An interview with Adam Hansen, March 2, 2006
Australian cyclist Adam Hansen has twice won the Crocodile Trophy, one of the hardest multi-day races the fat tyre world has to offer. This January he made the road world sit up and take notice when he placed fourth in the Australian national championship road race. John Michael Flynn finds out that there's a lot more to this talented young rider than bashing across the Outback.
Since its inception, the brutal Crocodile Trophy has become probably the hardest bike race on the planet - a bit like cycling's answer to the Dakar Rally. It involves fifteen days of slogging it out in bulldust, corrugated tracks and creek crossings in stifling tropical heat. When each stage is over, the riders pitch tents at night and hand-wash knicks before the next day's torture. They endure conditions that only can be fully appreciated when one is stranded in such an environment.
Of course, it demands the question 'why?', but philosophical dilemmas aside, we can simply say "character-building". But the other question that many have pondered is this: just how good are these intrepid men and women who tackle it each year?
"If the riders are tired and they're hurting, you should keep hitting them. I do like to do a lot of attacks but I'm not stupid." - Hansen explains his his tactics
The race has seen very well-credentialed roadies enter the race, like none other than Australia's greatest road cyclist, Phil Anderson. Some have finished, others have not. But Phil was a long-retired rider when he entered the 'Croc', and so the dilemma remained of placing the event in a modern competitive context.
But that question was answered last month in an important road race outside of Adelaide, in South Australia.
Although it is held early in the season, the Australian Open Road Championship (AORC) sees many of the country's top riders have a very serious dig at securing the national champion's jersey.
The race has actually become so hard that many top Australian riders do not enter, because they just do not have the form at that time of year, or their teams want them in Europe for promotions or team camps. They can't just roll around because they'd embarrass themselves after the first attack.
Still, riders such as Davitamon-Lotto's Robbie McEwen take it very seriously. There is a lot of pride in that jersey, not to mention a good bonus of tens of thousands of euros to a pro rider who can secure a highly visible national champion's jersey for his pro team.
But finishing ahead of McEwen and many other highly-experienced roadies was the Croc Trophy's two-time winner, Adam Hansen, who picked up second place in the senior ranks (and fourth overall) with a smart and strong ride.
Indeed, it was Hansen's last-lap attack that really stuck and shattered the lead group - finishing well ahead of several of Australia's top European pros.
It left the likes of Davitamon Lotto's Henk Vogels asking the question, who the hell is this guy in the yellow jersey that just won't go away? We went to Australia's tropical far North to find out.
Getting to know the crocodile man
As dawn breaks over Australia's tropical city of Cairns, a silhouette emerges from the distance tapping out an effortless rhythm on the pedals. Turning over the mammoth 180 millimetre cranks, the sight is unmistakably Adam Hansen, the 'Crocodile Trophy guy' as most people in European cycling know him and up until a few weeks ago, a virtual unknown on the Australian road cycling scene.
Hansen has agreed to meet Cyclingnews on a climb known to locals as 'Copperlode' an almost gondwanan 14 kilometre ascent into the world heritage listed wet tropics rainforest behind Cairns. His pockets are filled with all assortment of energy foods, enough to keep a bloke alive for a month if he weren't expending ridiculous amounts of kilojoules on a daily basis.
Today will be a a typical training ride for the 24 year old native North Queenslander; somewhere between 120 and 180 kilometres in 35 degree heat and 90 per cent humidity. At cruising speed during pre-season conditioning, it's a walk in the park compared with a Crocodile Trophy stage. And what's more, as this reporter takes a look at the breathtaking backdrop, the heat and stifling humidity aside, it simply has to be one of the most spectacular places on the planet to ride bikes.
"It's the best training in the world, best scenery in the world, no huge city, not a lot of traffic, I'd hate to live in Sydney." Hansen says as we open the conversation with an easy ice-breaker.
"I had my girlfriend [from the Czech Republic] stay with me and you try and do a scenic ride every ride. She was here for a month and there were still places I would have loved to show her."
Hansen is no conversationalist, nor is he entirely introverted. He's a reserved, but not subservient character and the subject of his summer training base in Australia's remote Far North is an obvious comfort zone. That's not to say this shy former triathlete is some sort of home boy. Far from it.
Four years ago, the Cairns cyclist chose the path least followed, packing his bags to ride with a succession of smaller internationoal outfits. First there was Merida and Rapsosport, then in 2004 the young journeyman was linked with the Austrian based Corratec. The Corratec deal came about when Hansen was scouted by Crocodile Trophy supremo Gerhard Schoenbacher, after finishing strongly in the epic off-road stage race in 2003.
In the process he bypassed Australia's conventional talent development system, via the Academies and Institutes of Sport.
Time will tell if it was a good career move and in part it was a geographic issue. Cairns is a solid two day drive from the state capital of Brisbane and a world away from Institute of Sport facilities in Adelaide or Canberra. In truth, no-one in the cycling hierarchy really knew who Hansen was, and it could be said the Queenslander hadn't helped his own cause by largely avoiding the national race scene.
"I think it's extremely hard coming from Cairns, we're isolated," Hansen says, stating the obvious.
"For Cairns people, just to do the nationals is a huge difference in competition and you race guys you've never seen before."
The breakthrough result
The isolation factor appeared to be more of an issue for Hansen's rivals than himself at the 2006 Australian Open Road Championships. Under 23 competitor Will Walker might have won the race, but the efforts of the outsider from way up north didn't go unnoticed.
The unknown in the peloton dominated, couldn't be shaken, was (according to his own accounts) called a 'retard' by his rivals and responded by producing one of his trademark diehard attacks.
It sparked a flurry among the gaggle of journalists present as the scribes scrambled for information on the mystery man in yellow. In the end they got it kind of right, Hansen had indeed won two Crocodile Trophies, one of which was staged in the Northern Territory. They also said Hansen was a mountain biker. On that count, not even close.
To explain, Hansen has won two Crocodile Trophies through pure power, in what is fundamentally a race of attrition. As it stands, the Australian lacks the technical skills to be world class in the cross-country discipline, and while that could perhaps be altered with good skills coaching, as it stands he's very much a roadie.
"I gained a lot, it was very good for my name, the race was fun," Hansen said in a serious tone of his 2006 national championships experience.
"I hope I gained a little bit of respect from them [the riders], which is one of the most important things."
Back home in Cairns, there were no bemused looks of surprise at the result. Local bike shop owner and former Irish pro cyclist Colin Eribo (an associate of this reporter) contacted Cyclingnews in the week before the National Road Race, with the prediction Hansen would podium. A technicality aside, Eribo was right - Hansen finished fourth outright, second in the senior division - not a bad effort for a rider whom no-one had heard of.
"I'm not blowing Adam up to be anything super, it's just that I believe he has a phenomenal engine, just one of those powerhouses," the qualified physiotherapist says of Hansen's abilities.
"Psychologically and mentally, he's still growing and still learning. I think he's got the basics, he's got the tools. He's already able to cruise along at a really fast pace, 450 watts and his heart is doing nothing, so physiologically he's perfect."
Eribo has assisted Hansen in an on-again off-again capacity in recent years. He helped set up Adam's bike for the National Championship Time Trial where he finished an impressive sixth. It's worth noting the Queenslander was the second starter in the time trial and after passing his minute man in the early kilometres, had no-one to chase.
The Irishman and the Australian share an unusual relationship, but Eribo is among those best placed to comment on the young cyclist's capacity to go places in the sport.
He remembers watching Hansen smash himself beyond the limits of most athletes during his first Crocodile Trophy and it brought back memories of the greats such as Indurain and Australia's Phil Anderson (who has also ridden two Croc Trophies), riders the Irishman once shared the road with.
"His national championship ride has got him finally noticed, people are starting to ask who this guy is and I think they're asking because of the same reasons that I asked who he was," Eribo says with absolute belief.
"It's not the fact that he's winning races, he hasn't won anything big yet, it's when you watch this guy ride, you see the engine, his power.
"His style of riding is very old fashioned, it's attack, attack, attack; he's up in the front all day, he doesn't hide, he drives the break, he drives it hard, he burns people off his wheel and that's the old fashioned way," Eribo affirmed.
"He is very strong but he is stupid," was how Italy's Alberto Elli once described his former Croc Trophy opponent. The two almost came to blows at the 2004 race where, for the record, Hansen blew Elli's doors off.
Coming from a man who has worn yellow in the Tour de France, Elli's observation was noteworthy, if not credible. The mere mention of the explosive Italian's name raises the Australian's hackles. As you would expect Hansen has a different view on most things in life to the man he calls 'Elli Alberto', as though a race start list with back-the-front names is etched in his long term memory.
"I like to attack, I really enjoy attacking and I think that I can attack a lot more than other people." Hansen says without even a hint of arrogance.
"I think there's perfect opportunities to attack and sometimes you can't predict it. In a race, you just go for it. It's always the last man standing wins."
Is Hansen stupid? Bear in mind the personality behind the rider is a techno-geek, weight weenie sort of guy, who dreams of a life after cycling building computer databases. The jury's still out on how these credentials convert into the instinct driven art of race craft. Fortunately for Hansen, he's still young enough to learn.
"A lot of people have said that [I'm stupid], but I'd like to argue against it, I'd like to think that my attacks are calculated right. If the riders are tired and they're hurting, you should keep hitting them, that's what you should do. Yes I do like to do a lot of attacks but I'm not stupid; I guess everyone likes to pay out people in some way."
Hansen's 2006 plan - the world championship dream
After achieving reasonable results with Corratec, in 2005 Hansen moved to the Austrian Elk Haus team.
It was an association which, for whatever reason, didn't work out. Hansen's version of events is that he didn't share the tactical approach of his sports director. His Elk Haus team-mate Stefan Rucker told Cyclingnews during the 2005 Crocodile Trophy that Hansen was clearly the strongest man on the team and would be sorely missed, at least by the riders.
In 2006 the Australian will race with Continental team Apo Sport Krone Linz, where he will renew his association with former Corratec sports director Christop Resl.
Hansen also enjoys an on-going association with T-Mobile doctor Lothar Heinrich, who is overseeing his training program. As the story goes, the 'Crocodile Man' tested with T-Mobile and produced some very impressive results, but wasn't picked up by the German team, at least not yet anyway. The machines apparently re-affirmed what those who have ridden with and against the Croc Trophy champion already know. The Australian has what in motoring terms could be termed a V8 engine, an asset which has the potential to make him world class.
Adam's program for 2006 will target smaller stage races. It's all part of his grand plan, as if every day is a rehearsal for that moment which may or may not arrive, when he gets to race a Grand Tour.
"At my age there's not that many riders who've done two week stage races," Hansen says with steely determination. "If I ever get to a big Grand Tour I can handle the racing every single day."
Hansen has another key objective for 2006, to earn a place in the Australian team to contest the World Championships, which will be staged in Salzburg, Austria - close to his European base in the Czech Republic. He's commenced dialogue with the Australian Institute of Sport and the Queensland Academy of Sport, realising state and national coaches will need to know more about Australian cycling's mystery man if he's to be considered for selection.
Results, of course, are a great help and Hansen's performance at the National Road Championships at least let people in the right places know he was out there. Come the World Championships, a powerhouse rider who can also climb like a goat, might just be what the Australian team needs.
"It's gonna be based on races I've probably already done in Austria so there's very good chances I'll know the course," Hansen told Cyclingnews.
"Hopefully it's hilly and normally when it's hilly a lot of the Australian sprinters don't even bother turning up. If it's anything like 2004 in Italy, if I get that opportunity I think it'd be a good chance for me."
In the workshop of Cairns Bicycle Works, as the Irishman sweats it out on the spanners on a stinking hot summer's day in the tropics, I put the question of Hansen and the World Championships to himself.
Col Eribo glances back with that look you more readily associate with the tragic punter who's just laid down his week's wages on a sure thing.
"I would say listen you've gotta look at this guy and you've gotta take a gamble," says Eribo.
"He will be in Austria for this year's World Championships, he will have ridden the course , he knows the terrain he knows the weather, he knows the riders and he is a great circuit rider.
"On his day Adam is unbeatable."