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Adam Hansen is one of the most enduring and endearing riders in the pro peloton, and he’s also one of the smartest and most questioning of tradition, as we find out.
With a record number of back-to-back grand tour finishes to his credit, Adam Hansen is a self-made legend of pro bike racing—and something of a rebel with a cause too. We listened intensely as he explained and ratified his theories on all things technical and traditional in pro bike racing.
Words: Steve Thomas
Images: Yuzuru Sunada
Hansen’s riding position is probably the most extreme in the World Tour: “I have a huge handlebar drop from seat height. I use 180mm cranks, ride 38cm handlebars and have my cleats pushed back as far as I can. It sort of goes against what everyone says, and against what the team mechanics tell me. Cycling is a very cultured sport and has a huge history, which is very special, but some people are a bit stuck in their ways too.”
Those huge pedal levers are something of a Hansen trademark: “At 100 rpm on 180mm cranks, compared to 100 rpm on 172.5mm cranks, the leg speed is faster on the 180mm cranks. As an amateur I rode T.A. 185mm cranks, but when I turned pro the longest I could get were 180mm. Back then I didn’t have SRMs or anything like that, and, when I did, I found that you had to calibrate them every few months. In with the calibration you had to put crank arm lengths, and put on weights accordingly, to figure out the equation. This told me that crank length did mean something; it affects Newton meters—and Newton meters equals watts times cadence. So, with a longer crank you produce more power.
“Just think if you were removing the wheel of a car. With a short wrench, it’s really hard. A longer wrench levers more power. Okay on a bike it makes acceleration harder, but over the course of a race it makes things easier. The point of cycling (racing) is to be efficient, and to save your power for the final. Now look at it in this sense: I’m 186cm tall [6-foot-1]. If another rider is 156cm tall [5-foot-1] and we both use the same crank lengths, who has longer cranks based on crank length ratio to leg length?
“This little guy is on huge cranks compared to me. I don’t understand how everybody thinks that riders should be using the same crank lengths. Most climbers are small, but they ride the same crank-arm length as us tall guys. In comparison to their legs their cranks are 25-percent longer than us, meaning that the tall riders are effectively on shorter cranks.
“At the HTC-Highroad team, they used to say that my cranks were too long to get around corners, but I’d been doing just fine on 185s. Sometimes I do have problems in pedaling around tight corners on descents, but I know that and factor it in.
“There is also the argument about it taking longer to make a pedal revolution, but at the end of the day it’s all about leg speed. If one guy is riding at 100 rpm and another at 90 rpm, but taking longer to make the same turn, technically it is still the same leg speed, and at the end of the day it’s about how much effort you save over time.”
Within some dated team systems, Hansen’s approach has caused a few shrugs and frowns: “With lots of teams it’s the mechanics that tell you the bike position that you’ve got, and I’ve never understood why a mechanic should tell you that. My stance has always been to ask them to show me some concrete proof that a shorter crank is better, and if they can then I will ride them. But they can only ever reply that they’ve been using them for years.”
That Extra 1 Percent
Marginal but significant gains is not just a Team Sky copyright: “When I was younger I always wanted to improve, so I always looked at position. There are many ways to do this, but I try to look at the overall picture.
“If you want to improve 1 percent on the climbs, it’s extremely difficult. To improve your power-to-weight ratio by 3 percent means a lot of hard training. But if you have a lighter bike and lose a few kilos it’s so much easier. This is why I want a light bike and light shoes.
“The next step was bike position. I wanted the most extreme seat-to-handlebar drop as I could get. I worked on that, and then went to the narrowest bars I could. This was a real fight, to get the mechanics to fit them. They wanted me on 44cm, so I started there. Then I went to 38cm, which were tiny. Everybody told me I couldn’t ride on them; but I wanted to try. It was strange for the first five rides, but then you forget about them. Then all of my teammates started going narrow, and they got used to them—it’s so nice to have small bars.
“They say that bars should be shoulder width; but when you watch most riders on the drops they drop their hands in, and that takes energy when it is supposed to be your ‘lazy position.’ Effectively, everybody actually rides a little bit narrower anyway, but with wider bars. Look at track riders: they all have narrow bars, and they produce more power than we do. It’s not unworkable. It’s all about being aero and getting those free watts.”
When you see Hansen’s Ridley team bike propped up, the first thing you notice is its extreme saddle position: “My saddle position goes with my cleat position. My cleats are really far back. If you speak to a biomechanics or bike-fit specialist they will have your classic position. So what I want is to have long cranks, to move my cleats back to effectively extend that lever.
“Normally you have your cleat under the ball of your foot, which should be on the axle. Having a longer crank arm means that your leg goes up higher, and down lower, and so does your knee. With the 180s you have more leverage going forward, and less going back because you are more forward. To keep the ball of my foot under my knee to achieve the classic position I moved my cleats back, and then brought my saddle forward to help this all line up. Like this, I still have exactly what the biomechanics say I should have (knee-axle alignment).
“I keep the same biometrics and put the right pressure on the pedal when I want it, it’s just farther forward. It means that I put less weight and power down and produce more torque. If you speak to a mechanical engineer it makes sense, but it’s very hard to measure. You can measure power output, but not how much energy the human is using to create it.
“If you look at time-trial-bike set-ups, and also UCI rules on saddle position, a lot of guys complain about it, and think that the UCI knows nothing. I think that there is a very good reason for the rule, and that they know that if your seat goes forward you have an advantage. Why doesn’t everybody do it? I think it’s culture—it’s cycling. A lot of cyclists don’t like change. Sport directors and mechanics don’t like change. A lot of other riders ask me about it, and you can see their heads go because it actually makes sense. It’s not like I’m just talking rubbish.
“There is a slow change happening; you see a lot of riders using non-offset seatposts now, so everyone is going farther forward. Time-trial bikes produce the most efficiency, and I don’t understand why we just shouldn’t always ride in that (saddle) position? They say that this is not good for climbing, but when I do my intervals on a climb I do standing up and sitting, and a lot of repetitive intervals so that I can get more data to compare. This sounds crazy, but sitting down in an aero position when doing strength work on a climb (which is the most difficult way to climb), well, on one climb I was consistently 10 seconds faster and 12 watts less compared to standing. This is at 8 kph, so there is still an aerodynamic advantage there.
“Why do some riders climb better than others? We like to think it’s about pedaling efficiency, but it’s also about cadence. If you look at a big rider and tell him to climb at 400 watts it’s easy, but ask him to ride at 120 rpm on the flat and produce 400 watts it’s not easy, because there is no resistance on the pedal. It requires a lot to be efficient on the flat, but pedaling squares uphill it’s easy.
“One of my old coaches used to make me do 420 watts at 120 rpm…. I used to hate it. I could do it on a climb, so easy—maybe three sets of 10 minutes. But on the flat I just couldn’t do it. I could not pedal. When you have a slow cadence you can do it because there is always resistance, when your cadence goes up on the flat there is a lot of lost and wasted power—which brings gearing into question too.”
Overall, the bike is far less than half of the factor when it comes to aerodynamics and efficiency. It’s that huge body mass that is the real drag: “At HTC, I was making my own jerseys. If you knew you could see it. I had one of the first aero jerseys back in 2008; they were super tight. I also made them for other riders. My last handmade jersey was a one-piece job with no seams. The company where I had them made hated me and my crazy ideas! When on the bike there was not one seam, just a stitch connecting it. It was the graphics that were really tough, as it had to look perfect, just like the other team jerseys.
“It was all about aerodynamics, energy for free. I was training properly; it was just about fixing all of these little things to help make up those small differences. Now we use Bioracer TT suits, which are really good, so I use them all of the time—you don’t often see me in a regular jersey.”
Hansen’s search for technical gains seemingly knows no bounds, and starts at the bottom, with his homemade shoes: “Everything I do myself. I just had a realization…about it and the amount of time I put into them. It’s taking up a lot of my time. But for me it’s just not about the shoes. It’s the full learning process. If you could see the progress from the beginning to now it is a pretty amazing feat that I have achieved. I have tried everything, different materials, methods and approaches. I have researched a lot and come up with personal ideas.
“Making a part from carbon fiber is not that difficult. Making a whole shoe is extremely difficult. Everything made from carbon should be stiff and light; however, a shoe must have these attributes but also remain flexible and comfortable on the top. It also has to be made in one piece.
“There are four different epoxy resins used, depending on the area where it needs to be applied. I look at the whole project as a learning curve, and what I have learnt has given me a huge amount of experience. For the 2014 Tour de France I went with one pair, weighing in at 64 grams per shoe. I have cut down the process a lot and can now put out a shoe in five days—or even five pairs in five days. This is not including making the first molds. And they are really looking ‘pro finish’ now.”
Mixing It Up
Although many teams now have a brief pre-season focus on core training, Hansen has long since been mixing his preparations: “I like to do a lot of cross-training. I think it helps me to stay fresh mentally as well as benefit me physically. For example this year I didn’t ride my bike between the Tour Down Under [in January] and Paris-Nice [in March]; I just cross-trained.
“I do a lot of extreme hikes (all year round). Sure, I wasn’t totally bike fit when I got to Paris, but physically I was just as fit, and fresher mentally. It only takes a short time to transfer that to the familiarity of cycling—as long as the race doesn’t start with a team time trial. That’s tough.
“After the TDU, I go back to Czech Republic, where I live; it’s bad weather and usually snowing. I’m not going out on my bike in that—I cross-country ski and cross-train. I can still do my intervals, endurance work, and I didn’t grow up with snow so it’s really fun too. Most old coaches and team managers do not believe in this, they do not like it, that’s tradition. I have worked with coaches [including Sebastian Webber] who agree with my ideas, and now the team realizes that I will be prepared and so just leave to do it my way. I don’t have a coach anymore.
“From a biological point of view training is training; you’re using the same heart, the blood is still pumping through, the oxygen, everything is the same. But, what I should do is make the transition between this and racing a bit better; although I just want to enjoy it as much as possible while I can—and it works.
“I also try and convince myself that the more non-cycling training I do the more I will love being at races, and I can see that it’s true by talking and listening to other riders. I love training, I’m getting paid to work out and improve my body—but most of them don’t enjoy the training at all, which is why many retire before they really need to.”
A Clean Slate
Having no cycling ancestry to shape or jade his thoughts is a huge part of Hansen’s success and approach: “Being Australian, we have no real culture, and everything is new. It’s not that history is bad, but I think people do get stuck in the past, and cycling has so much culture, which is great—but it slows teams and progress down a lot. If you look at a team like Sky, nothing they do is about history; they’re defining different ways.
“I think people really get stuck with learning new ways. If you’re learning from a book then you are learning how to learn, and what to learn. If you have an entirely open mind and look at anything then you’re open to new things and ideas. I’m always trying new stuff and experimenting on myself with this. There are other ways out there.”
From issue 46 of peloton magazine. Subscribe now.