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  • 04.12.14

    Mud and science (with video)

    Watts, cantis and mouse clicks with Mr Katie Compton

    Words
    Timothy John
    Photographs
    Timothy John

I’d been assured. The cyclo-cross community is friendly. Don’t stand on ceremony. They’ll be happy to talk. Think of the scene as a family, rather than rivals, though the competition will be fierce.

Perhaps it’s the mud that dissolves delusions of grandeur. It’s difficult to stand on ceremony when your shoes are fast disappearing in the swamp. That’s not to say there isn’t a sense of the epic unfolding at Milton Keynes.

“You’ve got everything from an exceptional course that’s really challenging and is going to reward riders that have a lot of skill, a lot of finesse, a lot of power, and a lot of luck – or, as Johan Museeuw used to say, ‘a lot of lucky,’” grins Mark Legg, a man cycling’s Twitterati might more readily recognise as Mr Katie Compton.

“And then you’ve got the venue, which is just beautiful. That is the most beautiful podium that I have ever seen at any World Cup or World Championships. That podium, with all the crowd looking down, is by far the best.

“Actually, this is probably the best World Cup I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.”

Legg isn’t the only one to be impressed by the inspired use of Campbell Park’s natural amphitheatre as a location for an F1-style podium. And he is not exaggerating when he says he has seen a lot of World Cups. As he cheerily lists his duties for the rider at the centre of Trek’s assault on the European ‘cross scene – one who is also his wife – it is a further example of a truth readily apparent to those on the inside of any sport: that those behind the scenes typically work as hard as those who stand on the aforesaid podium.

Amusing and knowledgeable, able to wield a jetwash lance with impressive dexterity while holding forth on the effect of crank length on a rider’s maximal power output, Legg proves an expert guide to a host of issues, not least his wife’s racing bike.

Katie Compton's initials, toptube, whiteCompton was intimately involved in the design and development of the Trek Boone and it's aluminium sibling, the Crockett

Take the set-up of Compton’s Trek Boone, for example, and a riding position arrived at by analysis of her power outputs. If such a scientific approach seems at odds with the chaotic start to a ‘cross race, not to mention the countless changes of position that occur once it’s underway, think again.

Compton rides 175mm cranks: an unusual choice for a rider whose physiology her husband describes as “short legs, short femurs, and a long torso”. Her preference for comparatively long crank arms stems from her early career as Paralympic gold medalist (tandem pilot to blind stoker Karissa Whitsell at the 2004 Games in Athens). “We tried going to 72.5 and her power dropped again,” Legg explains. A power meter, he continues, will reveal changes wrought from crank arm length to sustained and maximal power outputs, as well as in a rider’s V02 max. Powerful stuff.

Viewed through the prism of power outputs, ‘cross racing can be broken down into a series of repeated, full gas efforts. “You’re not looking at max power one time – you’re looking at repeated max efforts, and that’s quite different,” Legg says. “You’re looking at between 12 and 25 to 30 seconds of maximum sustained power, because that’s what that effort is between one corner and the next. You’re looking to see what those power numbers are, and if the repeatable number drops off, you can see there’s something going on [with the bike set-up].”

Compton's bicycle, Mark Legg, pressure washerCompton's saddle is placed far forward on its rails. An earlier position with the saddle set further back had cost her 50w

Legg offers as evidence for his analysis a 50w decrease in Compton’s power during her time with Rabobank, when her saddle was set back further on its rails than is now the case. Its notably ‘forward’ position begins to make sense. Legg’s persona seems about as far removed from the number crunchers at British Cycling as the chaos of ‘cross racing is from the infinitely controlled environment of the velodrome, but while he salutes the innate enjoyment of ‘cross racing and “bashing round”, he clearly has a firm grasp on the science of winning.

Compton’s work with Trek in developing the American behemoth’s Crockett and Boone ‘cross bikes might be taken as a further example of the couple’s attention to detail. Legg proudly recounts his wife’s ability to identify minute differences in the geometry of three aluminium prototype bikes while testing in an area of forest owned by Trek, close to the company’s global headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin.

“Trek have been awesome to work with,” he says. “They were pretty close to going to market with a certain geometry, and she was like, ‘Don’t do it. It’s not right’. We gave them some numbers, and we kept tweaking. During prototype testing, between races, we’d sometimes fly up to Madison and test at Waterloo, and they’d give us three bikes. They would be unpainted, aluminium prototype bikes: her geometry, one with a slight variation, and one with their geometry. Katie’d ride them, give them feedback on every single one, and identify which bike was which.”

Shimano Dura-Ace drivetrain, close-up, MKWCXCompton used Shimano Dura-Ace chainrings at Milton Keynes, but has previously used custom rings from Wickwerks

The key phrase might be “gave them some numbers”. Legg worked as a bike fitter for ten years. Compton’s ability to identify a particular geometry once came down to a difference of less than half-a-degree in the frame angles of the various prototypes placed at her disposal.

Further examples? Compton used a Shimano Dura-Ace chainset at Milton Keynes, with 36-46 rings, but ‘twas not always thus. Legg explains that she had previously used custom chainrings from WickWerkes, in a 34-42 pairing. The idea? To allow the use of closer ratios at the cassette (Compton used Shimano’s rings with a 12-28 cassette in Campbell Park). Legg is also no fan of the 1x10 and 1x11 drivetrains to which cross-country mountain bike racers are in thrall. “The cadence changes are really big, and unless you have really good legs that day, your legs really hurt when you go from 100rpm down to 79rpm,” he explains. “It’s a rough one. You’re either spinning or grinding.”

There’s an interesting mix of the traditional and leading edge in Compton’s shifting and braking choices. Gear selection is made with Shimano’s flagship Dura-Ace 9800-series electronic mechs and shifters – a selection that wins the Legg’s approval. “Shifting is only a mouse click away,” he deadpans, before focusing on the practical benefits to the mechanic, as well as rider. “On days like today, everything works,” he continues, gesturing at the shifting morass in which we stand. “I don’t have to do any derailleur adjustments. On cable bikes, with the power washes blasting away, that becomes a real issue.”

Katie Compton, bicycle fork, cantilever brakes, shimanoCompton has continued to use cantilever brakes, despite the availability of discs. "If you're stopping in 'cross, your doing it wrong," says husband, Mark Legg

For braking, however, Compton has trusted to the tried and tested: cantilever brakes provide the stopping power, or, to be more accurate, her method of slowing the bike. “If you’re stopping in ‘cross, you’re doing it wrong,” is Legg’s blunt summary of why the superior power of hydraulic disc brakes, the choice of Lars van der Haar, among others, has not been uniformly adopted by the ‘cross elite.

Cantilevers also provide Legg with a wide range of adjustment. For the bog of Milton Keynes, a race held in the comparatively cool conditions of a November day in Buckinghamshire, he equipped Compton’s machine with very soft compound pads, but this might not always be the case. “I’ll use different pads for different courses,” Legg explains. “Today, I’m running a really soft pad. On other courses, I could be using a pad that’s not so ‘grabby’. The softer the pad, in drier, warmer conditions, it grabs a lot harder and you don’t need that: you just need to modulate your speed.”

Katie Compton, cockpit, sprint shiftingsNote the 'sprinter switches' on Compton's handlebars. "Shifting is only a mouse click away," says Legg

Legg had travelled to Milton Keynes with his wife and their ‘Belgian family’. It is not uncommon for ‘cross racers from overseas to set-up camp in the sport’s spiritual homeland and to stay with a surrogate household when they do. Compton has clearly learned much. For Legg, the greatest difference between the scenes is the level of seriousness that permeates racing in Europe. Compton’s results speak volumes for her dedication, and Legg’s attention to the technical details of racing – physiological and mechanical – is clearly an asset. His laidback demeanor, however, may be equally valuable. The cyclo-cross paddock is a surprisingly calm environment, but even by its comparatively stress-free standards, Legg seems at ease

“I’m actually not surprised by how amazing it is, given what I saw when the Tour hit Great Britain,” he says of the impressive event laid on in Campbell Park by Simon Burney and his team. His parallel with Gary Verity’s triumph in Yorkshire is apt. “I think everyone was really quite impressed with that. I’m honestly not surprised [by Milton Keynes] and I’m actually really pleased that it’s frickin’ awesome. I think this is a World Championship event for sure.” Should Legg return with Compton to contest the rainbow jersey, visitors to the paddock would be advised to seek him out. It is unlikely that ‘cross has a more knowledgeable or agreeable source.

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