the issue, but nothing made a real difference long-term until a new genetic test helped uncover the underlying issue in 2015. Now that she knows the underlying cause of the issues, she is better able to manage it. She eats Gluten-free foods that are nutritious.
In addition to a proper diet, she attempts to have a diversified exercise regimen that includes everything from stair sprints to yoga.
“You have to make sure that you keep it fun,” she said. “There will be bad days. You have to be kind to yourself. This sport can be difficult.”
She emphasized that an elite athlete must always allow the body to rest, so that's a critical component of her overall health, too.
At the age of 39, Katie has reached a point in her career when she often finds herself competing against the top cyclocross riders in the world, many of whom might just be reaching their peak.
“Female bike racers peak when they are from about 28 to 35―generally, that's when women are at their strongest. I felt strongest between 30 and 35,” she explained.
Even so, she is as enthusiastic as ever about the sport that she loves. Her accomplishments in the cyclocross world have allowed her to travel extensively. Japan is a favorite spot, as is Italy.
“The traveling has been pretty amazing,” she explained. “I really enjoy the travel and the opportunity to meet the people that I've met. I wouldn't change that for anything.”