Cyclocross

Clara Honsinger studied for exams before winning the U.S. Cyclocross title

Reporter Jen See caught up with Clara Honsinger after she won the U.S. National Cyclocross Championships on Sunday. As it turns out, Honsinger spent the week before U.S. nationals studying for finals.

It’s an hour since she won the U.S. Cyclocross National Championships and Clara Honsinger is waiting for the award ceremony to begin, where she will receive her new Stars and Stripes jersey.

Honsinger’s victory carries the weight of history. Just 22 years old, she ended Katie Compton‘s legendary 15-year winning streak at the country’s biggest cyclocross race.

A small media scrum gathers around Honsinger. As if to break the ice, one of her friends joins the group, holding out a spoon in place of a voice recorder.

“I came here to win the race,” Honsinger says in a forthright way. “Whether that means beating Katie or battling with Rebecca [Fahringer] — it’s all about winning the race.”

Honsinger expected Compton to come back to the lead group. After Fahringer took the race out hard and
fast, Honsinger assumed Compton was monitoring her efforts and would steadily make up ground.

“When she didn’t come back, I was surprised,” she said. Honsinger also expected the more experienced
Compton to be stronger through the track’s technical sections. It didn’t turn out that way.

By mid-way through the nationals, Clara Honsinger was on her own in the lead. Photo: Wil Matthews

It’s been a busy week for Honsinger. In addition to preparing for the biggest race of her North American campaign, she spent several days completing her final exams at Oregon State University. Honsinger describes herself as “forever in school,” and she’s working on a degree in nutrition.

The schedule came with an advantage. Studying for finals meant Honsinger couldn’t overdo it on the bike.

“It was actually a really easy week,” she said. “If you’re stressed out about getting all your studying done, you can’t show up and do your intervals all that well.”

Based in Portland, Honsinger has ridden with Team S&M for the past four seasons. In 2017, she won both the U23 national championship and the U23 Pan-American championship. Last year, she was second in both races, but she also signaled her potential as an elite racer. At Jingle Cross, she rode to a second place in the elite women’s race.

Though Honsinger grew up in Southern Oregon, she quickly embraced the wet, muddy terrain she found in Portland. “My first real muddy Cyclocross Crusade race in Portland Oregon [was when] I truly realized the awesomeness of cyclocross,” she said in a USA Cycling profile. The skills Honsinger has acquired in Portland plainly served her well over the weekend on the heavy course in Lakewood.

Honsinger is making the first steps into elite racing after thriving at U23 level. Photo: Ryan Muncy

“It is a specific kind of technical course,” she said of the Fort Stellecombe track. “It’s dropping down the chutes and being able to hold a line and an edge — and run-ups where you just need to be conscious of where your feet are.”

Not only did Honsinger end Compton’s winning streak, but also, she won the national title in her first year racing in the elite ranks. For some riders, the transition from U23 to elite does not go smoothly. Honsinger prepared differently for this season and worked specifically to ensure that she made the jump.

“I put in a much bigger off-season in terms of building my fitness,” she said. “I did a lot of road racing and
so I just developed myself as an athlete quite a bit this season.”

Honsinger worked especially hard on her mental focus, she says.

“Just moving on from being an U23 rider, now I’m an elite rider, so I needed to come in with a little sharper edge,” she says. Honsinger does a lot of visualization.

“I just run through both the motions of the course and the emotions,” she says. The goal is to avoid letting small  mistakes derail her. “I do get nervous – it’s just normal.”

Next up for Honsinger is a trip to Europe for the last season races. Last year, she raced to a 14th in the U23 world championship at Valkenberg.

She says winning the national title gives her a nice confidence boost before heading to Europe, though she has found the racing to be different there. “It’s much more aggressive and much more elbows out, and you’re just fighting to get top ten,” she says.

Honsinger has attended USA Cycling camps in Europe, but is still learning her way around. “It’s a different continent and the racing is different.”

Though she held a solid lead heading toward the finish, Honsinger never took the victory for granted. She knew that a small mistake could cost her the race and any time, Fahringer or Compton could suddenly reappear. Racing can turn in an instant.

“You definitely haven’t won until you’ve crossed the line,” she says. “So I just kept pushing straight through.”