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Study for exams, become an elite cyclist

The to-do list of an Oregon State nutrition student, professional athlete is different than most

Clara Honsinger
Photo by Patrick Means

Clara Honsinger may look like any other college student biking across Oregon State University’s campus, but Clara is an elite cyclocross athlete.

The Ashland, Oregon, native earned the title of U.S. Cyclocross National Champion, beating out a 15-time champion in December.

She was then off to Europe for two months to compete with USA Cycling at the Cyclocross World Championship in Switzerland. The 22-year-old was one of three female athletes to represent the United States in the women’s elite category, essentially the Olympics of cyclocross.

So how and why does an elite cyclist balance learning at Oregon State? Clara says Corvallis offered exactly what she was looking for — a beautiful place with easy access to trails and a university with academic rigor.

After attending college in Portland and taking a few years off, Clara transferred to OSU as a biology major in fall 2019. After learning about the nutrition major from her roommate, she decided to pursue the nutrition and health sciences option in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. 

“Nutrition is beneficial in so many ways,” Clara says. “There are benefits to performance and athletics, and benefits for the children in the OSU Child Development Center. It is a huge part of having a healthy lifestyle.”

The life of a nutrition student, elite athlete

Clara says she is typically up by 6:30 a.m. and on the trail by 8 a.m. She often rides from the Oak Creek Trailhead in the MacDonald-Dunn Forest, logging an average of 20 hours of training per week in her peak season.

Clara strategically aligns her coursework with her training cycles and racing schedules. In fall term of 2019, she took on-campus and online courses Tuesday through Thursday, and traveled to and from events on Mondays and Fridays. In winter term, she’s taking all online courses to allow for races in Europe.

Clara Honsinger at cyclocross race
Photo by Patrick Means

“As I increase my focus on racing, I decrease my focus on schoolwork,” Clara says. “School offers a nice balance. It gives me something to think about and work toward beyond racing.”

She says the discipline of training and the focus on marginal gains has infused her school work.

“In racing prep, there is a lot of focus on the minutia, such as how to take a corner with a root or when to take a gel,” Clara says. “I’ve found I’m now thinking about how and what to eat before an exam so I don’t get a super sugar rush or I have just enough coffee to focus, but not too much that I become jittery.”

This could sound intense, but it’s really about adding stability and consistency. It keeps you calm — all the steps and the process — and then you can just execute.”

She says her nutrition courses have influenced her training, but not in a way that most people might think.

“Nutrition and health sciences is about learning how to interpret evidence and research,” Clara says. “Now, I’m more critical about the nutrition advice I receive. I think that is the point of education — to learn how to become a critical thinker.”

In an article in Bicycling Magazine, Clara sums up her nutrition philosophy: “Eat a lot of different foods, eat enough of them, and allow yourself to have a few treats now and then. Being balanced is key.”

Photo by Drew Coleman

Setting goals on and off the bike

For her nutrition internship, Clara hopes to work with a sports hydration company and participate in their research process. Her long-term goals include melding her interests in sports and nutrition.

She’s also interested in disseminating nutrition information to the public and athletes, and exploring the interplay between science, sports, nutrition and performance companies.

Clara takes a balanced approach to her cyclocross career. “How I define being a professional athlete is consistently staying at the top and sustaining yourself financially and mentally off of your performance. Success for me is finding what is sustainable for myself. I don’t want to rely on race earnings.”

“Right now, my goal is to get as many wins as I can while I’m happy about it and enjoying doing it.”

Clara races for Team S&M, an all-women U.S. professional cyclocross team, and is a USA Cycling Athlete. This spring and summer, she’ll be doing road races with LUX, starting with the Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas and ending with the Elite Road Nationals in Knoxville, Tennessee.