Oregon’s Cyclocross Crusade series has produced a wealth of talent during its 25 years of cyclocross racing. Sue Butler, Ryan Trebon, Carl Decker, Lance Haidet and Barry Wicks are among the familiar names who got their start in the popular Pacific Northwest series.
The latest star to come out of the Cyclocross Crusade is Clara Honsinger.
Now 21 years old, Honsinger has been a star in the Cyclocross Crusade scene since 2015 when she started winning Women’s Elite races as a high schooler. Last year, Honsinger took her success to the national stage and capped her season with second-place finishes in the U23 Women’s race at both the Pan-American Championships in Louisville and Cyclocross Nationals in Reno.
Honsinger got her first international experience last season during the November EuroCrossCamp block and World Championships. This season, she will be back on the international stage first at Sunday’s World Cup Waterloo and then part of the U.S. contingent again at the Jingle Cross World Cup on Sunday.
Although she is turning in impressive results on the sport’s biggest stages, the young rider out of Oregon is still more focused on continuing to develop as a rider and a member of the Team S&M CX program that she is a key part of. “Concretely, to make it back to U23 Worlds,” Honsinger said about her 2018/19 goals. “More ambiguously, to improve upon my overall performance from last year and help develop the structure of Team S&M.”
Just a Kid from Oregon
Honsinger grew up in Ashland, Oregon, which is located in the southern part of the state near the California border. Ashland is located at the edge of the Klamath National Forest, so an abundance of natural beauty was close by for the young outdoor enthusiast.
Honsinger got her start riding bikes at a young age. “I grew up in Ashland, Oregon, where the watershed and mountain bike trails were only a ten-minute ride away,” she said. “My dad and I would go out on a rigid-tandem mountain bike and bounce about on the trails.”
Like many young children, Honsinger quickly found herself riding under her own power. “As I grew older, I found my bike was the most useful tool to get deep into the watershed and I would spend hours exploring every little ridge and gully. I spent a lot of time in that watershed.”
Speaking with Honsinger, you quickly get the impression that for her, life is about the journey and not the place on the result sheet. While talking about her childhood, she remembered moments that have stuck with her to this day.
“I remember hiding out underneath a big fir tree while it was sleeting, trying to warm my toes for the descent because all I had brought were soggy cotton socks,” she recalled. “I also remember seeing a pacific fisher cross the road ahead of me and admiring how it walked with the ease of a typical house cat.”
Like Elle Anderson, Honsinger was a competitive Nordic skier in high school. She took up cyclocross for fun and quickly found it fit perfectly with her active lifestyle and studies. “I was a Nordic ski racer in high school, and I liked how ’cross shared similar aspects of fitness integrated with technique,” Honsinger said. “In general, it was a much easier sport to accommodate at a younger age than road or mountain biking. I could ride my bike or hitch a ride out to the course, race, clean up and still be back in time to finish my schoolwork.”
Honsinger entered a couple local races in 2012, and then in 2013 she made her first trip up to Portland for the Cyclocross Crusade. Still in high school with only a few races under her belt, she finished eighth in the Women’s A race at Deschutes Brewery. The next year she was on the podium, and then in 2015 during her freshman year at the University of Portland, she won two Cross Crusade races against impressive fields filled with UCI racers.
Although her schedule now has a more national and even international flavor, Honsinger still races the Elite Women’s Cyclocross Crusade races when she is home in Portland. “I think [the Cyclocross Crusade] is such a large and inviting series,” she said. “The Cyclocross Crusade draws a lot of riders into the sport who would have never entered otherwise. There are lots of stories of folks who were invited to watch a race with a friend and then found themselves lining up at the start the following week.”
A Breakout Season
Honsinger’s first big appearance on the national scene was a national championship in the Collegiate Division 2 race at the 2016 Asheville Nationals. The following year, she took a different approach given her expanding cyclocross calendar.
Honsinger took the year off of school to work at the Sellwood Cycles bike shop in Portland and focus on training and racing. She returned to school to take classes during the spring and summer this year.
“Through the cyclocross race season, I will not be doing school and just working at the bike shop,” she said. “I suppose you could call me a college dropout. At least I have every intention to finish my degree. It just seems to be taking a lot longer than I thought it would with all this bike racing thrown in.”
She continued, “A few seasons back, when I tried to be an elite athlete and a student at the same time, my performance suffered on both ends. I found there was no way I could keep up with training and traveling and also pass my organic chemistry class. Solely working at the bike shop during the race season also gives me the flexibility to travel, and even though it’s full-time, I can still leave the job at work when I am at home or out in the park riding.”
Honsinger’s focus on cyclocross paid off in a big way in 2017. Entering the season, she expected to be competitive but did not really know what the results would look like. “I entered last season with really no foundation of how my landing would be,” she said. “I had put in a lot of hard work, so I knew my performance would be within competition standards, but I had no idea whether it would be rough crashing or smooth sailing.”
Honsinger and her Team S&M teammates hopped in the team van and drove to Iowa for the Jingle Cross weekend. Honsinger finished 13th in the Friday night C1 against a field of U.S. and international stars, and then on Saturday night, she took advantage of an opportunity to race again by finishing second.
Honsinger then hit the road and headed to the final CrossVegas, where she finished sixth. Her UCI weekends in Sacramento, Cincinnati and Louisville were not quite the same whirlwinds, but she continued her solid results capped by a second-place finish in the U23 race at the Pan-American Championships.
“UCI racing not only helped me build form and technique as an athlete, but it helped me develop a routine as a rider,” Honsinger said about her 2018 schedule on the road. “I learned important skills like efficient traveling, effective warming-up and proper post-race recovery.”
Honsinger said the season was also an important one for her team. Team S&M is an all-women’s cyclocross team that bills itself as the “Working Class Cyclocross” team. Team members include Beth Ann Orton, Honsinger, Sophie Russenberger and team manager and mechanic Sophia Wrye-Simpson.
“It also helped us develop Team S&M Pro CX,” Honsinger said. “We found ways best to support each other on and off the race course. Overall, I am excited to see what we can bring to the beginning of this season and how we can build through the end.”
Shortly after putting her name on the U.S. ’cross map with her second at U23 Pan-Ams, Honsinger got the chance to take her racing to the international level. She headed to Europe in November as part of USA Cycling’s EuropeCrossCamp program. The highlight of the trip was a top 15 at Flandriencross at the end of the trip.
Honsinger said she learned a lot from the trip. “Of course, the racing was extremely aggressive and fast—to such a degree that any hesitation or lack of focus would form a cascade of mistakes—but it is also really diverse in terms of capabilities,” she said. “It felt pretty wild to have some of the best riders in the world practicing and pre-riding the same ruts as us developing riders.”
After returning home from Europe with eyes a bit wider, she prepared for U23 Nationals in Reno. Honsinger finished ninth in the U23 race in 2016 and sixth in 2017, so with her success at Pan-Ams, continued improvement and a podium finish was certainly not out of the question.
In January in Reno, Honsinger delivered with a strong second-place ride behind Emma White. “Second place at Nationals was a gratifying result after my initial season, but also a useful measurement of my fitness and skill and a motivation for improvement.”
Her reward for a strong season was a trip to the World Championship as a member of the U.S. contingent. On the muddy slog of a course in Valkenburg, she finished her season with a 14th-place finish, again the second-best for U.S. riders.
Goals, Concrete and Ambiguous
Clara Honsinger is driven to succeed as a bike racer, but she admitted that the cyclocross season helps her get her fix of traveling and racing. While many other young athletes were busy racing across disciplines this summer, she spent a lot of her time at home in Oregon riding her mountain bike, exploring and maybe doing some homework for her online classes.
As she returns to the ’cross course, folks will be paying a bit closer attention to her racing after Emma White announced she is leaving cyclocross to pursue the 2020 Olympics in track racing. With Honsinger’s second-place finishes at Pan-Ams and Nationals, she now returns as the de facto favorite for U23 Nationals in Louisville this December.
Honsinger, however, is not taking her 2017 success for granted. “It doesn’t guarantee anything,” she said. “I’m still training and working to improve as much as possible upon last season. For all I know, there might be some developing rider out there who might out-ride Emma’s best performance from last season.”
Favorite or not, Honsinger said that her goals for this season take many different shapes. For results, it is pretty straightforward. “Concretely, to make it back to U23 Worlds,” she said.
The other ones are a bit tougher to define. “More ambiguously, to improve upon my overall performance from last year and help develop the structure of Team S&M.”
After starting her season at RenoCross and then racing Sunday’s World Cup Waterloo, Honsinger’s season is in full swing. She will be in Iowa City this weekend for Jingle Cross, and then it is off to show she deserves a spot on the U23 Worlds team.
Featured image: Andrew Yee