Heading into the month of December, Clara Honsinger (Team S&M CX) was having a season worthy of an arguable U23 Women's favorite for Sunday's National Championship race in Louisville.
Honsinger won both days at the US Open of Cyclocross and took home the U23 Women's title at Pan-Ams in Midland.
Last week's races at Ruts n' Guts, however, made her a bit nervous heading into Sunday. Katie Clouse (Alpha Bicycles - Groove Subaru) beat Honsinger both days, including taking her first-career UCI C1 win.
"[The pressure] came last week racing in Oklahoma racing against Katie and she was so strong," Honsinger said. "Her peak this season was perfect, and so I was really nervous coming into this race. There was a ton of pressure for this."
One of dealing with pressure like that is getting off to a fast start. Honsinger ripped out to the holeshot and led the field out through the thick mud. Clouse eventually caught up with Honsinger, but when Clouse had trouble with a remount before the second climb, Honsinger continued her first-lap surge.
When the thick mud settled on the first lap, Honsinger's lead was already 40 seconds. She would only extend it from there to take home her first-career national championship.
"It’s been a goal all season, and I finally did it," Honsinger said. "It was like hitting the target spot-on."
While she could not match Honsinger's pace, Clouse rode and ran a strong race herself to take the Junior Women 17-18 championship for the second consecutive year.
"I'm super-stoked about finishing second overall and first in the 17-18," Clouse said. "It was my goal to be on the podium at least today and I'm stoked to finish high in these conditions."
The Two Favorites Deliver
With the Junior Women category being added to the World Championships in 2020, the Junior Women 17-18 lined up with the U23 Women for one last U.S. Nationals.
The fast starter in Sunday's race was Clara Honsinger, who ripped out to the holeshot into the pool of mud just off the pavement.
"I’ve been working on [my starts] all season," Honsinger said. "To get it dialed, it was almost as much of a win to get the holeshot as it was to win the entire race for me."
Honsinger quickly opened up a gap on the field and led the first drop down the long descent. Clouse also got off to a fast start and sat in second. Honsinger hit the chicane descent with a 10-second lead, but Clouse used her technical skills to close the gap through the section.
After running part of the section after the descent, Clouse had some trouble remounting her bike. Honsinger took advantage of the opportunity and again opened up a lead. At the end of the first lap, her advantage was 40 seconds.
"We went up to the first running section and that's where she got a gap on me," Clouse said. "I told myself I have to stay consistent so at least I could keep distance between third and fourth. It was trying to stay upright and have clean lines."
Behind the lead duo, Honsinger's teammate Sophie Russenberger (Team S&M CX) moved into third place by herself.
The next lap, Honsinger continued to extend her lead. She made a brief mistake on the descent but quickly recovered. Two laps into the three-lap race, Honsinger's lead over Clouse was at 1:45.
Clouse's counterpart in the 17-18 race Madigan Munro (Boulder Junior Cycling) also had a big ride in the mud, sitting just a minute behind Clouse and in fourth-place overall after two laps.
The final lap saw each of the riders fighting against the course more than each other, with big gaps between each of the top five riders.
Honsinger completed her strong ride to win the U23 Women's National Championship.
"I think it was the accumulation of all those little mistakes," she said about the key to winning. "It was a race that wasn’t about sprints, it was about holding that threshold."
Clouse crossed a minute behind with her second-straight Junior 17-18 National Championship. The win is (unofficially) her 26th career national championship across all disciplines.
Her success on the difficult Joe Creason course was thanks in large part to good preparation.
"Today it really reminded me of Valkenberg Worlds, the mud and all the running," Clouse said. "I knew last year I wasn't prepared for all the running and this year I did a lot of preparing for running, just in case, which I think helped me out a lot. At least 60 percent of the course was running."
Russenberger took third in the U23 race.
Munro finished an impressive fourth overall and second for the Junior Women. Meredith Sierpina (Revolution Devo Cycling) finished third for the Junior Women riders.
For more from the U23 and Junior Women races, see the winner interviews, photo gallery and results below.
Visit our dedicated Louisville Cyclocross Nationals page for all of our 2018 Nationals coverage.
You can purchase race photos from our nightly galleries at cyclocross.zenfolio.com and help support our event coverage.
Clara Honsinger: U23 Women Winner Interview
Katie Clouse: Junior Women Winner Interview