VERONA, WISCONSIN—It was 37 degrees and sunny as the Elite Women lined up to compete for the 2012 US National Championship. The freeze from the night before was beginning to thaw in those places where the sun could reach, making for a course like “Play-dough on top of ice,” as announcer Richard Fries said. A slight breeze flapped the tape as Katie Compton (Rabobank-Giant) was called to the front of the line. Would she be able to seal an eighth national title?
On the start line, Compton was sandwiched between one of her main rivals, Nicole Duke (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), and her protege and teammate, U23 racer Kaitlin Antonneau – an order that would prove prescient. Also on the front line was Meredith Miller (Cal-Giant Specialized) and Mo Bruno Roy (Bob’s Red Mill). As the racers charged off the line, it was Meredith Miller taking the holeshot, with Compton right on her wheel.
Immediately, Compton fired up her afterburners, and within three turns had already established a six-second gap over the field. Chasing hard were Duke, Antonneau and Sue Butler. As the riders hit the first hill, a near-minute-long effort, Compton only expanded her lead. By the top of the hill, Compton had nearly 15 seconds, with Duke, Antonneau and Miller establishing the chase, with Butler, Bruno-Roy and Coryn Rivera (Exergy Twenty12) following behind.
Miller slipped, and severed her connection to the two Cannondale riders for half a lap, and she would spend her reserves trying to re-establish contact. Compton, however, was gone. By the end of the first lap, the World Championship’s silver medalist showed why she’s one of the best in the world, with 26 seconds over an absolutely flying Nicole Duke. Antonneau followed by a few seconds, having again shed Miller.
With three to go and Compton off the front by 56 seconds, it became a battle of the teammates for the rest of the podium, with Duke and Antonneau dueling for second, and Miller and Teal Stetson Lee (Cal Giant) competing for fourth position. Right behind, Rivera showed why she’s the most-decorated cyclist, with a grand total of 41 titles under her belt, coming in sixth position with Sue Butler (River City Cycles).
Another bobble by Miller, however, tipped the hat to Stetson-Lee, as Miller slipped back a number of positions as she struggled with her bike. Stetson-Lee did not hesitate, either, as she cast her line on Duke and began to reel the Cannondale riders in, coming within 10 seconds of the duo with two laps to go.
In the battle for fifth, Rivera, Butler, Miller and Bruno Roy began the penultimate lap bunched together. Ahead of them, Antonneau, who has had the season of her life this year with a 10th place World Cup finish, reached the climb and decided she was finished riding with Duke and began stomping away from her teammate just as Stetson-Lee brought Duke into her sites; halfway through the lap the California Giant rider overtook Duke and moved into third.
With one lap to go, Compton had nearly two minutes on Antonneau, who – barring a mechanical – had easily secured her U23 title and looked to be on the Elite podium as well. Sixteen seconds behind Antonneau, Stetson-Lee fought hard to maintain the slightest of gaps over Duke. Behind them, Rivera continued with her stellar ride and passed Meredith Miller, whose earlier crash seemed to continue giving her difficulty.
With first and second all but locked down, Duke decided that Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com should have two riders in the top three, and attacked Stetson-Lee with a giant effort, pulling into third with her stellar descending skills and leaving Stetson-Lee behind. Duke showed remarkable tenacity in her pursuit and subsequent acceleration into third in the final half-lap.
At the line, Compton enjoyed her record eighth victory, with an emotional Antonneau following a few minutes behind. Duke held on to her gap over Stetson-Lee, with Rivera taking a strong fifth overall and silver in the U23. Duke rode in for third, immediately running to hug teammate Antonneau, saying, “I’m so proud of you!”
“It was going to be tricky, the course was changing,” said Compton. “When I pre-rode it was a little more frozen, and then for the start it was a little bit thawing, and by the last lap it was a lot muddier. It is slippery mud on top of hard ground still, so it’s tricky out there and getting harder each lap. This course is unrelenting. If you back off at all you make mistakes and you crash. I’m actually pretty happy it’s not cold and snowy here, but I’m sure next year they will make up for it with a blizzard or something!”
The newly-recrowned champion seemed just as excited about Antonneau’s ride as her own. “She’s a great girl, has a great head for bike racing. As long as she keeps having fun, she’ll be up here for a long time,” she said. “I’m hoping I’m retired by the time she starts beating me!”
“I’m a little emotional right now,” said Antonneau. “I’m happy and excited and glad that’s over. I was just so nervous last night and this morning. Once the gun went off I was fine but the nerves were starting to get to me. It was good riding with Nicole because we kept pushing each other. On the hills that’s where I think I got away. I was pretty good on the hills. I like that we were together for half the race. And she finished third, which is awesome.”
“It was actually really fun,” said Duke. “I was scared of the course because of all the climbing, but it was better than expected. I thought it was gonna hurt more than it did. This technical section here was challenging so I appreciated that. The downhills were awesome, and the battle with Teal was exciting. I definitely got aggressive there, and even though I was aggressive I can relax and recover there a bit, too, so in the battle with Teal I just used this last downhill to my advantage, and I knew I just had to get ahead of her there and get into this technical section and that’s what I did. It was a really dynamic course. It was fun and it was way, way better than I expected. There was so much noise and intensity in the crowd, it made it really exciting, and a lot of my Boulder peers are here, and they were out there running up the hills with me.”
“It was pretty painful,” said Stetson-Lee. “Those hills really started taking it out of me. That last lap I could feel my quads just cramping up on every time. I was just like ‘come on legs, come on, just hang in there’ but Nicole had little extra juice in her so she passed me in a perfect spot in the techy section and opened up that gap. The whole race, it was like I could see the two rabbits up the road from me. So it was kind of my carrot, and it kept pulling me up. But then I exhausted myself chasing them around. I didn’t have much in the tank on the final lap.”
U23 Title Also Means Silver: Coach and Protege Share the Podium
The emotional connection stemming from the mentoring connection between Compton and Antonneau was clearly evident. Regarding Antonneau, Compton said, “I’m super proud of her. She’s a great person, great bike racer, with a lot of talent. She’s such a hard worker too. I’m really happy to see her develop and learn and grow, and become such a great bike racer at such an early age.”
When asked what it meant to be sharing the podium with her coach, Antonneau said with brimming eyes, “Everything. It’s unreal, and I’m really happy.”
Compton’s commitment to the emerging crop of Junior and U23 riders is deep. “I think we’ve got a good group [of women’s riders] coming up,” said Compton. “There’s always the growing pains that come from U23 to Elites, but if we can keep the women in the sport and make sure it’s fun, make sure the race is competitive, I think they’ll continue on and enjoy it.”
When asked what could be done to help raise the profile of women’s cyclocross racing, Compton said, “More media, more publicity and more money. That’s usually what improves bike racing in general … I think more women would get involved if there was more support. We’re working on it. It’s slow, but it’s changing and getting better every year.”
Junior racer Alisson Arensman (Fiets Maan Racing/Rutherford College, NC), who had a chance to mix it up with the Elite Women, agreed that more opportunities for young women in cyclocross will help. “Definitely put on more races, make them affordable, even just get Juniors, ages 11-14 on bikes having clinics and getting them interested in it,” said Arensman.
How much pressure did Antonneau place on herself coming into the race? “My goal was top five here, and as the season went on, up until last week my goal was to get second. I never told anyone that – it was just in my head. And I did it,” she said, laughing in amazement.
Antonneau will gear up for the last World Cup races in Europe, and is awaiting announcement of the team for Worlds. What goal does she have in her head for that? Only time will tell.