This is the second in a series of interviews on what it takes to become a Pro Cyclist. Â Ken Hanson is the 2012 USA National Criterium Champion. Â He rides for Optum-Kelly Benefits Pro cycling team. Â Ken won 18 races on four continents this season.
Derek: Tell me the story of how you became a Pro road racer.
Ken: Â I started bike racing in college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Â A roommate of mine was on the cycling team, he was a downhiller. Â He and some of the guys on the cycling team encouraged me to come out and do a mountain bike race. I did my first bike race in baggy shorts and a t-shirt on a $150 mountain bike. Â I loved it. Â I originally went to college to play NCAA soccer. I decided that wasn’t for me, and to focus on my school work. Â It wasn’t until late in my time at college that I started to race seriously. Â 2005 was my senior year, and I was really starting to focus on racing. Â I started that year as a cat 3 and ended up winning the Collegiate National Championship criterium race. For 2006 I joined the amateur BMC U25 development team. Â BMC were getting a lot of their talent from the collegiate scene.
In 2007 I turned Pro with the BMC team, which is totally different than BMC these days. Â We had some great riders â€” Dan Schmatz, Scott Moninger, etc. Â My job that year as a Pro rookie was to work for the top couple sprinters on the team. Â 2008 was a hard year for me and for american cycling in general, and I found myself back in the eliteÂ amateurÂ ranks with the Cal-Giant development team. I was doing all the big NRC races and won the elite national criterium championship, so I was able to get some good results and get my career back on track. Â Development teams measure their success by sending guys to the professional level so when I went back to the pro ranks in 2009 with Team Type 1 it was a win for Cal-Giant. Â By 2010 I was the team’s main sprinter. Â Then I spent aÂ year with Jelly Belly which was a really tight knit unit â€” a really positive environment. Â As a sprinter I have to rely on my teammates to win, and if you are having fun it is much easier to get results. Â In 2011 I decided to focus more on road race sprinting, which has more of a focus on endurance and is the type of racing you find in Europe. Now I am with Optum-Kelly Benefits and we got to do some races in Belgium this year, hopefully expanding that next year.
Derek: What set you apart from other riders in your journey to Pro?
Ken: Â I didn’t really have a clear path to cycling when I was younger. Â I always played a lot of sports â€” I was a track and field sprinter in high school. Â I went to college to play soccer, after being inspired by a world cup player. Â The soccer program turned out not to be for me. So it wasn’t until I was 20 years old that I did my first bike race. Â I was busy studying hard and working 30 hours a week at a job when I started racing seriously so I had to manage my time well. Â I created a system where I would go to class, and then immediately get all of my work done so that I could go ride in the afternoon. By the evenings I was finished with all my schoolwork and training and could hang out with my friends like a normal person. Â By the time I got really serious about cycling in 2005, I had gotten a lot of the partying Â out of the way and I knew what I wanted and was more dedicated.
Derek: Who influenced you early on?
Ken: My academic advisor was a former professional baseball player and told me that being a pro athlete would be the best experience if I wanted to work with athletes in a sports physiology setting. Â I had a couple of local mentors â€” two guys in particular that made the race hard for me so I could do a good sprint. Â Chris Black was a masters racer and Dirk Copeland an Olympic track rider, both with a ton of experience who really helped me out a lot. Â Both of them really enjoyed giving back, especially because I had some talent and I was motivated to use it.
Derek: What is the best and worst part of being a Pro?
Ken: Good question. Â It varies, depending on your mental state. Â Racing at this level has an expiration date… it’s something that takes a lot of sacrifice, so I try to make the most of it. Â The best part about it is getting paid to ride your bike every day. Some days youÂ don’tÂ want to get on your bike, but you still have to. Â I love to travel, so the biggest perk is getting to see the world and ride my bike. Â I feel very lucky to be able to do that. I had a really good time traveling in Europe this year. I also still think about how crazy it was in Montevideo, Uruguay when I won the final stage of a stage race there and was mobbed by people. Â I was getting grabbed and kissed and couldn’t even move for 20 minutes â€”everybody knew me. Â I won’t forget that, it was pretty rad.Â The hard part is those days when you are racing and not feeling good and just want to quit. Â It’s easy to quit on those days, or when it is freezing cold rain or snowing. Â It’s also hard to be away from home for so long.
Derek: Who are the riders that inspire you?
Ken: I think Oscar Friere is the most underrated rider of a generation â€” a three time world champion and winner of a lot of big races, sometimes more than once. Â And Mark Cavendish, as talented as he is, he is always willing to try something new and step out of his comfort zone.
Derek: Thank you, and good luck next season!
Derek’s Thoughts: Ken was able to take advantage ofÂ several key factors in his road to going Pro. Â Having a solid athletic background in Track and Field and Soccer at a high level. Â Ken had theÂ supportÂ of his collegiate cycling team and local mentors early in hisÂ career. Â What stood out most for me was the system he built around cycling and schoolwork. Â By committing fully and taking the steps he needed to focus on training properly, Ken was able to make big gains quickly. Â In talking to Ken, I really feel his joy and passion about cycling, which goes a long way toward maintaining motivation.