The Adam Hansen experience: observations and innovations
It’s Adam Hansen’s 36th birthday today. He is a particularly interesting rider and one with a great story. This is flashback from 2013 is lengthy but it offers some insight into how he ticks…
This story was originally published on 19 August 2014 but bring it to the features list again on his 36th birthday (11 May 2017) because Adam Hansen has some great thoughts on a range of topics. We hope you enjoy this feature from #RIDE59 (published in March 2013).
Q&A: Adam Hansen* and Rob Arnold. (23 January 2013)
*Hansen is in quotations.
In a note three weeks after we spoke, Adam Hansen wrote: “I enjoyed doing this interview. It felt like friends sitting down having a chat together.” It covers a range of topics and reminds us that there are cyclists who think differently…
Correct me if I’m wrong: you built your own altitude chamber many years ago, is that right? “Yeah.”
And have you made your own power meter yet. “No. I haven’t done that. Not yet. But I have made a logistics system for the team and this year I hope to sell it to other teams.”
What does that do?
“It’s an online database where the logistics woman puts in all the races and adds the riders’ programs as they’re devised. It has fields for all the other staff as well: the soigneurs, mechanics, directeurs sportif… so, when we get our programs, we don’t get just a basic email as happened in the past, we can log on and see the full calendar. We know what our races are, who will be there with us, what hotels we’ll have, and it also includes our ‘Whereabouts Program’. It’s like a central meeting point. There are also message options so if there is any need for communication between the relevant staff, it can be done in one location. All the information is there, including all the smaller details like if phone numbers change… that sort of thing. It’s also got the contact details of everyone on our team.
“The riders have to do a report on how they feel in a race: what they expected, their feelings on tactics and all sorts of information. The sports directors see that and they can make their report on the riders. And that all gets reviewed at the end of every month… When riders log on, they obviously see the full program for the whole team and, on the right side, you only see your races but you can go into the individual races and see what other riders are doing. There’s nothing secret; one rider can see what another rider can see. It’s created so that, when a rider goes online, he can see all he needs to know.”
When you say that you developed that, is it like a fancy Excel spreadsheet or a whole new program? “It’s a whole program. I used to be a computer programmer before I was a cyclist. This is the type of work I was doing beforehand.
“I’ve coded everything myself and it came about because we needed it. In HTC (ie. the Highroad teams), as organised as the team was, we had no system. It was just emails at the time; in 2011 they had an old method and I hated it – I just didn’t like working that way. And so in 2012 when Omega Pharma split with Lotto, Omega took my system with them. At the same time, I offered to make my team (Lotto-Belisol) one too. The idea for me was to make the program, allow them to use it for a year and then, if they liked it, sell it to them.
“I made it, basically, as a rider wants to see it. It’s a bit different to when a programmer who is not a rider does it.
“I worked with a woman in our logistics team and we made it so that it was as easy as possible for her to put in all the data – because every team has a lot of information to consider. We used it for a year, everyone is happy, and we’re using the same system again this year. In the next few months, we’ll see if any other teams want to come on board.”
That’s one thing cycling can do, be a bit more streamlined.
“Yeah, it’s good; it’s a central place to see all the information. It also keeps your past records so if I want to see what races I did last year and who was there, then it’s all there…
“Programming relates to what I did before I was a cyclist. I did mostly database online applications, a lot of them were quite small but I worked with HTW… We did a property evaluation system for them and that was some time ago, I was about 19 or 20 when I was working on that.”
Is it all self taught? How did you get your knowledge?
“At the school I went to, we had a computer class. We did Terra Pascal, which was very baseline programming then, and after school I opted to work for free in a computer programming company because I wanted a job and that was an opportunity for me to learn more about it. I did that for a while and they started paying me after about a month; they were teaching me and I was getting paid at the same time. As that developed, I went from one software company to another and the second one paid for me to go to university.
“I went to uni for a very short time.
“Then, the year after, I was teaching one of the courses at the university – that was databases, what I was specialising in. I was later made redundant by the company because HTW, a Sydney firm, was almost doing the same thing and they bought us out so that was the end of that. After that I worked very briefly for another software firm and while I was working there, I had the chance to go to Europe and start my racing.
“I thought, ‘While I’m young and beautiful, I’ll try and go over there and give it a go’.”
You now live in the Czech Republic…? “Yeah.”
I’m sorry, but I’m going to ask basic questions you may assume we know. You had a cyclist as a girlfriend, is that still the case? “Aah. No. That’s not entirely right. I have a sporty girlfriend; I wouldn’t call her a cyclist, no. She’s a fitness instructor. Her name is Petra Helesicioba, and she’s a Czech.”[Note: Adam and Petra have since broken up, but for the purpose of this piece we’ve retained the reference as it was how it was at the time of the conversation.]
“I live in Frydlant nad Ostravici, and that’s on the border of Poland and Slovakia, near Ostrava which is the major city in the region. The fitness studio is about 40km from where I live.”
Is that going to be home? What’s going to happen when you stop riding a bike?
“It is home. I have a house there and I’m really based there. When I come to Australia, I come with a suitcase… I arrived on 3 January. And I go back directly after the Tour Down Under.”
Do you miss Cairns? “Uhm, that’s a good question. What I’ve found is that, when you go to Europe initially, it’s all very exciting and wonderful and when you come back to Australia it’s always the same. Nothing really changes much.
“So, I like it: Cairns is a beautiful place but for me at the moment, Europe is more exciting. There are so many things there that appeal. The culture is different and for me it’s special – where I live is lovely. It’s just nice when you go to your home and you have everything – I have my stuff there. When I go to the kitchen, there are all the utensils I need. When I’m training, everything I need is there too.
“When I go to Cairns, I stay at my mother’s. Okay, it’s lovely to stay… but I’m still living out of a suitcase; I’ve still got three pairs of shorts and three shirts and when something different happens, I’ve got to stick with the clothes I’ve got… that sort of thing. And so home is home and that’s how I like it.”
How many languages do you speak? It’s a very boring pro cycling question but I’m interested just the same.
“Normal languages… uhm, some would say I don’t speak English very well, so I accept that: my English is not very good. And as for other languages, I have a good understanding of some but I wouldn’t say I speak any fluently.”
What about Czech? “Well, I have a good understanding but… ah, it’s hard for me to say that I speak it. I like German and have a very good understanding of that; sometimes I have good days, sometimes I don’t. I understand a lot but I’m a very quiet person and I don’t go out there talking so much.”
When you’re at home, you speak… “Ah, we do about 70/30 English/Czech. If I have to speak Czech, I do. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that I wouldn’t say I speak it well.”
But you have an analytical mind… “Yeah, I guess so. I like building stuff. I enjoy technology and playing with hardware. If my laptop breaks down, I’ll never think twice about opening it and trying to fix the problem. I’ve got no problem trying to rebuild a computer, it’s relatively easy to do these days. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. If my SRM needs a battery replacement, I’ll just do it myself – and that’s soldered on to the motherboard. I don’t mind doing that but circuitry stuff isn’t my strength.”
Did you have an upbringing with Lego? “Not really. I grew up in Asia. I spent three-and-a-half years of my life living in Hong Kong and Taiwan. That was around grades five, six and seven of school: from the age of around 11 to 13. And for us [his younger sister Louise and older brother Shanen] as kids, Hong Kong was a special place. There were computer games everywhere and we lived inside and rarely saw the outdoors.
“There’s an amazing MTR [train] system underground and, basically, from the block of flats where we lived we’d go down in the elevator, into a shopping centre, hop into the MTR and pop up at school. And we’d repeat that, rarely going outside.”
I’d like to talk about product innovation. When you won the national time trial title (2008) you had a very high stack of spacers on your aerobars. We are now seeing a lot of riders coming up high. I’m guessing it’s about reducing the catchment area in your chest… “Yeah, it is. I did that in the HTC days and the mechanics did not like it at all. The mentality was all about getting lower and lower. I always thought it should be about exactly what you said: bringing the arms closer to get rid of that void where the wind gets caught in the chest and stomach.
“Instead of opening a hole, by having your arms low, raise them up and block it all. That was my theory. I got the set-up changed and the team wasn’t happy with it. The mechanics made jokes like calling the stacks the ‘Twin Towers’… It wasn’t pretty but the crazy thing is, when you get a bigger TT frame the headset area tends to stay the same size while the seatpost climbs out taller and taller. If you’re on a large frame the top of the headset is far lower than a small frame. Smaller riders have an advantage: they can naturally have a high handlebar. If you look at, for example, Levi [Leipheimer] the top of his [armrest] pads were at almost the same height as his seat.
“The taller riders can’t do this because they have such a high seatpost and they can’t bring it up to the same height; if they do, it looks funny. So shorter guys – Leipheimer, Alberto Contador, Richie Porte – have a great advantage. When you look at how these guys can time trial, versus these guys who can put out all this horsepower, it’s because of the frame size.
“If the stack is too high, yeah it looks funny and that’s why HTC wasn’t happy with my ideas. I had to justify my requests. But, yeah, I do like to play around with stuff like that.
“Then there’s the move to narrow handlebars. On a road bike you can have a different drop to the handlebars than on a TT bike. I have a very low position. On my current bike, I have a special seatpost because the one that normally comes with it isn’t long enough. On my road bike I try and get as low as possible. And it’s not just because when I’m in the final it’s good to have a low position but it’s throughout the whole race so I can save power and use that – what I save – in the final.
“Of course the narrow handlebar is the easiest thing you could ever do to be more aerodynamic on a bike. All you have to do is make them more narrow and get used to it.”
Shane Perkins told me that he took his inspiration from the Japanese keirin circuit. He changed his position, brought his hands in closer together and now we see Sir Chris Hoy adopting a similar position. These two get a lot of credit for bringing in the narrow bars to track racing. Do you pay attention to the track? Have you noticed what those guys have been doing?
“You probably should not publish this, but I’ve seen, maybe, four track races on television in my entire life. That’s it.”
And you’ve never ridden the track? Or a fixed gear bike…?
“The first time I’d ridden on a velodrome was in 2007 when T-Mobile wanted me to do an aerodynamic test. I just did not realise how steeply banked the walls are. I was actually scared to ride a bike on it because I’d never seen a track before.”
So, we can safely assume then that you had no awareness of track cyclists adopting narrow bars… “Yes, you could say that. I actually went on narrow bars in 2010.”
It must have been a conscious moment; you must remember where you were. Or did you just wake one day and go, ‘Okay, I’ll pop some narrow bars on…’? Was it difficult to source the ones you’re using? “No, they’re women’s ones. In 2011, I had women’s handlebars because they were 38cm. Now we run the smallest size in the model we have, which is 38.
“I remember when I joined Lotto in 2011, when I said that I had 38cm handlebars, they were like, ‘Ah, you can’t have 38. We don’t have them.’ And I was, like, ‘You can find them. They do exist.’ But a pro team just didn’t ordinarily order them. They were also really sceptical about it but once they see you ride and see that everything is okay, then it’s all fine.
“This year we have three riders on our team using 38cm bars: myself, Greg Henderson and Marcel Sieberg.”
None of you are short and Sieberg is very tall, but skinny. Does it have anything to do with shoulder width?
“I think a lot of problems cycling has are because there’s a very strong culture and people don’t like to move forward – people don’t like to experiment too much and, in this sport, it’s perceived that what has worked in the past, works. Okay, that’s all good and wonderful but the times are moving, and science is proving different things. This relates to a lot of things.
“Look at crank length. Everyone says, ‘You should ride 172.5mm.’ If you go to a bike shop, that’s what you buy. I think it’s this way because the manufacturer doesn’t want the burden of having to create a vast range; bike shops cannot have every different size of every product. It’s like frames. So a standard has been created and they say, ‘You’ll be right’.
“There’s this rule of thumb that, if you’re very tall you ride a size bigger; and if you’re a sprinter, you have smaller cranks.
“I use 180mm cranks which is the biggest you can readily buy; there are some companies that make longer ones but with Shimano, Campagnolo, Rotor and all these brands, the limit is 180mm. What I’ve never understood with crank length is: why should everyone use the same? It doesn’t make sense.
“If you take Matt Lloyd as an example, it may make sense. He’s a small guy; if you compare the crank length to his legs, and another guy with longer legs who is using the same length… then, in proportional terms, Lloyd is probably using something that’s 20 per cent longer than the other guy.” [Note: Lloyd told RIDE a few weeks earlier that he had used 175mm for a while because he “wanted extra leverage”.]
“Look at Marco Pantani: he used to use 180mm cranks!
“If you take the nut off the wheel of a car, it can be hard work if you use a short spanner. When the leverage is longer, it’s easier. This is endurance sport so obviously you want to push with the lowest amount of effort and power is torque-by-RPM, right? Okay, people say that with longer cranks your pedalling action is longer. That’s true. But, the time is the same. What I mean by that is, if you ride for five minutes, you ride for five minutes, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing a cadence of 90 or 110rpm. You’re still doing five minutes of effort but the one with the shorter crank is doing it at a higher power.”
And on a smaller gear… “Well, yeah okay but that’s another topic altogether. But it would be; when you use bigger cranks, then they say you have a lower cadence because you’re pushing a bigger gear thanks to the extra leverage. That’s all true but there’s a reason why you push a bigger gear: you actually can!”
Even a 2.5mm change in length can be felt. Do you feel like a windmill with 180s? “Not really. My cadence is not slow. I just got used to it and that’s it. If I stand up on the pedals with longer cranks, I think it just feels better.
“There was a Czech rider who had the hour record, Ondrej Sosenka. He used 220mm! They were custom-made. Okay, he was very tall (200cm) but he used long cranks very effectively.”
Okay, but getting back to the question of the bars… Perkins told me that, when he made the change, it altered the dynamic of the bike which is easy to imagine, especially for a track sprinter with so much power. Without the leverage it must be different. You said you just adapt. Was it such a change that it caused a different dynamic to your pedalling?
“We spoke about it recently because Greg Henderson swapped to 38cm and when you change it feels different. You can notice it because it’s much more twitchy and you’ve got to be more sensible going through corners. If you turn the bars one centimetre, it’s a bigger turn than it is with 44cm bars. But after a week, you forget how it was. It’s like when you have a phone then get a bigger or a smaller one; it seems dramatic for the first few days but you adapt. It’s really like that.
“Last year Greipel had 42cm bars, now he’s on 40s.
“I used to race with 44cm bars. Then last year I rode a bike with 44 on and it’s like a mountain bike – they’re huge! In the bunch it’s very good to have small bars.”
Someone was hypothesising that it was good for ducking through gaps. We saw Chris Hoy win a keirin world title last year by slipping through an opening that didn’t seem to exist… having narrow bars might have helped but he’s also a genius of his craft. You’re saying it helps in the bunch.
“I’m not the best guy in the bunch. I value my life a little more than I think other riders do theirs – but I like having narrow bars in the peloton. In the past, in a sprint I’ve always thought, ‘It’s okay. It’s not a problem when it’s rough…’ but if guys want to risk their lives to move up one spot with 40km to go, they can have the spot – I’ll come around them again later.
“If we’re doing a lead-out train, then it’s different but if I’m by myself, I’m not going to risk my life to save a position in the bunch. That’s for sure.”
There are commentators who make sweeping statements during coverage of racing that can be a little frustrating. ‘Oh, now is the time to move up to the front…’ ah, yes. It’s easy to say that but it’s not always easy to do it. Still, when it comes to setting Cavendish or Greipel up for a sprint as you’ve done, there is a moment when… ta-dah! There you are, at the front.
Is it pure strength and you just ride up the side of the bunch? How can you manage to get in that position?
“A guy like Greg Henderson will just go through the middle of the bunch. He’s very good at that but I’ll just go around the side – it’s guaranteed. It is harder but that’s how I do it. It’s safer. Okay, it’s harder because you’re in the wind but… If you opt to go through the crowd you can get boxed in all over the place.
“Everyone is different. I can pick my way through and if I have to that’s how I’ll do it. But given the choice I’ll go around.
“Maybe I’m different to other riders. For me there is life after cycling. And I do value my life a lot. I only do risk if it’s really going to make a change in a race result. I’ve seen guys almost kill themselves to save two positions with 100km to go and that’s something I’ve never understood.
“Sometimes in the bunch there might be a little opening and, for some reason, it’s always like a race to that little gap. You have to do a micro acceleration and that takes energy. It can be more harmful for your performance at the end of a race than actually just riding a constant wattage. But there’s still the mentality of, ‘Oh, there’s a gap!’ And they’ll accelerate into it. For me it’s, ‘Okay, there’s a gap. I could move up one place but it’s not worth a micro acceleration.’
“It’s not bullying or anything, you can’t think of it as, ‘Oh, he overpowered me into that gap…’ It’s not like that. Sometimes you accidentally cut people off. Sometimes you do have to take a place so you do it. Sometimes a guy comes too close so you move and don’t realise there’s a guy there and you’ve bumped. At the end of the day it’s just road cycling.”