An Open Letter to Katie Compton Fans

I know the pain you’re feeling right now. I know the disappointment. I know the overwhelming conviction that she’s suffering a complete miscarriage of justice. I know how you feel like the ground beneath your feet is crumbling and that a good person, a soul you believe in is suffering the psychic equivalent to murder. I’m also familiar with that urge to fly to Aigle and put some heads on pikes.

I’ve been there.

That said, I’m going to get out in front of this next thing by warning you, you aren’t going to like what I’m about to say.

No matter what you think of her character, no matter how much time you’ve spent with her, no matter how closely you’ve followed her career, no matter how clearly you believe you’ve looked into her soul and seen the integrity that runs clear to the moon, I hate to say it, but you don’t really know what she has done.

None of us do, except, probably, her husband. We simply don’t know if she doped or not.

Before you close this window or start shouting your rebuttal, stick with me for a minute, or at least for the next two words.

Tyler Hamilton.

I know Tyler. I knew him before he ever raced a grand tour. I was at races where he, as an unknown amateur, duked with some of the top pros in the region. I recall him winning Collegiate Nationals and how my friend Richard Fries gave the cycling world the nyah of all nyahs and printed the headline “We Told You So.” Put another way, we saw Tyler coming. He was going to be the next Greg LeMond: fast as hell, nice, thoughtful, and decent in a way that would cause fathers to mail their daughters to him for marriage.

I was at a crit in New England shortly after his Tour de France debut when he destroyed the Pro/I/II field, then lapped them by himself. I was there at Mount Washington when he shattered the record set by Dale Stetina. We all nodded our heads and said to ourselves and our friends, “See, talent times hard work equals badass.”

We were certain he was clean. I knew he was clean the way I knew my mother loves me. Only he wasn’t. Now we know he was on EPO—and more—so what we watched was talent times hard work times oxygen-vector doping.

When he rode to second place in the 2002 Giro d’Italia with a broken shoulder and ground his molars down to the nerves due to the pain, we saw a Tour win as nearly inevitable. Then he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2003 and we saw that as confirmation of more to come. Then he rode practically the whole of the 2003 Tour de France with a broken collarbone. I was there and I can tell you I’ve not seen a more inspiring performance in cycling in my life.

Then Tyler tested positive, his twin vanished and his name appeared in records of Operacion Puerto. The long, the short, the in-between was: he doped. But he said he was clean and he mounted a rousing defense that saw many of us put our own reputations on the line for him. But we weren’t in the bathroom or the hotel rooms or the team bus with him. We didn’t watch his then-wife Haven make the funds transfers.

He said no, swore no, swore on the soul of his deceased dog, Tugboat.

Then came the pointy end of a grand jury and he spilled his beans, carrots, kale and anything else at hand. It was no less stunning a performance than the 2003 Tour. Like all cyclists who headed to Europe at that time, he had been confronted with a choice: Start doping and find out just how far he could go, or shrink home in ignominy. Turns out the ignominy got him anyway.

I’ll tell you what I believe: I believe Tyler told what court asks of us: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The crazy thing is that, to me, showed the kind of character I’d always believed him to have. If you haven’t read, “The Secret Race,” written with Daniel Coyle, do yourself a favor. It’s the single most important book written on the Armstrong era. If nothing else, it proved to me that Hamilton is still the decent person I always believed him to be. Doping doesn’t make you the antichrist. Who among us isn’t flawed?

You may argue that Hamilton stood to make a great deal of money, more money than Compton would ever see even if she won everything she entered. And you’d be right. But when hasn’t a stars and stripes jersey been a sufficiently powerful motivator for doping?

Let’s consider what has taken place: Compton returned a sample that didn’t fit with her biological passport. Forget that she returned a sample that tested negative. She returned a “one of these things is not like the other.” That’s what the biological passport is meant to catch. So because it didn’t fit with the others it was tested more carefully and—lo!—up turned an anabolic agent. She tested positive. Spin this any way you want, she tested positive.

I have written about doping so much—from Tyler, to Floyd to Lance and others—that in 2011 readers actually requested that I stop writing about doping.

I’ve seen so many riders test positive that I stopped writing about pro cycling for the simple reason that the moment someone won a race, I wondered what they might be on. You tell me someone won the National Championships 15 times running and my brain can’t not wonder about doping. Occam’s Razor, you know? In my world, where pro cycling goes, there’s always another shoe and it’s going to hit the ground sooner or later.

Tyler Hamilton taught me that we don’t know, we can’t know and we won’t know until the rider in question decides to come, uh, clean.

So, like I said, I feel your shock, your disappointment, your certainty that there’s been a miscarriage of justice, but history tells us rather than holding that breath, we’d do well to exhale through the pain, to accept the worst possible scenario, and no matter where this story goes, retain your belief in Katie’s core humanity.

Image: USA Cycling

Join the conversation
  1. chris says

    Patrick, you were optimistic and “plugged in” far longer than I. My opinion of professional cycling is similar to that of the WWE … sure, it’s entertaining, but lets not take it too seriously. Of course that makes me sad, I want to be excited and inspired by professional cycling.

    1. Padraig says

      I’ll admit that my suspension of disbelief was spotty and imperfect. I figured Jan was doping in 2000 and 20001 and Tyler was clean. I had that backward. Levi had been popped for doping back when he was a Div. III pro, so there were no surprises there. And while I didn’t think Floyd was clean, the mess surrounding his case was so bad (I read 1000+ pages produced) that I don’t actually think they “caught” him. They knew he’d doped and they simply fashioned a case that ended up being pretty shoddy.

      I honestly think cycling is the cleanest is has ever been, but there are still many doped riders. I’m not interested in holding someone up as a hero only to have them test positive a year later and have readers like you wonder why the hell we supported them. So I’m done with heroes. Compton is a great example.

  2. Sniff says

    I think this is spot on. Great Article.

  3. Barry Johnson says

    Tyler had me as well. Levi, not so much….it was almost common knowledge in SLC and places in CO. My jaw fails to drop any more at these revelations. What these racers do is inhuman, of course they need a little extra. I think all in all it is our culture’s fault for placing sports figures on pedestals. Try other heroes such as fire fighters, nurses and the person helping you with that flat. Sticks, balls and wheels won’t make you heroic, it’s admirable but hardly Lynda Blackmon Lowery material

  4. khal spencer says

    Zounds, Padraig. From the opening paragraphs, I thought that Katie had murdered someone or drowned her children in a bucket of water. Doping? Sheesh, call me cynical, but cycling and doping go together like peanut butter and jelly. Sad, but inevitable given the pressure to win when the politics of the sport has been “don’t get caught” rather than “race clean”. Its all about racing stock modified production. I feel for Katie, Levi, Tyler, and all of them who had to choose between staying in the peloton vs. going home and finding a job at the local food co-op. They were between a rock and a hard place. Pro cycling sucks and it destroys people and their moral compass. Most of us don’t have to make those awful calls.

    I’ve given up following it. I ride my bike to ride my bike. Period.

  5. jlaudolff says

    You make a lot of good points, the main one being the pros are not heroes. In my opinion they are talented but imperfect people working in a flawed but exciting sport. Many of them are interesting people with fascinating story arcs and with much to offer to humanity in terms of inspiration and perspective on how we live our lives. Some are not worth a second thought.

    I used to race USAC and enjoyed those years immensely. I know that local racing is a link in a chain that has many links that reach up to the pros and down to the grass roots. My position has always been that what the pros do matters because what do you say to the kid who discovers that racing bikes is the THING, the only thing they want to pursue and happen to be really good at? Do we end all racing and just say that nothing good can come of any of it? Or do we strive to live up to some ideal knowing that it will never be perfect but can be a good thing if we are willing to try?

  6. Miki Vuckovich says

    As a cyclocross racer, I’m a fan of Katie Compton. Present tense. I have a decade of watching her race, getting up ass early on Saturdays to watch Belgian World Cups via a janky VPN link, or in-person when she edged out Ellen Noble to win Reno CX Nats in 2018, or also in-person when she finally lost the jersey at Tacoma Nats in 2019. At that race, in particular, her graciousness in celebrating Clara Honsinger’s win and, even in defeat, remaining at the finish line to greet and take selfies with countless fans, was commendable, to say the least. She must have wanted to find a quiet place to cry, but instead she was the last pro to leave the finishing straight.

    Is that what dopers do? I don’t know. But I do know she’s been tested for all of her 20-year career. I also know she and her husband are woven into the very fabric of the US cyclocross community. She is beloved, I believe, for the work she did, not necessarily the race results she achieved. It seems incredible that someone in this position would do that (which is precisely the point your article makes). Particularly given all the cases you cited. We’re all SO over doping.

    I would like to believe Katie Compton didn’t dope, and that the test was flawed. But I’m sober enough (presently) to know that’s not true. I’d like to think the positive test was the result of a tainted but otherwise legal supplement, but recognize that’s still doping. And I’d like to think that Katie is the hero I’ve always held her up to be, but acknowledge that I don’t know her or her husband, and that the single conversation I had with them both left an impression, not a polygraph result.

    So, either Katie Compton doped once at the tail end of her career, long after relinquishing the Stars And Stripes jersey, which makes no sense, or she’s been doping for all/many of the 15 years she spent as the National Champion. Yet, both USADA and WADA failed to detect anything abnormal in a multiple National Champion and World Championship runner up in all that time. If that’s the case, the issue isn’t Katie Compton, it’s a regime that’s imposed rules it can’t police. This case casts into doubt (yet again) the cycling authorities’ inability or unwillingness to enforce the rules it sets.

    In other words, if Katie Compton is a doper, the ineptitude of cycling’s “authorities” has never been more clearly demonstrated. And if she isn’t, ditto.

    Katie Compton’s positive test is the unfortunate epitaph on an otherwise fairy-tale career. She’s already accepted the sanction and stepped away from cycling, so case closed there. But the question now is, can the UCI, USADA, and WADA survive this? Or does one underfunded American former champion from a niche discipline finally reveal the depth of the problem with professional bike racing and take down the whole thing?

    It’s a feat that former multiple Tour winners have failed to accomplish, but if Katie Compton’s case raises enough questions to once and for all undermine the authority of pro cycling’s powers that be, that’s possibly an achievement worth a jersey of its own.

    Even in exile, Katie Compton is making an impact. And I can’t help but cheer for that.

    1. southcarolinamtb says

      Wow, Mike. Really well said. especially the “In other words, if Katie Compton is a doper, the ineptitude of cycling’s “authorities” has never been more clearly demonstrated. And if she isn’t, ditto.”
      I don’t suspect that there will be any wide ranging effects upstream with the UCI et.al, but really, those organizations, the ones providing the “oversight” need to decide how they are involved and what they can do. Honestly, I’d suggest some “customer mapping” so they can see what the interactions are like for the pro riders, the continentals, the amateurs, and the spectating public before they decide on how to implement or change a policy. Since WADA ever came on board, it seems like the policing has always been reactionary and based on poor hindsight. Not very effective, confidence inspiring, or whatever. More like Keystone Cops and less like an actual partnership of oversight commissions with clear goals and policies.
      While it is perilous to make heroes out of athletes, I do have to applaud the courage to get involved in this stupid mess. All for the love of riding on two wheels.

    2. Padraig says

      Miki, that’s so well-considered it should have been a post in its own right, not a comment. I completely agree with you. I wish she could serve as some sort of tipping point in how we deal with doping, but I don’t see that happening.

    3. Miki Vuckovich says

      @Southcarolinamtb: It’s perilous to enact a rule you can’t enforce, or competently enforce. Leaving any grey area or loopholes creates an uneven playing field. At that point, it’s not sport—it’s just exhibition. I wish it were possible to enforce doping laws evenly and consistently. Then there’d be no question. But the Katie Compton affair has undermined pro bike racing (or any bike racing where the stakes are high) for me. And I know Lance did this to most of y’all a couple decades ago. But when you don’t know what you’re watching, it’s not entertainment. I hoped we’d have a handle on this issue by now. So, yes, I walked into it knowing the history.

  7. Miki Vuckovich says

    @Padraig: She will leave her mark, one way or another.

    1. Padraig says

      Truth.

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