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A rare opportunity to break Katie Compton’s cyclocross stars and stripes streak

January 15, 2013
Meredith Miller led the elite women's start from pavement onto Wisconsin's "semi-permafrost"

Meredith Miller led the elite women’s start from pavement onto Wisconsin’s “semi-permafrost”

On Sunday a seasons-long unthinkable possibility surfaced with the sun rise. The weather had leveled the odds against yet another win by the unstoppable Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) in the all-American women’s elite field at the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships.

Every rider got handed the same sketchy course conditions and the same sub-freezing cold with enough sun to paint a glossy layer on top of the frozen mud. Under these circumstances, every woman was bound to make at least one little mistake and suffer some kind of bike or equipment trouble.

“The cold, the ice – that can change a lot of things, so it’s anybody’s race out there,” Meredith Miller (California Giant Berry Farms / Specialized) said just before the start of the race. “Whoever can keep their wits about them and stay focused and not let little mistakes get ‘em off track and can stay composed can be the winner today.”

Along with the distinction of being best in the country, a great performance could seal selection to represent the U.S. at world championships and that raised the ante.

“I hope to get onto the podium and not just a fifth place podium,” Miller said, “but a second place would be pretty awesome today.”

The Luna Chix tent during warm-up smelled like menthol embro

The Luna Chix tent during warm-up smelled like menthol embro

Last year’s third place finisher, Nicole Duke (Alchemy Bicycle Company) said after a pre-ride prior to the afternoon’s race that ‘cross nationals is “the biggest race of the year” for her. “I don’t have a lot of pressure right now, so it feels good. I’m kind of coming into this relaxed, but it’s definitely I think the most important race of the year.”

“It’s always a huge honor to be able to wear the stars and stripes; it’s always a big goal for me,” Georgia Gould (Luna Chix Pro Team) said, as she warmed-up on a trainer. “So everything is on the line…I’m just going to make it through with as few mistakes as possible. We’ll see how that works out.”

Fear-provoking course conditions

Katie Compton's bike in lap 2

Katie Compton’s bike in lap 2

An elite female rider who rode at the tail-end of the field described the track; it “was like riding on frozen corduroy.” That’s a bit of an understatement. Think uneven corduroy on steroids.

Ruts sank more than an inch into the ground. A coat of melted mud made the ruts slippery. “Just picking the lines is tough,” Compton said post-race, “and the lines are constantly changing.”

Even in the 16 degree Fahrenheit weather tires threw up enough mud and grass to coat frames, brakes, and chains with a mixture that solidified into cement. One coach said early in the morning that he’d seen the staff at the power washers chipping frozen mud off bikes.

The night before the elite race several amateurs who reached top five in masters races said they wouldn’t start the elite race if the course iced over by Sunday and became too dangerous in their opinion to ride.

However riders like Duke thrive under hellacious conditions. “I just pre-rode the course,” Duke said before the race, “and a lot of people look scared and they are paralyzed by it. It doesn’t phase me that much; I actually probably get more aggressive when it gets like that, so it’s to my advantage for sure.”

Race action

Miller led the field of seventy-eight from the paved start-finish stretch onto the dirt with fast starters Duke and Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com) in her wake; Crystal Anthony (Cyclocrossworld.com) and Compton shadowed Antonneau. Duke then passed Miller to take the holeshot. Later Duke said, “I wanted to get the holeshot because I knew that coming into this (pavement onto dirt) anything could happen and I kind of like to stay out of the mess. That’s typically how I ride anyway.”

Katie Antonneau's first pass over the barriers at 'cross nationals

Katie Antonneau’s first pass over the barriers at ‘cross nationals

Compton later said she had trouble finding the right gear from the start because of the different gloves she wore to fend off the cold. Duke wore latex gloves under her bike gear to keep her hands warm.

Going into the short steep hill behind the tent village early in the lap Compton slid out and lost a little ground. “The course was in the shade and was a little slippery and it wasn’t slippery before [the race],” she explained later, “so I messed up that part and then I had to kind of chase a little bit.”

Nicole Duke rode half of lap 1 with a broken right shifter

Nicole Duke rode half of lap 1 with a broken right shifter

By the time the front of the race reached the barriers more than half-way through lap one Compton led by about 25 seconds over a string of chasers consisting of Antonneau, Miller, Duke, Maureen Bruno Roy (Bob’s Red Mill p/b Seven Cycles) and Teal Stetson-Lee (Luna Chix Pro Team). Duke crossed the barriers with a right shifter that broke during a crash; her rear brakes didn’t function either.

“I had to just hold onto the hood because there was nothing else to hold onto, so I kind of just wanted to stay steady until I got another bike,” Duke explained after the race. “They switched it at a lap and a half. I was able to get back and then I think I got a flat…so it was one thing after another but I knew the course was sketchy and that anything could happen, so I just needed to stay consistent even though I was having issues.”

Compton had a lead of about 50 seconds coming down for the second time the long hill that funneled into the barriers. Antonneau and Miller followed together. Duke roared down the hill, mud patties leaping from her tires, and passed the two to seize second position on course. By now Jade Wilcoxson of Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies rode in fifth place, about ten seconds behind Miller.

On the last loop before coming back onto the pavement to start lap three, Duke slipped a gear or chain and lost a position to Miller. Then Miller’s podium goal dissolved when she slid out and dropped her chain. She rode downhill before trying to fix it, and by then the chain had frozen. Several riders passed her in the time it took to reset the chain.

Jade Wilcoxson working her way through the field to 2nd at 'cross nationals

Jade Wilcoxson working her way through the field to 2nd at ‘cross nationals

By the end of lap three Wilcoxson had moved up to third place on course and about 15 seconds separated her from Duke in second. Antonneau also dropped a chain after a crash and lost several positions and a spot on the five-person podium.

Gould had worked her way into fourth with the four-lap race nearly finished. Duke pitted to switch bikes. Wilcoxson did not pit. When speaking after the race Duke regretting making a bike change then and thought that decision had cost her second place, which she lost to Wilcoxson by three seconds. “I wish I could have kept second; I thought I had it,” Duke said.

Compton rode to her ninth consecutive cyclocross national championship with a lead of one minute twenty seconds. Miller finished eighth; Antonneau, ninth. Antonneau’s performance provided her with a gold medal among the U23 women.

Persistence v. frustration

When asked about her thoughts as she crossed the line, Compton said, “I think it was just like, ‘Thank God I don’t have to do another lap.’ Mostly because it’s so tricky to just keep the bike upright and keep your focus. It’s like one lap at a time and you just get kind of mentally fatigued I think. So I’m just happy I kept that focus and was able to push hard and have a great race.”

Duke called the race “a game of persistence because so much happened.” She added, “I could have given up so many times but I was like, just stay steady and my legs felt really good today.”

Based on their comments it appeared neither Compton nor Duke allowed herself to get rattled by actual or potential adversity.

For Miller it was a different matter. In a report on her team’s website, she said, “…unfortunately I sort of fell apart. I had one major mistake and got passed and then from that point on, lost it…everything that could go wrong went wrong whether it was frozen pedals, taking bad lines.”

Gould struggled until the last lap and finished fourth. “I just could not get out of my own way those first few laps,” she told Cyclocross Magazine in a post-race interview. “I just was all over the place, getting frustrated, one thing after another.”

Katie Compton wins her 9th 'cross national championship in a row

Katie Compton wins her 9th ‘cross national championship in a row

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