by Matt Haughey
Katie Compton is the six-time US Elite Women’s National Cyclocross Champion and current UCI World Cup Cyclocross points leader. With the two remaining World Cup events and the elusive World Championships taking place over the next three weeks, Compton stands poised to not only take a World Cup series but finally best her previous second and third place finishes at Worlds with a victory. I caught up with Katie this week as she trained at home for her last three major events while also recovering from bronchitis. In this interview we cover how the current season has gone, what racing in Europe is really like and finally what it’s like to be the number one ranked cyclocross rider in the world while at the same time trying to make a living. This is Part II of the interview; read Part I here.
I know it’s early and this is just a hypothetical, but if you were to win Worlds this year and the World Cup series, do you think you’d establish a European base next year and spend months overseas defending titles, or would you continue flying back and forth?
No, I want to spend more time in the US if I win Worlds, I want to bring it home so people here can see it. I think next year we may do more back and forth trips since I seem to get more rest and better sleep that way. There are also more races I can do here than in Belgium. There just aren’t enough opportunities for women to race over there like there are here. The men have tons of races but not the women.
Aside from jetlag, are there other obvious things that make racing in Europe tough on Americans? I see you mention missing a lot of foods you can’t get in the US, but is nutrition a problem over there or is it merely personal food preferences not being met?
Nutrition isn’t a problem in Belgium, the food is really good and healthy, it’s just different than what we get here. We miss crunchy food and spicy food the most, but we get to eat amazing yogurt, cheese, fresh from the bakery bread, muesli, chocolate, ice cream, etc. And we miss all of that when we come back to the US, it’s just certain foods you get used to eating and ones you don’t realize you miss till you don’t have them. Like peanut butter is a food Belgians don’t eat, so we make a trip to Holland to get that. And their potato chips just aren’t crunchy like ours are, so we miss that after a ride. But they have great beers and Jenevere (a type of gin) that is super good and we can’t get that here. They also have a great chocolate mueslis we can’t get here either and we miss that when we come home. So nutritionally the food is great and we get what we want and need, it’s just a little different than ours.
How much does a general language barrier get in the way of getting around Europe?
The language isn’t an issue for us since we live with a Belgian family that speaks English so they do all of our talking when we need to speak Flemish. I think this year we are going to invest in Rosetta Stone so we can learn the language and at least start to understand what they are saying.
Is it possible to make a living from purely racing ‘cross for a female athlete? A lot of people were shocked that a top World Cup racer like yourself was without a sponsor last summer, so it seems like it’s a tough thing to do (and I notice you coach on the side). If not, what would it take to become a reality for most top female pros?
It’s really tough to make a living as a female bike racer in general, men have it way easier. They make more money and don’t seem to need the results to get it. I think the very top women of each cycling discipline do ok, and at least cover their bills each month and get their travel covered, but I don’t think that goes very deep in the women’s field. I think a lot of women have husbands to fall back on, trust funds, or go into debt racing their bikes. I’m making it happen as a ‘cross racer but I also have to race mtb in order to get through the non-cross season, and I need to coach as well. We’ve struggled to find sponsors lately and it’s tough because the mtb and ‘cross teams don’t really overlap since a lot of that sponsorship is still two separate entities. So you either go after ‘cross support or mtb support and one’s generally better than the other. It’s tough and depressing for women because there are only a couple mtb teams that have full support with a paycheck and once those spots are filled, they’re pretty much filled for the rider’s career, so there aren’t any new openings available. Cycling is an unforgiving sport and I think I would encourage top female pros to get an education and find a job that allows them to race their bike at the same time. We’d be in a tight spot if we didn’t have our coaching money to fall back on when we’re between contracts. I love racing my bike but I’m not about to go into debt to do it. I like owning a house and not being poor.
I help run a small cross and short track series in the Pacific Northwest, and we’ve always paid the Elite Women purses equal to the Men because it seemed obvious and fair. I’ve heard about protests from female riders asking for increased fairness in payouts at World Cup races, but when comparing European WC ‘cross races with say, a USGP race in America, is there a big difference in payouts between each one or are they both about the same in relation to what the Elite Men are getting at each respective event?
No, the men still get more money than the women do at the WC level and at pretty much every race in Belgium. The USGP and some races in the US have stepped up their game and started paying out equally to the top three women, which is huge and a great start. Our travel expenses are just as high as the guys, and we put just as much work into racing and training as they do and should be equally compensated. We may not have the numbers that the guys do, but they could still pay out the same percentage of places to the women that they pay out to the men. The USGP pays the women better than the WC does even when you add travel money into the mix and the men make much more. What really pisses me off though is the C1 races in the US, the men get $2,200 for a win where the women get $243. Some promotors have decided to pay out equally to the top three women but most haven’t, and that drives me nuts.
Do female World Cup racers get appearance/starting fees like the Men?
They call it travel money now, and yes, we do get money, but not as much as the men.
At the Portland USGP, Katerina Nash was awarded the Most Aggressive Rider (rightfully so). I remember being in the awards tent, seeing her holding up a giant novelty check for $250 and my first thought was that just printing up a 5 foot by 3 foot check could easily cost $50-100 alone, making the whole novelty check thing seem ridiculous. What’s the lowest amount on a novelty check you’ve ever had to hold up on a race podium?
Luckily for me, the lowest one I’ve held was $2,000 and the biggest was $10,000.
Are there bonuses at stake if you win the UCI World Cup series? If you win the Worlds? If so, do they come from the UCI, sponsors, or both?
Yes, I have a bonus program set up with some of my sponsors for WC wins, the overall WC and Worlds, so I have the potential to make more money this year if I have good races and get results. And that helps a ton. And the UCI overall prize money for the WC is a good payday, not like the men’s, but it is a good start.
Is mountain bike racing more or less lucrative to a pro racer than cyclocross?
It’s tough to say, I think the top mtb racers and cyclocross racers can both do ok, but a lot of the top ‘cross racers are mainly mtb racers first. I’m probably one of the only riders who says ‘cross is my first discipline and mtb my second. It depends on who you are, some mtb racers get paid very well and others (on the same team) don’t get paid shit. Whereas some ‘cross racers do well and get full support through the ‘cross season. It depends on who you are and what team you’re on. Some of it depends on results, a lot of it depends on how you’re liked and most of it depends on whether you’re a man or a woman. Being a man is much better.
Thanks Katie Compton, for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth profile of Katie Compton in Issue 8 of Cyclocross Magazine, just about to ship!