Each year Katie Compton (KFC Racing p/b Trek Knight) has extended her otherworldly 15-year National Championship streak, she has said continuing the streak only gets harder with each passing year.
This year at Lakewood Nationals, a potential win number 16 was definitely not going to come any easier thanks to a number of competitors riding at the top of their respective games.
Clara Honsinger (Team S&M) kicked off her season with a September to Remember that included a podium at the Jingle Cross World Cup and several podium finishes.
Rebecca Fahringer (Kona Maxxis Shimano) came on strong throughout the season, winning the Parkway CX Trophy and Vittoria Series and giving Honsinger a tough fight for silver at the Pan-American Championships.
Kaitie Keough (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld) has finished ahead of Compton several times in Europe this season, and she headed back to the States looking for her first Elite National Championship.
Compton got off to a fast start in the Elite Women's race and made an impressive pass on the first descent chute, just as she did in Louisville, but when Honsinger and Fahringer bridged up to her, it was clear that potential 16th title would not come easy in any way, shape or form.
The Champ on the Ropes
Sunday's race at Lakewood Nationals was a de facto home race for Honsinger, with her adopted hometown of Portland a few hours away, but it was a true hometown race for Bellingham's Courtenay McFadden (Pivot / Maxxis p/b Stan's NoTubes).
McFadden responded accordingly with a fast start in front of a boisterous crowd surrounding the first descent. After Fahringer grabbed the holeshot, McFadden took over on the first run-up. She kept her lead and came dropping down the chute in first position.
Last year at Louisville Nationals, Katie Compton took over the lead with a sweet pass on a muddy downhill descent. On Sunday in the race's opening minutes, she did it again.
Letting it ride, Compton bombed past McFadden and took over the lead. The two riders then accelerated away toward the first flat section. Continuing her fast start, Fahringer chased in 3rd about 7 seconds back.
Compton and McFadden hit the second run-up with a lead on a chase of Honsinger and Fahringer. Once clear of the run-up, Fahringer used the climb to the top of the orchard to bridge up to Compton and then grab the champ's wheel dropping down the second descent chute.
Soon after the bottom, the lead group again came together, with Compton, Fahringer, Honsinger and McFadden racing toward the sand pit and the UCI-only run-up and descent that followed.
Not content to just be in the lead group, Fahringer made her presence at the front known when she attacked right before the second flyover and took the lead into the sand. She stayed on the attack through the rest of the lap and carried a small lead onto the pavement. Compton trailed 2 seconds behind her and Honsinger sat close behind.
McFadden dropped a bit further back, while race favorite Keough was missing from the first selection.
"I would argue I got the holeshot, and I think that's the crowning achievement of my career thus far," Fahringer said. "I felt like I rode really well the first two laps."
At the start of the second lap, Fahringer used her legs to keep the pressure on up the first run-up. Honsinger sprinted past Compton into second and the two earned a small gap on the champ at the top. Dropping back to the bottom part of the course, Fahringer and Honsinger had a 5-second advantage on Compton.
The next run-up and long gradual climb up the orchard opened things up further. Honsinger and Fahringer dropped down the steep descent first, but the noisy crowd had to wait a bit for Compton's blue helmet and kit to appear through the trees.
At the end of that 2nd of 5 laps, Honsinger and Fahringer's lead on Compton was up to 17 seconds. The defending champ's streak was very much in jeopardy.
"She was monitoring her efforts, and when she didn't come back, I was a little surprised," Honsinger said about that moment in the race.
A New Champ Emerges
In broad strokes, Honsinger and Fahringer are similar riders, with big, powerful engines and good running skills. With the two at the front, there was a sense a tight battle could be in order.
Even with Compton well off their pace, however, the lead duo was not about to settle in with the Stars-and-Stripes on the line.
Early in Lap 2, it was Honsinger's turn to attack. She rode farther up the first run-up than Fahringer was able to and dashed up to the top.
With a small gap at the top, her move forced Fahringer into a mistake at the bottom of the Sunday-only steep drop and climb section. What was a few bike lengths became 6 seconds by the time the two dropped back to the lower part of the course.
"[Honsinger] put in a dig on a run-up and regrettably I couldn’t keep up," Fahringer said. "I wasn’t quite sure what pace to hold after that. I started making a few mistakes on some of the drops and I said, 'I’m just going to pray that there are crashes.'"
Honsinger stayed on the move and stretched her lead to 9 seconds at the end of that key Lap 3. Compton continued to push onward, but she sat 30 seconds behind Honsinger with 2 to go.
Barring the unexpected, American Cyclocross was going to have a new Elite Women's National Champion.
"I wanted to go faster, but my legs just wouldn’t go," Compton said. Some days are like that, unfortunately. But I liked the course, the course was super fun and so many people were cheering all the way around so that definitely helped."
Fahringer's bid to bring Honsinger back became more difficult when the Oregonian extended her lead up to 15 seconds midway through the penultimate lap. That advantage grew to 22 seconds at the bell.
Meanwhile, McFadden, urged on by the hometown crowd passed Compton at the start of Lap 4 and opened up a gap at one point. At the bell, McFadden was looking at a strong chance of keeping Compton off the podium.
The last lap proved a coronation for Honsinger, with family, friends and well-wishers cheering her on at the descents and throughout Fort Steilacoom Park.
"The people I race with down in southern Oregon, my Portland folks, my Pacific Northwest folks, my family, everyone is here, Honsinger said after the race. "Falling through that tunnel and hearing my name from everyone, it's huge, its just fire to ride on."
When she cleared the second descent chute that claimed several victims throughout the week, the large crowd prepared to welcome its new champ home.
"The entire race I was just like, 'I’ve got to hold it smooth, I’ve got to hold it smooth.' Even coming down the finishing stretch giving high fives I’m like, 'I’ve got to be careful here, I just need to make it to this line and savor it,'" Honsinger said about holding her lead.
Fahringer finished strong to cap her impressive domestic season and get the best Elite championship race result of a cyclocross career that continues its upward trajectory.
"This was the first time that the media thought I was a contender and that really played with my head," Fahringer said about the race. "It made me pretty nervous. I jokingly said, 'Yeah, I'm going to win.' Meaning it seriously and not at the same time. So I was confident, but at the same time, I felt like being confident and taking the Stars-and-Stripes, it's kind of an emotional thing to think about and I don’t think I was really ready for it."
Compton held off McFadden in the last lap to take third.
"Clara rode great. It’s awesome to see her win," Compton said. "I knew at some point there was going get beat. It's awesome to see. Becca rode great, and it was a fast race. This is a hard race, there wasn’t any sitting in, there wasn’t any hiding in it. You had to have all the skills."
McFadden wrapped up fourth, and Keough rounded out the wide-angle podium in fifth.
For more from Sunday's Elite Women's National Championships race, see the interviews, photo gallery and results below.
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Rebecca Fahringer: Elite Women's Second Place
Katie Compton: Elite Women's Third Place