It has been two years since the last USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships, where Clara Honsinger (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld) finally ended Katie Compton's 15-year reign as elite women's national champion.
A lot has changed since COVID-19 struck in 2020, shutting down all of the North American races last season and leaving Honsinger to put the stars-and-stripes jersey on display in Europe.
What hasn't changed, though, is Honsinger's relaxed attitude, and she says she's heading into the race with an open mind about the weather and the course and the big unknowns in the women's field. Honsinger is just happy to be able to race again on home soil.
"It's a funny feeling," she told Cyclingnews before heading to Wheaton, Illinois where she will try to defend her title before jetting back on Monday to continue her extended European campaign. "Last year was more like an anniversary of nationals – a memorial to it. This year it's actually happening, so it's fantastic.
"Last year I was able to race quite a bit in Europe but was never able to race in the US. I felt like I wasn't able to show off the jersey in the United States and I missed that a lot. So it's been really special to get some races in the US this year and to get to race nationals."
Honsinger has become a different rider since toppling Compton at the age of 22. She embraced racing in Europe in the absence of North American events and the experience has paid off. She earned two World Cup podiums last season in Namur and Dendermonde, where she was second to soon-to-be World Champion Lucinda Brand (Baloise Trek Lions) both times, and finished just off the podium at the World Championships in Ostende.
This season Honsinger came out strong, taking her first win in Baltimore in early October before making the podium at the stormy mud-fest that was the Fayetteville World Cup, again behind Brand and Denise Betsema (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal).
"It was kind of unbelievable," Honsinger said of the result. Until Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) crashed, Honsinger was running fourth and only moved into third on the final half lap. "It meant quite a bit to get that podium in Arkansas in the stars and stripes, especially since we have our World Championships coming up there in January.
"Racing in the US, I was so excited and so proud to be back there. Racing in the US is cool - especially having all those European riders there to demonstrate [to them] what American cyclo-cross is."
Then, she headed to Europe and, after a fifth at the World Cup in Overijse, claimed her first European race win at the Koppenbergcross, where she rode away from Betsema to take the cobble trophy.
"To win a European cyclo-cross race – wow, it was such an unbelievable feeling that I managed to secure that," she said. "I think I was still riding that high of being so excited about the season. I still am, but it was combined with really being on peak form.
"I also think they were courses that suited my strengths well, in that I'm able to push through really hard conditions. They were both wet, muddy races that had really big climbs where I was able to grind up and make up quite a bit of ground on my competitors."
Since then, the 24-year-old has settled into the position of learning the ropes on Belgium's less arduous but more varied, technical races. Her best finishes have been top 10s in the Superprestige in Niel, the X2O Trofee in Kortrijk and the World Cup in Besançon. Honsinger expected the ups and downs in a season that is packed with 15 World Cups.
"I knew that going into that first weekend of racing I was going to be pretty fresh, but also I knew I wasn't going to be quite as on fire in the next races. They were proper Belgian races after that which tend to be really fast and on flatter courses. Those are definitely races I need to continue practising on to be able to perform well."
Honsinger had not yet left for Chicago for the National Championships when Cyclingnews spoke to her, so she had yet to preview the course. But that did not stop her from doing her homework.
"No one really knew anything about the course until last week other than it was somewhere in Wheaton. I've seen the map and a preview of someone riding it," she said. "It looks like your standard American 'cross, which is really wide, and the corners are swooping.
"There are very few really sharp corners where you have to slow down then really snap out of it. It looks like it's primarily on hard-packed dirt and grass, and some up and down. It looks like a fun course with flow and using a lot of off-camber. It also looks like it has a pretty big sandpit."
The weather has been changeable this week, with the early events going off in cold but dry conditions. On Friday, a storm is due to come through and dump some rain or wintry mix on the course. But by Sunday, the prediction is for sunny, cold and breezy conditions.
"I have never been to Chicago so I don't know what the weather patterns are like and how the dirt holds up to weather – if rain is going to result in a super muddy, sloppy course or if it's going to remain pretty hard-packed," Honsinger said.
"Is a little bit of snow going to actually be snow? I'm approaching it with an open mind - whatever happens, the conditions that matter are the ones at 12 p.m. on Sunday."
With Compton and Kaitie Keough (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld) out of the sport and Rebecca Fahringer (Kona Maxxis Shimano) injured, Honsinger said she has no idea how the field will be or who to watch.
"I haven't raced with a lot of the riders in this field since the early season. Raylyn Nuss won the Pan-Am jersey, so that's definitely a big marker there. I think Anna Megale won a race in NC earlier. Honestly, I don't know."
One rider, teammate Katie Clouse, will be in the U23s, which comes as a little bit of relief – Clouse wasn't far behind Honsinger in Besançon and just won the Collegiate title on Thursday.
"I would definitely have put her name with four exclamation points next to it," in the list of riders to watch, Honsinger said about Clouse. "I'm super impressed by her riding right now."
Come what may on Sunday, Honsinger heads straight back to Europe on Monday, with a full-tilt campaign through to the final World Cup in Hoogerheide before returning for Worlds in Fayetteville.
"Right off the back we race the Rucphen and Namur World Cups. I really like Namur, and have been able to perform there. It's such a hard course - it has a lot of elevation but it also has some fun descents. It's almost like a MTB course, with single track and whoops and ups and downs. I'm really looking forward to it.
"[Then] there are some new races I haven't done – Azencross in Loenhout, I've only ever seen it on TV so am excited to race there. I really enjoyed the Herentals race - that was such a wild course. Then GP Sven Nys in Baal is always such a fun race because it's on New Year's Day and everyone shows up in their new kit with post-holiday feelings."
Honsinger also expects a much larger contingent of her compatriots in the next block of European racing. "Very few came over for the pre-Kerstperiod [the Christmas to New Year period] World Cups. I think the only one who came over was Raylyn Nuss. It's been strange, I think they've embraced the racing that's going on in the US and are keeping that alive by participating in those races. I think it's great.
"There's going to be a pretty big American bunch on the start list in Rucphen and Namur. I think some are staying on through Christmas. Jesse Anthony [of USA Cycling] said there would be 15 development riders and another 10 elite riders."
While some Americans have struggled with life in Europe, especially in the dreary Belgian winter, Honsinger seems to have settled in nicely at their base outside Sittard in the Netherlands, which she shares with two team mechanics, Clouse and Curtis White. Coming from Portland, she said, helps her cope with the weather, and a comfortable living situation has helped keep the spirits high.
"I feel like we've set up a really good home base. We have a house all to ourselves, and every night we have dinner together - it's like our own little race family when we're there. We support each other and keep each other on track, really take care of each other. It's nice to go back to the same place again and again. The training is spectacular, with endless trails to go out and practice on. It's a home away from home."
She isn't even bothered by the huge nine-hour time zone change from home to Belgium.
"It's never easy, especially coming from the west coast, it's a minimum of 24 hours of travelling. I think mostly it's getting right on schedule as soon as possible and not stressing about it.
"OK, you're going to have a few days of weird nutty sleep and you're going to have a tired afternoon, but really just push through it, relax and don't let it get to your head."
Honsinger has managed not only to survive but to thrive and continue to build on her career during a pandemic that doesn't seem to want to quit. It's taken letters from various consulates before vaccinations were available, but now getting in and out of countries has only taken proof of vaccination and a negative test.
"It's always stressful – especially since COVID is continuous and every week there's some news about an emerging variant and you don't know if you're going to be able to get home, or back to Europe," she says. "It's like with jetlag, just be safe, and don't stress about it and adapt to the conditions."
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