- Name: Clara Honsinger
- Age: 24
- Hometown: Corvallis, Oregon
- Team: Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com / Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank
- Biggest accomplishments: Two wins at the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships, winner of the Grand Prix Jolien Verschueren
Two-time cyclocross national champion Clara Honsinger has had a busy couple of weeks, to say the least.
After the U.S. Cyclocross World Cup races in mid-October, the 24-year-old had a short break at her home in Corvallis, Oregon, before heading to Europe for a month with her Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com team. In early December, she came back stateside for the 2021 USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships in Wheaton, Illinois, where she successfully defended her title. Following another week in Oregon, she hopped on a flight back to Europe, where she’ll stay through January 18, to compete in the Christmas ’cross block of racing. After that, she’ll go straight to Arkansas to prep for the world championships at the end of January. (Whew!)
But this is par for the course for Honsinger; she’s had a hectic schedule since road racing began early in the summer (she races with the Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank team), and she’s no stranger to long and short trips to Europe.
“I try not to count down how many more days I have in any one place, and just savor the moment instead,” Honsinger told Bicycling.
While recuperating back in the U.S., she made time to catch up with Bicycling on her CX season so far, what it means to wear the Stars and Stripes, and how winning a race can sometimes feel like a terrible burden.
Note: This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, was conducted before Honsinger’s win at the U.S. cyclocross national championships.
Bicycling: If you had to describe your cyclocross season so far in one sentence, how would you describe it?
Honsinger: This is really hard to answer. It feels like it was divided: I have two homes or two racing blocks. There’s something about the U.S. racing that’s a completely different vibe than European racing.
I’ve really set up a nice home in Europe, so it feels comfortable. I’m staying with Katie Clouse, along with Gary Wolff and Mike Berry, two Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com mechanics, in the area USA Cycling usually stays in the Netherlands. It has been very strange to just have a couple of North American racers on start lines.
Do you get lonely while you’re over there?
I feel pretty self-contained, honestly. And if anything, pretty busy! Until last week, I was finishing up some schoolwork. People ask what I do when I’m over there, and I’m like, ‘Well, I go and ride my bike for a long time. And then I settle down and get to work for the day.
As a team we have a great atmosphere. Gary and Mike are not only the team mechanics, but they’re also my great friends. Every night we come together and Gary makes us dinner. Everybody finishes up their work and comes home for the evening, and we talk about our days. It’s honestly a lot of fun.
I have this theory that cyclists who also are doing school or a side project are better at staying balanced and avoiding overtraining. Have you found that to be true?
Yeah, I would agree! Otherwise, you just get bored. I like watching Netflix, but there’s only so long I can do that. After an hour and a half of it at a time, my brain feels a bit fried.
You had such a huge road season before heading into ’cross: How did you bounce from one into the other? You had some big results early in the season!
Honestly, I find that they complement each other. Road is a great way to build fitness in late August and September ahead of the start of the cyclocross season. You want to be pretty fast through those early World Cups.
I took my break in the middle of the summer after doing some big road races, and then had a second half of the season with a build up into cyclocross season. Look at Lucinda Brand: she raced the road world championships right before coming over to the United States to do the World Cups, and she won both. People ask how you balance it, but it’s not black and white. They just kind of fold over into each other.
This summer, you raced some big events, such as La Course and Giro Rosa. How did those compare to lining up at World Cup cyclocross races?
They felt pretty similar. Even if I don’t know very much about road racing, I do know a lot about being a bike racer. Being on those start lines is really cool; it is a big deal. But it’s also simply my job. That doesn’t take away from the importance of these races and how thrilling they are, but it helps you keep a calm mind in what may be a stressful environment.
Is establishing that mindset something you’ve had to work on over the years?
I think when racing World Cups back to back to back to back, it’s really important to have that ability [to keep a calm mind]. You do want to get nervous for every race, you want to get your heart rate up and be excited. But every race can’t be like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so nervous.’ Physically, it cannot be healthy to have that amount of stress hormone in your bloodstream that often, and is taken a while to learn that.
I do remember the first time I did a European World Cup, being on the start line and feeling so nervous, with tunnel vision where you can’t see anything. The girls next to me were just as nervous, and they started to cry because they were so stressed out. So yes, I definitely have noticed a change for myself over time, being more stable at the start line.
On the note of stressful things… You had just won the national champion stars-and-stripes jersey, and then boom, there’s a pandemic. What has your experience been like handling the stress of COVID-19, while also staying prepared to race?
That’s a great question. It feels like just always being on our toes. Every week, it was uncertain if races were happening. When opportunities were there, we took them.
Last year, we came to Europe for the entire winter, but we honestly didn’t know whether we were going to make it into Belgium until we landed in Brussels and made it through customs. But it meant we couldn’t go back to the U.S. for a week or weekend. I'll be honest, when the news came out about the latest variant, and I was packing to come to the U.S. for Nationals, I made sure I brought home everything I would want to have if I couldn’t get back. That sounds a little bit sad, but the reality is that I’m now always prepared for things to potentially get canceled. I try to think of it as just having a plan B: If this race is canceled, how can I adapt so that I can do something else?
What does a training week look like for you during the season?
During the season, I like to get some miles in on the road because it helps me clear my head, and it feels good. But then I also do a lot of skills practice, going to the woods, finding trails, making sure I feel really comfortable maneuvering the bike through all different types of stuff. If we have a sandy race coming up, I’ll go to the sandpit to get comfortable with that again.
But honestly, a lot of training is done out on the race course. If you think about it, racing twice a week is two really hard efforts, then you’re recovering, then maybe get in the skill session or a couple of good endurance rides. And before you know it, you’re already at the next weekend about to do really hard efforts again.
Speaking of skills, do you feel like the women in general are feeling a pressure to bunny hop the barriers?
Yes and no. I think if you look at a curve of the excitement of learning to bunny hop the barriers, it was at its steepest maybe a season or two ago when we started seeing Ellen Noble doing it, followed by a lot of the younger racers. But then, we’re seeing Lucinda Brand winning these races running the barriers, and there's less pressure to hop because of that.
However, looking at Puck Pieterse, hopping the barriers at the Tabor World Cup and opening a gap doing it, we see that she definitely carries an advantage with that skill. So I think as riders like her get older and more developed, we’re going to come to a point where we do need to bunny hop to keep up.
In the World Cup races, you’ve had this tendency to start sitting in 10th to 20th place in the beginning of the race, but by the end, you’re in between third and 10th. Are starts a big goal for you right now?
It’s something that I’m working on a lot, but it’s hard to work on, because it’s hard to replicate! You can replicate sandpits by riding in sand, but it’s hard to replicate 50 of us in a start grid, going full gas. That sprint off the line doesn’t come naturally to me. I want to get to that point where the first lap, I’m up there. It feels like it’s coming together piece by piece.
It used to be that I couldn’t even get into my pedal very well, now I can get off the line. Now, the next phase is making it down the starting strip and really pushing. When I have good starts, like in Koppenburg, I do really well in those races, and it makes for a very different feel in the race. I think if I can make that my standard, I’ll be able to podium more.
Looking through your Instagram, you don’t tend to put your actual race results in your captions: You talk about how the race went and how you felt. Is that intentional?
Good question. To some extent, those results aren’t as important to me as how I feel. What’s more important is the feeling within the race, and if I’m satisfied with that result, or if I finish thinking I could have been a spot or two higher if I didn’t make an error. I guess when I post those mini-reports, it’s about the overall feeling that I’ve had in the race rather than placing.
In early November, you had a big win at one of the major European cyclocross races, the Grand Prix Jolien Verschueren in Koppenburg, Belgium. What was it like winning that race?
It’s still a bit unbelievable. The Koppenburg is such an iconic strip, and to have that win in Belgium in a pretty stacked field is like, ‘Wow, really?’ But I’ll be honest, it also leaves me thinking that I had one really good race, and I want to keep matching it. It’s kind of difficult, when you’re winning one weekend and struggling to make the top-10 the next. I know I’m really suited to a race like that one, but I do need to work on those flatter, faster Belgian races. Really, I’m just trying to not let that first place make me feel like it should be my new standard. I have to take it race by race.
You also got third at the early season World Cup in Fayetteville, Arkansas—were those similar conditions?
Yes! They were both just hard races with big climbs, and lots of mud. I wouldn’t say that any cyclocross race is really a race of attrition, but those were about being able to grind for a while.
The 2022 Cyclocross World Championships will also take place in Fayetteville at the end of January. Does that World Cup podium make you feel confident heading towards that race?
Anything is possible, and having that good World Cup result there is really hopeful. But it’s so condition-dependent. The day before the World Cup, when it was totally dry, I thought it was going to be really hard for me to finish well. Then, we had all the rain, and I had a great race. That honestly leaves me thinking that the only way I can do well at this race is if it’s pouring rain and cold. So, I need to set that aside and just think about how to keep improving the areas I need to work on.