The UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships head to the US for the second time in the history of the race in 2022, nine years after the country's first stint when Louisville, Kentucky hosted. The event also marks a test event of the team relay, which national coach Jesse Anthony tells Cyclingnews will demonstrate the programme's promise for the future.
The race pits teams of six from each nation against each other, with one rider each from the men's and women's elite field and two each from either the under-23 or junior category, each tackling one lap before tagging in the next rider.
"We're excited for it," Anthony says of the team relay. "I think we have a really strong team and will be very competitive. The Netherlands would be the outright favourites just because they have such a well-rounded roster in every category.
"If the Netherlands aren't doing it I think we have one of the best, well-rounded rosters, especially for a one-lap race. Doing one lap full gas is different and I think we have the team for it." Reports indicate the Netherlands will forgo the event.
The last time Cyclo-cross Worlds came to the US was in 2013 when the event was condensed into one day because of massive flooding. The race in Fayetteville, Arkansas should present a more orderly event but again, the strength of the European teams will make it difficult for Americans to land on the podium.
USA Cycling came away with one podium in Louisville, Katie Compton's silver for the elite women, and Logan Owen took a fourth place in the junior men's race. This year, the country has great depth as demonstrated by some podium performances during their Belgian campaign, but will need great form and good luck to challenge for the top three at Worlds.
"Realistically, I think we'd be happy with a few podiums," Anthony says. "I'd like to see at least three podium finishes and if we can get a jersey that would be amazing. It's within reach if all the stars align for a few riders."
A world title would be a dream scenario but USA Cycling shares one major hurdle with everyone else: getting all the riders to the start line without COVID-19. The pandemic last season meant that there was no racing in North America, the juniors didn't race Worlds and the country sent a team of six to Oostende. This year with a full season of racing back on the calendar, USA Cycling is fielding 38 riders.
"We have some really good riders - Clara is probably the most obvious and the one everyone is looking at," Anthony says of Honsinger. "I don't think there's a lot of pressure on her, she knows what she's capable of. She finished on the podium on the same course in October. I don't think her results in Europe were indicative of her form."
Honsinger scored two World Cup podiums this season and last year was fourth at Worlds. But her high placings have come despite a notoriously slow start followed by lap after amazing lap of chasing to the front. Fayetteville doesn't have a Koppenberg for her to ride away on, but Honsinger finished third at the World Cup on the same course in October.
If the stars don't align and Honsinger doesn't take the rainbow jersey, Anthony says the 24-year-old has the potential to win it down the line.
"One of my favourite things about Clara is she is performing at an exceptional level and still has a lot of refinement that she can work on," Anthony says. "If she was doing everything right and finishing second, third or fourth, you can't do much except get faster. When you see a rider that's got so much potential and has things she's working on, it's really exciting. You've seen how fast she can go. When she continues to refine her skill set, she can be the top cyclo-cross racer in the world, no doubt."
In the absence of a big climb, Honsinger's best results have come in heavy, muddy courses and the weather forecast does not look like it will cooperate in that regard as it did in October.
"I was hoping for some rain," Anthony admits. "Clara's great in those super-deep muddy races. I'll take eight inches of mud any day.
"I think a muddy course would be good for the US riders in general, but I have a feeling it's going to be muddier than people think because of the freezing and thawing cycle that happens there. Some of the nights it's going to be down to the teens (°F) and 30s to 40s in the day. The humidity in Arkansas will bring the moisture out of the ground. That many people riding the course it can get pretty chewed up."
In the other races, USA Cycling has some good prospects. The Belgians and Dutch will be tough to beat in the elites, but the younger categories present good opportunities. The country earned extra spots thanks to Pan American titles in all but the junior women's field.
"Katie Clouse has been riding well and picked up momentum over the season. Scott Funston had some really great rides in Europe, he and Andrew Strohmeyer were both pretty solid but Scott really saw some improvement. Both he and Eric Brunner picked up momentum through the US season. They were both on fire at Pan Am's and nationals and Scott took that to Europe. I saw some impressive performances from him, maybe the results didn't show it but he was really good."
Anthony says the junior riders were at a disadvantage during the European trip - because of last season's cancellations, that meant all of them were heading to race overseas for the first time.
"They all handled it really well, they embraced the challenge. The first time you go, it's so hard and different, nobody really expects anything from you. It's a big mental game - it's hyped up as being impossible and it's just not true. Being away from home in a different culture at 15-16, you forget how mentally stimulating it is to be in those environments."
But the team came away with some podiums and more confidence for Worlds. "Jack [Spranger] was really good, he was just a little inconsistent. Same with Katherine Sarkisov - she hit the podium but was figuring a lot of things out. They're the category leaders."
Whether they can land a top result at Worlds will be determined on the weekend.
"We'll see how it goes - that's why we show up at bike races, to see who wins. It's never over until the finish line."
USA Cycling's athletes are supported by the MudFund, and the federation announced it would match all donations to the fund up to $40,000. To donate, click here.
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