The story of Katie Fn Compton, American cyclocross legend, is one that will be told for ages. She has won 13 straight National Championships and been on four world championship podiums, but there is one chapter in her story that remains unwritten: a World Championship.
After several near-misses—she has finished second three times, most recently at Louisville in 2013—Compton is a perennial favorite in the event, but she still looks forward to that burden with a bit of dread. It’s not exactly a sore spot, but it’s not really a cheerful topic either. “Every year it’s the same shit about ‘Oh, do you think you can win Worlds this year?'” she admits. “It’s like ‘Well maybe,’ but I’ve said that for the last ten years too, so I don’t know.”
That is not to say Compton does not want to win a rainbow jersey, “It’s the one thing I haven’t won. I would love to win a World Championship. I’ve won a ton of races, but just not that one. But maybe my legacy is going to be that I’ve won a lot of races, but never Worlds.”
Game Respects Game
Heading into Saturday’s race in Bieles, Luxembourg a lot has changed on the cyclocross landscape since September. Compton has finally been able to address a career-long health issue that has made training difficult at times and is back on strong form she has not seen for several years.
At the same time, Marianne Vos has recovered from her injuries in emphatic fashion, winning the last three Telenet UCI World Cup races during her return to the cyclocross scene.
Compton finished second to Vos at Worlds in 2011 and 2013, and third to her in 2009, so she would be forgiven for being a little bummed about Vos’ return and late-season dominance. Compton, however, said she is excited for the chance to line up against Vos when they are both on good form.
“I’m always excited to race against strong women,” said Compton. “I think it’s good for the sport. Marianne is such a great racer and it’s fun to watch her race because she’s so good at it and so smooth and so fast. I think we need more riders like her at the front of the race. I’ve been racing against her for so long and gotten second to her numerous times, and I’ve also beaten her when I’ve had good days too. I think it steps up the level of racing for everybody.”
As someone who has fought through injuries and health issues, the KFC Racing rider also said she knows what the Dutch legend has gone through to get back, “It’s good to see a rider like her come back from injury because it’s a struggle. It’s definitely tough to come back and I think it’s tough emotionally and mentally more than physically, just because you have your doubts and you’re worried if your body is going to perform like it used to. So it’s good to see her back, it’s good to see her strong, and yeah, racing fast again.”
I Think I Was Really Good at This…
Compton’s last World Championship podium was in 2013 at Louisville, and her best finish since was a 9th place in 2014. Health issues and several tough World Championship finishes are not exactly the recipe for athletic success in one’s late 30s. Compton was able to finally address the health issues that have been plaguing her since she was 17, and as they say, you’ll never believe what happened next.
It is fitting that as a Trek-sponsored athlete, Compton’s return to form started at the Tour of America’s Dairyland criterium series in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. Compton said those June races are where she first felt like Katie Fn Compton again.
“I felt strong again and could push hard on the pedal. The power was coming back to where it should be, or back to where it was before I started having health issues. So yeah, it has come around. It’s nice to be back on the bike and feel the power is back.”
The power carried over into cyclocross season. Compton took third at Cross Vegas after a legendary last lap, dominated at Jingle Cross, and battled Sanne Cant for a well-earned second place at the Zeven World Cup on a day she was not feeling on top of her game. Overall, she won 10 domestic UCI races and her 13th straight National Championship to go with the strong World Cup performances.
Heading into Worlds, she said she is feeling good and excited about racing,
“I am feeling better, and I am racing better,” said Compton. “You get to that point where you kind of forget that you were fast. It’s like ‘I think I was really good at this, and I won a ton of races, but I haven’t felt that lately.’ This year’s the first year I’ve kind of felt strong again and felt confident I could go to the front of the race and maintain instead of just hanging on for dear life and hope for a decent result.”
And even with Marianne Vos back in the start grid, she said she welcomes the challenge before her on Saturday, “If you win a race [Vos] is in, you’ve had a really great race, and that’s a great accomplishment. I think it just adds to the racing, adds to the excitement. She’s riding really well right now. Super fast. It’s good to see.”
Just as they did in Hartford, course conditions may have some say in the outcome of the weekend’s racing. “I want to have a good race,” Compton explains. “Marianne is riding so strong right now. [laughs] I know Saturday is going to be so hard. It kind of depends on the conditions. If it’s a fast frozen race, it’s going to be suited more toward the fast road racers, kind of like the race this weekend. You may see somebody who’s more speedy.”
Compton continued, “I’m kind of hoping there’s some snow or mud or just kind of hard torquey aspects of the course. That would suit me better. I just want to have a good race. It may be getting to that point where my best years are behind me, and if that’s the case, that’s the case. But I am still going to do everything I can to put out a good performance and get a good result.”
She Is Just Like Us, Kind Of
Cyclocross Magazine chatted with Compton on Monday after Sunday’s World Cup at Hoogerheide, so the race was still a fresh topic. Compton had a rough Worlds tune-up, with a slow start and a crash that effectively ended her shot at the podium. The crash, “that’s bike racing, it happens,” but the starts, those are something where Compton’s frustration is shared by many amateur ′cross racers.
At Hoogerheide, missing her pedal put Compton in a tough spot that eventually led to a crash on the icy afternoon, “That kinda sucked. It was a tough race in general, because I’m overthinking my starts, and I keep missing my pedal. And on that race you can’t mess up the start. It’s so hard to pass, it’s such a fast race.” She also added, “It’s just frustrating because I’m like, ‘You know, I could have had a good race, it’s just I balled up the start.’ It’s hard to recover from that kind of start.”
Fortunately for Compton, her tough tune-up may be more about the Hoogerheide course than anything else, “I don’t hate that course, but for some reason I haven’t had a good race there in a long time, so I’m starting to dislike it more and more every year. I don’t dislike the course. Pre-riding the course and riding the course, it’s actually pretty fun. It’s so fast, but it’s pretty fun, decent course. For some reason, race day comes around and I’m like ‘This stupid course.’ I dunno, maybe it’s just me.”
“I don’t dislike the course. Pre-riding the course and riding the course, it’s actually pretty fun. It’s so fast, but it’s pretty fun, decent course. For some reason, race day comes around and I’m like ‘This stupid course.’ I dunno, maybe it’s just me.” -Compton on Hoogerheide
For fans tuning in on Saturday morning at 9am Eastern, Compton’s start is definitely going to be a key moment to watch. She said starts have always been perhaps the weakest part of her cyclocross skill set.
“I think I’ve kind of been known for having bad starts. People who have followed me for a long time for a lot of seasons know I’ve messed up starts a lot. And honestly, I think I just get too nervous, and I’m thinking too much. I’m one step ahead of where I should be. Instead of thinking about clipping in, I’m thinking about accelerating.”
As someone who is notoriously horrible at starting, I shared my strategy of starting second row sometimes to avoid the nerves. Compton agreed that she has also thought about passing up her first row call up and perhaps throwing the other women for a loop.
“I’m right there with you. I’m kind of to the point where I kind of wish I had a second row start. If I had a second row start, I don’t think I’d mess it up as many times as I do.”
Compton continued, “I’m kind of like, ‘Well, you guys can have it, I’m just going to line up in the second row on the outside.’ If I mess it up, it gives me a little more time to clip in. I always feel bad for the girls who wind up lining up behind me. I’m like ‘You should know this. You should know I’ve got a 50-50 shot of hitting the pedal.’”
Good Things Come from Procrastination, but Don’t Call Her a Sandbagger
Katie Compton turned 38 in December, although as this interesting analysis by Colin Reuter shows, she likely still has several years of elite-level racing ahead of her. Still, it is hard not to wonder about the dreaded “R” word.
Fortunately for American ‘cross fans, Compton is both really stubborn and really really good at procrastinating, “I’m the type of person where until I have to do something, I don’t. I can procrastinate really well. I’m like the best procrastinator ever. I’m like ‘If it can be done tomorrow, it will be.’ If I can think about retiring later, I will.”
“I’m like the best procrastinator ever. I’m like ‘If it can be done tomorrow, it will be.’ If I can think about retiring later, I will.”
Compton seems likely to stick around the women’s cyclocross peloton for a while longer because despite being at the top of her profession for over a decade, she still loves putting on her KFC Racing kit and going to the pain cave for 40 to 50 minutes. This year, she’ll have the opportunity to race a World Cup in front of the headquarters of her bike sponsor.
“I’m still excited to kit up and go to the start line. I think when I get to the point where I’m tired of all of it and I’m tired of gearing up and tired of dealing with the race nerves, I’ll call it. But right now, even yesterday [at Hoogerheide] lining up I was still excited to race. So I’m still looking forward to it.”
Our discussions with Emma White and Ellen Noble and Amanda Miller highlighted how much the women of cyclocross have been enjoying the top-notch competition and growth of the sport. Not surprisingly, Compton has as well, and it likely is playing a role in her decision to procrastinate about the future.
“I keep thinking ‘Oh, this year will be my last year. Or maybe next year.’ But then I look at the new ‘cross schedule or new ‘cross Worlds or Nationals and I’m like ‘Oh, I really want to race there.’ And that’s tough. When you keep thinking ‘I want to race that one and I want to race that one,’ I don’t know, that’s the problem. I want to be at 25 again so I can race for another 10 years. Especially now since women’s ‘cross is growing so much and we’re getting more TV coverage, and the racing is more exciting. It’s now getting to the point where I want to be part of this growth.”
A self-professed introvert, Compton has embraced her role as a model of badassedry for young women and others who race cyclocross. The example she has set for other women will be missed when she’s no longer racing, but it is also likely to dictate what she does in the future.
“I think dealing with adversity, and just coming around and getting results and being positive about it, that is definitely what I try to show to women and riders in general. Show the young girls who are getting into bike racing where, bike racing is hard. It’s not an easy sport. If you want to get into an easy sport, definitely don’t choose this.”
She continued, “I feel like if I can kind of encourage women and any bike racer really, young girls especially, just to get involved and get on the bike. Whether you race or just ride your bike for fun, or just commute to work, riding a bike is just fun, and it’s so good for your health. It’s something you can do for your whole life.”
And if retirement does not suit her, there is always Masters racing, “I might race Masters. I could retire at 40 and race Masters. And then I’m sure Velonews would give me a hard time for sandbagging, but I’m like ‘You know, whatever. I’m old enough.”
Group Suffering, Individual Result
Another reason Compton is more than content to procrastinate hanging up her cycling shoes is she really enjoys the company of her fellow competitors. Cyclocross often seems like a special sport in terms of the camaraderie it engenders among racers. This is true at the amateur level and for the Elite women.
“We have a lot of great women. I think the women do have some great personalities, and there’s always a story behind it. Pretty much the whole women’s ‘cross group, we’re a fun group of ladies. We all love to race hard, we all love to race fast, there’s good camaraderie there. There’s also high-level competition. It’s all been really enjoyable.”
And what is it about ‘cross that builds that camaraderie?
Said Compton, “We’re kind of all in it together. We’re all fighting the conditions together. We’re all freezing our asses off together. Or we’re out in the heat. We’re all kind of suffering through the same thing, but also you know, kind of racing for the best result we can do.”
She continued, “It’s kind of like a group suffering, but an individual result. I guess. I think maybe that’s what draws people in. You’ve got that camaraderie, but you’re suffering as a group, which makes it easier.”
After mentioning her rough afternoon at Hoogerheide, she also said there is certain level of equality among ‘cross racers because it is really hard to be queen of the world when you are riding around in ridiculous conditions on skinny tires.
“Maybe it’s because ’cross is just so humbling. Just when you feel good about yourself, you feel like ‘I’m pretty good, I’m confident,’ that’s when you dump it in a turn or you crash and take out three people. It’s like ‘Gotta keep that confidence in check.’ It’s good to feel good about yourself, but don’t feel too good. Keep your wits about you, where you’re like ‘I’m pretty sure I can race this course well,’ but you’ve got to respect the downhills and respect the turns, and not push too hard and crash. Maybe that’s what it is, maybe it’s just humbling.”
A Solid Fn Legacy for the Cyclocross World
Katie Compton has long been known in the cyclocross world as Katie Fn Compton or just “KFC.” Off the cyclocross circuit, Compton does not have the most in-your-face style personality, so where did the KFC nickname come from?
“I think it was probably after I won Nationals the first time. A couple friends were having a conversation and one friend asked ‘Who won the race this week,’ and the other friend responded with ‘Katie F’n Compton, who else?’ And it kind of just took, and then he started calling me KFC. And it kind of just took off from there. I think I did an interview and someone asked me what my nickname was, and in my group of friends, it was KFC.”
If you watch Katie Compton as an athlete and a person, the KFC moniker seems to be fitting for a woman who is a badass who feels no need to prove herself. Finishing up our conversation with Compton, I could not help but ask her about her keeping it all in perspective.
Said Compton, “I don’t know. I’ve always had a really good group of people around me, and friends around me. And then, when I was racing bikes and riding bikes in high school and college, I had a really great group of friends, mostly guy friends and mostly older, who had really good senses of humor and really good personalities. They were just fun people to be around. I think that wore off on me the most. I kind of adopted that laid-back, easy-going, fun kind of, don’t take life too seriously personality. That’s my guess, I’ll say. And maybe dealing with a lot of adversity, physically, I’ve just kind of learned either laugh about it and move on, or you’re going to be really really freaking sad.”
When cyclocross fans watch living cyclocross legend Katie Fn Compton line up for another World Championships on Saturday, regardless of the result, they should feel anything but sad.
Stay up-to-date with all our 2017 Cyclocross World Championships coverage on our Worlds page here, and watch the racing live on our site here.