Oregonian Clara Honsinger is now the top women’s cyclocross racer in the United States. She won a national championship in 2019 and now, she’s about to compete in the cyclocross world championships. We spoke to Honsinger in 2019 and today we’re listening back to that interview.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The cyclocross rider Clara Honsinger grew up in Ashland, and lives in Portland now. In the last few years she has become the top women’s cyclocross racer in the US. She has won two national championships. Tomorrow, she’s competing in the World Championships, and they’ll be on US soil in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We spoke to Honsinger in 2019, just before her first national championship, and we’re going to listen back to part of that conversation today. When she was seven, her dad would take her on trails on a tandem mountain bike. I asked her what those rides were like.
Clara Honsinger: It was just delightful, the opportunity to go out and experience nature and pedal around and spend time with my father. It was really great.
Miller: How long before you demanded your own bike and had had enough of just being a tag along?
Honsinger: It was probably a couple of years on, I must have been 11 or so but still it was nice to be on the tandem and have the extra engine pull me up the hill.
Miller: That’s the benefit. [Chuckles] You can’t decide where you’re going but you don’t have to do all the pushing. How much do you think of those early rides? And then as you got a little bit older and you could really ride for yourself, how much do you think those rides shaped you as the bike racer you are now?
Honsinger: Oh definitely. Just being able to have such an appreciation for what you can do with the bike. You’d start from your house and within 10 minutes you’d be out in the woods, just kind of playing around and just really enjoying time spent on the bicycle.
Miller: Can you still do that? Can you still enjoy yourself since this has become a grueling profession? It’s no longer just going out for fun. I imagine you can sometimes, but you have a lot to worry about and think about. Can you still just get pure joy from it?
Honsinger: Absolutely, I mean that’s what training is. It’s going out and doing work, but it’s also going out, and go out to the trails here in Corvallis, and I find a line, and I practice it again and again. I try to get the same sensation that I did back when I was a kid riding with my dad, just trying to find the joy in it.
Miller: When you find a line, and are practicing practicing it, what do you mean, what are you going for?
Honsinger: So cyclocross involves a lot of ruts and tricky little bits that often knock you off your bike and so in practice you’re trying to replicate those lines. So say there is like a sharp descent with this big deep rut and maybe a root in it. You just want to try dropping it again and again until you kind of naturally develop a response to it and are able to do it comfortably.
Miller: You ran cross country if I’m not mistaken when you were growing up, which can have mud in common with cyclocross, and stuff to jump over or get over somehow. It doesn’t obviously have two wheels in common, but do any of the skills from cross country translate to cyclocross?
Honsinger: Yeah, absolutely. In terms of just knowing when [to] put out an effort in a race like that. Also a lot of mental game and preparing yourself to go through the motions of a race, and the warming up, and the cooling down, and the training, it’s all very transferable.
Miller: What was your first cyclocross race like?
Honsinger: It was down in . . . so I grew up down in southern Oregon, and was out at this drag race track actually, and [it] was kind of a nasty winter day. Starting in the beginner category, with maybe five other riders. And it was really cool, because on my left was maybe a kid who was 10 years old and on my right was a guy who was perhaps 55. It was just kind of fun to have this whole community come out and race this course. I remember battling with that 10 year old to try and get the win. I think he got it in the end.
Miller: Still you’re in your very first race. You came in second then?
Honsinger: Out of maybe five.
Miller: [Laughs] Okay. There’s different ways to look at it. The glass is half full though from my perspective.
Honsinger: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
Miller: What does it take to be, not just a good cyclocross racer, but a great one?
Honsinger: That’s something I’m still working to find. In my development, it’s been a lot of focusing and making this, not just a hobby, but my job, applying the same kind of structure and schedule that you would going to work, that I do to my training. Carrying that through, carrying that through to nutrition, through handling and practicing on the bicycle. It’s really like almost every hour of the day, honestly.
Miller: You wrote a fascinating writeup, after the World Championships in Denmark, this past February. And you mentioned, that right before the race, that the techno music that’s meant to get athletes and maybe especially that the crowd pumped up. That stops playing in the loudspeakers and then the heartbeat begins. What is the heartbeat? I’m not familiar with this.
Honsinger: So it’s really bizarre. They do this heartbeat, like the, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, before World Cups and World Championships. And so within that heartbeat, you don’t actually know when the gun will go off. They don’t give you a countdown. You’re just watching this light and waiting for it to turn green, while there’s this da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, and it’s just being on that start line and trying to control all the stimulus and ready to go when that light turns green.
Miller: What does that feel like to have? I mean, this sounds a little bit cruel actually, to have a heartbeat sound coming out of loudspeakers. You and a bunch of other really focused racers just staring and waiting for the light to turn green. What’s going through your mind?
Honsinger: Mostly, it’s all focusing on that light. Like you wanna, if there’s anything in your mind, it’s like we’re gonna run through the process really quickly. Like remember to hit the pedal clean, and make that first pedal stroke as fast as possible. But really it’s about keeping your head as clear as possible.
Miller: You wrote about that race, the World Championships in February, you wrote this – this is after the heartbeat stops and the light turns green and you’re off – you wrote this: ‘For 40 minutes, we are on fire, screeching into corners and blasting out of them. We fight for lines with elbows and hips as we wind through a tunnel of screaming fans’. What does THAT feel like? Those 40 minutes surrounded by screaming fans and elbows and you know, legs on fire?
Honsinger: Yeah, it’s very, very overwhelming at points. But that’s part of where this being the athlete, being professional, is taking that and being able to focus through it. And if something, and all those collisions, being able to see the ultimate goal and carry your momentum through that.
Miller: Well, speaking of collisions, you wrote that in that race, and I should say again, you came in 10th. So nothing to sneeze at, but you wrote that you weren’t aggressive enough to elbow for a place in the front. How aggressive do you have to be to get on the podium, to be in, say, that top three?
Honsinger: Yeah, that’s something I’ve learned about this year. With more of my racing against European riders, if they see a line around the corner, they will put their body physically there. And at first it’s startling, you’re like, “wow, somebody is kind of coming up against me”. And I think that it was kind of the sensation I was describing in that race, but through this year I’ve come to recognize that when that push comes to shove, you really have to hold it, and not give an inch.
Miller: And push back?
Honsinger: Yeah, absolutely.
Miller: Are you becoming more aggressive? Are you becoming more physical as you mature as a rider?
Honsinger: So a little bit, but it’s also about understanding where to hold your line, and when it is just not proper. I don’t know, think of straight-arming and football’s illegal moves like that, knowing when you’re writing defensively, and when you’re riding too aggressively. It can be a fine line.
Miller: Why did you decide to focus on cyclocross as your preferred version of bike racing? There are a lot of bike racing kinds out there on tracks and on roads, pure mountain biking. You chose a kind of muddy loopy hybrid. I mean like running and loops, maybe it’s also loopy in other ways, but I was thinking about going six times around a course.
Honsinger: Honestly a lot of it came from meeting the right mentor. I started working with Eric Tonkin, he’s the owner of Sellwood Cycle Repair, as well as the owner of the team I race for, which is Team S and M Cyclocross. He really brought the nuances of this sport, how we are like doing this loop again and again. It IS loopy, but it’s fun that like every time you come through and you’re like, we’re going to aim for perfection through this point on the course and we’re going to try to get the best acceleration out of this corner as possible. It’s really methodical and almost meditative.
Miller: Well Clara Honsinger, congratulations on all your success so far. And I think I’m joining a lot of people who can hear us talking right now, who are wishing you the best of luck this weekend. Thanks very much for joining us.
Honsinger: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Miller: That was Clara Honsinger, who’s competing in the Cyclocross World Championships tomorrow. We talked back in 2019.
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