Portland's Honsinger races ahead
When the weather took a turn for the worse on Jan. 30 in Ostend, Belgium, Clara Honsinger just got better.
Rain? Wind? Muck? Just what the Portland resident loves in a cyclocross course.
"Initially, the course was dry and fast. I'm typically not very good at that," she explained. "Then it started raining and got slippery and it turned into a really difficult course, which is great for me."
Though she approached it as such, this wasn't just another race. The 2021 world championship event proved to be another significant step for the 23-year-old who has quickly risen to the challenge of racing the best riders in the world.
Honsinger was the top American finisher among elite women at the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championships. She finished fourth, the only racer in the top six not from the Netherlands.
The fourth-place finish capped a season that saw Honsinger twice finish second in UCI World Cup Series races.
In a season that was in doubt because of the pandemic, Honsinger showed international competitors what Americans learned in December 2019, when she was the surprise winner of the elite women's national championship — ending a 15-year run as champ by Katie Compton.
Growing up in Ashland, Honsinger loved riding her bike around her neighborhood and on excursions into nature with her dad. It wasn't until her sophomore social studies teacher mentioned racing that she realized she could combine her passion for competing as a runner and soccer player with her love of cycling.
Honsinger came to Portland in 2015 to attend the University of Portland, but cycling quickly became the driving force in her life. She found success racing against experienced riders in the popular Northwest Cyclocross Crusade series. She took a job at Sellwood Cycle Repair and started racing for Team S&M, a professional cyclocross team operated by the repair shop's owner, Erik Tonkin.
With that team, she became one of the best under-23 racers in America, then won that 2019 national elite race as friends and family cheered her on in Lakewood, Washington.
Last year, she joined the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld team. When it became obvious there would be no season in America, Honsinger, two teammates and mechanics headed to Europe.
"It was a really difficult choice. Is it ethical to during a pandemic go and race bikes?" Honsinger said during a recent Zoom interview from her Hawthorne-area home.
"We set ourselves a very strict protocol."
Other than trips to the grocery story, and to race and train, they stayed isolated at their base in the Netherlands.
"Ultimately, we were able to follow our protocol. None of us got sick, and had some great bike racing," Honsinger said.
Stu Thorne, owner and manager of Cannondale/Cyclocrossworld Pro Cycling, said Honsinger's success in Europe between November and January was a result of training she did over the summer and fall — including time spent training at altitude in Colorado — despite uncertainty around whether she would be able to race.
"Clara's hard efforts during the summer and early fall showed. She proved to the world that she was a force to be reckoned with," Thorne said. "It was impressive to see her make the next step in her development. She's such a strong rider. The future is bright for Clara and we will do all we can to support her along the way."
Cyclocoss races typically last for just under an hour as riders complete multiple laps on a course of varied terrain. Racers sometimes must decide between riding a portion of a course or carrying the bike. It is a challenge that suits Honsinger, whose stamina and persistence often allow her to catch and pass rivals late in races.
"Some of what I really like about cyclocross is it's multi-faceted. You need to be very strong and have a high threshold for endurance," she said. "And then you also need to, while you're at that point of exerting yourself, be able to technically handle your bike and just make on-the-fly decisions whether you need to ride something or get off and run it."
Honsinger also is a member of women's pro road-racing team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank, which includes riders from around the world. She has done less road racing than cyclocross, but enjoys that road racing is entirely dependent upon teamwork.
For now, the 2021 road racing calendar is uncertain. In the meantime, Honsinger will focus on her studies. She is about a year away from finishing her degree in nutrition and health science from Oregon State. In fact, she took a mid-term test a couple of days before her world championship race.
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