Culture

Clara Honsinger's balancing act

The American discusses how road racing and cyclocross make her stronger

January 22, 2022

Cyclocross: think sandpits, mud, and stairs. Road racing: picture long climbs, winding roads, and flat-out sprints.

So just how similar are these two types of bike racing? And why does EF Education-TIBCO-SVB rider Clara Honsinger forgo the off season to race year-round?

“I think they're really complimentary,” the American says. “Road racing really builds a lot of fitness and endurance that help you get through a 50-plus-minute cyclocross race with the cold, rain, and mud. And then cyclocross gives you all these handling skills that really help when you're navigating those narrow, winding roads in little European towns, when you're jumping around roundabouts and big cracks and potholes in the road. I think that's why we see that really stand-out road riders right now are also in cyclocross or their origins are in cyclocross like [Mathieu] van der Poel and Wout [van Aert] of course but then also [Marianne] Vos. She totally does it all. There's Christine Majerus. It really helps to develop all-around riders.”

Not only are there similarities between the two, but road racing and cyclocross often bring Honsinger to the same places. “It’s funny because these cyclocross races are adjacent to the road races that go by there. Flanders mostly, but then we also watched the Lotto Ladies Belgian Tour go through Overijse as did Worlds I think, so it’s cool to see such a parallel between both types of races.”

The American has used the 2021 road season — her first professional road season — to help her build strength and endurance for winter racing. “Going from road, I really like to use that to build my cyclocross form because it just gives you that extra depth to your fitness, so I do a pretty quick transition. I like to have a stage race at the end of August or early September to get really fit to jump into cyclocross.” She placed fourth at the Joe Martin Stage Race in late August and while she narrowly missed the overall podium, her strategy for building form for cyclocross has certainly paid off. Her European cyclocross campaign got underway with an impressive fifth place at the Overijse World Cup and a win at the Koppenbergcross. “A couple of days off a transatlantic plane and I jumped into these races. I had a pretty good race at Overijse and I was able to get fifth at that race and then the next day I turned it over and won on the Koppenbergcross which was my first European cyclocross win, which is huge! I'm still like 'Did that really happen?'”

Just a few weeks later, Honsinger was back on American soil, this time in DuPage County, Illinois to defend her cyclocross national champion title. Honsinger opened a healthy lead early on and went on to easily win her second consecutive championship by a margin of 3:16. “I tried to prepare for nationals as I would for any other race, but I still had a lot of nerves even rolling up to the start line. When the start-light turned green, I went full gas through the first lap and then focused on being as smooth as possible through the tricky mud sections. My fitness helped me get a large gap, but ultimately I think my technical handling and mud skills gave me the win.”

As for Honsinger’s plans when this cyclocross season concludes in early 2022? “At the end of cyclocross, after a pretty hard and intense winter, it’s nice just to put the bikes away for a couple of weeks. If anything, I hope that I’ll be able to go somewhere warm and sunny instead of standard Belgian five degrees and rain, and then start to rebuild from there. That’s the refreshment so that I can jump into the road season feeling really motivated and excited.”

While 2021 was a challenging road season not only because of the pandemic but also because it was her first season as a professional, Honsinger is grateful for all that she learned. “We didn’t really know what races were going to happen. We didn’t know who was going to be selected but I was given a lot of opportunities to come over [to Europe] and try it and get used to it and immerse myself in road racing. I think it was really a season of racing opportunities and getting to know what road racing was truly like because I had raced cyclocross in Europe for a couple years but I’d never raced a road race. If anything, I was pretty intimidated by it but after a few road races I was feeling pretty comfortable and confident that being in the peloton was where I wanted to be.”

Like a lot of neo-pros, she says she has “tons more to learn. Building that race instinct, getting a bunch of experiences to really understand how things ebb and flow. I think I had a good sense of it coming from cyclocross and racing in the United States but I think it’s going to take more seasons, more races to really be able to build that further, and I’m excited for it.”

Honsinger doesn’t have her 2022 race calendar finalized just yet but she is already eyeing the Classics. “I’m excited to do some races that I was not able to do last year and also hoping that I’ll be able to do some of the spring Classics. I think that’s where the cyclocross component really comes into hand, having skills at handling as well as knowing the equipment. Watching Roubaix this year when they were talking about tire pressure and everybody was like ‘Whoa, that’s so low’ and all the cyclocrossers would be like, “Really? I think that’s kind of high.”

Talking gear is something the 24-year-old loves to do. “I have worked as a mechanic at a bike shop and I love being a mechanic.That’s where I really started with bikes, being a kid and taking them apart and playing around with them. I love mechanics and I love gear. It’s just really engaging and exciting for me.”

Being a professional in two fields of cycling means that Honsinger doesn’t have nearly as much mental or physical downtime as other riders in the peloton may have, but that doesn’t concern her. If anything, this demanding lifestyle has taught her the importance of boundaries and of being present. “Being a cyclist, being a professional athlete is something I commit a lot of energy and emotion to. It’s something I’m really dedicated to. It’s my job. However I’m still a person and I make time to be a person. Being this professional athlete is something that’s 24/7 but also being able to dovetail that in with being who I am, is important.”

In fact, constant training and racing have taught Honsinger how to stay calm and focused. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot about being humble and relaxed. I think that you always want to be excited by racing but it’s something that we do so much. We’ll do it twice in a weekend during cyclocross. If you’re doing a stage race it’s every single day that you’re putting yourself through these stressors and things that are really challenging so I think that being able to be relaxed in the moments that you can helps. It makes it sustainable. If you’re constantly stressing or carrying anxiety it’s really impossible to be a professional cyclist.”

“Looking towards the future, it’s about keeping an open mind.” Honsinger says. “I think it’s important to have balance in your job and for me that means not being 100% identified with cyclocross or 100% identified with road. I think they really compliment each other and they make me a better cyclist overall. I really want to keep doing cyclocross with road and I want to do road with cyclocross.”

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