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Interview: British champion Hannah Barnes fit, firing and finding her way

National road race champion reflects on bouncing back from serious injury and looks ahead to 2017 season

British champion Hannah Barnes is still only 23, but the Canyon-SRAM rider seems to have been at the sharp end of women’s professional cycling forever. By turning pro as a teenager and racing in America, Britain, and continental Europe, and overcoming long-term injury, she has gained a maturity beyond her years.

“I’m still finding my way,” Barnes admits in a phone call from her Girona base at the start of a new season. By that time, she had intended to be Doha-bound. No more. The Ladies Tour of Qatar, and men’s too, come to that, are kaput. This is no more than an inconvenience to Barnes, however. She has faced greater setbacks, and overcome them.

Her career path already resembles a long and winding road; a highway that has led her away from her loved ones, and through the twilight world of sustained injury; a debilitating landscape from which she has emerged with her talent and ambition intact.

British champion Hannah Barnes will ride for Canyon-SRAM for the second season, after an injury-hit first campaign with the team (pic – Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

“I think I’d like to give the track a go, maybe,” she muses, in a wide-ranging conversation that encompasses everything from a successful training camp, in 2013, with the Great Britain women’s team pursuit squad, to life in Girona with boyfriend Tao Geoghegan Hart, the Team Sky neo-pro.

On the eve of her first season ‘proper’ wth Canyon-SRAM – a new beginning with the German super team, following last season’s injury-blighted first campaign – Barnes is upbeat and honest; an athlete of exceptional promise, yet still sufficiently grounded to admit that to live the life of a professional cyclist is to live a dream.

Start, stop

Rewind four years and Barnes was hurtling past the former Smithfield headquarters of RCUK with arms aloft, on a magical June evening in which she had seemed to right the wrong fate had dealt her with the collapse of Team Ibis Cycles, the Netherlands-based professional outfit she had left Britain a year earlier to join.

“That was a really, really hard year for me,” Barnes remembers of her relocation, as a 19-year-old, to Holland. “It took six or seven races even before I was even able to finish a professional race.”

Time seems not to have erased the disappointment. Which race? And what was her finishing position? “Gent-Wevelgem,” she says, ruefully. “I was ninety-sixth.”

It is a measure of Barnes’ standards that finishing among the first 100 riders at one of the toughest races on the professional calendar, as a teenager, living and racing abroad for the first time, remains a source of disappointment.

“You get to your final year as a junior and think, ‘I have to start finding teams that race in Europe and take on the biggest races on the calendar.’ I definitely found out the hard way that’s not always the best option.”

Compelled in 2013 to recalibrate her career on the domestic circuit with MG-Maxifuel, Barnes spoiled the London homecoming of Olympic queen Laura Trott, then of the top-tier Wiggle-Honda squad, by outsprinting her to win the London Nocturne.

Barnes opted for the road over the British Cycling Olympic Track Programme (pic – Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

When commissaires deemed Barnes’ celebration ‘dangerous’ (no other cyclist, of course, has ever raised their arms in triumph when crossing a finish line) it seemed Barnes was caught in a cosmic funk. Happily, justice prevailed and the finishing order on the night (Barnes, then Trott), was belatedly upheld.

Both have come a long way since. Trott is indisputably the queen of British cycle sport, in the public imagination at least, even though Barnes has shown a degree of courage and ingenuity that surely augers for results of a similar significance.

(c) Cycling Images
(c) Cycling Images
(c) VeloFocus

On track?

Indeed, there was a time when Barnes might have joined Trott in the elite quartet of Britain’s all-conquering women’s team pursuit squad. At the end of 2013, with a dominant campaign on the domestic circuit a reminder to sources in Manchester of her innate ability, British Cycling invited Barnes to a team pursuit training camp.

“I was on the Talent Team from the age of 13, and I’d always had the option to join the Olympic Academy, but I made a choice not to go,” she says. “It wasn’t that they didn’t want me, I just felt that I was more of a road cyclist than a track cyclist.”

You get to your final year as a junior and think, ‘I have to start finding teams that race in Europe and take on the biggest races on the calendar.’ I definitely found out the hard way that’s not always the best option.

“For me, [the road] was an adventure, and I was able to go wherever I wanted. Road cycling offered the best variety of racing; the track seemed so repetitive. I’ve always had support from British Cycling, and I had contact with everyone, saying they admired my decision to take a completely different path.”

Perhaps the door is not completely closed. Is the track an itch still to be scratched? Barnes will still only be 26 when the Tokyo Games rolls around in 2020.

“I did go to a track camp at the end of 2013 with all of the team pursuit riders,” she explains. “I did a week there, and they said I could come on board, if I wanted to do. It wasn’t something I wanted to do then, but now I think I’d like to give the track a go, maybe; just try it once and have a good go at it.”

Barnes, pictured after the time trial at the UCI Road World Championships, remains well-supported by British Cycling (pic – Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

Barnes’ idea of ‘a good go’ tends to lead to success. Competition for places in the women’s team pursuit squad are hot. Names like Archibald, Barker, Rowsell and Trott decorate the roster, but Barnes too is a class act. One suspects she would have at least a fighting chance.

UHC and the USA

If the road had promised adventure and a chance to go where she wanted, it should have come as little surprise when Barnes headed to America to join UnitedHealthCare. The precocious talent brought back home by the collapse of her first team was again heading abroad, and this time considerably further afield than the Netherlands.

Barnes is not the type to be cowed, however. Life in America, she says, was like a whirlwind, and like nothing she’d ever experienced. UnitedHealthCare is no small enterprise: a well-funded outfit with a men’s and women’s team, mechanics, soigneurs, and supportive team-mates. Barnes lived among them, near the service course, in Asheville, North Carolina.

Hannah Barnes arrived at Canyon-SRAM via UnitedHealthCare, where she honed her riding skills after a harsh learning curve in her first season with Team IBIS Cycles (pic – Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

Things began with an email (her success in Britain had not gone unnoticed), then a training camp in Arizona, and then, with temperatures presumably not hot enough, a place in the team for the Gran Prix San Luis Femenino in Argentina, where she bagged her first professional victory.

Better still, when she returned to Europe to race again, at the Women’s Tour, the Giro d’Italia Femminile, and La Course, Barnes was no longer outclassed by the opposition she had struggled to contend with as a first-year pro with Team Ibis Cycles.

Success breeds success, and confidence too. The European peloton had not become slower; Barnes had got faster. Despite her advancement, however, after nearly two full seasons, she was ready to return home. In cycling circles, Europe is the big time.

“It’s quite astonishing, the difference between racing in Britain and then in America and in Europe. In America, I got quite lazy. The roads are so big that you can go from the back to the front of peloton in seconds, whereas in Europe, the roads are so smalll, that if you’re not in the top 20, it can be very difficult,” she admits.

Hannah Barnes, Canyon-SRAM, 2016, salute, sprint, pic - Allan McKenzie-SWpix.com
Hannah Barnes, Canyon-SRAM, pic - Allan McKenzie-SWpix.com
Hannah Barnes, time trial, aero, Canyon Speedmax CF, Canyon-SRAM, pic - Allan McKenzie-SWpix,com

Canyon calling

“Every cyclist knows Europe is where the real racing is,” Barnes says.

With nearly two years completed at UHC, Barnes began emailing her CV to European teams. Ronny Lauke, the vastly experienced manager of the newly-disbanded Velocio-SRAM was keen to secure Barnes’ services, even when a broken talus (a complex bone in the ankle) brought a premature end to her career Stateside.

“They still wanted me,” Barnes says, with a note of surprise still in her voice. “They signed a rider, even when they didn’t know when she would be back on bike again. My second race back was Flèche Wallonne and for Canyon-SRAM to give me that opportunity was really great. The support they’ve given me has been really special.”

She remembers her first training camp with Lauke’s squad, an occasion she showed up to wearing a surgical boot. While her new colleagues racked up the miles, Barnes headed to the gym for a no-less grueling series of rehabilitation exercises. A photo on Barnes’ Instagram account, where the muscle wastage in her right leg is shown into sharp relief by the definition in her left, offers a pictorial summary of what must have been a challenging period.

“I didn’t know any of the riders well, only Alexis [Ryan], who had come with me from UHC.  I spent 12 days in Mallorca without putting my leg over a bike. I couldn’t even walk, with my leg in a boot. I just worked with the physios.

Setbacks and possibilities

Barnes could not have foreseen a more difficult ending to her UHC career, even if a seemingly innocuous crash in the feed zone at the 2015 USA Pro Challenge wrought a longer-term injury than she first imagined.

“I’d broken a collar bone before – what cyclist hasn’t? – but that’s a completely different injury. It was a really stupid crash, and immediately, I knew I’d done something bad. I had six CT scans in six weeks. After each of the first three scans, the doctors said they hadn’t seen any knitting of bone.

Barnes lives in Girona with her boyfriend, Team Sky neo-pro Tao Geoghegan Hart, and admits he ‘saw her in some dark times’ during her long injury lay-off (pic – Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

“Every time I went to see the doctor, I was thinking, ‘I could be walking out as a cyclist again,’ but I was in a cast for 18 weeks, with no weight bearing. I did four weeks in a boot, and was able to put on a tiny bit of weight on it [the ankle]. On January 30, I was given the all clear to start training again, but only for 10 minutes.”

With hindsight, Barnes is able to reflect with some positivity on her approach to the arduous process of recovery. Splitting her time between England and Girona, she was never far from loved ones, even if Girona and its constituency of professional cyclists provided a constant reminder of what she was missing.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” she says now. “I don’t know how I got through it as I did. Tao saw me in some pretty dark times. British Cycling have helped me from the day I crashed. Everything was booked through them: appointments, recovery, gym sessions. With their help, and with help from Canyon, and my parents, I’ve recovered. Anything is possible!”

New beginnings

“I’m looking forward to going into this year fit and healthy. Last year, I was pretty happy with my season overall, considering the circumstances, and hopefully I can take some confidence from that.”

It will be a second season under Loake’s leadership. The joke among the riders, she says, is that while he seems “German and scary”, team meetings can be like “Christmas dinner with your uncle.” Equally, he “takes no messing”. His complements are worth having, Barnes says, simply because they must be earned.

I don’t know how I got through it as I did. Tao saw me in some pretty dark times

She praises two further German influences within the team, those of Trixi Worrack and Lisa Brennaur. It is Worrack especially who brings the team together, off the road and on, Barnes says. A quiet presence at the dinner table, yet one able to bring the team together, on the road she is Canyon-SRAM’s captain, unafraid to speak up when leadership is required to navigate the shifting sands of a race.

Best to come?

Barnes hopes to show at the Classics, perhaps even assuming the status of protected rider as she evolves, in her own words, from pure sprinter to all-rounder. Such a path is well trodden; the fast-finishing rouleur is often one of bike racing’s most exciting exponents.

The long period of recovery may only have sharpened Barnes’ hunger for victory. Canyon-SRAM is home to significant talents, notably that of new acquisition Pauline Ferrand-Perot, a former world champion on the road, cyclo-cross, and mountain bike, but Barnes does not seem out of place. After relocations and recovery, and with the British champion’s jersey on her back, she seems poised to deliver her best.

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