What American racer has already racked up six UCI wins this season? Levi Leipheimer has two stage wins and the overall general classification from the Tour de San Luis. However, it’s not that Californian – it’s Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefits Strategies rider Ken Hanson.
At 30 years old, it’s easy to think that Hanson has been racing for many years. He got his cycling career started later than most, cutting his teeth on the collegiate racing scene. His big break was with BMC in 2007, but by his own admission he wasn’t ready for how quickly that program progressed.
“I didn’t have that many years of racing or the experience. I don’t think I was strong enough to go over and do a lot of those races in Europe and be a factor,” said Hanson.
Known for a fast sprint, Hanson has progressed to more of a well-rounded racer, finishing in eighth place at the US Pro road race.
“This year I decided I’d make the shift to more of a road racing sprinter than just a criterium sprinter,” said Hanson. “In the US very few of the stage races have sprint stages. Most stage races here, I think, are geared toward a more one-dimensional type of racer: an uphill prologue, a couple of road races and a criterium thrown in.”
In order to make that transition to a road sprinter, Hanson needed a change.
“A lot of of off season training was endurance and being a better sprinter after five to six hours of racing.”
As a result he knew he needed to spend some time racing out of the US so he could prepare for one of his major goals: the Amgen Tour of California.
One of those races where the team could get in the quality racing necessary was the the Vuelta Ciclista al Uruguay. The Vuleta was 10 days of racing with the end result four stage wins by Hanson and second place overall in the final general classification with Tom Zirbel.
“I had leadouts every day,” said Hanson. “We would take control in the last two kilometers and we took a lot of guys who were good time trialists. We had the horsepower to go to the front and keep it fast in the last kilometers.”
“I had great support from the team and one of the first times having more of a structured lead-out. It made my job less stressful.”
After Uruguay, it was over to Asia for the Tour de Korea. While Korea was another success for the Optum squad with another second overall on the general classification with Alex Candelario and three team stages wins, two courtesy of Hanson, and first on team classification, the race had its share of controversies.
Stage 4 was canceled due to the strong rain storm which flooded some areas of the course.
“Our team is still a little bit sore that the stage was canceled,” said Hanson. “It really wasn’t that bad and I can’t count how many times I’ve raced in conditions far worse than that.”
He recalls a stage in last year’s Tour of Korea when it was raining and 35 degrees and the racing continued.
The reason for the resentment toward the cancellation of the stage was Hanson believes that was the stage that could have shaken up the general classification.
“Kilometer zero was in a construction zone so they rode us through and kept it neutralized. Once they got us out of the construction zone they stopped and canceled the race before we had a chance to negotiate with the commissaires about the fact that we wanted to race.”
The next day there were three separate crashes with the race motos, one of which Hanson had a front row view.
“It was a crosswind and we were echeloned. A guy pulled off from the left and one of the motorcycles came by and went into him.”
The rider was Ukrainian, Yuri Agarkov of the ISD Lampre Continental team. The result was spinal injuries and was reported to be in stable condition.
With the Amgen Tour of California just on the horizon Hanson is now focused on America’s biggest stage race. And as a resident of Santa Barbara, California he has had the opportunity to do some reconnaissance.
“I think stage 4 looks like it could end in a good sprint. There’s a lot of climbing on the course and it’s deceptively hard,” said Hanson. “That would be a good stage to key off of.”
The Optum sprinter also said that stages 1 and 2 could end in sprints. “I think there are opportunities for the sprinters and the teams with sprinters.”
Hanson is hoping for three or four stages for the sprinters so he can add to his UCI victories tally. “We want to win a stage of Tour of California. The days that it are coming down to a sprint I’ll have support from the guys in those last kilometers.”
With many more racing kilometers in the legs Hanson is thinking of the future.
“I would love to get a chance to go over (to Europe) and do some bigger races. I know I’m competitive with the European sprinters. A lot of it comes down to a better race schedule. I’d love to do some of the Classics in Northern Europe and the bigger stage races that have the traditional sprint finishes.”
From now until August, the team will race domestically and look for an invitation to the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. Afterward the team will start a European campaign of one-day races and small stage races, contingent on invites from promoters.