Q&A: Compton on the key to riding mud, running, and winning #15

After winning her 15th consecutive 'cross championship, Katie Compton talks about mud riding and the pressure of defending her title.

Photo: @PinnedGrit/Wil Matthews

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (VN) — Although her 2018 fall season has been wracked by allergies and illness, Katie Compton (KFC Racing-Trek-Knight Composites) put together a dominant race Sunday to win her 15th consecutive USA Cycling National Cyclocross Championship. We caught up with her after the muddy race in Louisville, which saw her beat Sunny Gilbert (Van Dessel) by more than two minutes.

VeloNews: So, number 15. That’s a big number. Tell me about that.

Katie Compton: [laughs] Yeah, it feels good. That was definitely more stressful than in year’s past. Part of that is I just didn’t feel as confident in my fitness coming in, and then just people telling me 15, 15, 15! That kind of wears on you for a little bit. So I was a little bit stressed. Which is a bit silly, because when you’ve won 14 times, you’re like, ‘I think I’m good … for like confidence in national championships.’ But for some reason, I wanted to win again. I like wearing the jersey in Europe. People have a lot of respect for the jersey over there so I like to wear it.

Knowing the conditions for the day, knowing there was going to be a lot of running, knowing it was just going to be really hard — kind of like a combination of Valkenburg World Cup from last year and Namur World Cup and its watery mud — that combination …

VN: You can’t bet against Katie Compton on a day like today, can you?

KC: [laughs] Not necessarily. Part of that was not knowing how my breathing was going to do. I knew I had to be careful with that. I knew if I could control that, I knew I’d have a good result. It’s just, sometimes my body gets the best of me, or if I dig too deep or too hard I’ll have an asthma attack. I just had to stay relaxed, focus on being smooth, do the best that I could. It was going to be what it was. Luckily, that was enough, today, and I was able to win. Which feels pretty great.

VN: That being said, you dominated, winning by a big margin. When did you shift to the mindset of ‘don’t make the catastrophic mistake and this is mine?’

KC: Honestly, on a day like today, it doesn’t matter what the lead is. If I was 30 seconds, if I was 10 seconds, if I was a minute, to me it’s all the same, because you can lose so much time if you lose focus and yard-sale on the downhill. Or maybe something happens and you break a shifter. [My husband and pit crew] Mark [Legg-Compton] even had spare shoes for me in the pit just in case I lost one in the mud. I even tightened my Boas down at the start until it was ‘that’s a little tight!’ But there was a lot of running.

And the descents were fun. You’re slipping around, and you’ve gotta hit some of the ruts, and some of them you want to stay out of. Some were getting too deep and you want to avoid those, so you have to know which ones to hit and which to stay out of. My last lap I figured that out the most. On the last descent, on the last lap, I was like, ‘I’m glad I finally dialed that in.’ [laughs]

VN: That must be one of your biggest advantages on a day like today. You’ve raced in these conditions 50 times before. And maybe your rivals have only faced them five times.

KC: Yeah, and the key to riding mud is that you just have to let it go on the descents. With disc brakes now, I use a lot more rear brake and not so much front brake. I’ll use the rear brake to help steer me around corners, and steer me around ruts. That makes a big difference. In the mud, you just gotta let it go.

VN: It’s hard to do that though.

KC: Yeah, it’s a commitment thing. You gotta let it go, but you can’t let it go too much. There’s a happy medium. But that’s the thing with mud if you carry your speed you can ride it out.

VN: Sometimes it’s safer, and faster, to let it go.

KC: Yeah, ‘let go, let god…’ That’s what I tell myself at the beginning of the descent. [laughs] Let it run. That seems to work. Plus, the thing is, if you fall in the mud, you don’t get hurt, you just get messy.

Where I live in Colorado Springs, we have a lot of gravel. And, no, gravel isn’t mud, but the balance is similar. And the slipping around is similar. And I ride that quite a bit on the mountain bike.

VN: I don’t pin you as someone that likes a lot of running.

KC: Today was quite a bit of running. And my body is just not built for running. I like trail running, but I’m not efficient. I’m not light enough to be a good runner. But I’m a decent runner. In this stuff, it’s like you’re running with five-pound weights on your feet. It’s a strength thing, not necessarily a speed or quickness thing. So I just knew I needed those quick feet, get up the run-ups, keep it within myself on the runs so that when I get on the bike I have the technical ability to not mess up.

VN: How much fun did you have out there today?

KC: You know, it was really stressful. I kept reminding myself that I needed to have enjoyed this a little bit more, but honestly, the technical bits required so much focus that I knew if I lost that focus I was going to make a mistake. So I had fun to a point, but there was just enough stress that I just needed to focus on getting a good result, not yard-sale on the downhill, where I just raced my race, keep it smooth, keep it efficient, and so on. I think on the last lap through the barriers is when I was finally like, ‘Whoo, I’m going to win this thing.’

VN: Will we see you again in Tacoma?

KC: Yeah, yeah … I think so. I haven’t decided what my schedule is next year. Right now I just need to get through this season and see how I’m feeling. But, yeah, so far, Tacoma is definitely the plan.

VN: Sweet 16!

KC: [laughs] Ha! The pressure is already starting. I don’t think people want me to stop the run …

VN: Um, I’m sure there are a few people that would like you to stop.

KC: [laughs] Well, yes, there are plenty of people who want to see somebody else win. But it’s bike racing. I know how it feels to not win and be second a lot of times. I see that at worlds all the time. [Compton has come in second at worlds on four occasions -Ed.] I feel the pain. I know exactly how it feels. I’m going to do the best I can to keep the jersey as long as I can, but I know the young ones are coming up and they’re riding strong. So, at some point, it’s going to end.

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