Cyclocross

Clara Honsinger: Flying the Stars and Stripes over the European ‘cross season

US cyclocross champion is riding high through the European winter and looking to carry momentum toward the worlds.

Clara Honsinger was resolute when asked by Belgian media last week if she was the next flagbearer of American cyclocross racing.

“It just feels like I’m following in the ruts my predecessors set for me,” the 23-year-old said after riding to second place on the hilly World Cup Namur circuit last weekend. “I just want to be up there as a peer with them.”

U.S champion Honsinger feels the national jersey is a garment that she has yet to fully fill out as she follows in the grooves laid by her illustrious predecessor Katie Compton. By taking the nationals in Washington last December, Honsinger ended her veteran rival’s 15-year reign at the top of U.S. cyclocross racing.

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Despite her run of success through this winter’s cyclocross season so far, Honsinger believes she still has some way to go to fulfill the standards she should be reaching when bearing the stars and stripes on her Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld team jersey.

“I feel that while I wear the jersey it doesn’t necessarily guarantee this accolade that other riders have,” Honsinger told VeloNews on Friday.

“I feel that I’m still very much developing, and I carry that along with my expectations. Some races I’m able to do really well, and I’m really satisfied with my results, and then others, I realize I have a lot of things to work on and learn and practice before I can really expect to do well.”

Honsinger flew over to Europe earlier this fall, taking residence with fellow U.S. ‘crossers Kaitie Keough and Curtis White in Sittard, Netherlands. Since then, the Oregon native has shown off her jersey across a busy schedule that has seen her land four top-1o finishes before rounding out her pre-Christmas block, with a fourth-place at Herentals this week.

Honsinger’s vibrant jersey launches her directly into the eye-line in the browns and greys of European ‘cross racing. Though the Stars and Stripes put the youngster into focus, it’s the history behind it that is the biggest burden on Honsinger’s shoulders.

“For me, it’s not so much the jersey that adds pressure it’s more the palmarès, the record of results,” Honsinger said in a telephone call. “Even though Katie Compton is not wearing the jersey any longer, she still has 20 World Cup wins, 15 national titles, and overall World Cup wins. She carries that list of results to her name which gives her that high standing, whereas myself, I’ve gained a couple of results but definitely not nearly what Katie has.”

Honsinger’s climbing talents and mountain bike skills landed her a season-best second-place at Namur. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Honsinger has been subjected to a steep learning curve in the past six weeks. The size and aggression of the European peloton marked a long throw from racing in the U.S., something Honsinger said she at first found at first “a little bit startling.”

However, with a near-weekly racing schedule while also training under the experienced eyes of White and Keough, Honsinger is developing the ruthlessness and relentlessness to succeed in the Belgian winter. Three top-5 finishes in her last four races are a sure sign of hard work paying off.

Although the elbows and aggression of the European peloton took Honsinger by surprise when she debuted in GP Leuven this October, she said the heavy skies of life through the winter of the Low Countries are something she’s well accustomed to.

“On a day like today, I think it’s probably 45 degrees and drizzling rain. It’s hard to really tell whether we’re in the Netherlands right now or if we’re in Portland, Oregon at home,” she joked.

Having spent Christmas Day with Keough, White, and their team mechanics-turned-soigneurs Gary Wolff and Michael Berry, Honsinger returns to action at the World Cup Dendermonde on Sunday. From there she will follow a busy race program ahead of the Oostende world championships on January 31.

Just days after the rainbow jersey race, Honsinger’s visa will expire and she will jet back to the U.S. to begin her preparations for a debut season with Team Tibco-SVB on the road.

Honsinger has been learning to adapt to the intensity and elbows of the European peloton. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

The national champ has high hopes for the final race of her season in the Belgian coastal town Oostende, even though the beachy circuit is not in her wheelhouse.

“It’s a very sandy course, and not necessarily with the big power climbs that I enjoy,” Honsinger said. “I want to improve my performance on these flat fast courses in the next month and I’m hoping to get a top-10 at worlds.”

Honsinger has some five weeks to put the finishing touches on her worlds form. Just as she has done through her stay in Europe to date, the Oregonian is looking to leverage the guidance, company, and good vibes of the team around her in her quest to hit a top-10.

“Kaitie [Keough] and Curtis [White] have been really vital for helping,” Honsinger said. “Not only with the racing like going into a pre-ride with Kaitie, talking about a course talking about technique and tactics, but also just having training partners – being able to go out and do a big endurance day with Curtis and then the next day doing cyclocross with Kaitie.”

Aiming at the top-10 on a course far away from her preferences for gnarly mountain bike-style circuits is a sign of Honsinger’s escalating confidence and accelerating momentum.

“I’m growing that foundation of experience,” she said. “I’m getting more comfortable with those weaknesses that I have, like being in a big group and improving my starts. I’m excited to keep practicing those in the upcoming races, and I just want to keep stretching and improving.

“I’ve gotten some upward trajectory, and just want to carry that through to get the best result I can at the worlds.”

Look out for the Stars and Stripes jersey in Oostende next month – Honsinger is hoping it will be easy to spot at the front of the pack.