The elites took the stage on the final day of the USA Cycling National Cyclocross Championships in Hartford, Connecticut, on Sunday in snowy conditions.
After four full days of age group racing, the nation's biggest cyclocross talent finally got their turn to vie for the coveted stars-and-stripes jersey in the UCI races.
By the time the women's elite category took to the start line, snow flurries were starting to come down and all eyes were on Oregonian Clara Honsinger.
The EF Education-Tibco-SVB rider changed the face of American cyclocross in December 2019 when she trumped legendary rider, Katie Compton, to win the title, thereby ending Compton's 15-year winning streak and starting her own.
Unbeatable twice in a row, Honsinger went into the race on Sunday as the top-favorite.
"This race is honestly one of the highest-pressure races of the year for me because I really want to win this jersey, especially coming back for the third time," said Honsinger.
"So the points I focus on are really where I ride well and what I can do well - I spend time studying the course finding the little seconds I can break out of it, and just trying to keep a clear mind and not letting all of the hype around it get to me."
Honsinger did not falter under pressure.
The race got off to a fast start with all the top contenders entering the run-up collectively. A brief slip-up on the downhill off-camber section saw Honsinger hit the ground and slide underneath the netting. Pan American Cyclocross champion Raylyn Nuss (Steve Tilford Foundation Racing) tried to use the crash to her advantage and put some daylight between herself and the rest of the field. But Honsinger was quick to recover. By the start of the second lap, Honsinger was on Nuss' wheel and getting ready to make the pass.
Once she passed, Honsinger was a goner. Staying out in front, Honsinger only built on her lead and ultimately crossed the finish line more than a minute ahead of Nuss to win the U.S. National Cyclocross Championship for the third time in a row.
Nuss had to settle for silver a second time and Austin Killips (Nice Bikes) finished in third.
A long-awaited win for Curtis White
In the men's elite race, fans were treated to the expected battle between defending champion Eric Brunner (Blue Cycles p/b Build) and the season-long runner-up Curtis White (Steve Tilford Foundation Racing).
Brunner lined up for the Championship race coming off a bit of a winning streak, having gone unbeaten for six races in a row. At every one of those races, it was 27-year-old White, a veteran of the domestic cyclocross scene, nipping at Brunner’s heel but ultimately settling for second.
Junior and age group competitions included, White was lining up at a national championship event for an 18th time. The last three of them resulted in silver; in Hartford he was hoping to finally strike gold.
As the men lined up for the start, snow was coming down in earnest and course conditions would change lap after lap.
But while everyone was talking about Brunner and White, it was L39ion of Los Angeles' Lance Haidet who led the charge in lap one. But a mistake in the pit saw Haidet lose precious time as the rest of the leaders passed by.
These leaders included Scott Funston (Blue Cycles p/b Build), Brunner and White. When Funston could no longer keep up with the pace, the awaited Brunner-White cat-and-mouse game unfolded with each taking turns on the front.
With a few laps to go still, Brunner put in a big effort to pull away from White, but he too suffered a mistake in the pits, allowing White to pass and take over the lead. And when White crossed the line for a final time, seconds ahead of Brunner, White had finally secured his long-awaited starts-and-stripes jersey and gold medal.
“It truly means the world. This sport is beautiful. I've wanted to be a professional cyclocross racer my whole life. I've been chasing the stars-and-stripes jersey, but my peers didn't make it easy on me, and I thank them for that," said White post-race.
"Day after day, my family, my fiancée, my friends are sacrificing. It's freezing, my dad is motor pacing me, my coach is motor pacing me, we're in the woods training, and all the sacrifices have paid off. National Champion, finally, I’ve wanted that stars-and-stripes so bad, and I finally did it.”
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