One of the biggest shocks of 2020's short and strange season was Tracey Hannah's announcement that she'd be taking a step back from World Cup racing at the end of the season. Tracey has been at the forefront of the women's field since she returned to the World Cup scene with a bang in 2012, taking the win at the very first round of the year in Pietermaritzburg before ending that season with a snapped femur in Val-d'Isère. One thing that's become apparent throughout Tracey's career is her resilience, grit, and determination. She's suffered plenty of injuries and setbacks over the years. Her next win didn't come until 2017 with that being another bittersweet year for the Aussie after crashing out and narrowly missing out on World Champs success in her hometown of Cairns. She got the redemption she deserved in 2019 and took home the World Cup overall with a handful of victories, withstanding season-long pressure from various rivals who tried and failed to depose her.
Whilst retirement wasn't a foreign thought in Tracey's mind, the moment it really dawned on her was sudden and a shock to even her:
Once those thoughts begin to set in on any racer's head the game is up, Tracey knew that and the announcement came a week or so later between the Maribor and Lousa World Cups. It's now a few months down the line and with Tracey now back home in the tropics of Cairns we thought it'd be worth catching up to look back on her career and to find out what the future holds:
We're a few months down the line from Lousa... Does it feel like a normal offseason so far?
Is it months already?! Oh, I know what the problem is... It took me nearly a month to get home. I feel like I haven't been home that long. No, it's so different. It's so weird because when I'm training and preparing for World Cups and the upcoming season I'm only focused on that, I don't go riding with friends, I don't do any other extracurricular activities because I have to be able to train six days a week. Now when I think oh gosh, I feel bad for not training one day or something I'm like oh that's right, I don't really race World Cups any more so I don't need to have that weird mindset.
What can we call it if it's not retirement?
It's a retirement from UCI racing. I didn't want the pressure any more. I didn't want to race at that level any more and I didn't want to be injured. I didn't want to go into a season like three quarters in it. I always want to do something that I'm either 100% in or I'm not. A few riders that retired before me in the women's kind of retired on injuries and because I've had so many injuries I was like if my mind is not 100% in the game it's so easy to get injured and the level in the last couple of years has been quite high. You're either fully in it or you're fully not and I came to the decision that it was about time I was honest about being fully not in it any more.
Has it been strange taking a step back from full-time training?
Yeah, it's actually horrible, that part of I really hate because I like schedule, I like routine, I like being told what to do every week and now I have to do it myself and have to be motivated myself. I'm just in limbo a little bit as 2021 between me and the team is a bit of a transition, I'm still working for the UR Team but the transition of what my role isn't fully understood yet. I'm in a little bit of limbo which is hard but I'm also relieved that I don't have to feel bad for not training 110% every single day in preparation for 2021.
You briefly mentioned it before about holding back in the past on doing things that might interfere with your training and riding. Have you managed to tick off a few of them already?
Not loads yet because the world is shut down, but I've never been skiing. All my friends always go to Japan because it costs like $300 from Australia and I've never done that kind of stuff which I'm super excited about. I always wanted to be perfect because even when you were extremely strict with yourself you still carried niggling injuries with you, like I even came home from this season with bicep tendonitis which I've never even heard of! Say I was training for 2021 World Cup season, well I couldn't really stir up my tendonitis in my bicep because I'd have to train. It's just way more cruisy and I ride the enduro bike way more with my friends, I think endurance wise I'll probably get fitter for it but I just won't have that speed and strength that I used to train for every day.
When did the thought of retirement begin to start and gather more momentum? Was there any particular moment or reason?
Yeah, around four years ago I was negotiating my contract with Couscous and I said I probably have two more contracts in me, the contracts are two years long. After I won the World Cup overall I was super motivated to train for 2020. I hadn't set it in stone or anything but in my head I'd like to retire at the start of the twenties. I had definitely thought of it but then when I won the World Cup overall it completely went out of my mind and then just the way 2020 worked for me I knew I didn't want to race at this level in 2021. It's been so hard. The challenge of waiting one year for a World Cup and then training since October when it was so up and down, it just kinda confirmed my feelings but it was maybe one year earlier than I wanted to or thought that it would happen.
Did the last few seasons of success help make that decision easier?
Yeah I think so. Having an amazing 2017 was because I trained so hard for the World Champs in Cairns and I went into 2018 a little burnt out because of it. I had a bit of a slow season in 2018 and then 2019 I was fresh, I changed coaches, I refreshed everything and had obviously the best season of my life winning the World Cup overall. I was on a high after that. When it came to making the decision this year I wasn't really expecting to make the decision, but just the way everything went and with the acceptance of my results... One goal that I had was to win an elite World Championship, I know not many people do that and it's a super hard goal to reach for. Val di Sole is never going to be the track that I do it and I didn't want to keep racing just fighting for that rainbow jersey for ten years. I was kind of ready to settle down on World Cups but still thought about the rainbow jersey but Leogang was probably the last chance that I had to win a rainbow jersey and with the catastrophic mess that that race was I just accepted that maybe the rainbow jersey in elite just wasn't for me. It's sad, but I know I couldn't win at Val di Sole. It's not my track at all, no matter how well I do there I'm always so far off the pace. I don't want to try for after that year and I knew that was the time to tell Couscous and tell the team that I was done.
How did the team take that?
It was a huge shock because I hadn't talked about it for years, like since when we were doing the contracts. In the moment it was even a shock for me, it was such a weird feeling. The moment I felt it, it was 3 degrees, it was dark already, it was the night of World Champs and I was in the driveway of our accommodation hosing off my muddy clothes. I was like, I don't want to race with this kind of pressure any more, I don't want to be at this level any more. I can't. That was the moment I knew. I thought about it, I obviously didn't go straight into the house like Couscous I'm done! I gave it time. We had a meeting about the future, about what the rest of the year is going to hold and I said before we go any further I just think you should know that I don't want to race World Cups next year. I've been on the team for nine years, you know what it's like to travel with people all the time. He knows me, it's not like he doesn't know my feelings, my mood and my personality so he knows that once I make a decision that's it made. The main priority was working out what 2021 held for me and the team. It was a surprise but not a surprise. It was that thing that you plan, you have a life plan or future plan or whatever. So the timing was right. It wasn't because of Leogang, I just knew after that race that the feeling that I had, the battle that I had racing and challenging myself mentally I was like yeah I've done this, I've raced ten years of World Championships, nine years of World Cup racing. I'm good now!
Injuries. You've had some big ones over the years but you've always managed to work your way back. Did they affect you more mentally or physically?
Injuries always affect you way more mentally. Downhill is not a mental sport, but so much of it relies on you being mentally 110%. You have to know how to switch everything off, you can't care about anything, you have to be selfish and fully focused on the race at hand. Injuries take so much of that away from you so the fight is never physical it's always mental. It's pretty much a battle year after year trying to get back to full mental capacity. The amazing thing is that if you overcome an injury you're actually stronger than you were before because you've overcome that mental obstacle and you take that level up a notch when you overcome an injury.
Were there any particularly bad ones when you thought enough is enough?
In hindsight I probably should have thought that but I never thought that in the moment. Eight years ago I broke my femur and I was in the hospital bed like I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that. I was a bit mental, I'd knocked myself out and I was not with it for a good week and a half. In hindsight, I probably should have cared more but in the moment I was determined to get better and walk, run, ride, get back on the bike and get back to the level that I was at or even better. I guess our racing wasn't only about results for me in the end, it was about overcoming over so many injuries and hard times I guess.
2012 was the year you returned to World Cup racing and you won straight away. How tough was it to keep plugging away and trying to find that support to get back racing at a world level?
I didn't try. I had retired. I had quit mountain biking. It's not that I had no desire to be back racing but I had accepted that it wasn't feasible, it wasn't financially viable, it was just not something that was meant to be, it wasn't my purpose in life. I'd accepted that I had a job that I really liked, I was working in a mine operating machinery. The only reason I got back racing was because I started riding with Remy Morton when he was about fourteen. Me, him and his Dad just started going to these local races, then we went to national races and I was doing really well. Then that same year Michael signed with Couscous and at the same time he said well my sister is riding on a borrowed bike, maybe you want to give her a bike or it's kind of my dream that we'd be on the same team together. Couscous said to me ah yeah for sure, that sounds good, let's do that. We'll bring her to some World Cups, we'll do some media bla bla bla... We went to the first World Cup and I won. That's when he was like wow, no you've got to be on the team full time and race all the races! That's kind of how it started. I just started as a super casual part-time racer just because I was riding at home for fun, it just completely fell on my lap. It was like it was handed to me. It was the first World Cup I'd done in five years and it was in South Africa and I won which was crazy. I was having a bit of a crazy season and Val d'Isere was round six I think and I crashed out and broke the old femur. It just shows you what the team has been like as the first year I signed for the team I had the worst injury of my life and now nine years on I'm still on the same team. It was pretty surreal as I'd thought that path wasn't for me. It was kind of a surreal feeling but it showed me that timing is everything and it just wasn't my time five years earlier and coming back to race at that time and the way it happened, it was kind of crazy and it shows how much the mental game plays in downhill as the next race I did terrible, I did like six flips. No one ever asks about the second round of the World Cup in 2012! It was Val di Sole though... My nemesis!
Do you think it's harder to race and find support living in Australia?
2020 has shown the biggest spotlight on exactly that. If it wasn't clear before it was so much clearer now! Where were all the World Cups this year? Europe. What percentage of Southern Hemisphere riders came? 50, 40% maybe? It was so hard. Me and Michael had to apply to the government, we had to fly over early. We had been at home just riding our local trails... Next minute, hey we are going to have the World Cup series which was up and down for so long. We get over there and everyone had been racing for two months against each other, they're all World Cup level riders and we get there and race the race, get Covid tested twice a week, meanwhile everyone else is going home between races. I was away for three months. I was still travelling home when people had probably rested and started training for the next season. It's hard in general as a normal series, but 2020 made it so much harder. When I look I see a European series, I don't see a world series. Look at the results, where did people come from that won in the World Cups? When everyone comes here to race in Cairns, how did everyone feel? Or when everyone goes to Canada? A completely different lifestyle. These guys find it hard to leave home for two weeks, we have to leave home for a minimum of three months twice a year. Then getting home during Covid was insane... The amount of money that the team had to spend for me, Michael and Joe to even race this year was just insane. We had budget cuts because hey, you're not racing that much we've got to cut your budget... Meanwhile, Covid made everything so much more expensive. It was a crazy year. It definitely shone a light on a lot of things.
You then went without a win until 2017. Was that a frustrating stint for you in terms of results? Were there things affecting your momentum?
I went from never staying overnight in a hospital in 2012 and that's when I broke my femur and my collarbone and then within the year I ended up breaking my collarbone two more times so it took me six months to recover from the broken femur and collarbone. Then three months after that I broke my other collarbone, recovered from that, then I broke the right collarbone again. It was kind of minor injuries that kept going. Once you get injured once you really question yourself, man I'm fragile. If you injure yourself going on three more times... There's something wrong with me, I'm not physically able to do what I'm doing as I keep breaking myself and it just keeps taking you back to this most basic simple rider. You just have to keep building and it's so hard to come back from injuries, especially if you keep getting them over and over and over. I think that's where not winning until 2017 came from, I'd say that was a short time, but in the moment it was going forever. I went from 10th, 9th, 8th, 7th... then I started getting back in the top 5, I think I finished 4th overall like three years in a row. That's when I started being consistent, slowly building, not getting injured. It just had to come from a really stable platformed place and not trying to get there instantly.
Cairns World Champs... Where do we start with this one?
In 2014 I found out we were having the World Champs in 2017. So that's when I started with that! That was the year I started thinking about it and then we had the first World Cup I think we had in 2015 and I got smoked on my home track but it was raining like crazy. Pretty much from the first World Cup that we had there until the World Champs my focus went from World Cup racing to that World Champs race in 2017. I think that is why 2017 ended up being such a good year for me because I spent two years just focusing on one race and it actually brought my riding up to another level.
On form, home track, biggest race of the year... The stars nearly aligned for that one but not quite. How tough was that day to digest?
That was tough. In the moment it was so extremely hard. I felt like I had this opportunity and I just threw it away. As time has gone on I've realised it happened for a reason and it was kind of a beautiful race in the end and not winning was maybe one of the hardest things that has ever happened to me. At the same time coming third in the way it happened was one of the most beautiful races that I've ever been in. For example when I crashed I was like ah, it's over... I'm going to get 20th. Oh well, I'll put it in the back of my mind, just got back on my bike and started riding again. The crowd just started supporting me, it felt like they were like ah man we feel for you but then when I got further down the track the crowd tone kind of changed and it got a bit angrier and a bit more excited and a bit pushier. I could read the crowd, something's happening in the crowd it's as if they're telling me to go. I had this crowd for the last two and a half minutes of the race screaming at me go go go and I pedalled my arse off and I was so dead and I was so overwhelmed. I passed through the finish line 1.5 seconds off the win and I couldn't believe it. The crowd was literally telling me you're there, just keep going. Without that crowd that day I would've probably just rolled to the bottom but the crowd just pushed me to the finish line and that's what I'll remember most from my career. Not the results, not the jerseys, not the medals but the Cairns crowd at the Cairns World Champs pushing me to the finish line and I finished with a medal. It's so overwhelming and beautiful.
Was the 2019 season the redemption you needed for the disappointment of Cairns World Champs?
After World Champs, I left that season burnt out, I wasn't burnt out physically but mentally. There was such a build-up to World Champs and the pressure, the lead up was so long and I knew we were having that race for so long and I put so much pressure on myself that I just went into the offseason when you're meant to feel fresh and motivated to train. I was tired, I was beat up, I was unmotivated. I found the 2018 offseason extremely hard to get through, I felt like I had an out of body experience in 2018. I just rode the best that I could but I wasn't fully functional if you know what I mean. So my point is at the end of 2018 I knew something needed to change. I need a reboot, I need a refresh. I sorted out this coach that had nothing to do with downhill, completely nothing to do with mountain biking. I told him what happened in my career, I told him where I was at, how I was kind of burnt out and I wanted a fresh start. We starting working in October 2018. I went into 2019 a new person and it worked for me. I went into the season, I'd given up consistency, I'm not just going to race for mediocre any more. Maribor was the first race I was like I'm going to go all out, I'm going to do the best I can. I qualified first and just laughed because that was the first year that they decided to give you the leaders jersey for qualifying points. Me and my team manager's wife were just standing there like this is hilarious, it's pouring rain and we're doing the jersey ceremony like how hilarious is this looking down at my body with the leader's jersey on and I just laughed. It kinda carried on from there, this great mood, this great outlook. I've been through so many things that have put pressure on me or overwhelmed me or that have mentally challenged me. Everyone used to say the jersey is so heavy, man it's not so bad after everything I've been through. It's actually kind of cool! It was a moment that I could really enjoy having the jersey.
The pressure at the end of that season looked immense.
It was almost so annoying. I come into the first race in Maribor, everybody was fresh, everybody was there, everybody was 100% and I won qualifying. The next day Tahnee won the race, I got third. Then we go to the next race, Tahnee gets taken out. Okay, Rachel let's battle. Then I'm battling with Rachel, I win qualifying and then get second. Alright, next race Rachel wins and takes the jersey back. Then we go to the next race I take the jersey back in qualifying... Rachel crashes in the race. Gosh, okay I've got the leaders jersey again. Alright, we're good. Next race, Rachel takes herself out. Then Marine comes up and starts fighting me for the jersey. People all year and towards the end of the season were saying yeah but Rachel wasn't there, but Tahnee wasn't there, but bla bla bla... I'm like, I've been fighting this since the start and everybody was in the start gate so don't give me that because I've had people nipping at my heals all year and I've been fighting them off down to the very last race where I only won the series by thirty points and I'd had three different competitors for the whole year. It was an extremely hard series and year to balance mentally and physically, the only thing that really got me through was Couscous being by my side because I could not have given myself advice. The people around me, the team around me, Michael, Couscous, they were the way I got through the season because it was so mentally challenging to just balance everything that was happening and everything that people were saying. That was a really insane year.
Ah 2020... What a year. We finally got racing in September, how did you find racing after such a strange year?
First of all, it was really hard for training because we didn't get a lot of notice that races weren't happening. It was always maybe, maybe, maybe, no. Okay, I had trained and started peaking but okay we're not racing that one. Okay, we've got another race coming up in three weeks alright. Maybe, maybe, maybe, start training, start peaking and no. It seemed all season that we were peaking for races that weren't happening. Then a year after I'd raced the last World Cup we finally got to race the first World Cup of 2020. So how do you survive for a year, you're carrying the jersey, Loic would have felt the same. You carry that leader's jersey and you're trying to fight for the next season and you don't really have a season to fight for. It was very, very hard.
Had you already come over to Europe for that original first round in Lousa?
I was at home, me and Michael had packed our bags and we found out the night before that Lousa got cancelled so we were supposed to leave the next day. A lot of the boys found out when we were there but we were lucky, we had raced in Crankworx. If we hadn't raced in Crankworx we would have been in Lousa, but we raced Crankworx and went home for two days and in those two days we found out that Lousa had been cancelled. So we kind of got lucky for racing Crankworx really.
What was it like crossing that finish line for that final time?
Well I didn't know I didn't have a peak, so it sucked! I didn't even finish the run with my GoPro because it was on my peak back up the hill 100 metres. So many people were like oh man that sucks, she crashed. I was like are you serious? If you know me well enough you know that crashing is my style and I finished with style! It was pretty surreal, there was like what twenty people at the bottom? Normal World Cups have thousands, it was a crazy, crazy season. A crazy year. I think the most memorable was being on the podium with the girls and just the things that people said to me. It was really special and I guess I didn't really realise how much of an impact I'd had on people because my whole focus was on results. I'd never really thought about other things that people might have thought of me. It was pretty special.
You spent the majority of your career on one team. It seemed pretty tightly knit, how key was that relationship and atmosphere in your career?
I think that part is super important and our team fought like family but loved like family and we got along like friends. Having the relationship that we have with the team and having Michael by my side the whole time was so key to having the career I think. Especially coming from so far away, it just got to a point on Couscous' team a few years in I just said to Michael I don't ever want to be on another team. If I am on another team I'd just rather not race, I know this is where we are meant to be and I really enjoy working with these guys and the team just worked out so well. I feel like Couscous always has the rider's best interests at heart and looks after us. He wants us to do as well as we want to do and he's always there to support us and we're lucky to have been able to work with a team like the UR team, it's been amazing.
Obviously you raced alongside Mick which is pretty special. How much did you rely on each other for support and advice over the years?
At the start I was just this person who knew nothing and I sucked at testing camps and I hated pushing up the hills for videos and stuff. I was just this little whinger who just sucked at everything but then it got to the point when I started learning about my bike and I got the feeling and the skills I had on the bike transferred into being able to speak about it, progressing the bike and progressing the suspension. At the beginning of my career on the team, I got so much from what Michael and Couscous taught me and that was super important and helpful. Then I kind of found my own way, found my own direction and then I think they started learning a little bit from me. I think all the different riders that we've had on the team have just been so influential in both of our careers because you just learn so much from so many people. Everyone is so so different which is one thing I've definitely learnt. Just having those good people around you makes a huge difference, especially when you can say that it's your family.
Looking back what's going to be your favourite lasting memory of the World Cup scene?
Man that's a hard one. It's sad to think back, it's sad to think that I have to think of a lasting memory but I think it'll always be like the rivalries and the competition. I just think it's a sport that so tightly knit and I just love that it's a sport where everyone gets along and everyone is like a family. You get in the start gate and you race but at the end of the day you're still friends and you still care. You see that when people get injured. Actually I think one of the most special moments for me was in Innsbruck when Brook did his first downhill race back in 2020. I think he got 11th or 12th and Brook can do way better than that but the most amazing and special thing was that he got the biggest applause and the crowd cheered and clapped for so long but we weren't allowed to have crowds so the only crowd that was there were riders. Everyone was clapping in sync for Brook because he's come back from such a gnarly injury, it was so special that people were crying. There were people in the crowd with tears, I had tears, grown men had tears. That just showed what kind of family the mountain bike community is.
Do you have a kind of biggest “what if”?
What if I didn't retire in 2020? Haha! You know I wish that I had the answer to that, but I don't. I don't have any regrets, I just have lessons and mistakes that I learnt from.
What now? What are your plans? What does the future hold?
I really, really want to be a coach. I'm studying my fitness stuff right now so my anatomy, physiology, learning to be a PT, all the nutrition stuff. I've always been coached but I've never learnt about the side of training people so I'm doing that and this year I had to do a few of my coaching certificates in mountain bikes and my ultimate goal is to do one on one skills clinics and also train people that want to have a future in World Cup racing because I have a lot of experience with injury and the mental side and now I'm learning how to train the body physically, strength and conditioning. Then I have the skills on the bike to help out so I'd like to be a coach, that's my goal.
You're still on board with the UR team and said it was just a step back from World Cup racing so are you still planning on doing Crankworx and that kind of thing?
Yeah, more events at Crankworx, more Mega Avalanche type events, Dirt Masters, Sea Otter, whatever kind of event are happening in 2021 I'm hoping to be there. I want to be able to hang out with fans, talk to sponsors more and just have more of a fun time and stay up late rather than go to bed early and train the next day. I want to be able to have fun for the next few years in mountain bikes and kind of enjoy that side of it because I've been serious for so long.