Cyclist, we need to talk. Again. About drugs.
This time, I’m afraid it’s about cyclocross, Katie Compton and drugs.
But before we go there, I need to tell you about my two-day career in World Cup cyclocross journalism. I need to tell you about the time I met cyclocross’s queen bee: 15-time national champion, Katie Fucking Compton. (Mom, don’t get mad at my dirty mouth; that’s her actual nickname. Like Michael Air Jordan or Earvin Magic Johnson.)
Back in 2019, I got the unusual opportunity to job-shadow the good folks at Cyclocross Magazine as they covered the UCI World Cup Jingle Cross in Iowa City. The magazine’s founder, Andrew Yee, was my generous host. As two bike-loving dads with jobs in the magazine industry, Yee and I found lots to talk about.
I was honest with him that, while I’m a decent writer who knows his way around a gravel section, my ‘cross credentials were … thin.
“How thin?” he asked. What did I know about cyclocross racing? And in a case of cosmic good timing, I pointed toward a woman rolling past us just then and said, “I know that’s Amanda Nauman. That’s about it.”
Yee appreciated my honesty. He handed me a media pass that gave me free rein to mill about the team vans and finish area. And he pretty much turned me loose to go talk with any mechanics, race directors and World Cup athletes who would give me the time of day.
Gosh, and so many of them did.
For the Friday night races, I tag-teamed the finish line with CX Magazine’s veteran reporter, Zachary Schuster. He’d interview the happy winners and I’d talk to the runners up. That’s how I got to speak with a still-fuming Dutch pro, Manon Bakker, a couple breathless seconds after she got pipped at the line by a crafty Canadian.
Moments after finishing second in his race, French pro Steve Chainel was gracious in his narrow loss, but frank with me about the clock he felt ticking on his career. The 2018 French cyclocross national champion wasn’t a kid anymore and couldn’t be sure how many opportunities he had left to seize a major result.
Among the team vans the next day, I stumbled upon a young Belgian mechanic who described how his heart would hit the 170s just watching races from the pits. He said athletes needed to have total confidence in the bikes beneath them to do well. And his role as a mechanic wasn’t just to fix bikes. It was to give them that confidence to excel.
I found the Kona tent nearby and introduced myself to a relaxing Rebecca Fahringer (@GoFahr) who almost sunburned me with the warmth of her welcome. She answered my asinine questions about the pros and cons of 1x and 2x drivetrains as if I were Dan Rather and not some misplaced gravel blogger. She even encouraged me to come back again later so I could meet her teammate, Kerry Werner (@kerryw24), who was off warming up.
A while later, in the closing minutes before the women were to begin staging for their World Cup race, I found myself approaching Compton. I may not have known squat about cyclocross, but I sure as heck knew Katie Compton (@KatieFnCompton). The 15-time U.S. national champion was basically the Wayne Gretzky of American cyclocross. The biggest figure the sport has. And there she was, in the shade of a massive oak tree, spinning away on her rollers.
While I knew I had no business interrupting her so close to her start, I also knew I wouldn’t get another chance. If you see Wayne Gretzky sitting alone in an airport, you don’t say, “Well, maybe I’ll skip this one and go say hi the next time I see Wayne Gretzky sitting alone in an airport.” No. You go talk to him or you don’t. This felt like that.
I convinced myself in that moment that my gaping cyclocross ignorance was actually my biggest strength. And I simply didn’t know enough to realize that I shouldn’t go talk to her right then. So I went and talked to her. Right then.
And Compton responded to my awkward interview request by being perfectly nice. Perfectly accommodating. Perfectly pro. And nearly as warm as Fahringer had been earlier. She answered all my silly questions mid-spin.
At some point, Yee saw what I was doing and scooted over. (I can only imagine what he thought: Oh Christ! The intern is interviewing Magic Johnson…) I didn’t see him arrive, but I can imagine his face was fearfully apologetic behind me.
Compton just laughed. She told Yee, “It’s fine. I’ll talk to anybody interested in cyclocross.” (The implied “even this idiot” was understood.) She smiled. I smiled. Yee smiled. These were happy times. Right?
That, friends, is how my 48-hour career in cyclocross journalism ended––with Yee and me, grinning awkwardly next to the best there ever was.
If my exit from cyclocross was mildly awkward, Compton’s departure this month was excruciating. Compton preempted a planned USADA announcement by breaking the news of her own failed drug test. USADA had found reason to retest a urine sample of hers from September of last year using a more sensitive method. This reanalysis detected an exogenous testosterone. A steroid.
As a result, Compton received a standard four-year ban from competition. In her statement, she admitted no wrongdoing. But at 42, rather than fight her ban, Compton announced her retirement. And my stomach buckled with the now familiar nausea of a disgusted cycling fan.
Compton’s doping topple differs from others mostly at the margins, in the extent to which her many fans and peers have linked their surprise to their sense of her strong character.
But we can’t confuse popularity, appearances, or even character, with evidence. Our world has plenty of goodly cheats and innocent snakes.
More than with Compton’s character, I’m concerned with ours. Given the evidence we have now, I believe Compton cheated with intent. And I’m skeptical that this cheating would’ve begun only in September of last year. That conclusion stirs up strong feelings. It pisses me off. In the soup of human emotions, our outrage is a powerful salt, while our humility is milder stuff. The more we stew, the more our humility dissolves. And that dissolution can only do bad things to our character.
I don’t have to look back far to find another example of a sports-related outrage overwhelming humility. Just days before Compton’s fall, at a Rockies/Marlins game in Denver, Twitter erupted with foul video evidence of a fan behind home plate yelling the N-word at a Marlins batter, outfielder Lewis Brinson.
Hearing that audio stirred up for me all the hate-drenched sewage of the last few years––the tiki-toting blowhards chanting, “You will not replace us,” “Blood and soil,” and all that Nazi white supremacist bullshit. I was outraged. Twitter was, too. And rightly so.
The Rockies’ PR folks were horrified. They investigated, and quickly found the fan in question. And they determined, with compelling evidence, that the fan was, in fact, yelling “Dinger,” the name of the Rockies mascot. He’d wanted to get the mascot’s attention for a quick photo with his family.
The MAGA types predictably chimed in: “See? You liberals are always calling everything racist.” (That’s the thing about pervasive racism in America. It does pop up pretty frequently.)
Then they said something far more interesting to me. They accused people of being disappointed that the guy turned out to be innocent. “You’re only happy when you’re outraged,” they said.
Disregard for one moment the sheer projection tucked inside the ever-furious MAGA folks’s claim. And check the nature of our own outrage––with Compton and so many others across our blemished sport. Do we get an odd uplift when an icon falls? Is there a self-righteous social twitterpation to be had from their public splashdowns?
It helps to remind myself that my outrage here really isn’t mine. There’s no meaningful satisfaction to be had in our personal bumps up the racing ladder from 5,112th place to 5,111th.
But I’ve stood at that finish line. I’ve shoved my phone at the faces of the emptied-out athletes who mustered second. And I’ve seen the sharpness of their competitive disappointment. And for every corrupted finish, I’ll save my outrage for that first clean athlete, whether she came across second or 22nd. Because I know the sweetness she missed.
And I’ll save my outrage for that Belgian mechanic in the pits. The kid whose heart pounds for his teammates. The kid who makes it his job to help clean athletes take total confidence. Imagine it’s your job to find confidence in a pit like this one.
Thinking about them (instead of the cheater and instead of myself) shifts my outrage toward something tempered more like sorrow. And for me, that’s the better gear.