Rarely in cycling do we see such a rivalry as enduring as that between Katie Compton and Marianne Vos. Too many things are the result of chance, too many factors - a dab in a corner, an inopportune flat, a hair too much aggression in a corner - can send a rider back from the podium to the rear of the top ten. But through all the chance, Marianne Vos has emerged as World Champion in cyclocross some six of the last eight years. And in those times, Katie Compton has finished on the podium four times.
Compton has long been the Poulidor to Vos' Anquetil, the seeming eternal second. While Vos splits her focus between the road of spring and summer and the grassy and muddy tracks of fall and winter, Compton is a thoroughbred cyclocross racer. She gave up mountain bike racing years ago and seemingly wins at will in North America and is rarely beat in Europe. She has won the UCI World Cup overall for the past two years and is almost a mortal lock to take this year's title even if she does not contest the final event. But, there is one title that has eluded her thus far - a world championship.
Though bad luck and slow starts have occasionally cost Compton a shot to win Worlds, in the past few years it has been largely the unstoppable force of Marianne Vos instead that has relegated her to second place. Compton simply seemed unable to match the Dutch prodigy in power and speed even though she spent the year training specifically for this discipline. Vos, on the other hand, has traditionally followed a schedule of time off after the road season followed by a late entry to the cyclocross season, taking her first start of the season in recent years in the World Cup round in Namur, Belgium. A predictable pattern emerged, one with Compton emerging as the winner in Vos' first weekend in the sport and then succumbing in later races after Vos finished her quick adaptation to the sport.
This year, things have been slightly different. Compton won the World Cup round in Namur on Monday, keeping with tradition. But she won again yesterday around the Zolder race track, overpowering Vos in the dry, fast conditions the hybrid road / cross racer thrives most in. It was a win that caught some observers by surprise, even after Vos took a small break weeks earlier for a minor surgery on a nagging back issue. Could this portend a change in ownership of the world champion's stripes in February?
Some commentators were quick cite Vos' recent time off the bike as the reason she could not prevail in Zolder and maintained their hope in her status as favorite to win Worlds. There are five weeks until Worlds, after all, which is plenty of time to build. As if to back them up, Vos won today in a muddy race at Azencross Loenhout, putting a notable 47 seconds in to Compton over the span of a 45 minute race. There seems to be a distinctly upwards trending trajectory here.
But Vos is not the only one who had a slow start to the season. Compton struggled in the pre-season with injuries and entered the early North American races noticeably behind her fitness from years past. She was beaten once, twice, thrice. In the four times she lined up against Katarina Nash - a fellow World Cup winner, but not nearly as prolific in that regard - Compton lost three times. A slow beginning of the season has its advantages, though, as both Katie and her husband/mechanic/trainer Mark Legg Compton were quick to point out. While Compton has hit February running on fumes the past few years, struggling to predict which days will be good and bad, her fatigue - and thus her peak months - should be delayed compared to years past.
With a mere three races - all within one week! - with both Compton and Vos in the books this season, it is impossible to make clear predictions for the World Championships in February in the Netherlands. But though the fast, mostly flat course seems to favor Vos more - at least if it is dry or icy and fast - this year we will be treated to a spectacle we have been unaccustomed to. Both Compton and Vos are rising instead of having opposite trends in their form. Perhaps Compton's success in the past two World Cups has been due to Vos' return from a break and her minor surgery, but it would be foolish to write them off as merely the result of a slower Marianne. No, Katie is looking better prepared for Worlds than she has in years past and we ought to have a proper battle royale on our hands on Feburary 1st.