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Clara Honsinger storming across Europe another year as US 'cross champion

Clara Honsinger in US National jersey at Superprestige in Boom December 2020
Clara Honsinger in US National jersey at Superprestige in Boom December 2020 (Image credit: @twilcha)

This week would have been the start of the 2020 US Cyclocross National Championships in Iowa City, Iowa, with Clara Honsinger focused on defending the stars-and-stripes jersey for elite women. Instead, with the championships piled onto the heap of cancellations due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic by USA Cycling, Honsinger retains the title and jersey for another season and has been proud to carry the weight of high expectations with her new Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld Pro Cycling team in Europe this season.

“Overall, I focus beyond the jersey and solely on the race,” Honsinger said about her first campaign in Europe where she is competing as the American champion. “In some ways the jersey feels like a pressure, that I carry the expectations for results that other American women, like Katie Compton and Kaitie Keough, have achieved. Then it also gives me more confidence because I represent a top tier of cyclo-cross athletes.”

This is the fourth season for the 23-year-old to compete on the European cyclo-cross circuit. She rode to 10th at X2O Trophy Kortrijk and sixth at Superprestige Boom. In just four starts she is already achieving her goal to finish at the front of the field. 

“It's satisfying to move up into the result range and affirms that I'm in good form, but these are just two races and it's important that I keep it consistent through the coming weeks of the season,” said Honsinger, noting that the racing was more aggressive than at US events.

“Starts are way faster and more aggressive over here. I have been losing 20-30 seconds on the leaders in just the first quarter lap and then spend the rest of the race chasing down riders. Sometimes it doesn't feel like I am really racing, just out there catching riders and moving up spots. I need to be snappier and more aggressive off the line so that I can actually race the race,” she said.

“Kaitie has been giving me advice on how to set up on the grid and reminds me where I need to keep pushing through the group. Curtis [White], Kaitie, and I have been doing weekly 'cross practices at a forest nearby. It's great to have a wheel to chase through the ruts and shoulders to push around on narrow paths. Even though there are just three of us, it has really helped me get more comfortable making moves in the group.”

This weekend she’ll line up for two C1s - X²0 badkamers Trofee–Scheldecross at Antwerpe and Telenet Superprestige at Gavere - then head into the Kerstperiode, an iconic seven races in 10 days in Belgium during the Christmas to New Year holiday season. The C1s represent new territory for her.

"Scheldecross is typically a dry course with a lot of sand, so I would initially opt for a Challenge dune. But looking at the forecast this weekend, they're calling for some rain, so maybe there will be some mud. Ultimately, I'll make the decision when I get there and do a few laps of pre ride," she said about her tire of choice for upcoming events. "Gavere usually looks to be slick no matter the weather, so I'm anticipating we'll be running Challenge Baby Limus or Limus depending on how mucky it gets.

“Going into such a busy race block, I think rest and recovery will be the most crucial factors. I am lucky to have a team that takes care of the hardest logistics, so ultimately it is up to me to take advantage of the opportunity to perform.” 

So far this season she said she’s enjoyed well-designed race courses, noting, “No matter the size of the venue, the race directors are able to extract an elaborate and difficult course out of it. And every barrier is solid fencing or a diven stake; there's no plastic tape or cones. It takes a lot of infrastructure to make a European race course.” 

The biggest revelation of the year has been the absence of spectators, which makes cyclo-cross so special.

“Belgian races are usually a mess of fans and spectators, but this year it is completely empty. We are able to park right next to the start and roll right to the line without navigating hundreds of people. It is much more convenient, but I miss the lively atmosphere.”

The crowds have been dispersed to online viewing for the foreseeable future, and a greater emphasis placed on social media posts and web site reports to showcase teams and sponsors. From these snippets, fans might be able to see glimpses of the mountains depicted on her new custom Cannondale frame painted in a Henri Matisse style she preferred over traditional stars and stripes as national champion.

“Riding bikes has always been tied to my idea of landscape and environment because it pulls me into the woods and out to the trails. With Cannondale, I was lucky to work with a talented design team who took my ideas and put them into images. The "Matisse" cut-out style stood out to me immediately because it was so analogous to a piece of art. I came up with the idea of the three peaks because it carries the sentiment of landscape and the environments I have grown in.”

The three peaks to which she refers are in the Pacific Northwest, which have special significance in her career, so far – Mount Shasta in northern California where she had ridden, Mount Rainier in Washington overlooking the course where she won the US title last December, and Mount Hood in Oregon which is near her home.

She’s on a happy trail in Belgium and the Netherlands right now, set with a new bike, new team and fresh focus. She’s not homesick, just hopeful that racing can resume in the US again for everyone.

“I love that in the US anyone can race cyclo-cross. You can literally have three generations of riders race in one weekend,” Honsinger said. ”It's a much different style than in Europe where it is just development and professionals, but I think the inclusivity and amiability of American racing is really special and makes it a good party.”