HOOGERHEIDE, Netherlands (VN) — This was the year that was supposed to change everything for Katie Compton, the 10-time American national champion, arguably the greatest American cyclocross racer who ever lived.
It started slowly, with uncharacteristic back-to-back losses in Providence, Rhode Island, in October, but built to a steady boil in an 11-race stretch that spanned three months — November to January — and two continents in which she finished second just a single time.
Along the way, Compton beat the world champion, Marianne Vos, in three straight World Cups, a feat unmatched by any rider, save Compton herself, during Vos’ now-six-year reign in rainbow stripes.
Her resounding national-championship win three weeks ago in Boulder that earned her a decade’s worth of titles only intensified the expectations for Compton here in Hoogerheide, where the women’s world championship race unfolded on Saturday.
Even in December, Compton herself acknowledged the significance of the season she was having.
“It’s a big one,” she told VeloNews. “I’m trying to take it just one week at a time and make sure I’m listening to my body and training and resting and not doing too much — I’m really good at doing too much and I’m trying not to do that. I came into the season slower; summer I didn’t do anything, didn’t do any racing. So I’m excited. I still want to race every weekend. It’s only two more months of pure excitement and then I can recover.
“Nationals, the World Cup, and worlds, those are the major goals. Hopefully I can set myself up to have a good world championships.”
Still, even in her enthusiasm you could hear the seeds of doubt. The stark contrasts in Compton’s memory between worlds medals and World Cup wins and the asthma that sent her to the hospital after a mountain bike race in 2009 or the chronic and mysterious leg pain that ruined her chances at the world championships in 2008, in Treviso, Italy, and in 2010, in Tabor, Czech Republic. It’s something that is always lurking, the body that can betray you.
Her doubts, if she had harbored any back in December, proved prescient when, a week ago in Nommay, Compton found herself sitting beside the course, unable to breathe, while Marianne Vos, looking like her old, invincible self, powered to a 90-second win.
She told VeloNews this week that she believed she had recovered, though it was clear the confidence that carried her to her second straight World Cup title had faded.
“I’ve been resting so I will be good for this weekend,” she said. “It takes me a few days to recover from an allergy-asthma episode like that since I just feel awful afterwards. Rest and staying inside has helped a bit.”
And then, Saturday: Compton, sitting atop the world rankings, was the first on the start line and one of the last off of it. She struggled to engage her pedal, and she struggled to find her footing in the race’s initial surge.
Things did not get better. In the chaotic early moments, as the race plunged into the mud for the first time, Compton and Pavla Havlikova found their bikes entangled in a messy crash. While they struggled to separate handlebars and frames, Marianne Vos — and the rest of the race — was pulling away.
“Pavla (Havlikova) crashed in front of me and I T-boned her,” said Compton. “We got our bikes stuck, and my handlebars got stuck in her front triangle, and we couldn’t get them apart. We were both pretty calm about it, trying to get them apart. We weren’t fighting each other, we were like, ‘If you pull here and I pull here. …‘ but it just wasn’t coming apart.
“By the time we got it apart, everybody was past us, and we tried to start picking people off, but it’s a hard course to try to catch people, that’s for sure.”
The race that so many expected to be the fulfillment of a dream was quickly becoming a nightmare. Compton battled, eventually reaching the top five, but while she was powering her way back into contention, her body was slowly failing. Again.
Asthmatics know the feeling: the tightening lungs, the air you so desperately need burning in your throat. The sense of helplessness as your body turns against itself.
Though she maintained her composure, even from the sidelines it was clear that Compton was not herself. She ceded a minute in the final lap, fading from the race for a spot on the podium to ninth. Still, she persisted.
“There’s one thing, I don’t quit,” she said. “The last two laps were tough, mentally, because I was doing everything I could, and I couldn’t go any faster. Even at the end there, four girls passed me and I was already at the red line, there’s nothing to do. I had to walk that last hill because I just couldn’t get over it.”
Later, she would acknowledge that what had once been just a nagging doubt had, by race day, emerged as a dark realization.
“I knew,” she would say. “Like all week, I’ve been trying to feel better and trying to be positive, and say, ‘Yeah, I’ll be okay, I’ll be fine. And it’s been a week, I’m going to recover and keep going.’ But this whole week my lungs have been tight, I haven’t felt that great.”
Her rival, now a seven-time world champion, would tell the press the one fleeting regret in a nearly perfect race was that the battle she had expected had never materialized, even while acknowledging the elements of chance that can erase a golden season in a single contest.
“Of course I expected a battle between us after the battles before,” said Vos. “Katie had a really strong season, and I’ve had some hard times trying to follow her. Of course, I had a different build-up in the season. So it’s a shame that Katie had some troubles. …
“And for her, after such a great season, you want to be good at the world championships. And after this season she should have been on the podium. But still it’s a one-day race and everything can happen. It could have been me, it could have been one of the girls next to me (on the podium), and that’s what happens in cyclocross also.”
For Compton there was little to say. For almost any other rider, ninth might stand as a career highlight. But for Compton, the goal was gold, and the rainbow stripes.
“Whatever,” she said, choking back tears. “If I wasn’t going for a medal, for me it doesn’t matter. Fifth or 10th is all the same.”
How does it feel to come so agonizingly close time and time again, only to have your body fail, the machine you have tuned so carefully rebel when you need it most? Compton doesn’t say, but she doesn’t have to say, because the answer is written on her face. It’s written in the mud-streaked tracks of her tears — tears of frustration and anguish and unanswered faith that if she just did everything a little better, this year would be the year.
This year was not the year. Just as last year, and the year before.
But Katie Compton doesn’t quit, and, even though tears she talks of a still incomplete season. A race in Japan. The possibility of yet more races in Belgium.
Will she ever beat Marianne Vos in the one race that she has never conquered? Maybe not. But it is hard to imagine that the story of these two rivals — the only two women who could match each other this year — ends here in Hoogerheide.