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Going for 20: Adam Hansen speaks ahead of the Giro d'Italia

In-depth
2 May 2018
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Words Mark Bailey | Photography Chris Blott

Adam Hansen is not like other cyclists. This is, in one respect, a simple statement of fact: at last year’s Vuelta a Espana the Australian completed a record-breaking 19th back-to-back Grand Tour – a uniquely demanding athletic accomplishment involving over 60,000km of racing in the Giro, Tour and Vuelta over the course of seven years.

And he's not done yet, either: when he rolls down the ramp at the start of the 2018 Giro d'Italia's opening stage time-trial in Jerusalem on Friday, he'll be looking to extend that record to a remarkable 20.

However, the statement could equally be made about Hansen's life off the bike. He is a talented computer programmer who has lectured at Queensland’s James Cook University and built the bespoke logistics software used by his team, Lotto Soudal.

An imaginative designer, he manufactured his own feather-light carbon shoes (now part of his Hanseeno apparel range) in the basement of his home in the Czech Republic, where he also created an altitude training room.

Over winter he breaks standard training protocols by keeping his road bike indoors to go cross-country skiing, mountain-biking and hiking in the snow-covered peaks near his home.

While most cyclists stay off their feet, he has trekked to Everest base camp and tackled a 115km ultra-trail run. In his spare time he invests in Czech property and can discuss yields and exchange rates.

Pursuing such eclectic interests while routinely delivering in the world’s hardest races might seem like a tough balancing act, but Hansen believes this apparent conflict is actually the secret to his Grand Tour longevity.

‘I wouldn’t have been a professional cyclist if I just focussed on sport because I would have gone a bit brain dead and crazy and lost it,’ says Hansen, 36.

He is nursing a mug of coffee in his stylish, snow-blanketed home in Frýdlant nad Ostravicí, a small town in the Czech Republic surrounded by ski pistes, fog-wreathed mountains and rusting ironworks factories. ‘These other interests really help to balance me out.’

Psychological toil

Hansen’s broad hinterland has equipped him with a sense of perspective that helps him to perform on the bike when it matters, and may explain why he can endure the psychological toil of Grand Tours better than most.

‘A lot of riders talk to me about my programming and design projects and ask how I find the time,’ chuckles Hansen (who even constructed the contemporary glass and copper table around which we are sitting).

‘I just give them a strange look and say, “Well, what do you do with your time?” I know cyclists are employed by a team but we are our own bosses in a sense.

‘We decide when we work, train, have days off, do hard sessions or long sessions and go to training camps. So you can manage your time. Some guys play Xbox and watch TV but if you’re watching a movie you could be doing other things instead.’

Hansen is genuinely concerned about riders with narrow vistas. ‘A lot of riders forget there is life after cycling and life outside of cycling.

It scares me a little with some professionals. I think there should be some sort of programme to help cyclists adapt to the real world.

‘I don’t want to say we’re spoilt but the way cyclists turn pro can produce spoiled people because if a cyclist is good enough they soon get equipment from a national federation as well as clothing and travel.

‘Everything is free and people bend over backwards for you. But when you retire it’s all over. Some riders beg to go home because they travel too much.

A normal person begs to go on holiday because they are stuck at work. So to have this fake sensation where everything is free and you go everywhere… I see riders when they retire and they find it difficult.’ 

Man for all seasons

If Hansen’s myriad interests have helped to compose and organise his mind, he’s convinced that his similarly diverse approach to training has galvanised his body for the physical demands involved:

‘With my hiking, cross-country skiing and mountain-biking, I’ve never had a back problem, a knee problem or an injury that hasn’t been caused by a crash.

‘I’ve been pain-free my whole career and I ride a very extreme position. Cross training really helps. And when I go on training camps the Belgians who have been riding all winter are sick of training, whereas I’m just excited to get on my bike.

‘It keeps your hunger alive and makes your career last longer.’

Tall and lean at 6ft 1in, with no trace of body fat (his scientific approach sees him occasionally adopt a high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet, which can help him lose 4kg in a week), his 2015 trip to Everest base camp remains his off-season highlight.

‘I was hiking for 11 days to Gokyo and Cho La Pass and then up to Everest base camp. The altitude is very good for fitness and I plan to go back this year.’

The following winter he finished a 115km ultra-trail run that involved 4,900m of ascent. ‘It wasn’t long after the World Champs and I remember sneaking out of the hotel after the race to go for a run the next day.

‘People saw me and thought I’d gone mad.’

Hansen is relaxed and intelligent company. He moved to the Czech Republic on account of an ex-girlfriend but made it his home.

His house is a male fantasy of industrial decor with exposed pipes, pallet furniture, Rubik’s cube drinks coasters, a shelf stocked with whisky bottles, Iron Man and Captain America figurines, a workshop for Hanseeno (which now has an online shop) and a garage stocked with a green Lamborghini and two Ferraris.

Cycling has clearly provided him with an enviable lifestyle, but in his early years Hansen never dreamed of being a pro. 

Aussie rules

Born in Southport, Queensland, Hansen’s first memory is of sitting on the back of his mum’s bike when he was little. ‘I wasn’t wearing shoes and I got my big toe caught in the cassette. It sliced my toe off.

‘We had to go to hospital and they stitched it back on. But I can also remember riding on my parents’ driveway. I felt free. It was the first time I was mobile and I could go faster.’

Sport always came second to education. ‘I had a lot of pressure from my parents to get a good education. I later started working full-time as a programmer on short-term contracts.

One company paid for me to go to university part-time. I did some teaching at James Cook University and it was good fun – I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t until I was 22 or 23 that I started to focus on cycling.’

Until then, Hansen had been into triathlon. ‘I was good at running and swimming but not very good at cycling so the idea was to come and race in Europe to improve my cycling.

‘It was never with the intention of being a pro. But soon after that I was doing races in Italy, Switzerland and Slovakia and I knew it was a lifestyle I wanted to pursue.’

Hansen has spent his entire career at just two teams: the T-Mobile/Columbia-HTC franchise from 2007-10 and the Lotto entity from 2011 to today.

His streak of 19 consecutive Grand Tours began in 2011, but he had started seven Grand Tours and finished four before then, starting in 2007.

‘The Grand Tour record is something I never believed would be possible – I’d probably call someone stupid to do something like that – but as the years went on everything fell into place.

‘I’d like to keep it going but I don’t know how much it’s taxing me. Maybe I’d be a better rider if I didn’t, but I like this Grand Tour streak.’

Last year he met Spaniard Bernardo Ruiz, the 93-year-old whose 57-year-old record of 12 consecutive Grand Tours Hansen broke in 2015.

‘It just shows how it’s not just once in a generation but once in three or four generations that this kind of thing happens. The next person who breaks this record will probably be after my lifetime.’

A super-domestique, he has fulfilled a variety of roles at Grand Tours, from leading out sprinters such as current teammate André Greipel to chasing breakaways.

‘I laugh at this because on a sprint day you have to help the sprinters. Then I normally get over the first mountains so I help the GC guys too. And on breakaway days I have pressure to get into them.

‘I always joke when a directeur sportif says, “OK, you worked yesterday and the day before, so today is your big chance!” You think, can’t I just have a rest?

‘It’s the worst thing to be not really good at one thing but sort of half good at everything.’

Hansen treasures his Grand Tour memories. ‘One of the most exciting years was with HTC at the 2008 Tour when we held the yellow, green and white jersey on the same day.

‘Mark Cavendish won four stages and Kim Kirchen finished seventh overall. But the success with André, who’s won a stage of the Tour every year except last year, is also special. We’re good friends.

‘I had an offer to move teams but I said I couldn’t leave André and he was really surprised. I joked that I’ve been with him longer than with any girlfriend.’

Hansen’s first stage win came after a breakaway on Stage 7 of the 2013 Giro, a 177km journey from San Salvo to Pescara.

‘Before that I had got in mini-breakaways and never succeeded so I couldn’t believe it. I came into the final kilometres by myself and I was convinced I’d get a flat tyre.

‘I was thinking, “This isn’t right. I’m not meant to win a stage.” Then I thought, “No, this is for all those years of helping other riders. You deserve this.”’

His second victory followed on Stage 19 of the 2014 Vuelta. On the 180.5km route from Salvaterra de Mino

to Cangas do Morrazo he attacked in the final 5km. ‘That was the best win I’ve had. I initiated the attack and to do it on Stage 19, when everyone was tired and we were under pressure because we hadn’t won a stage, meant a lot.’

The tech guy

Even as Hansen’s pro career blossomed, his interests in programming and design continued. ‘I wasn’t happy with Lotto’s logistics software so I suggested a new package,’ he says.

‘Lotto got some pricing from a company in Belgium and it was really expensive so I said I’d do it. Instead of writing it from a programmer’s perspective I could write it from a cyclist’s side, making it easy to input things like flights and contacts and team data.’

He was soon tinkering with cycling innovations. ‘I wasn’t happy with my shoes so I made them better. The lightest ones were just 58g each.

‘When my altitude tent broke, the price to send it back to America was too high, so I pulled it apart to see how it worked and just made my own. I got an oxygen concentrator, which takes normal oxygen and splits the oxygen and nitrogen.

‘With less oxygen I can simulate high-altitude training.’

Hansen has even harnessed his scientific reading to optimise his bike set-up, adding longer 180mm cranks and pushing his cleats back to deliver extra torque.

One thing science can’t help with is the habits of his Grand Tour roommates. ‘I’m usually with Lars Bak, who loves snoring. But I had one rider who just walked around naked.

‘As an Australian, that is not what you do. He’d just be flopping around. I was brushing my teeth once and he went to the toilet right next to me.

‘I said, “You know, in my country we don’t do this.” He looked shocked and said, “Oh, so sorry!” And then he put the toilet seat up. He thought I was just talking about the seat.’

Despite all that, Hansen is happy to extend his Grand Tour run in 2018. ‘My plan is to do the Giro, and I’ll put my hand up for the Tour de Suisse – it’s good preparation for the Tour. If I don’t do the Tour, I’ll have a summer holiday.

But André is already talking like I’m doing the Tour. If I do I’ll put my hand up for the Vuelta for sure.’

The Australian is clearly determined to squeeze as much from his career as possible. But when the time comes, he’ll be confident about stepping back into normal life.

He plans to continue his property development business, pursue his programming interests and qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

‘I love swimming and running so that would be good,’ he says. ‘But after cycling I’ll do something totally different – just close the chapter of cycling and start a new life. When I think of this Grand Tour streak, I know it has been a good trip.’

Hansen on...

...his favourite Grand Tour

‘I really do like them all. The Giro is the most passionate. Italy is lovely, with a really mixed type of racing, unexpected weather and passionate fans.

‘The Tour fans are more like tourists, not cyclists, and it can be stressful with the media attention and pressure, but it’s the biggest race in the world.

‘Because the Vuelta is at the end of the season, it’s more relaxed. Sometimes the stage starts at 1pm and your wake-up time might be 10am.’

…intimidation in the peloton

‘Because I wasn’t a cycling fan and I didn’t have the knowledge of other riders I wasn’t intimidated by them.

‘When I turned professional in 2007 Mario Cipollini was exiting the sport, but he had control of the peloton so you would never do something against him.

‘I only raced against Lance when he came back but he had a similar dominance. But if you’re naive and don’t know a top rider’s palmarès, you feel free to race.’

…racing tactics

‘The organisation of tactics in the races has definitely changed. This has made it much harder for sprinters and lead out trains because all the teams are far more organised and specific in their plans.

‘And riders are more loyal today than in the past, so the racing is more professional than before. It has changed a lot in my career.’

…his hardest stage

‘Some of the hardest days I have had in a Grand Tour are those snowy days at the Giro. I remember one stage on the Stelvio and it was no longer a bike race, it was just about getting to the finish.

‘There was nobody near you. You couldn’t see more than three metres ahead. We were all in pieces.’

Adam Hansen's career highlights

1981: Born 11th May in Southport, Queensland, Australia.

2004: Wins the Crocodile Trophy, a gruelling 10-day mountain bike race in his native Queensland – then repeats the feat the following year.

2007: After three years riding as an amateur, signs a pro contract for T-Mobile. Rides his first Grand Tour at the Vuelta, finishing 88th overall. 

2008: Wins the Australian time-trial title, his only national success to date on the road or against the clock.

2011: Moves to Omega Pharma-Lotto and is included in the team’s Vuelta a España line-up, the first of his 19 straight Grand Tours.

2012: Becomes the second Australian to start all three Grand Tours in one season, after Neil Stephens in 1992.

2013: Wins Stage 7 of the Giro d’Italia, the sole survivor from a break attempt that went clear nearly 140km from the finish.

2014: Takes a second Grand Tour win on Stage 19 of the Vuelta, jumping clear on his own with 5km to go and holding on to the line. 

2015: Breaks a 57-year-old record by finishing his 13th consecutive Grand Tour at the Vuelta.

2018: Starts his eighth season with Lotto Soudal, and is set to compete at a 20th consecutive Grand Tour when the Giro d’Italia gets underway.