Without hyperbole, the 2019/2020 US cyclocross season has been historic. Kerry Werner and Curtis White gave us epic battles the whole year at the big domestic events, Maddie Munro added herself to an extremely short list of American podium finishers at Worlds in the first ever Junior Women’s Championship, and a seismic changing of the guard occurred among the Elite women when Clara Honsinger became the first person to beat Katie Compton at Nationals in the last 15 years.
A few weeks back heading into the customary post-Nationals/pre-Worlds European block of racing for the USAC-selected and MudFund-supported Team USA, I had a chance to talk with Honsinger and asked her to describe her mindset at the time. Most would forgive her if she felt like her “cup” was already full after an early World Cup podium at Jingle Cross and a big win at Nationals, but her responses about the upcoming trip to Europe displayed an uncommon thoughtfulness and insight that one might not expect from someone with a racing age of 23. She was introspective, analytical, and curious to “figure out” the next frontier at the highest level of international competition.
A few days ago I caught up with her again, and we covered a range of topics that include her reflections on racing that racing block in Europe with one of the critical members of her home support team, Brenna Wrye-Simpson, who contributed to cyclocross history this year in her own right by becoming the first female pit mechanic at the World Cup level. We also cover some of the racing highlights at the Namur and Nommay World Cups, and look ahead to what’s in store for her in other disciplines before the next ‘cross season. But first, we began with a discussion of the first DNF of her career which occurred at Worlds last weekend…
Neil Schirmer: I kind of want to get what might be the unpleasant stuff out of the way first. At Worlds, it looked like you missed a pedal at the start. Can you walk me through what happened there?
Clara Honsinger: It was pretty extraordinary to have a front row start at World Championships, that was really cool. It was really exciting to be representing the US up there. I don’t know, my foot made it in the pedal, but for some reason I kicked out of it a couple of strokes in, which I recovered from fine. I guess the real incident was just off the asphalt onto the first or second corner. I was moving back up after dropping back through the start and I’m not entirely sure what happened. I was kind of fighting for a corner and positioning, and things broke down. I’m not sure whether it was a move I made or whether it was a move that somebody else made, but we ended up crashing there and when I got back up to jump on my bike, I was missing a lot of spokes in my front wheel and it wouldn’t actually turn, so I had to run it all the way to the pit. By the time I got to the pit, it was a little bit too far. I wasn’t going to make up any ground so I decided to call it.
NS: I think every US fan was gutted when the race coverage switched to a shot of you running in just the first few minutes of the race. We couldn’t really see what happened with the crash on the TV feed, so that was a shock.
CH: It’s hard as an athlete when everyone else has put in the time and work, and we’re all doing this job together, and as a component of the job you want to execute as well as you can. When you aren’t able to follow through, it’s always hard. I don’t know, that’s bike racing.
NS: The “we” part of your answer there leads me to another topic I wanted to cover with you which was how you felt about the trip with Brenna (Wrye-Simpson) in the mix over there in a mechanical support role for Team USA. Obviously you two are close (from Team S&M), and in our last conversation you mentioned how excited you were about having her there. How did that go?
CH: It was fantastic. It was nice to have a mechanic that I’d already worked with in a close partnership, and it was really helpful being able to quickly communicate and have things set up well. Brenna was also – to every athlete, I feel – that much more in touch. In the past I’ve come over and the mechanics are there to do their job and set the bikes up, and I feel like there could be a lack of communication or flow in the job. It was sort of like, the mechanics are there to set up the bikes, and the riders are there to ride the bikes. But this time, Brenna knows that in order for an athlete to succeed, there needs to be more than cleaning and fixing the bikes. So she was there asking questions about tire choice and tire pressure, and when the athletes would come back she would ask questions about how the course was flowing and things that the mechanics could do to accommodate. I found that her ability, the extra stuff that she brought, the other mechanics started to pick it up as well, so it felt as if we were all working as a cohesive team this particular trip.
NS: So, it’s safe to say that you noticed a difference as a rider with this team of mechanics versus previous years? It sounds like she was really bringing something extra and raising everyone else’s game.
CH: Yeah, I think part of it was definitely Brenna. I think another part is that there were a few other mechanics that were hired that were from the US that we’ve worked with in the past, such as Chris Namba from Squid Bikes, and Myron Billy who has worked with USAC in the past a couple of times. Part of it is just having American cyclocross mechanics versus, in the past it’s been European mechanics. Often some of them don’t speak English, and none of us Americans speak other languages, so it’s literally impossible to communicate with some of these mechanics. And then there’s the cultural aspects. We’re all from the United States and we’re just able to communicate a bit more easily.
NS: That makes a lot of sense, and that was probably a contributing factor to what I observed from afar. Though social media and other sources we could get our hands on back home, it really seemed like there was a real family vibe going on with the team. I don’t know if it’s always that way or if that was unique or not. Was there more of a sense of camaraderie this year?
CH: Yeah, absolutely. It felt much more like a team this year, and I think one of the factors that led to that were having a bit more interaction with each other on the ground back in the United States, and just getting to know each other. Having the Bentonville (Arkansas) camp that USAC did earlier this year where riders got to know each other and work together, and then having the opportunity to go to Spain and train together was pretty huge. We had more time together instead of it just being a couple of weekends of racing and then we all disappear and go back (home), then come back together for races again. We actually got to live together and train together day by day and get to know each other as friends and teammates and riders. Also, we took some extra initiative to practice together this year. For instance, Stephen Hyde and Curtis White took us out and did a Wednesday afternoon ‘cross training practice out riding trails together and doing drills and starts together, and acting like what you see the Dutch and the Belgian teams do where they go meet at the trails in the woods and do practices every Wednesday, really pushing each other to perform better.
NS: That reminds me of another thing you mentioned last time we talked where you expressed excitement about winning the National Championship, but also excitement about trying to figure out the next level in international competition. Have you had enough time to reflect on whether you were able to figure some things out over there these past few weeks?
CH: Yeah, I realized immediately how much more difficult it is to be consistent in Europe versus the United States. And part of that is, if there are any holes in your racing, any skills or things that you struggle with – the impact of that hole, the one thing you need to get better at – the impact is inflated. Instead of it being something like racing in the United States where it sets you back a few seconds and is something you can make up, in Europe it’s minutes, it’s dozens of places. I really found some of those spots in my own racing, specifically starts. In the United States, I’m a mediocre starter and I can make up for it by being powerful throughout the rest of the race, and you only have a field of 30 people to move up through versus a field of 90 people. It definitely made me realize a lot of those spots I need to work on. It’s kind of exciting to have specific things to work on and have the opportunity to develop. It can be frustrating in the moment when you’re like “shoot, I keep making this one error,” but in the bigger perspective, going toward the end of the season when you have the opportunity to start rebuilding and getting better for the next season, it’s exciting.
NS: That’s a wonderfully productive way to look at it, not getting down about what happened at Worlds – it sounds like you’re very level-headed about that. You obviously had some awesome results over there as well at races like Nommay where everything seemed to come together for you. Is it safe to say that was one of the racing highlights of your trip?
CH: I’d say Nommay was really excellent as well as Namur. Yeah, a long time ago now! Namur was really cool. So many cyclocross races in Europe are really awkward and fast, and Namur was cool in that it had that mountain-bike-y aspect to it where you’re going down big chutes, going up big power climbs, you really needed to be able to throw the bike around. Nommay was really cool in that it was not at all what we had pre-ridden or what we were expecting. The day before it was pretty dry and bumpy, not super fast. That morning when we pre-rode it, it was frozen and just super fast. It’s kind of freaky when the ruts are all frozen and you just get shot out of them. It went from being 30 degrees Fahrenheit to around 40 or above for the women’s race. We went out and watched the U23 guys go by and they were having to pit a ton and their bikes were just covered with mud. We all got to the start line not knowing what was laying beyond. I feel like a lot of the North American riders have this ability when things are different, taking you by surprise, they adapt really well to it, which was a similar case at Namur. It was kind of rainy and wet and kind of a heavy day out there, so you weren’t really sure what you were getting into. You just had to kind of take it lap by lap and line by line, and be able to accommodate the change.
NS: What are your plans between now and the beginning of the next cyclocross season? Are you going to do any road racing?
CH: Yeah, I’ll do a little bit of road racing with Lux Cycling. You may know them as the team that brought up Quinn Simmons, the Junior World Champion. They also have a women’s development program, so I’ll be doing some stage races with them, as well as Road Nationals. I’m excited because I don’t have a lot of road racing experience and I’m very much learning how to negotiate a peloton still, and setting up for sprints, so I’m excited to get to do it in that sort of learning environment.
NS: Did you feel like your road racing last year set you up well for this past ‘cross season?
CH: Definitely. It’s a nice quick and efficient way to build fitness, as well as getting into the mindset of battling for position at high speeds, rather than just going from riding your bike on your own to suddenly being thrown into races.
NS: Thanks for the time, I hope you get lots of rest and get to enjoy a little break.