Honsinger takes it easy on the way to first US elite cyclo-cross title

Clara Honsinger on the run up
Clara Honsinger on the run up at US cyclo-cross natioonals (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

Clara Honsinger (Team S&M CX) saved it all for Sunday, when the 22-year-old from Portland, Oregon, climbed to the top of the elite women’s US cyclo-cross championship and toppled Katie Compton from her 15-year dominance in the start-and-stripes jersey.

Honsinger, who is a student at Oregon State University, spent more time studying for finals last week than she did prepping for her championship race, and it paid off with fresh legs and a fresh attitude that seized the day. 

“If you’re stressed out about getting all your studies in, you don’t show up and do your intervals well,”’ she told Cyclingnews ahead of the podium ceremony Sunday at Steilacoom Park outside of Tacoma.

“It was actually a pretty easy week, and it’s also, for some of us, this is the end of the race season, but for a lot of us this is kind of the middle point because we’re going over to Europe and we have to race until February. So if you’re peaking right now, it might be kind of a tumble down to Worlds,” she said.

Honsinger took Compton’s crown after 50 minutes of racing over a diverse and challenging course that was bathed in Pacific Northwest mud after a week of amateur categories competed, and she did it with panache. 

Honsinger pulled away early from the pack on the second lap with US Pro CX Calendar winner Rebecca Fahringer (Kona-Maxxis-Shimano), leaving Compton lingering about 30 seconds behind with Courtney McFadden.

The Team S&M rider then dropped Fahrinhger on one of the run-ups before the Kona rider crashed, distancing her for good from the young leader. From there it was up to Honsinger to keep things under control and out on front until the finish.

Not having to race side by side – or to try and chase down Compton near the end of the race – was a bit of a surprise for the young rider from Oregon.

“I felt like in the technical sections she would’ve excelled much further than us,” Honsinger said. “This course is such a merging of power and technical skills, and it’s kind of a specific type of technical skills like dropping down the shoots and being able to hold a line on an edge like that. And, of course, there were lots of power sections with long straightaways, and there were run-ups where you just needed to be conscious of where your feet were laying.”

Honsinger laid her feet in the proper place for the rest of the race, finishing 29 seconds ahead of Fahringer and 1:20 clear of Compton to take the jersey and unseat a legend. It was shocking upset victory for everyone but perhaps Honsinger’s coach, Kenrda Wenzel, who tweeted her feelings during the race.

“The announcers can talk all they want about @KatieFnCompton, but this is the performance that @clarahonsinger and I have been planning for all season on the way to Worlds,” Wenzel wrote on the social media platform.

Now Honsinger has the jersey and will take a boost of confidence to Europe when she returns for the end of the UCI World Cup series and then the world championships in early February.

“It definitely is,” she said of the morale left from the race, “but it’s a different Continent over there and racing is much different. My confidence is boosted by this, but it’s trying to keep that aggressive edge. That’s the biggest difference: it’s much more aggressive, much more elbows-out racing and fighting to get top 10.”

Honsinger’s fight for this season’s results actually started well into the offseason when she focused on power and endurance from road racing. She also focused on shifting her mental attitude in preparation for racing full time at the elite level rather than with the U23s like she did last year.

“I put in a much bigger off-season in terms of building,” she said. “I did a lot of road racing, and so I’ve just developed myself as an athlete quite a bit in the past year. I did a lot of mental focus from moving on from a U23 rider where I’m now an elite rider full time, so just coming in with a little bit sharper mental edge.”

Part of that focus is the added maturity of not letting the little things get her down during a race.

“I’ve done more visualization and running through the motions of a course as well as the emotions of racing and not letting the little mistakes kind of crack, so building that foundation,” she said. 

Even so, the new US champion, the rider who unseated a living legend who had 15 consecutive titles, still gets butterflies before a race.

“I do get nervous, but it’s just normal,” she said.

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.