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At just 22, Clara Honsinger is the new U.S. national cyclocross champion after ending Katie Compton’s 15-year reign back in December. She recently took a brief break from her busy schedule of training and studying nutrition at Oregon State to talk to Peloton.
Let’s start at ’cross nationals. How long did it take for it to sink in that you had won the race?
I guess it still hasn’t, really. Overall, I still feel like the first-year elite coming into the sport, trying to figure it all out.
Was there ever a point during nationals where you began to think that you were going to win? Or did you not think about that until it was over?
Well, I mean, you enter every race prepared to win, with the mentality that you’re going to win—or that you’re going to put in the work and all the effort that you can to win. But honestly, it wasn’t until I came across that last corner—I guess it wasn’t until I hit that last tricky off-camber descent and nailed it, and it was like: “Okay, I’ve got four more corners and a straightaway.” That’s when I felt that everything was secure.
You managed to end the nationals win streak of one of the most talented cyclocross racers ever in Katie Compton. What were your interactions with her like after crossing the finish line at nationals, and what have they been like since?
Katie is, like, still the best cyclocross racer ever. So, a lot of our interactions have been me asking questions about a race: What tire choice? What do you think about this off-camber? We were over in Europe together and she has so much more experience with these courses and these competitors that it was a huge learning experience for me. She’s definitely the master of it all.
How does a high-profile elite race compare to an under-23 race?
We’re talking about three races—there’s Pan-Ams, nationals and worlds. They’re definitely so much more intense, so much faster. And, honestly, smaller. I think the world championships field for the women’s elite this year was 35. And at World Cups, it was like 90 women lining up.
Is there more fighting for position at the start of those smaller races?
Yeah, there’s definitely some more fighting, but it also feels less massy. There’s less getting bundled up with 20 other riders trying to go through one corner. It’s four of you going really fast through this corner. It’s less riders there, but really, really talented ones.
How did your first crack at elite worlds go? You recorded a DNF, so were you disappointed with the experience?
Yeah, it was kind of a bummer. I ended up getting caught in a crash just after the start line. When I grabbed my bike, it was missing a lot of spokes in my front wheel. It was so out of true that it wouldn’t even spin through the fork. I just started running and got to the pit. [And at that point] I’d rather just recover from the emotions of the event on my own than try to ride a couple laps.
It was really disappointing, kind of a feeling that you’re there representing your country and a lot of people have invested in you—mechanics, people lining up the trip. To let something like that happen, even if it’s out of your control, it feels a little bit heavy. I ended up going for a good mind-clearing ride in Zürich, rather than racing.
How did you get started in cyclocross racing?
I grew up in Ashland, Oregon, and it’s a 10- to 15-minute ride up the hill to get to the trails. So, I spent a lot of time as a kid playing on trails and being kind of obsessed with bikes. But I never started racing until I was a sophomore in high school, when a teacher started a bike club. And he was really into cyclocross racing, so I tried some cyclocross races. I was out there lifting a mountain bike over barriers and riding with like 45psi through mud. It was absolutely terrible, but it was so much fun to apply this hobby I had of bouncing around in the woods and then getting to put it into competition.
Have you set any goals for 2020 that you’re willing to share?
Going over to Europe—it’s such an intense type of racing. So much higher speeds, and you just have to be perfect. Over in the United States, you can make a lot of mistakes and errors and put patches over them and fall into loopholes where you don’t necessarily perfect technique or skills. So, through this European block of racing, it made me realize what I want to do is focus on a couple of things such as starts and my ability to maintain my positioning through a corner. And I want to be able to come back next year and have those be perfect.
Part of it is, you’re going and doing your races and you’re like “compared to these girls, I suck at this.” But then you look at it from an optimistic point: “This is something I have that I can really improve upon that will make me that much better of a rider.”
Are you feeling any pressure to perform, now that you have the stars-and-stripes jersey on your shoulders?
Yes, there is the pressure, but part of [racing] is the professionalism of the sport, just being able to function under that pressure. It is really cool to wear this jersey and it feels like an honor. And at some points it feels like I’m not fit for it—I’m not Katie Compton. But I need to approach every race with the same intention to win it and do my best, no matter what jersey I’m in.
You ride for Team S&M. Can you tell me a little about your relationship with team sponsor, Sellwood Cycle, in Portland?
After getting into cyclocross in high school, I eventually graduated and went to college up in Portland, Oregon. Instead of spending my weekends on campus making friends through school, I would go out to races and make friends there. That’s where I met Erik Tonkin, the owner of Sellwood Cycle Repair, which has a longstanding relationship with cyclocross through Team S&M. So, he drove me to one of my first cyclocross races and we spent a lot of time just talking about bike racing. He’s a really cool guy who’s fun to ride bikes with and has a lot of information to share and pass along.
The following summer I was needing something to do. I ended up working at Sellwood for an additional two years off and on. I eventually fully dropped out of school and just started working at the bike shop. Erik had the image to rebuild Team S&M as a professional program, and I seized the opportunity to join it. It’s a fun relationship where you get the support to go to all these races and you still have this home base, this local network, based out of the bike shop.
When you dropped out of school, was that to focus on cyclocross racing?
Yeah, originally, I presented it as a year’s leave of absence to the university, with the potential to come back. So I did my year where I was out racing UCI race weekends, and in between race weekends I’d be working at the bike shop. Then we approached the following fall, and I didn’t want to go back to school, I wanted to keep racing. So we did it again. That was the year of 2018–19.
You’re back in school now, though.
I’d do community college during the off-season and amass credits through that. And then finally, last June, I felt like I was getting a little bit behind on my degree. It had just been this sort of incomplete that I wanted to put a checkmark through and finish up and have available when I’m ready to set racing down entirely. And so I started full time at Oregon State University.
I read that you spent the week leading up to nationals taking final exams. Can you tell me about balancing school and racing?
I think a lot of people see it as being overwhelming but, honestly, I find it quite balancing. I’m a nutrition major, and the way I’m able to balance it during the race season is by taking two courses fully online. So I’m able to complete them on the weekends when we’re traveling and on the road. During the week, I have classes on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. It builds structure into my life. I wake up at 7 a.m. and I 48 / Peloton magazine realize I have to be out training by 8 a.m. in order to make it to class by 11 a.m.
What year are you in now? How much longer until you get your degree?
I have the credits of a senior right now. However, I have about a year and a half left. If I can nail things down and not have racing get too much in the way, I can graduate in spring of 2021.
You gave road racing a try at the Colorado Classic to quite some success, finishing 11th overall. Do you have more road racing in sight in 2020?
Yeah, I worked with Lux Cycling for the Colorado Classic as well as the Cascade Cycling Classic in Bend, Oregon. Even though they’re a junior development program, they’re opening the space to have me. It’s a great opportunity for me to learn about road racing without making a full commitment to a full season of racing every weekend. We’re going to Cascade and Colorado [Classic] again.
Do you plan on riding much gravel this year?
Yeah, I really love these gravel races, because they make such productive and efficient training sessions where you go out and ride for five hours at hard-tempo pace. I’m going to try to hit as many as I can in the Oregon area. I don’t have any big ones nailed down, but I’m trying to figure out what will fit into my schedule.
If you weren’t a bike racer, what would you spend your time doing?
Probably be a little better at school, I don’t know. I’d probably be outside backpacking more or cross-country skiing.