Young German cyclist, Clara Koppenburg, was a late addition to the Rally Cycling roster. After a difficult 2020 season which ended prematurely for Koppenburg and her teammates, she was more motivated than ever to get 2021 started. Fresh from Spain where she joined the Rally Cycling men’s training camp, here’s Koppenburg’s extraordinary story.
The date is September 29th, 2013, and Andreas Gösele, team doctor for the Swiss national cycling team, is on the long drive home from Florence, Italy, with his teenage daughter, Clara. It had not been a good day for his riders, many of whom fell victim to the terrible conditions over the course of the crash-marred World Championship road race. It marked a hollow finale to what had been a pretty good and ultimately life-changing week for Clara.
“I’ve made a decision,” she said as Andy drove. “I want to go there.”
“You want to go back to Florence?”
“No, no. I want to go to the Worlds.” A recent high school graduate, Clara had expressed an interest in cycling before, but her focus had been on track and field up to this point.
“What do you want to do at the Worlds?” Andy asked, just to be sure.
“I want to race,” she confirmed. “I have a plan. I will start training now and we will see what happens.”
Koppenburg turned professional with the Swiss-registered Bigla Pro Cycling Team in 2015, less than eighteen months after this conversation with her father. In fact, her cycling origin story had begun two years earlier still in Colorado.
In August 2011 she accompanied her father, then team doctor for Leopard Trek, to the first edition of the USA Pro Challenge. It was a high-profile squad that included Andy and Fränk Schleck, second and third respectively at the Tour de France just a month earlier, and the ever-popular Jens Voigt. Koppenburg, however, was oblivious to their fame. Before then, she’d had nothing to do with cycling at all, but while her father attended to his duties as team doc, she got stuck into life embedded in a top-level team.
Koppenburg is the first to say that she was just a shy sixteen-year-old and her English was bad back then, but she wasn’t held back from helping out the ‘swannies’ with their daily tasks. From washing and making sandwiches, to organizing the food in the hotel and sorting out the riders’ suitcases, she did it all. Her father reports that she was a great help to the team, and she seemed to enjoy it too.
Father and daughter spent a week in Steamboat Springs after the race, going for rides together and experiencing all that the area had to offer. Both fell in love with Colorado and Koppenburg says, “By the time we traveled back home, I knew I wanted to be a cyclist as well.”
So cycling was added to her already long list of outdoor pursuits. Running, basketball, horse riding, tennis, football, sailing, surfing, skiing, and now road cycling. What’s remarkable about Koppenburg is that she wasn’t just keen to have a good time outdoors, she was all about the passion and discipline of professional sport. Not to mention possessing a fierce raw talent.
“I always had a feeling that Clara was a good endurance athlete,” said Gösele. “I remember when she was twelve or thirteen years old, I was teaching a class at the university and the athlete I planned to bring in for a demonstration was sick, so I brought Clara in at the last minute. We put her through a performance test, a VO2 max test, and she did extremely well without any preparation. So I knew then that she had a big engine.”
That engine was allowed to shine in Tuscany during that World Championship week in 2013. Her passion had been ignited in Colorado two years back, she’d just finished high school, and here she was, riding on the closed road circuit in Florence. Despite both holding German passports, she and her father looked the part in their Switzerland national kit, and this is where the future became clear for Koppenburg: having already held her own in training with the Swiss women’s team earlier in the week, she now rode the course as groups of Italian children cheered her on, “Vai, vai, vai!”
She made her first appearance at the World Championships five years later, this time as a racer for the German national team. “The first time I put on the national jersey, it was a dream come true. When you represent your country in that jersey, it’s just amazing, I get goosebumps every time. It shows that hard work pays off.”
Koppenburg has never been a stranger to hard work, nor lacked the will to succeed. Like middle- and long-distance running, and Nordic skiing too, cycling takes a lot of energy out of a person and a great deal of time out of a day. It’s not enough just to be good at what you do. Gösele identified drive and talent in his daughter early on, and Koppenburg herself lists self-motivation as one of her strengths:
“I’m good at motivating myself because I know what I want, I know what my passion is. Sometimes you have to go through hell, but it will only make you stronger.”
Having signed with Rally Cycling at the end of a turbulent 2020, Koppenburg now enters her seventh season as a professional cyclist at just 25 years old.
“Although I’m still young I’m also quite old in the sport,” she says. “I learned a lot of hard lessons with my former teams, and I’ve taken the start of almost every race on the calendar, all in different roles, sometimes as a pure domestique, sometimes as a leader, so I’ve experienced every kind of riding style.”
Of all the races she’s started, Koppenburg’s best results have been at stage races. 2019 was a very good year for the young German. She took a stage win and the overall title at Setmana Ciclista Valenciana in February of that year, skipped the Classics, then made her maiden appearance at the Amgen Tour of California, finishing a massive fourth overall, before returning to Europe and riding to second on GC at the Tour de l’Ardèche in September.
Alongside her growing palmarès, Koppenburg also cherishes the freedom to make mistakes.
“I could tell you thousands of mistakes I’ve made,” she says. “I went through a really hard learning curve early in my career with a lot of bad races, but you learn something from every one. Of course, there are some mistakes that you make again and again, but you’ll never forget them. Even if you fail, you win.”
With the move to Rally Cycling and her sights set on a return to Colorado, Koppenburg completes a unique journey. Both she and her father recognize this extraordinary feat for what it is.
“I’m really happy that Clara is on an American team,” Gösele says. “She’s closing the circle, coming back to where it all started.”
Both the team and Koppenburg hope that the Colorado Classic is somewhere in her future, identified as a race where she could succeed, but in the meantime, she’s making short term goals for 2021. After a freezing start to the year in Germany, Koppenburg joined Rally Cycling’s men at their training camp in Spain, and now she’s looking forward to any racing at all with her new teammates before hopefully securing a spot on the German Olympic team.
She has already proven herself detail-driven, a consummate teammate, and not afraid to put in the hard yards. But ultimately, her goals are simple.
“I hope to have a great season and lots of fun with my new team,” says Koppenburg. “There might not always be a victory, but if we race well as a team and we can say everyone gave everything and that we learned something, I think that’s a success even if you wouldn’t say so on paper. Although of course it would be nice to have some good results on paper as well!”