Interview | Specialized Bikes Global Adventurer Hannah Barnes
For a number of years now Hannah Barnes has been been the smiling, happy and adventurous face of women’s mountain biking. She has brought us exciting adventures from all over the world and has amassed an army of social media followers. This year Hannah joined Specialized Bikes and will be working as a brand ambassador and racer, taking part in the Enduro World Series rounds. However, Hannah is keen to stress that her vision is more than racing and she hopes to share the joy of trail riding and exploration during her globetrotting exploits.
Acting as a role model to many young riders certainly brings its responsibilities and we were keen to find out more about how Hannah has managed to create a career out of a love for bikes and adventure, and her thoughts on the future of women’s cycling and elite level racing. We sat down for coffee in New Zealand to find out more.
How has it been living in New Zealand?
It’s been awesome! I came last year, so I already knew what a great place it is. We bought a van so I could spend a week in each place, but this time we headed straight for Nelson and Rotorua as they were our favourite places.
Being in NZ for a while, have you found that there is a strong riding community?
Yeah absolutely! I feel really at home here. Everyone is so friendly, chilled, and helpful. The locals are so passionate about the riding, and there is an amazing riding community of all abilities and ages, it’s awesome!
How was the opening round, it looked pretty tough from the side-lines?
It was daunting and also great fun to be back at an EWS after the Winter, and really lovely to see everyone again. It was my first event riding for Specialized, so it was amazing to have their support and be with such a welcoming and positive team! The first stage down to the Blue Lake was so hard with a maze of slippery roots and deep energy sapping mud on the flatter sections to power through, it was a full-on stage to start with and definitely woke everyone up I think! It was amazing to ride down with so many supporters cheering us on, the Kiwi crowd really get stuck in which makes it so fun to race! There were some really funny comments from the hecklers and the hilarious cheering helped to keep it fun.
How did it feel to drop into the final stage?
The transitions had been really tight so I think at that point we were all just relieved to get round, the girls and the majority of the guys had worked really hard to meet the transitions so it was great to get to the end. Stage 7 was the DH track used the day before for Crankworx, it was another fast and full-on track! I was slightly nervous as it was all on live TV, but I had a clean run and was happy to have had a good day and raced another really tough race.
Yes you were on the big screen the whole way down!
Really, ha, how embarrassing.
There has been a lot of talk that the EWS’s are getting so hard now that they’re not as much fun for the racers, what’s your thoughts on this?
It is a tough one, and depends how you define fun haha. The races do have to be hard, as they are a World event. It does seem hard to find the balance, and the events are still evolving. I do think that it would be good to lengthen the transition times, not massively, but enough to be able to eat and take a few minutes at the start of each stage to prepare. I don’t think it’s fun to be practically racing to the start of each stage, I think that is the general consensus from the other racers too.
If you get a mechanical then it’s nearly impossible to fix it and make your start time with such tight transitions. As far as the stages themselves go, they are generally awesome! Again, I think it’s a hard balance to find the right technical level as some of the stuff is pretty terrifying! Just doing these races is an achievement, it has pushed my riding on massively. It’s amazing what the World Enduro Series is doing for the sport, and it’s a great thing to be part of and see it all evolving.
So what caused the move to Specialized?
It has been a very exciting few months! It was not something that was ever planned, I was happy with Silverfish (UK Yeti distributors) riding on my own program, and wasn’t looking for anything else. However, at the end of the season I was contacted by Specialized and after a few weeks of chatting I realised that it was such a fantastic opportunity, it was an obvious decision for me to make. The guys at Silverfish/Yeti completely understood and were happy for me and the opportunity I had, they are great guys and I’ll keep in touch with them.
Specialized have been really pushing and developing the women’s market, I felt that I would fit in really well there and it was something I could be really involved in. There is a huge team working on the Specialized Women’s product development, marketing, everything! I love the way that Specialized are properly focussed on catering to the women’s market, and I love their approach. For such a huge company, it’s amazing how much of a family relaxed feel there is within it. Everyone is so incredibly friendly, enthusiastic and welcoming, I really do feel so fortunate to be part of it!
So what bikes will you be riding this year?
This year I will be riding the S-Works Enduro 650b. I also have an Era for XC, it will also be perfect for the Yak Attack! I just got an Amira road bike, I can’t wait to get out for some long road rides this summer! I would love to ride the Rhyme too, I was so impressed with this bike when I rode it for the Destination Trail video shoot in Rotorua, I think a lot of women are going to love this bike! For some of the more peddaly and flowy Enduro’s this bike would be perfect!
What is your role exactly with Specialized?
A bit of everything really! Racer, rider, brand ambassador, adventurer. I enjoy doing it all, and I think that is also good for Specialized and why they asked me to be part of the team. Making video’s, the social media side, going to events, exploring new places and sharing the journey while racing a variety of events. I think it is really important to do a bit of everything and generally give off positive vibes for myself and Specialized. I would say that it’s essential if you are not winning world level races to be valuable in other ways.
Do you have any involvement in kit development?
I give feedback on current kit I’m using, and I’m definitely keen to help develop and test kit. It is early days at the moment, and perhaps that will be part of my role in the future.
So talk us through your winter, what’s being going on with you?
At the end of the season after Finale, I was at home for a few weeks, then it was straight over to Sri Lanka for ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, a four day marathon race. It was a tough race and big days, and I was really happy to come third! After I got home I had a month of not riding too much, just some swimming, yoga, running, and enjoying a really nice Christmas! I think down time is important after a busy year. The Scottish winter had been pretty wild and cold, we had some nice sunny winter days and got some skiing in, but it was mainly pretty wild! It was awesome to head to NZ to start summer early!
You’re a nurse right, are you still doing nursing work?
Yes, I am still doing some nursing. I am full time now with Specialized, but I want to keep my nursing going. After doing my degree and all the studying, some open university unscheduled care modules, and all the learning and work until now, it would be a shame to throw it away and stop completely. I will keep doing some shifts, the mandatory training and studying hours to maintain my registration. It’s tough keeping that up and fitting it in, but I think it’s really important. I really enjoy it, and it’s great to have a bit of variety in life! I work in the Belford hospital in Fort William, either in the Combined Assessment Unit or A&E, everyone is so nice and supportive and they understand the way I live my life.
OK, back to travel, you seem to fit the role of global adventurer really well, what two things do you never leave behind?
There is one thing that I have always left behind, but I am going to start carrying again, and that’s my fiddle. I really miss playing when I’m away. I was thinking about getting a whistle, that would be a more practical instrument to carry, although it wouldn’t quite be the same!
You should get a recorder.
You must be joking haha
Is the fiddle a Cèilidh instrument?
Yes, it is the celtic/traditional name for a violin. It’s the same instrument, but it plays different music. I have played since I was about ten and I love it! I used to be in a little band and we travelled around Scotland doing gigs. One gig was on the island of Eigg, so we got a speed boat out there and strapped our instruments down, amazing fun!
Does Joe play too (Joe Barnes is Hannah’s brother)?
Yes Joe plays the guitar, but he doesn’t really play anymore.
What would be the best travel advice you have ever been given?
I am not sure about advice that I have been given, but I have certainly learned from experience that it is important to carry some spare clothes in your hand luggage as bikes and bags do go missing and it’s a nightmare if all your belongings are in there.
Have you ever had any travel disasters?
Oh, yes I have had quite a few travel disasters haha. Last year I was travelling from Colorado to Whistler. I checked in nice and early, and was waiting and waiting for the call to the gate. About ten minutes before my departure I started to wonder why I had not been called up to the flight. I asked a lady and she said “oh no, we don’t call you, you just get on, that’s your plane there”, I looked out the window to see it taxiing down the runway. I asked when the next flight was and it was 12 hours later. So I ended up having a fun day in Denver airport.
Also in Sicily last year, my bike didn’t turn up. I was there for a one day enduro and my bike turned up on Saturday morning four days later, just in time for me to ride the final stage. So I travelled all that way to ride one stage!
Do you speak any other languages?
No I don’t, I would love to, and I feel a bit stupid going to a country and not knowing their language! I have tried to learn some French but I have not really made any headway beyond the basics.
That’s unusual as musical skill normally goes hand in hand with languages.
Yes, it’s funny, I can sit in a car and listen to a tune four or five times, and when I get home I can play the tune, but languages just don’t stick.
Where would the best day on the bike be for you?
Oh, that’s so hard! I guess it would be a day at home in Fort William when the sun is out and trails are dry, it’s just brilliant, It’s always so nice to be home. Ultimately it would be somewhere in Scotland. It’s great to travel but when you get a sunny day at home with your friends, that’s better than anywhere. Good sunny days in Scotland are rare, but when you get one, Scotland is so incredibly beautiful. I guess it would be the same for everyone, home trails are always the most rewarding.
Do you do your own bike maintenance?
I do the basics. My bikes arrive fully built, which is awesome! Paddy keeps my bikes tuned at races, and in between I can generally keep them in working order. Joe’s mechanic Dougie will help out if I’m struggling!
Many young girls and boys see you as a role model, what advice would you give those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Ride your bike and have fun! For me it was good to have done my nursing degree too, it means there is no pressure to make mountain biking a career and place all your hopes and dreams on one thing. I didn’t really plan for this to be my full time job, it has just grown organically which is awesome. To earn a living from something I love is fantastic and I am really appreciative of the way I can live my life because of riding, all the awesome people I have met along the way, and companies who support me is really amazing! It can be a short career relative to more conventional jobs, so I think it’s important to have balance in your life and have other ways to earn a living and be contented if it all suddenly stops.
For brands to want to invest in you it doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a lot of hard work and it takes time, but there’s nothing wrong with that! I think that sometimes athletes can become a little selfish, absorbed in their own training worlds etc. It is important to see the bigger picture in life, it’s not the end of the world if you get a puncture or not the race result you were hoping for, or the sponsorship you would like etc., Working in the hospital looking after very sick people makes me really appreciate my health and the small things in life! Getting up and doing some yoga, enjoying a nice coffee, running in the hills, enjoy it all because lot’s of people in the world don’t have that luxury. There are plenty of ways to enjoy riding, racing, exploring the world, and enjoying life! Surround yourself with positive people, it’s quality not quantity, and just have fun!
How did you fall into the adventurer role?
I have always just loved adventures, from the very beginning and way before I started riding bikes! Growing up with a really outdoors focussed family, going camping, bothy trips, skiing and just getting muddy and stuck in from an early age was brilliant! My family sailed from Fort William to the Caribbean and back when I was 15, it took a whole year and it really instilled a sense of adventure in me.
When I returned to school I decided that I really wanted to be a nurse, it seemed like it would be a great career. But before I committed to University I decided I needed one more adventure so I went to Alaska for six months to train and mush sled dogs. It was amazing working with the dogs, and getting them ready to compete in 1000km races. I lived in a little log cabin in the middle of the woods with no running water, and I had to dig a walkway in the snow to get to the outhouse. Ski trips in the Alaska range, taking 12 dogs into the mountains for days at a time, training puppies, going on the snow machine to make sure moose weren’t on the training loop… it was a proper adventure!
During university Joe was racing downhill so I often used to go and watch him race, and I just thought it looked really good fun! I brought a Cove Stiffee and started racing Scottish XC races. Then I heard about the Big Ben Nevis Triathlon and trained specifically for 8 months for it. I was so happy to win (Hannah came 4th in the men’s too). I was doing loads of racing but I really enjoyed the travelling side too, just packing up the van and heading off! I think I have found a really nice niche, which is perfect for me and I am doing exactly what I love!
Who were you role models growing up?
I always think that Ellen McArthur who singlehandedly sailed round the world is amazing, Miles and Beryl Smeaton too they were an amazing couple. One of their many books ‘The extraordinary lives of Miles and Beryl Smeeton’ is so inspiring and well worth a read! My Parents are also a big inspiration and set a good tone for living life to the max! Dad was a top hill runner, and won loads of big races and records. Mum was a great XC skier and hill runner, she even won the Ben Nevis race! They started sailing when Joe and I were young, and spent the last 10 years living on their yacht sailing around the Caribbean, South America, up the Orinoco river, Guatemala, just living a simple life exploring on their boat. Awesome!
Do you print your photos out.
No, but I think I will start. It would be really nice to have pictures and memories up on the walls at home.
Do you think it is easier or harder for women to make careers in the male dominated sport?
I think it’s easier, it may get me in trouble here, but there are a small amount of women working in a huge market, for the guys the market is even bigger but there are so many more guys racing at such a high level proportional to the amount of support available. Most brands are now looking for women’s ambassadors as there is a quickly growing market there. Although it’s great seeing your name up high on the results board, your role for the brand is also to connect with as many people as you can, perhaps more so for women ambassadors/racers to connect with other women within the sport.
What do you think of some of the articles circulating that claim that female riders in the spotlight who focus more on the adventure and lifestyle of the sport are outcompeting dedicated racers for funding and sponsorship?
Brands support riders who they feel promote their brand in a positive way, in the direction they want their brand to be pushed. A brand will support a variety of athletes to cater for the whole audience. Some racers, some ‘adventure’ all round riders, each has their place and all are really valuable. For example, Aaron Gwin and Matt Hunter both have a very different but equally important role, to think otherwise seems narrow minded and short sighted to me. It is bizarre that these articles focus specifically on female riders. It is a shame to have this negative view, each to their own! All positive publicity and media for mountain biking and a happy and healthy lifestyle is surely good!
Have you seen the women’s market change over the last few years?
Definitely, it is growing exponentially which is awesome!
What’s are your thoughts on women’s bikes, is there a place for them or do smaller men’s bikes work just as well?
There is definitely a place for them, it is awesome that there is so much going into womens product development. Women are physically different to men, so having kit tailored for their needs makes perfect sense.
What’s next for you, do you have any big adventures planned for this year?
Plenty, it is an action packed year full of fun and exciting things! I’m really looking forward to the Yak Attack in Nepal, and also hopefully another big video project with Cut Media.
Awesome, best of luck Hannah on the next EWS round in Ireland
To follow Hannah you can like her facebook page
Words | Trev Worsey
Photos | Robin Schmitt / Paris Gore