The top American cyclocrosser talks about making it in a 'man's sport' and why you should probably turn off your phone and try to get more sleep

Katie Compton best American cyclocrosserJeff Kennel/Trek BicycleOver her 15-year racing career, Katie Compton has become one of the most accomplished US cyclists of all time, and she’s not finished.

Off the bike, she’s friendly and funny. On the bike, she’s ferociously competitive, which is how she got her nickname: Katie F—ing Compton.

If you’re into cyclocross, the fast-growing discipline of bike racing that combines elements of mountain biking and road cycling, you know the name Katie Compton well. If you don’t, just know she’s one of America’s finest athletes, not to mention its most accomplished cyclocrosser, having won the national title 13 times in a row.

The 38-year-old has won over 120 races in her 15-year career, including 22 World Cups. She’s taken silver and bronze medals at the World Championships, consistently ranks among the world’s top riders, and is again chasing gold as she begins what could be her penultimate season racing as a professional. A native of Wilmington, Delaware, Compton lives in Colorado in the offseason, though she primarily races in Europe — mostly in Belgium, the hotbed of ‘cross.

Business Insider recently sat down with the reigning champ at the Waterloo World Cup, where she talked about what she’s learned, overcoming setbacks, the struggle for equal pay, and how to grow American cyclocross.

Daniel McMahon: You’re one of the most successful American cyclists of all time, and the most accomplished in US cyclocross. Do you ever feel as if not many people know your story beyond cycling? Did you ever wish the sport were really a lot bigger?

Katie Compton: I do, because I feel a lot of people would really enjoy watching it. It’s fun to watch. It’s spectator-friendly. It’s dynamic. It’s not watching a six-hour group-ride on TV during a stage of the Tour de France. It’s entertaining for a short attention span, which is perfect nowadays the way our attention spans are. But I feel if it hit a wider audience and people knew what they were watching, there’d be a lot of interest in it. It’s chicken and the egg. We need to get it on TV, but to get it on TV there needs to be interest. I mean, people watch poker and pool on TV, and I’m like, really? I feel like bike racing, especially ‘cross, is slightly more entertaining than that. But it’s hard to get on TV.

The more people who watch it and understand it, we could get somewhere where it’s like a high-end sport, like golf and tennis and car racing. It’s really fun to watch. We need to bring it to a bigger audience but also have it explained properly, too, so people know what’s going on. In Belgium, they love it; it’s like their national pastime. And they come out to actually watch the races.

Cyclocross niche sport growingMichael Steele/Getty ImagesCyclocross, a fast-growing discipline of bike racing that combines elements of mountain biking and road cycling, is still a niche sport, but it is growing.

McMahon: What’s your true feeling about the state of ‘cross in the US right now?

Compton: Well, it’s growing. We’ve definitely had our ebbs and flows. We grow a bit, stagnate, then grow a bit, then stagnate. Right now I just feel we need more media and TV coverage. We’re getting to that point where outside sponsors, outside industry sponsors would be good, but it’s hard to get those without the TV coverage. It’s growing, but I still feel like it needs more money and more attention, more media. I think having the CrossFit Games and having that ‘cross race and putting that up, the number of people who liked it and watched it, I feel we need that audience. Like, if you liked watching that, you’d love watching this, because this is the elite of the elite. I feel a wider audience would help grow the sport even more.

Katie Compton cyclocrosserJeff Kennel/Trek BicycleCompton in action at Waterloo, the first World Cup race to pay men and women equal prize money.

McMahon: What performance improvements have you’ve made that have yielded the greatest results?

Compton: A lot of it is experience and lots of training time. Every year helps you get stronger for the next year, because with cycling and endurance sports, the more time you put into it, the better you are. And the older you get, I feel you get a little bit smarter with your training and preparation. But there’s also nutrition and sleep and knowing what my body can do. Those are probably the biggest improvements I’ve made, and also just not doing too much, not overdoing it, not getting greedy with the intervals, and not getting overtired. People do too much and are usually racing under-rested, and you can see it.

Nutrition has been very important because you can adapt your diet, and choose to eat healthy foods, and do nutrient timing for performance and to feel better and to lean out. Nutrition and sleep have been the biggest areas I’ve improved in — sleep especially. I love sleep. I sleep eight to 10 hours a night. I need a lot of sleep. That’s when your body recovers itself, when the brain processes everything you’ve done that day. I don’t think people realise how important sleep is for ageing well, recovering well, and just being mentally fresh.

Katie Compton interview Business InsiderDaniel McMahon/Business Insider‘I just don’t like to quit,’ says Compton, who has won over 120 races.

McMahon: Do you nap as well?

Compton: I do, as much as I can. Sometimes I don’t have time, or I’m just running around, or I’m not tired. But on big training days, I’ll eat, have a shower, and sit on the couch, and within five minutes I’m asleep for about 20 minutes, and it’s perfect. But I’m lucky I can do that. A lot of people who work full-time and try to ride their bike and they have got kids — they’re like, “Napping? What’s that? I have no idea.” [Laughs] So rest and recovery are important for me.

McMahon: Are you a good sleeper?

Compton: I am a good sleeper. If I’m tired, I can sleep through anything. The older I get, it’s harder at times, but if I manage my stress and my brain isn’t so busy at night, I’m OK. That’s, like, twice a month where I’ve got a busy brain, where I’m thinking about everything I should be doing instead of sleeping. But we all do that. I just like sleep. I’ve got a great, comfortable bed, and comfortable pillows.

McMahon: So you invested in getting high-quality sleep.

Compton: We did. We bought a Sleep Number bed a few years ago when I was having neck and back issues. I realised a Sleep Number is the way to go because you can adjust it to firm or soft. When I bruised my ribs and I was super sore for a good six weeks, I was really happy not to have a firm mattress. My husband and I like it, and we have different settings. For couples it’s great because you can adjust it for what your needs are on either side. And I’m not sponsored by Sleep Number, but that would be nice. [Laughs]

McMahon: Were you always so into getting quality sleep, or did you come to appreciate it over time?

Compton: I’ve always been a good sleeper, and I’ve always tried to sleep as much as possible. But I feel like now is when I’m actually making the effort to sleep well. The older you get, the more you realise how important sleep is. Like, I try not to look at electronics before bed. I mean, sometimes I do, but if I have a couple of poor nights’ sleep, I try to put the iPhone down, read a book, and go to sleep.

I also go to bed early, and I always eat early, and that helps. Sometimes I go to bed at 8:30. I’d say 9 is the latest. But it could be 10 if I’ve got a lot of stuff to do, like packing for a trip. If it’s up to me, I eat dinner at 4 or 5 and I’m in bed by 8:30. I’m a morning person; I’m just more productive then. I’ll wake up at 5:30 or 6 regardless, whenever the sun comes up. So if I go to bed early, I’m guaranteed a sleep that’s enough. But if I go to bed at midnight, I’ll still wake up at 6, and I’ll be super tired.

McMahon: You mentioned nutrition. What are the foods you eat most often, and which do you avoid?

Compton: I can’t have folic acid. I have a gene defect — MTHFR — where I can’t have folic acid because my body doesn’t metabolize it. I need methylfolate, so that has affected my diet. I don’t eat any processed foods, I don’t eat any wheats, and I can’t eat anything that’s enriched. I also eat a low-histamine diet for allergies, so I avoid foods that can trigger a histamine response in the body so that I can breathe better. That’s particular to me, and I’ve dialed it in over the years. I’ve just had so many issues with not feeling well and breathing and energy levels, and I found nutrition helps with that.

So I eat potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, lots of fruits and vegetables, grass-fed proteins, wild-caught fish, healthy fats like avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, and fish oil. Usually, I’ll have vegetables and eggs for breakfast. For carbohydrates, I’ll usually do them before, during, and after exercising. Evening will be more salad and protein. I try to change it up depending on the seasons, like which veggies look good. But there’s not a ton of variety because I’m limited to what I can eat and what I like, so I just try to eat as much colour and veggies and good protein sources and healthy fats.

Katie Compton interview cyclocross championBryn Lennon /Getty ImagesCompton leads Sanne Cant of Belgium at the UCI Cyclocross World Cup in Milton Keynes, England, November 29, 2014.

McMahon: What has been your biggest challenge?

Compton: It’s probably the health issues. With the gene defect, I’ve had recurring, severe leg pains since I was 18. Before I figured it out, it was every eight weeks for three or four weeks at a time. And it’s painful. It’s awful. And that also causes allergy and asthma and energy issues. Before I figured out the methylfolate problem, I’d say that was my biggest hurdle, because it was 20 years of having the pains and feeling bad, having really good results and then not being able to ride my bike. It’s been an emotional roller coaster. I’d get just enough good results to not want to quit, but then I’d have so much pain and struggle with why’s my body not working the way it should. That’s probably been the biggest struggle for me. And I just kept pushing. I don’t know why. Sometimes I look back and I’m like, how I did I keep doing it? I think I just don’t like to quit. And I also just wanted to feel good; I want to be pain-free. I was like, there’s got to be a reason this hurts so bad.

McMahon: How did you find out you had this defect?

Compton: I was listening to a podcast with a functional-medicine doctor, and he mentioned getting this genetic test if I had symptoms. And I had all the symptoms he listed, and I was like, “Well, that’s an easy test to do. I’ll just ask my doctor.” It’s a simple blood test, and it came back that I had defects. I’m 70% compromised with the methylfolate metabolism. It’s actually fairly substantial, which is why I feel so bad when I eat folic acid. But everybody’s different. One person can have one defect and not have any issues; it all depends. But I know how it affects me, and I know as long as I avoid certain foods and make sure I get enough rest and recovery, I’m 10 times better. It’s a night-and-day difference.

McMahon: What are foods you never eat?

Compton: Anything processed.

McMahon: So nothing packaged, no fast food, no burgers and fries and all that?

Compton: I’ll eat buffalo burgers, but I’ll make them and grill them. I’ll eat a burger if I go out to a restaurant, but I don’t eat the bun because I can’t have wheat, as it’s enriched. I don’t eat any grains — very few — just because they’re usually all enriched. Sometimes I’ll have quinoa. Buckwheat I can eat OK, but I have to make sure it’s just that one ingredient in there. Even some of the gluten-free flours are enriched, so I have to be careful. Anything enriched or anything processed I stay away from.

I don’t feel you should go to the start line thinking you’re not going to win.

McMahon: What other challenges have you faced?

Compton: Honestly, I’d say it’s probably just being a woman. As kind of silly as that sounds, it’s true. As a woman in the bike-racing world, we have to work really hard, and we struggle. The discrepancy between sponsorship dollars and prize-money dollars is quite substantial. And I know that this is something that most women in most industries have dealt with. It’s slowly getting better, but we have a long way to go.

And bike racing has been a man’s sport for a long time, and women are just starting to get more attention, more media attention, and more respect — it’s been a slow process, but I think it’s going to progress — but I feel like we have to keep repeating ourselves and pushing forward the progress for it to happen. And also we have to do it “politically correct,” too. We can’t be “difficult,” because then they’re like, “Well, you’re just lucky you have a race.” Well, that’s not what we’re going for; we’re over that. We’re looking for equality, and not just in bike racing — in the working world generally.

We’ve struggled with sponsorship dollars, and staying in the bike-racing world, and making this an actual job where we’re not living off credits cards. A man getting not even a third of the results I get can make more money. That doesn’t make sense. I’ve won a ton of races; I’m good. How come this is such a struggle? So that’s where it gets frustrating. But I’m also not going to quit and just give up, because that doesn’t help anybody. I’m trying to do the best I can, and get the best results, and try to push women’s racing forward without pushing too hard.

McMahon: At the Waterloo World Cup, the organiser, Trek, announced it was going to do something unprecedented: pay equal prize money to men and women. What has that meant for you?

Compton: It’s pretty amazing. I’m really proud of Trek for stepping up and paying that equal prize money. There’s a huge discrepancy between what the men get and what the women get. So, for now, it’s going to be great. For whoever wins or gets top five, it’s a good payoff, where we’re not used to getting paid very well. It’s progress. We have a lot to do in regard to equal prize money, and I think the UCI can step in and help facilitate that change a little better. But it’s progress, and Trek’s taken the first step. I feel we’ve got to start somewhere, and this is a good place to start.

McMahon: Now that we’ve had the opening of the ‘cross season play out here in the US, you’re headed to Europe to do a full season of racing. How do you decide to do a full or partial season across the Atlantic versus here?

Compton: Well, I can get start contracts over there. If I commit to a whole Belgian series, I can get contracts for the whole series, so it helps with money. But since Trek is livestreaming the DVV series, which is a series of eight races, and it’s free, people in the US can actually watch me race easier if I’m in Belgium than if I’m in the US, because in the US they have got to travel to the races to see it, and our country so big, and it’s expensive. This way, they can watch it on TV, and Trek can get the coverage. People can get up and enjoy the bike racing before they go out and start their day with a bike ride or a run. So that’s kind of it, the TV coverage. And the racing’s really good. There are courses I’ve been wanting to race. So now is the time to go over there.

McMahon: Do you have a world title in you?

Compton: I hope so. [Laughs] I’ve had it in me in the past. I’ve gotten four medals at worlds, never the first one. And I’ve also sat out of half the worlds with my leg pain, so I haven’t been able to race in years that I was probably actually riding my best. Again, that hurdle — it’s frustrating. I keep pushing for it every year. I try to set up for it and train for it. I’ve had some good luck, and I’ve had some back luck. I’m not going to say no, because I don’t feel you should go to the start line thinking you’re not going to win. I’m going to keep trying. At some point hopefully I can do it.

McMahon: What advice would you give to young women in sport?

Compton: Try a lot of sports; try different things. Whatever you have an option to do, try it and see what you’re good at. There are so many different body types and things women can be good at. Figure out what suits you, and then train for it and work for it. I love cycling because it’s a lifetime sport. It’s always great to be able to ride a bike and feel confident riding in traffic, confident riding on trails. If you want to commute to work, it’s a great way to stay healthy and not be sitting in traffic. Running and triathlon, too, because you don’t need a team to play.

When you’re young, in junior high and high school, playing a lot of sports is great because you need the athleticism — you need to play a variety of things to be good at it. But I feel as you get older and you go to college and such, finding something that you like to do frequently will keep you healthy, keep you fit, help you have a long life where you’re not sick, which I think people forget about until they’re 60 and they’re unhealthy. If you exercise your entire life, at 80 is probably when you start feeling you’re old, not 60 or 50. So I feel it helps prolong your healthy life, instead of just your lifespan.

McMahon: I have to ask: Marianne Vos — fair to say your greatest rival?

Compton: For sure, yeah. Honestly, she’s such an exceptional athlete, and she’s so great at what she does. I have beaten her in the past, but I haven’t beaten her at a World Championships, and that’s frustrating. But she’s such a great athlete it’s also hard, you know — she’s won a ton of stuff, and she’s 10 years younger than I am, so it’s, like, I may never beat her. She’s such a great competitor that when you do beat somebody like her, it’s a big accomplishment, so I’ll take that.

We have a good relationship, though I don’t talk to her very often, because she lives in Holland. But we’re definitely friendly and cordial. I really enjoy racing against her. She’s very respectful, very hard, very smart. You know a win against her is a legit win. That always feels good.

McMahon: How many more years do you want to compete?

Compton: I have at least this year and next year. Then I’m going to reevaluate. I haven’t put a timeline on it. I like the lifestyle. I still like the racing. I feel like I would miss it. When I do miss races, I feel I want to be on the start line. I’m going to wait and see what happens. When I get to the point where I say I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m done. But I’m not there yet.

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