by Neil Schirmer
On Sunday, Clara Honsinger became the first new Elite Women’s Cyclocross National Champion in 15 years but talking to her about the accomplishment, you wouldn’t know this was her first attempt at the Elite title. At the age of 22, she’s insightful and reflective beyond her years.
Never mind the fact that she took the title from one of the sport’s all-time greats and race favorite, Katie Compton, ending Compton’s 15-year championship winning streak, or the fact that she was lining up against another favorite, Katie Keough, someone she hadn’t raced against since the Waterloo World Cup.
She also had to contend with Becca Fahringer, who has arguably been the hottest racer in the US over the last four weeks, stringing together a 4-pack of wins at Super Cross and NBX. These are just three of the factors she had to contend with on a championship Sunday that was almost a home game, just a short drive away from her home scene (OBRA) in Portland.
Honsinger’s Elite National Championship is the latest step on a fast rise for the Kid from Oregon.
We first met Honsinger in 2016 when she won a Collegiate National Championship for the University of Portland at Asheville Nationals.
In 2017, Honsinger got her first big UCI result with a second place in the night race at Jingle Cross. She went on to cap that season with a second in the U23 race at both the Pan-American Championship and Reno Nationals.
In 2018, Honsinger entered the season as the favorite in the U.S. U23 category, and she delivered, winning both U23 Pan-Ams and Louisville Nationals. She also added a top 10 finish at Bogense Worlds to top off her season.
At the beginning of this season, Honsinger turned heads at Rochester Cyclocross when she finished second both days there. Those results were just a prelude to a third-place finish at the Jingle Cross World Cup and fourth at World Cup Waterloo that capped a September to Remember for the young rider.
Facing the daunting task of ending Compton’s streak and holding off talented rivals, Honsinger entered the day resolute, as a person who was confident in her process and ready for the challenge ahead, and the result speaks for itself.
I spoke with Honsinger on Monday following her Elite National Championship ride. You can read a transcript of our conversation below.
Interview: 2019 Elite Women’s National Champion Clara Honsinger
Cyclocross Magazine: I’m interested in jumping right into the middle of yesterday. I was recently watching an interview after Jingle Cross where you mentioned that you’re concerned with blowing yourself up in races. In the race yesterday, you and Becca (Fahringer) had gapped Katie (Compton) a little bit early on, what was your mindset at that point. Did you feel like you were in over your head too early chasing outside of your comfort zone? What was going on in your head at that early stage in the race?
Clara Honsinger: I honestly felt pretty calm, I wasn’t in a place where I was getting gapped on any technical sections. We were all kind of riding within our zones together and I felt like we were all pretty comfortable there. At least myself, I was sitting third wheel there and taking a moment to say ok, how are Compton and Farhinger riding these conditions? Where are they able to stretch out a little bit of time, and where am I able to make that up, so it was really a point of observation.
CXM: So even in the early stages, you didn’t feel like you were outside of your comfort zone or close to blowing up.
CH: Yeah definitely. Part of it is also, how are they riding this line? Maybe they have the faster route through it. Maybe I should use that later on in the race. Yeah, it is really kind of a point where you see how other riders are riding.
CXM: What did you think of the course yesterday? Did you feel like that suited you well? What was the most uncomfortable part of the course for you?
CH: That’s a good question. Probably the transitions from the riding into the run-ups were pretty difficult honestly, because you were able to ride up them part way, so it was about finding that balance where you ride up “this” far and then you lose your momentum. Trying to get the balance to ride as far as you can but not lose your momentum, and then when you are off the bike, being able to snap that bike over your shoulder early.
This was especially the case on the last run-up through that rooted section; that one was difficult because it was such a steep pitch that I honestly wasn’t quick enough with jumping off and getting the bike on my shoulder. I should have been a little bit more efficient there.
CXM: Did you add any extra running to your preparation for this race, or is that a regular part of your training? Or did you just take it business as usual for your lead up?
CH: Running is a regular part of my training, but I’ll do cyclocross intervals where part of the interval is going up the trail, then at some point you’re going to have to dismount and run for 10 or 15 seconds. I don’t do a lot of going out for long runs. Every once in a while, just to make sure the muscles are comfortable underneath that load, I feel like that helps relax my muscles, but my real running training—cyclocross-specific running—is integrated into riding. So, going out and practicing run ups, throwing the bike over your shoulder, getting to the top, taking it off, pushing it up and over.
I think early in the season when its dry, you can ride a lot of stuff, but this time of year it seems like running is something you’re going to see more in races. When you watch those races over in Belgium where it’s so muddy that they’re on their bikes 70% of the time, then they’re off running 30% of the time.
CXM: What is your plan for the rest of the season? Do you have that fully mapped out?
CH: Its structured all the way through Worlds. I was lucky early enough in the season with my result at Jingle to qualify automatically for Worlds, so that was kind of my big goal for this season which, ticking that off in the second weekend (of the 2019 season) was pretty nice.
Of course, at every race there’s something to work for, so right now I’m driving home and I’m going to throw all my clothes in another bag and hop on a flight to Belgium on Wednesday. I’ll be going over and training with USA Cycling, I’m really lucky that I’m a development rider and am able to go to all of the races with them, alongside their Junior and U23 riders.
I’m really lucky that my personal mechanic (Brenna Wrye-Simpson) was hired by USAC as a mechanic which is going to be the coolest thing ever because all of the mechanics in Belgium are male (laughs). It’s going be so cool that the USA is going to be the first team with a female mechanic in the pit, I’m really, really proud of Brenna, I think it’s gunna be kind of a monumental point for cyclocross and cycling.
I always feel like when I go over there, I try to build strong relationships with the mechanics. We need to be able to function well together, but it is nice to have that relationship already. It’s honestly going to be a little bit difficult for me because she’s there to help me, but also there to help to other riders. I’ll have to share her, but we do that a lot already. This weekend she was in the pit, she works for a lot of riders, she’s really good at being able to jump from one person to the next. She takes care of us really well.
To continue with the plan, we’ll be going over on Wednesday, then on Sunday we’ll be racing Namur, then we’re going to hit that Christmas block pretty hard.
CXM: You mentioned your Jingle result, if I can go back briefly into the way-back machine all the way to 2018, your Saturday win at Valmont last year was your first Elite UCI win, correct?
CH: Yeah, that was a big deal for me!
CXM: I’m really curious what your mindset was going into Jingle this year. Do you remember what your goals were, and were you surprised with your result?
CH: Yeah, the weekend before that was Rochester, so I had pretty good results there, second both days, but at the World Cup races with the European riders, my goal was to make top 10. It’s kind of like, any race you go to the start line for, you’re going to win it, so when I was in that position, I was there. I was not going to be kind of glazed over by the moment.
CXM: I guess that’s ultimately what I’m interested in getting at. Your results seem to have come pretty fast, to go from your first UCI win last season, right into an incredible results at Rochester early this season, and then having that incredible ride for third at Jingle, then leading into the rest of this season and being able to cap it off with the jersey, I guess I’m trying to understand what that feels like.
You seem to be really “in the moment” about it. You seem to handle everything quite well, is there anything specific that you can attribute that to? You don’t even sound like you surprise yourself at this point, so that’s what I’m trying to understand.
CH: I remember winning U23 Nationals and the Pan-Ams U23 and being like, ‘Ok, this is my goal and I hit it.’ I’m really proud of the work I put in, but ok, I want to go and be an Elite rider and test myself in that group. I feel like I’ve hit those marks this year, so after yesterday, I did something that was monumental, but ok, I’m here now. What’s the next step up? How can I improve on this? It’s the constant wanting to step up and wanting to be better.
CXM: I’m curious about the scene you come from. What do you like most about it?
CH: In Oregon, we have an association distinct from USAC, and it has a really strong cyclocross scene. In part because cyclocross is such an event, everybody is out there, it’s such a community event, I think everyone goes out to the races and hangs out. It’s really what my community was when I started getting into races, these people that I love to spend time with.
CXM: The OBRA racing scene, from afar, always seemed a little more focused on fun and community aspects even more so than other places, so it seems like it would be a really supportive and nurturing scene to come up through, and it sounds like it was that for you.
CH: Absolutely, yeah. I think its reflective of the community. Portland has always been known as a goofy place, and the bike racing scene is much like that. We’re taking ourselves seriously, but not taking ourselves too seriously.
CXM: Maybe that’s part of what helps you take all of this in stride, that’s wonderful to see. What was your feeling waking up today? I’m guessing based upon your previous responses that you probably didn’t wake up feeling particularly overwhelmed?
CH: It’s a lot of ‘Did that really happen?’ It’s definitely setting in, but it’s also turning around and focusing on the next races. I’m going to be in a different jersey, I’m going to be representing a new “thing” as the new cyclocross National Champion, and how am I going to be ready to do this? It’s a lot of progressive thinking, I would say. As I said, ‘Ok so, I’ve got this major result, this is a huge goal and I hit it, but what’s the next one beyond it, what’s the next step to go through?’
CXM: I thought Katie Compton’s response to yesterday was exceptional. She seemed to take all of it very well, and there was so much built up about her streak. Did you have any words with her and is there anything that you’re comfortable sharing? Any exchanges that you had with her before or after?
CH: After the race, she came up to me, she said, ‘Hey, that was a great race and you rode really well.’ It means a lot coming from the best cyclocross racer in the world. I still feel like this is (just) one race that I had, and Katie has 15 plus another 300, and she’s still someone I look up to, and I still have a lot to learn from her.
CXM: I think we all do. Congratulations again on your Championship and looking forward to seeing you wear the Stars-and-Stripes in Belgium.
CH: Thank you so much.
Visit our dedicated 2019 USA Cycling Cyclocross Nationals page for all of our 2019 National Championships coverage.