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Ashland's Honsinger is a rising star in cyclocross racing

There are some who are ready to pass the torch, representing America’s best woman cyclocross racer, to Ashland’s Clara Honsinger.

She graciously declines.

Honsinger is the reigning U.S. champion, having taken the title from perennial winner Katie Compton in 2019, and last weekend placed fourth in the UCI World Cyclocross Championships in Ostend, Belgium — the only non-Dutch rider in the top six.

Prior to that race, she hit two World Cup medals podiums with runner-up finishes, and added fourth and sixth places in two other events as a three-month stay in the Netherlands for professional racing wound down. Despite missing one of the five World Cup races, she placed fourth in the series.

Still, the 23-year-old Honsinger, who returned to Portland Tuesday after an 18-hour travel day, begged off the notion that she has surpassed Compton as queen of the rigorous sport.

“I would probably be a bit reluctant (to say that) because Katie is still out there racing with us,” said the 2015 Ashland High graduate. “While I have this national title, Katie Compton still has such a long list of high-ranking results, so much greater than I have — and will probably ever have. I think Katie is really her own kind of iconic rider, while I’m starting to make my own name. It’ll be a long time until I’m up to her standing.

“I still very much look up to her and respect her.”

Compton, 42, had won 15 straight U.S. crowns before Honsinger unseated her.

Compton will race one more cyclocross season before retiring. She’s hit the podium five times at the world championships, and her 130 UCI victories make her the most successful U.S. cyclocross racer.

Compton placed 21st in last Saturday’s world championships, and U.S. teammates Rebecca Fahringer and Kaitie Keough were 23rd and 35th, respectively.

Cyclocross is off-road bicycle racing over a variety of terrains and obstacles that sometimes requires riders to carry their bikes through sections. A race is about 50 minutes, and the number of laps varies.

The world-championship race, which included a stretch over sandy beaches in the coastal town, was six laps.

The American contingent was at a distinct disadvantage when it arrived in the Netherlands in early November. It had not raced in months, and the Europeans — already toughened by a stronger racing culture than in other parts of the world — had been competing for two months.

There were races nearly every week leading up to the worlds, said Honsinger, and the U.S. team gradually improved its form.

“It was just such a shock for us North American riders, where we came from a whole nine months of not racing,” she said.

In Europe, elite women’s races often have 65 or 70 riders, said Honsinger, about twice what races in the U.S. typically have. The depth of talent and faster speeds equate to intense, aggressive races.

“Racing in Europe,” said Honsinger, “you really have to stick your elbows out and not be afraid, if somebody’s bumping into you, to hold your position and push back a little.”

It took “two or three weeks,” she said, for the Americans to acclimate and better their results.

Honsinger, two other riders and two mechanics stayed in a house in Sittard, the Netherlands, that is owned by USA Cycling. She stayed there for 11/2 months last year as part of the governing body’s development program.

With COVID-19 precautions in place, the team spent most of its time at the house, on roads and trails practicing or racing, and hitting the grocery store once or twice a week

At races, the riders stayed in a camper and the mechanics had an equipment van, “so we were able to operate out of our own little compound” and allow for social distancing, said Honsinger. “For the most part, that’s how it is every year.”

One thing the team became adept at, she said, was taking COVID-19 tests, a weekly requirement.

The U.S. team raced in about 15 events during its stay, including six of them during the 12-day Kerstperiode, which translates to “Christ Period,” and features elite cyclocross racing around Christmas and New Year’s.

The busy schedule buoyed Honsinger and company for the worlds, which took place on a unique course. The race began in a grassy area around a horse racing track, then funneled to a “40- to 50-foot high” bridge built specifically for the race, said Honsinger. A 565-meter beach section followed, looping back to the bridge.

“It was a pretty wild course,” said Honsinger. “You’d ride through the sand and go out to the ocean because the sand is the firmest out by the water. We were racing probably a few minutes after high tide, so we would actually go out to the water on the firm-type sand, and it would come in and wash up against our bikes. We were riding through almost a wave.

“I’ve done sandy courses, but never quite like that.”

Honsinger, in her first year as a professional with the Cannondale Cyclocrossworld team, has been characterized as a “diesel” rider, one who doesn’t have a big opening burst but who has strength and stamina to carry on where others fade.

“It is nice toward the end of the race to be able to catch some at the front who are now running on fumes,” she said, “just to power right around them.”

True to form, that’s how the worlds played out. On the first lap, the Ducth contingent bolted to the front and Honsinger was as far back as 12th place before she steadily moved up.

Among those she overtook on the final lap was Dutch defending champion Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, who placed sixth.

Lucinda Brand claimed her first world title with a time of 46 minutes, 53 seconds. Dutch teammates Annemarie Worst (47:01) and Denise Betsema (47:12) were next, followed by Honsinger (47:45).

“I’m really happy with my results,” said Honsinger. “The Dutch women’s cycling program is really strong, so to be the first non-Dutch rider is something I’m really proud of. And to be so close to a podium at a world championship is fuel for the fire. It makes me excited to go race it all again next year.”

Honsinger’s immediate plans are to take a few weeks off and work on her undergraduate degree in nutrition, health and sciences at Oregon State University. She’s spending the first week after her long trip in isolation, then will seek a clear coronavirus test so she can return to Corvallis for school.

Honsinger’s strength is in cyclocross, but she also will compete professionally in road racing for Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank. Ordinarily, that season begins in late March, but this year it has been pushed back to late summer.

“In a few weeks,” she said, “I’ll get on the bike again and start training.”

There’s little doubt she’s earned the rest.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

Clara Honsinger carries her bike through a stretch of beach en route to placing fourth last Saturday in the UCI World Cyclocross Championships in Ostend, Belgium.{ }Photos by Twila Federica Muzzi
Riders work their way across a beach section in the UCI World Cyclocross Championships in Ostend, Belgium, last Saturday.{ }Photo by Twila Federica Muzzi