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Clara Honsinger is currently the best cyclocross rider from the United States. With a breakthrough win this season on the iconic Koppenberg, and a world championships on home soil on the horizon, 2021-22 has been big for the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com rider from Oregon.
This year Honsinger rides top-10s consistently but that wasn’t always the case for the 24-year-old.
“I remember my first race in Belgium being very sensory; I have no other word for it,” she tells me. “I didn’t only have nerves around the race but there was also the noise, the smells of the burgers, fries, cigarettes or whatever blows over from the nearby pasture. It is all part of the racing. There is a similar energy to what the Americans experience at an American football game.
“I don’t know if I was hooked right from the start. I was mostly terrified because it was so intense. I raced races back in the US but now I was a pro athlete and there were expectations. I was now surrounded by so much stimulation but I also needed to focus on cycling. It took me a season to acclimate to the cycling over here.”
And it wasn’t just the sensory overload that made Honsinger’s introduction to the European scene difficult. With Belgian racing there was also a language barrier.
“When I first started it wasn’t easy because I was very shy,” she recalls. “In Belgium they speak English but not between each other. In order to interact I had to start chatting with them and that was scary at first. Now I am used to it more and it’s so great to now chat, not only about bikes but also what they do outside out of the sport. Everyone is friendly but when the lights turn green it’s very much a competition.”
Honsinger got into contact with the sport of cyclocross through a teacher at her high school in Portland, Oregon.
“I grew up in an area with lots of bike trails and I rode those on the mountain bike,” she says. “At high school I had a teacher who was into cyclocross and he described the sport to me. He showed me where the races were. I showed up at the lowest level and had a blast. Everyone could take part and I remember the local TV news anchor was in the race too. I won the beginner level and I moved up from there.
“In Portland we have a strong cyclocross culture. It’s an odd sport, I guess. Also, our climate is the same as Belgium with lots of rain and mud. As a university student I hung out with my friends at the races instead of hanging out on campus,” she recalls with a smile.
In early December Honsinger flew from her temporary home in the Netherlands to Chicago, Illinois to successfully defend her American title. Her teammate at Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld, Katie Clouse, took home the U23 title.
“It’s difficult hopping back to the US for nationals,” Honsinger says. “I don’t think people realize that all the time. It’s not only yourself but also equipment you have to fly across the Atlantic. You need three bikes and maybe 12 pairs of wheels per person. We are lucky Cannondale have enough equipment in both countries. That’s why Katie and I did well because we can seamlessly go back and forth.”
Honsinger is one of the few North American riders who does almost a full European race season. Most Americans and Canadians come over for the Christmas period where there is a condensed block of racing.
“We stay in a house here in Sittard, the Netherlands,” she says. “We have stayed in this house for two seasons now and it’s homey. We share the kitchen and living room but we also have our own space. We do some joint training sessions as well with other athletes who live here.
“In the US, racing stops in December when the Nationals are done. After that everyone takes a holiday where cycling is not involved. But in Europe there is a really condensed block of racing in that period where you can do maybe five races in seven days. It’s a really nice opportunity to live and experience cyclocross in Belgium.”
The women’s cyclocross world is dominated by the Dutch. Not many races are won by other nationalities. This year, though, Honsinger beat the Dutch at one of the most iconic races on the calendar: the Koppenbergcross.
“Koppenberg was only five days after I arrived in Europe,” she says. “I had only done one race at Overijse but I was riding a wave of just taking opportunities and see these races as a warm-up. I had never done this race and never ever ridden the Koppenberg. During the recon I could not ride it either because the juniors were out there. I walked up it but I instantly knew that it would suit my strength as a climber. Also, the mud helped me because I am better at slower speeds. I just plough through it.
“I had a good start up the Koppenberg. I made my way through the names that are always up front and then it was Denise [Betsema] and me. It was such a battle. I spent a lot of time on her wheel, seeing where she would gap me and where I was stronger and could make up time. In the last lap it was about being smooth and relaxed.
“I only knew I had won [in] the last 20 metres. At the bottom of the last time up the Koppenberg I knew I had to give everything: you can’t let anything slip. Winning this race was a feeling of disbelief.”
Such is the dominance of the Dutch that the only ‘outsiders’ on a World Cup podium this season are Hungarian Blanka Vas, Canadian Maghalie Rochette, and Honsinger. The Dutch riders range from 19 to 34, which shows Honsinger that something is being done well in the Netherlands.
“The Dutch have invested so much in supporting young women in sports, in many points in time,” she says. “It’s not only Fem’s [van Empel] generation but also Lucinda [Brand] and Marianne’s [Vos] generation. They are doing something right and it pays off but it’s hard to copy this to the US, I think.
“We grow up and live on a different continent, the race scene is at least a six-hour flight away. We can research what the Dutch do but also take it with a grain of salt because we can’t replicate it. We grow up and learn in the US and that is our home. What the Dutch do and we don’t do enough is group ‘cross practices in the woods. We could bring US athletes together at one place in the US to live and practice together so they become better cyclocross riders together.”
Honsinger hopes to combine road and cyclocross more in 2022. She is part of the EF Education-TIBCO-SVB team and has ambitions for the Spring Classics.
“I am putting together a calendar for the Spring Classics,” she says. “I want to come back and I can return to the Koppenberg [recently added to the women’s Tour of Flanders] and already know it then,” she says with a smile.
“Cyclocross compliments a road rider and vice versa. I still feel very fresh to road because I haven’t done many races but I have the experience of racing and living in Belgium and know that atmosphere. I want to build on my weaknesses in both areas and that’s the tight peloton. It’s about holding space and moving through a peloton. I hope to develop that skill on the road and then get better at it in ‘cross too.”
Honsinger would love to take part in Paris-Roubaix after seeing the first, very wet and muddy edition in October.
“I mean, it’s basically 3.5 hours of cyclocross,” she says. “I am really thrilled about that but also about Amstel Gold Race. These are my training roads when I live in Sittard. They feel like my home roads.”
Honsinger’s first big goal, however, is the Cyclocross World Championships on home soil in Fayetteville, Arkansas. During the most recent World Cup on the World Championships course she finished in third place.
“I spent a little time in the US around Nationals,” she says. “This is my home and this is the culture I grew up in. This is America and it felt good. Fayetteville will feel the same. It has the goofy, rough edges we live in all the time. Maybe the European riders will find it startling or uncomfortable. It’s a lawlessness we have at home. It’s hard to describe. It’s less organized and less tidy than the Netherlands or Belgium.
“I rode a train in the Netherlands that was right on time and that’s not the case in even the most organized of cities in the USA. In the US you need a little bit more improvisation and flexibility.”
In Honsinger, the US has a genuine medal chance for its home Worlds. But it all comes down to the day and the conditions.
“The fan base will definitely be on my side,” she says. “My family and friends will be there. It’s still a long way from Oregon but considerably closer than Belgium,” she adds with a laugh.
“They are all excited. Fayetteville is a strange course and I am not saying it suits me. When it’s dry it’s a road race. It’s three meters across and riders will go 40 km/h (25 mph). That is a skill I am still developing but when it’s raining and muddy it’s in my favor.
“There are not really pinch points where you can lose 20 seconds in one go. There is that long climb and room to make up time. The conditions will make the race but I am counting back the days to be racing back on US soil.”