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Honsinger and Hecht back to defend titles at US Cyclo-cross Nationals

Gage Hecht and Clara Honsinger have held stars-and-stripes jerseys as US cyclo-cross champions since 2019
Gage Hecht and Clara Honsinger have held stars-and-stripes jerseys as US cyclo-cross champions since 2019 (Image credit: Getty Images and Lee McDaniel)

The USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships are back in action this week through December 12 in Wheaton, Illinois, after a shuttered ‘cross season in 2020 across the country due the coronavirus pandemic. The event returns to the Midwest for the first time since Madison, Wisconsin hosted the event in 2012 and 2013. 

A total of 34 national titles, along with a collection of non-championship races, will be decided at Wheaton’s Cantigny Park, which across 500 acres is home to a championship golf course and a military tank display with the First Division Museum that pays homage to US Army soldiers from World War I to present time. 

The junior men and women (17-18) will tackle the course first on Sunday during the coldest part of the day, with temperatures expected to be hovering at the freezing mark as the sun rises and the races begin. The morning session will also include U23 categories and the elite women’s contest, followed by the elite men in the afternoon. 

Honsinger returns to lead charge

A lot has changed in US women's elite cyclo-cross since the last national championships were held in 2019. Although Clara Honsinger (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld) still stands at the top of the scene after two years in the jersey, winning her first European race at the Koppenbergcross and making the podium at the Fayetteville World Cup, the rest of the 2019 top five aren't racing in Chicago.

Fifteen-time US national champion Katie Compton is serving a doping ban, Rebecca Fahringer (Kona Maxxis Shimano) is out with an injury, Courtenay McFadden stopped racing at the elite level and Kaitie Keough (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld) retired.

That leaves Honsinger facing some major unknowns: she started the season with four races in the US but has been in Europe battling in the mud since late October and missed the bulk of the domestic races. In the first races in Rochester and Baltimore, her competition came mainly from Canadian Maghalie Rochette, French rider Caroline Mani and teammate Katie Clouse, who has opted to race in the U23 category in Illinois.

The nearest competitor was Raylyn Nuss (Steve Tilford Foundation Racing), who just won the Pan American title after steadily climbing up the results ladder and onto a handful of UCI podiums. The 31-year-old has made great strides since the last championships were held and is the one most likely to push Honsinger.

Likely, the only remaining question is who will be in the final podium spot. It could be North Carolina Grand Prix winner Hannah Arensman, or Pan-Ams bronze medalist Caitlin Bernstein, or Major Taylor 'Cross Cup winner Sunny Gilbert or any number of regular racers.

The course will be unfamiliar to all of the racers but should have enough technical challenges to favour a rider like Honsinger who has ample experience. It might be lacking the thick mud and climbs at which Honsinger excels, but if she can get a good start there will be few who can stay with her.

Hecht faces brigade of contenders

All the American men have focused on domestic campaigns this season, electing not to chase World Cup points across the Atlantic Ocean or risk race cancellations and travel nightmares related to any resurgence of COVID-19 variants. The US national title has been the carrot on a long string of racing, and the stars-and-stripes prize has no odds-on favourite for the elite men this year.

Youngster Gage Hecht (Aevolo), 23, was the surprise elite men’s winner in Lakewood, Washington two years ago. He splits his time between road and cyclo-cross, and said he was looking to peak this weekend with his ‘cross program. So far this year he has had one victory, in late November at the North Carolina Grand Prix, and was the top American in eighth place at the World Cup in Fayetteville. 

But the fast, power course in Wheaton may not be to his liking. The Coloradoan suffered a mechanical at Pan-Ams in Texas last week, running out of laps to make the catch of the lead groups, but was on good form.

“I have tended to like the hillier courses this year. Fayetteville, it’s a big power course. There are just different kinds of power courses,” Hecht told Cyclingnews. “I’d love to keep wearing the national jersey, and not have to change kits. That would be really cool to carry the stars and stripes for another year.”

Coming into nationals, former Pan-Am champion Kerry Werner (Kona Maxxis Shimano) was the top-ranked American in the UCI elite men’s cyclo-cross standings at 14th. He had two wins with 12 other podiums this season, including a trio of runner-up spots in C1 races. The stars-and-stripes jersey has evaded the 30-year-old, but he’s on form this fall too.

The domestic scene featured a three-race World Cup swing in the Midwest in October, and Curtis White (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld) hovered consistently in, or near, the top 20 at each stop. He had four wins this season, a pair of those at Northampton, and had been fourth or better in seven other races, including runner-up at Pan-Ams. Like Werner, an elite championship jersey has eluded him as well, finishing second in the last two tries.

"I'm feeling more relaxed and confident than any other year coming into Nationals. It's a very special race, and it's one day of the year. A lot has to go right for that effort. I feel I have nothing to lose," White told Cyclingnews.

From rock-solid performances in the past five editions, you can’t dismiss three-time winner Stephen Hyde (Steve Tilford Foundation Racing). He’s not been on the podium often so far this season and skipped Pan-Ams, but he is a fighter and could make some noise in Wheaton.

Also look for a podium finish from a few riders who have been in the mix the past few weeks like newly-crowned Pan-Am champion Eric Brunner (Blue Competition Cycles p/b Build), who was the U23 winner in 2019, and former U23 cyclo-cross champion Lance Haidet (L39ION of Los Angeles) who has 12 top 10s this year and was fifth in Tacoma in his first elite nationals outing.

Nationals course

Wheaton sits just 25 miles west of Chicago, Illinois in DuPage County. The bucolic setting came to life on December 7 with cowbell-toting fans and a swirl of bikes as the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships began with its first of six days of competitions. 

The sprawling circuit of tape across grass and dirt leads past those fairways and greens of the golf course without any significant elevation gain or crazy off-cambers. However, on his pre-ride of the elite course at Cantigny Park on Monday, Kerry Werner predicted “1-inch of rain on Friday and traffic all week should change things”.

Since most of the terrain sweeps around and across fairways of the golf course, the landscape should drain well. What riders are seeing and feeling ahead of race day are the lumpy, bumpy, bone-shaking conditions of the hard-packed surface, making it a technical track suited to explosive moves.

Broadcast schedule

A live broadcast for the final three days of racing will be available on FloSports to paid subscribers, with viewing available on any web browser or with the FloSports app on multiple streaming platforms. USA Cycling members enjoy an additional 20 per cent discount when subscribing through the “MyAccount” link at usacycling.org. 

National Championships schedule for December 12

8:00 a.m. - Junior Men 17-18

8:55 a.m. - Junior Women 17-18

9:50 a.m. - U23 Women

11:05 a.m. - U23 Men

12:20 p.m. - Elite Women

2:15 p.m. - Elite Men

*All times CDT

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Jackie Tyson

Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling for people of all abilities and ages. Tyson has been recognized for communications excellence with 10 Phoenix Awards, presented by the Georgia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp - and was recognized by a national media outlet as the first female depicted in a pro baseball card set (Ft. Myers Royals). She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times. Her favorite road rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in  Provence (France). Her favorite mountain bike rides are in Park City, Utah (USA).

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