Katie Clouse had an important decision to make, and just a few seconds to make it.

Should she ride up the stairs, or dismount and run them?

It was the waning moments of Oklahoma’s Ruts ‘n Guts cyclocross race this past December; one of just seven UCI C1 races on USA Cycling’s ProCX calendar. A bevy of important UCI points were at stake, and Clouse, just 18, had never won a C1-level event.

Clouse had attacked away from Sunny Gilbert and Clara Honsinger and held a tenuous gap on the chasing duo. She wanted to gain an additional second or two for the final drag to the finish line and saw the muddy stairs as her big chance. The three steps sent the course up a slight incline to the final twists and turns before the sprint to the line.

“I rode them really well in practice but during the race, I was nervous [to ride them],” Clouse said. “I thought I could take a chance and get more of a gap.”

Clouse pedaled at the steps and pulled up on her handlebars, lifting her front wheel and then her rear. She was tired, and the effort failed to produce the elevation gain she had hoped. Clouse’s rear wheel thudded against each step.

“I banged it so hard. I was like, ‘Please don’t flat,’ that’s all I was thinking about,” Clouse said. “I had been wanting to win this so badly, and when I banged it, I was like, ‘Did I screw this all up?'”

Months after that race, Clouse laughs about those muddy stairs and her admittedly awkward bunny hops. Having won another U.S. junior cyclocross title with her Alpha Bicycle-Groove Subaru team, Clouse will lead USA Cycling’s under-23 women’s squad at the UCI world championships in Bogense, Denmark, alongside Honsinger, the current American U23 champion. The UCI is still one year from launching a separate junior division for women, which means that Clouse, the current American junior champion, will race in the U23 field. Last year she finished 25th in the U23 race; this year Clouse hopes for a better result.

If her results from the 2018 Pro CX calendar are an accurate barometer, then Clouse should improve on her 2018 result this week. A year ago Clouse made headlines as the babyfaced teenager who regularly made the second or third group at major U.S. professional cyclocross races. This season Clouse made huge strides on the domestic scene, grabbing a handful of podium finishes and two victories.

Clouse attributes the step up to both physical and mental factors. A year of growth has added strength to her legs. And she no longer feels intimidated by the professional women’s field. The elite riders who were once her heroes are now her peers during the races.

“I’ve raced against a lot of the women now. You see where your competition is and see where you need to be,” Clouse said. “I learn so much from every race — how to break down the course and where to save energy.

Clouse’s current trajectory puts her on a path to more U.S. titles, and a spot within the elite circles of American female cyclists. In 2018 she raced on road, mountain, and cyclocross courses while balancing her classes at The Miller School, a private high school in Virginia. Someday, Clouse may have to pare down her racing ambitions to just one or two disciplines. At the moment, Clouse has a variety of potential career paths to pursue.

And no matter which direction she takes, Clouse’s decision at the Ruts ‘n Gus race will mark an important milestone in her story.

As Clouse pedaled away from the stairs, she felt her rear tire grip the mud. It was still supple and inflated. She pedaled down the paved section and across the finish line with a five-second buffer on her chasers. The C1 victory was the biggest of her young career, the first of many big wins to come.

“I remember being super happy and hugging my team director [Adam Rachubinski],” Clouse said. “I didn’t cry but when he started crying, then I started crying.”