BRUSSELS -- With an easy second-place finish in Rome on Sunday, Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) became the first American to win a cyclocross World Cup overall, despite the fact that another round, in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, remains in two weeks' time.
In fact, Compton's World Cup performance this year has been so good -- in seven races she never finished worse than second -- that she needed only to finish 15th on Sunday to ensure her World Cup win. To have even a slim chance of upsetting Compton, her nearest competitor, Brit Nikki Harris (Telenet-Fidea), needed to finish no worse than second place both on Sunday and in Hoogerheide, all while hoping Compton did not crack the top 25 in either race. Instead, Harris finished a distant 12th in Rome, meaning Compton's overall victory would have been guaranteed even in the event that she could not finish the race.
Compton told VeloNews that she's still just beginning to absorb the magnitude of her achievement, reaching a goal that eluded her for many years.
"I don't think winning the overall has quite sunk in yet," she said on Monday. "I'm really happy and it feels great to finally do it after many seasons of being in the top three, but missing out since I never raced the whole series. It's a huge accomplishment for me since I needed to stay consistent, travel well, and still be able to ride fast on different courses and overcome some bad starts and simply clumsy days on the bike. I think what I'm most excited about is finally feeling well for an entire 'cross season and doing it right by staying in Europe for the second half of the season and cutting down on the jet lag fatigue that sometimes catches up with me by the end of December."
Compton, who will head back to the United States this week in advance of her bid for a ninth straight national title, will skip the final round of the World Cup, focusing instead on preparation for the world championships in Louisville, Ky. The focus for the final round of the World Cup falls on the three women vying for the two remaining spots on the podium. Harris, the Netherlands' Sanne Van Passen (Rabobank), and British and European champion Helen Wyman (Kona) are separated by just eight points, and with a 15-point differential between the awards for first and third place in Hoogerheide, a good ride by any of the three will likely be enough to secure second overall.
On the road to victory, Compton was the beneficiary of all three women's missteps and bad luck. Wyman was undone by a first-lap crash in Roubaix, France, that forced her to mount a furious chase to earn even a 13th-place finish. Harris had the 12th place in Rome. Van Passen twice rode ferocious duels with Compton, outsprinting her in the opening round in Tabor, Czech Republic, and losing a close tactical race in Roubaix at the beginning of December. But her World Cup campaign was unraveled by midseason illness, which eventually forced her to miss the series' sixth round in Zolder, Belgium, on Dec. 26.
And two of the most dangerous racers in cyclocross, world champion Marianne Vos (Rabobank) and Katerina Nash (Luna), did not start their World Cup campaigns until the series was half complete.
Still, Compton's overall title represents a major achievement, and marks a triumph not just over her rivals, but over a long list of problems that derailed good seasons in the past. Compton finished third in last year's competition, but never made a serious effort to challenge the now-retired Dutchwoman Daphny van den Brand. During the 2010-11 season, Compton went undefeated in World Cup competition, taking five wins. But she opted not to start races in Plzen, Czech Republic, and Pont-Chateau, France, instead making a win at the worlds in Sankt Wendel, Germany, the focus of her season. She finished a heartbreaking second to Vos in Germany, and missed the World Cup title by a mere 10 points as well.
The 2009-10 series was even more painful. Compton led van den Brand by 15 points after the fifth round, but was forced to watch the final two races from the sidelines due to an attack of debilitating leg cramps. The condition also destroyed any chance of a result at the world championships the following week -- she abandoned that race after just two laps. In the aftermath of the disastrous end of that season, Compton sought new and better treatment that finally helped her overcome the problem, one that had been a source of worry and disruption for nearly her entire career.
Now healthy, Compton can focus entirely on checking one more box off her list of career goals: a world title. And indeed, even the one woman most likely to stand between her and that goal, five-time champion Vos, has tipped the American as the favorite for Louisville next month.
"I think Katie is the biggest opponent," Vos told VeloNews after the first World Cup win of her abbreviated 'cross campaign, in Zolder. "I already knew that before I returned to racing. I followed her season so far, and she's really doing good. She's so strong, that if she finds her rhythm, it's hard for me to keep up with her. I really think she's the favorite for Louisville."
Compton said that she, too, feels confident heading into the final weeks before worlds.
"I finally feel like I'm getting stronger and not running on fumes right now," she said. "I feel relieved that I was able to win enough races to skip the last race of the series and stay home to prepare for worlds. It will be a nice change from past years, and hopefully it will pay off for me in February."
But first, she told VeloNews, Compton looks forward to simply celebrating a major career milestone, one that she was quick to point out it was not something she achieved on her own.
"This win is special for me, but also for (my husband) Mark and my Belgium 'family,' since they have played a huge roll in my success in Belgium," she said. "There's no way I could do it without them; I may have been the one pedaling the bike, but all the support I get from Mark and our Belgium family has made this a win for all of us. A lot of things had to happen in order for me to win the overall and Trek stepping in at the right time and giving me the bikes and support I needed to get the job done was also a huge part of my success. I'm so happy and lucky to be in this position now, and to have the health and perseverance to finally do it."