Clara Honsinger on Belgium, off-road skills and the depth of strength in cyclocross

The American cyclocross champion on being thrown into European racing, defending her Koppenbergcross title, and racing the spring Classics.

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Clara Honsinger was thrown in at the deep-end of European cyclocross racing. 

The US national champion’s first full European season came during the pandemic, in 2020. “It was rather forced upon me,” she says. 

“There was no racing in the United States and so what we did is my team at the time rented a house in Holland. We went to that house, my two mechanics and two teammates, and we didn’t really have anything else we could do at the time, everything was shut down. So we just trained and we raced cyclocross and it was really strange, but really also quite an amazing experience. It felt kind of like, how do you say, just like ripping the band aid off.” 

That season, she came away with two World Cup podiums and numerous top-10 results in some of the most prestigious ‘cross races on the calendar. Then, two more World Cup podiums and a win at the iconic Koppenbergcross followed in 2021/22.  

This year, after winning the C1 Trek Cup and taking two top-10s in the North America World Cups, Honsinger headed to Europe but chose not to race the next round in Tabor, Czech Republic. Instead, she and her teammate, double junior road world champion Zoe Backstedt, headed to France where the pair raced a back-to-back French cup weekend. Honsinger won both races. 

At the Maasmechelen World Cup at the weekend

“It just felt really incredible, everything was so well laid out for a good performance for me,” she tells me.  

The reason for skipping Tabor, Honsinger says, was to dial in the brand new EF Education First Tibco cyclocross set-up that team owner Linda Jackson had divised for Honsinger after the Cannondale team folded. “She’s never done cyclocross before, however the manager in Europe ran a cyclocross programme for decades,” explains Honsinger. 

“She jumped in and was like, I know how to do this. Let’s go.” They operate the same staff and much of the same equipment “so it’s a really natural flow into cyclocross racing.” 

Honsinger is one of a growing number of female pros who race across both road and off-road disciplines. “I think we’re seeing the emergence of riders that are doing their multi programme,” she says. “So they’re doing road seasons, and then they’re adding cyclocross seasons. We’ve seen that with Lucinda Brand with Marianne Vos, with Wout van Aert, and Mathieu van der Poel and then we see that on the mountain bike, and I feel it’s important to have that diversity of disciplines on a team that really adds substance.” 

On an individual level, racing off-road hones skills that allows riders like Honsinger a technical advantage over many of their peers in road races. 

“I think just having that comfort in those really uncomfortable terrains such as cobbles or dirt or gravel just makes me so much more relaxed when we hit one of those sections,” she says. “I can see a lot of other riders in a road peloton tense up when the road gets bumpy whereas I feel that as a cyclocross-er you can kind of see through the terrain and keep moving forward through it.” 

“[In] a road peloton there’s often moments where maybe you’re getting pushed towards the edge of the road or like have to ride around a crash into the grass and just being able to quickly and confidently make that move into the grass and back onto the road or hop over a curb really, really helps in those stressful moments.” 

Racing Paris Roubaix Femmes this Spring.

Nowhere is the need for these skills more called for than the spring Classics, which Honsinger raced for the first time this season.

“I had never done a race in Belgium before,” she says.  

“My first race was Gent Wevelgem and it definitely was like being put in a washing machine for a little bit and just spun around. But gradually as the races went on and on really learning how to navigate that cycle. And I felt that by the end of the spring Classics – and then into this summer – that my results not only improved but [I was] just feeling so much more comfortable in [the peloton].” 

With the growing number of cross-disciplinary riders comes the tricky question of how and when to rest throughout the season. A cautionary tale on the women’s side of the sport is that of Marianne Vos, who spent the 2015 season on the sidelines after a burnout, showing that even the greatest of all time needs to rest every now and then. 

Honsinger already has her next ‘cross to road transition planned out. “I really want to use each season to build upon the other…I’ve already planned out somewhat my spring where I’d like to quickly jump right into spring Classics, to kind of use that race depth that you gain through cyclocross by going really hard for an hour, two or three times a week…to take that into the spring Classics and see just how effective that is, rather than taking a big rest period and trying to build up after that,” she says. 

“So I want to approach this quite aggressively. And then also just using the road programme to build upon my cyclocross both physiologically, getting more of that aerobic base and that intensity throughout the year, and then just mentally and psychologically being comfortable in that peloton and moving around a cyclocross course.” 

“I’m hoping that doing this dual programme builds me as a rider in each sector, and that in the end, it’s also just a lot of fun.” 

Her goals for the season are “different than [in] previous years”.

“I want to have a good race at Koppenberg and try to win that again,” she says. “It’s just such an iconic race. And it’s also the only race that I’ve won in Europe. Or, it’s the only Belgian race that I’ve ever won. And so that just really felt like a transformative moment. And I’m excited to go back there,” she says. 

She’s also looking forward to the Overijse World Cup, “and then, of course Worlds in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, that’s going to be one of the loudest Worlds, just because it’s in Holland and the heartland of cyclocross.” 

Outside of that she’s happy to be able to experience a ‘cross season that is hopefully not interrupted by Covid lockdowns and restrictions. “This morning, Zoe and I rode over to a forest in Belgium and we had a training session with a couple of other riders and we have a trainer with us…so I’m really excited this year to push myself while working with more people, more trainers, more riders with different stuff.” 

Is bunnyhopping the barriers a skill she is trying to learn? “Yeah, it is definitely because it used to just be like, ‘okay it’s Puck’ and then you’re like, oh and now it’s Anniek van Alphen and Anna Kay and sometimes more and more and more and you’re like ‘okay, I really need that, to train myself like this as well.’”

Who does she keep her eye on in races? “Anyone of Dutch nationality,” she jokes. 

“But then also like Kata Blanka Vas and this new, younger tide that’s really coming with force into cyclocross. I have a lot of focus on them. But then, at the same time, really holding that respect and keeping my eyes on the older, really experienced and efficient riders like Lucinda Brand and Mariana Vos.”

The women’s cyclocross field is full of young talent, with the recent Maasmechelen World Cup podium featuring three 20-year-old Dutchwomen, Fem van Empel, Puck Pieterse, and Shirin van Anrooij. 

But it’s not just the Dutch: “There’s also riders from other nationalities that are coming in,” observes Honsinger. “We’ve seen Line Burquier the young French U23 rider come up on the mountain bike and then transition really well into cyclocross.” 

“Honestly, it’s just everybody at the moment, they’re all so talented and so strong the field just has so much more depth than it did even three years ago.” 

There’s never been a more exciting time to be a female cross racer.

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