When Tracey Hannah took her first World Cup win in Schladming at the age of 19, it seemed the path to glory was laid out in front of her. Unfortunately, it never really happened for the Cairns local. Instead, by the end of the following season, she found herself without race support and back home, working in a sand mine.
It was four long years before Tracey was able to race overseas again and she made an instant impact for the second time as she powered to a win at her first World Cup back in Pietermaritzburg. Once again though, she failed to capitalise and turn it into a championship run.
In fact, it wasn't until this year that she could finally claim the overall title that had been just out of reach for 12 years. Drawing on the frustration of her Cairns disappointment in 2017, she changed up her program and sought to break out of her third-place rut. She saw the effects immediately and was leading the series at the halfway point before Rachel Atherton, her closest rival, pulled out with a snapped Achilles. From there she fought mental demons and a charging Marine Cabirou to measure her effort perfectly and secured the title by 30 points in Snowshoe.
Now back home in Cairns, we caught up with Tracey to get the full story on an incredible season:
I guess the best place to start would be the offseason. Did you do anything different to prepare or is it business as usual now?
Actually a fair bit changed. It goes back to World Champs in Cairns in 2017, I trained focussing on that particular race for 2 years. I put all that effort in and it was really hard to come so close but so far away. Getting third, crashing, it was just so intense with the home crowd and the pressure of that race.
I went into the next season just getting small injury after small injury and I was always behind myself mentally. I was tired and I felt I couldn't quite get to that level that I wanted to be at. At the end of that season, I was like, “Ok, everything needs to change, I don't want to train the same way, I don't want to race the same way”.
I had a turning 30 crisis and I didn't want to get the same result every year. Whether it's for the good or bad, I needed to change. I was just consistently doing the same thing, just not quite winning World Cups but not off the podium, just doing well.
Would you say you had settled into this comfortable routine maybe?
Yes, super comfortable, and I don't want to take it away from any of the girls that are outside the top five but it was easy to ride consistent at that level, at that time.
So what changes did you make specifically?
I'm not going to tell you who my new coach is because nobody knows but I ended up finding an athlete that I really looked up to on Instagram and I was like "the way that that person trains is how I want to train."
I found out who was coaching them and then I contacted them on Instagram and said: “I want to do better, I want to train the way that I can see this person training.” It helped that they were training a female athlete so they knew the female body type and mental aspect of extreme sports and they can train you better I believe.
What specific training changes did you make with the new coach?
We worked a lot between the mid-thighs and the neck to get as strong as possible. If you watch Loic Bruni on a bike do you see his body move? If you can be strong in that section everything else will follow.
Did you notice the training translate into your riding?
That's the weirdest thing. It actually takes a while for your mind to catch up to your body physically. For a long time, I was still riding as if I wasn't strong enough. It took a lot of riding to get to the point where I was able to do things that I've not done before and confidently commit.
I guess you noticed that immediately in Maribor when you won the first qualifying?
Yeah, going into Maribor I was actually quite nervous. I was like, “have I just made the biggest mistake of 2019?” Changing my coach, changing my style of training, changing my approach to racing, Maribor was a question of either, have I done the right thing or the wrong thing? And I didn't have until next offseason to change it.
How did it feel knowing you were on the right path and going fastest?
Yeah, awesome. I was quite shocked because normally a European wet track is not my strong point. There was a new rule this year that said if the leader changes in qualifying they get the leader's jersey so my Maribor race run was the first time this year that I felt the pressure of the overall. It was the first time I was like, “wow, this is mental, this is hard”.
How different is it being the last rider down?
First of all, you know you're the last person to go through the finish line. You don't even have to look at the clock when you pass through the finish sign because you have every other rider in your field standing there watching you so you can see it on their faces. Also, at the top you're watching the fastest riders in the world go by you to get into the start gate, that's huge. After qualifying first a few times you kind of get used to it though, you hide away from the start gate.
Do you have any memories from the race run in Maribor?
I was nervous! It had been a while since I'd qualified first at a race and on top of that, I was wearing the leader's jersey. You put that on your body and all of a sudden you've got a monkey on your back and a target on your arse. People are chasing you and you're in control so I really felt the pressure of the overall. It was crazy.
It was another first-place qualifying in Fort William, do you think you're able to lift yourself more for qualifying? Why do you think you did so well in qualifying this year?
I think because from experience I've lost a chance at a better place in the overall by less than 20 points so this year I wasn't going to waste qualifying. I mean I got first by 30 points, I could have thrown it all away by not qualifying well.
So, no, it wasn't that I was riding better in qualifying or the race I just think that I had a different strategy to the other riders and it was to get as many points as possible.
You left Fort William having led for most of the race and just 30 points behind Rachel in the overall. How much of a confidence boost was that?
Racing against Rachel, or Tahnee or Manon at Fort William is always like I’m racing them this weekend because this is their track. I know the track well but they know every rock and they just do so well there. Coming away from Fort William being so close to Rachel, it's when it started to sink in that the overall would be a goal of mine.
Is that a feeling that makes you nervous or excited?
Excited. I mean, she was the one with a target on her back, she was the one we've always been chasing. It didn't really change from season to season, I was just getting closer.
It's easier to be the chaser than the chased right?
When you've got two people going for the overall, one has everything to lose and one has nothing to lose, who do you think is going to ride better at the end of the day? Mentally it's quite hard to carry the jersey than to be coming a close second.
When you won in Leogang, it seemed like it meant a lot to you. What emotions were going through your head when you saw that you'd won?
Yeah, Leogang was the first race I'd won since Fort William 2017 and Rachel had never started a World Cup that I'd won, so Leogang meant a huge lot to me. It was the fourth World Cup win of my life, so four in the amount of years I've been racing, it was pretty amazing to take that win.
Had you become more comfortable with qualifying first at that point?
Yeah, definitely. By the time Leogang came along, I would almost be disappointed if I hadn't qualified first. If you can handle the nerves, qualifying first is fun. You're the last person on the hill, you're the last person that can change the outcome and that's a sick feeling if you can handle the nerves.
Vallnord was the one race you didn't qualify first all year. Was there something about that track?
Vallnord was super weird for me this year. It's my favourite track, I was super excited to get there and do it but I just had the biggest blowout weekend of my life. I may as well have stayed home and it wouldn't have made one single ounce of difference. I crashed in qualifying and then I crashed in my race as well. I have no idea what happened but I would say that Vallnord was the turning point for the rest of the season for sure.
What do you mean by that?
Vallnord was where I said, “Ok, I messed up pretty good this weekend and if I keep going like that I would throw away the overall,” and I almost did that weekend. That was when I had to start thinking about the overall seriously and start toning my race runs back a bit and considering what was at stake. I had to smarten up and start taking the races for the points that were on offer rather than trying to be on top of the podium.
How does it translate racing for points? Are you looking for safer lines and riding them really well or are you riding the same lines but toning back to 95% to be that little bit safer?
For the most part, the lines stay the same but it was toning it back a bit and staying in control. It wasn't taking risks in your race run it was just riding at a level that you know you can go down a hill. Adrenaline gives you so much control and clarity. When you're on your run, time goes so slow and things come at you so slowly. It's like you're riding in slow motion. You have a choice every corner to go out of control or to reign it in. For me personally, I find it harder to keep it on a level where you can go for the win, sometimes I think I reign it in too much.
How did Rachel's injury affect your approach in Les Gets?
Well, let's talk about the two-story-high flat drop landing that the girls had to do to win the race. When Rachel got hurt, I was in our pits with my head in my hands crying speaking to my team manager like, “how am I going to do that drop, that's so scary, it's so risky, it's so hard”. We were just going through mentally, physically if I was capable of it. Getting injured was a huge risk but not doing it was an even bigger risk because the go-around was extremely slow.
It pissed me off because it shouldn't be like that. Things should be hard, things should be technical but things shouldn't be dangerous and I feel like that was just a bit too much. People were taking risks to do that.
We saw a lot of women getting hurt this year, is that indicative of women going faster and the standard being pushed up and up?
Yes, I've done some things on the track this year that I've never had to do, or I've never been brave enough or had the pressure to do. I would also say that this year the tracks were probably in some of the worst conditions they've been in. It's gnarly, it’s hard and it feels like another level. Injuries happen and I've had my fair share of injuries to know that it comes along with the territory but it definitely wasn't the easiest of seasons to be racing and not getting injured.
So how did you overcome the fear and build up to it?
I just watched a lot of riders do it. I watched GoPro a lot and in the end you just have to decide if yes you're going to do it or no you're not. I followed my brother off it and then once you've done it, you don't question it again. It took a bit of convincing mentally to myself to do it, especially after Rachel was so badly hurt on it but I got to the point that I was comfortable on it and got her done.
The emotions were different when you won in Les Gets compared to Leogang. It was pure joy in Les Gets, were you expecting to win in Les Gets?
No, honestly because we're in France and the track just suited Marine's style so much. It was in France so everyone was cheering for her and I know what it's like to have a home crowd. I was aiming for second.
I guess Les Gets was probably the first race that I raced with the overall in mind and I was surprised that a run that was not 100% could take a win. That's when it hit me that overall was real and I could really do it. I was fast enough and maybe even smart enough to go for the overall this year.
Did Marine's winning margin in Val di Sole worry you or were you just able to put it behind you?
It was hard for sure but that's where your team comes in. You might like you had a hard race but then I've got Jamie my mechanic, Michael my brother and especially Couscous my team manager to fall back. Without that support I would have been, “man, do I even know how to ride a bike?” But when you have a good supporting team behind you, they can snap you out of that downer when someone beats you by 11 seconds.
Lenzerheide threw a curve ball as well with the cloud that came in just before the race. You must have been feeling like everything was against you at that point.
I felt so good in Lenzerheide and I felt I could take back some redemption from Val di Sole but I woke up on race day morning and as soon as I saw the rain was coming down, it was back into safe mode. You slip a pedal or you lose a wheel in a corner and you throw away the overall so it was another race that was like what's the point of taking a risk?
It was so easy to crash on that slippery track and I just had to ride within myself and I couldn't take any risks. In the start gate, I couldn't even see the line into the first corner, you can't play with that kind of thing, you can't throw it away so easily so I used that little bit of leeway I had with the points and went for a safe second.
You were 1 second up at split 3 but you don't see that as one that got away?
No, because I knew on that track where my strengths and my weaknesses were in the wet. I had to go fast in the top knowing that here were a couple of corners and a rock garden in the bottom that I wasn't as confident on. It was more like a purposeful, safety margin so I could be even more safe in those sections.
Worlds was next, was that a distraction for you or were you still quite fired up for it?
Man, I was so keen for Worlds. I was excited. I love the speed of Mont-Sainte-Anne and it's such a sick track. My dream is to have the rainbow jersey if nothing else but at the same time, me and Marine still had one race to go and we were fighting for the overall so I didn't want to kill myself.
During practice, I had a couple of mechanicals that caused some insane crashes, some of the worst crashes I'd had all season and it was really hard to manage mentally. I was always going to go for the win but if you have in the back of the mind that you have one race left to race for the overall it's a lot harder than you think it is.
It seemed you were still pretty upset after the race, was that frustration that you couldn't still go for it?
I felt what it would feel like to not win the overall. I wanted so badly to win the World Championships that it was painful to lose knowing that's what next weekend could feel like.
I was like, “I don't want to lose the overall, I don't want to throw it away, I don't know how I could go on on Monday if I get second in the overall”. Me and Marine were just pushing each other on a whole new level, I was doing some lines that I have never had to do before. All the emotions of that came rushing in after my Worlds run and it was a realisation of what the overall run meant to me.
It sounds torturous.
I know! What you couldn't see on the videos was my brain just exploding and it's painful.
We got to Snowshoe and qualifying doesn't count, which didn't play into one of your strengths this year. What do you think about that rule?
Not only that but they added the qualifying points to the final result so as if my little margin of points wasn’t small enough, it was a lot easier to beat if she did well.
First of all, the track was insane. It was a track we'd never ridden, it rained all night before practice and it was a two-minute long rock garden of moss and slime. My first run on that track I walked most of it!
How can you finish a season that's been so hard already on one of the most insane tracks that I've ever had to learn to ride? It was another level worried and frustrated. I was so stressed and nervous at the last race. I spoke to Loic about it and we were both kind of like "wow".
I guess you guys were going through the same emotions, did you chat a lot through the season?
We didn't chat a lot, but on race morning and I sent him a message saying “good luck”, knowing that I was in exactly the same boat as him and he said, “you too”. It was a way of saying, “if anyone knows how you’re feeling right now, I do. We're in this boat together, let's paddle this thing to shore together and get out of here and run home with the gold.” It's almost like two words said everything and I know he knew exactly what I meant.
So what were those feelings, extreme nerves? Fear?
Maximum stress, nervous, anxious feelings. You know how you're boiling potatoes on that stove and you can't keep the lid on? No matter what you do that lid's coming off and that's how hard it is to control those nerves.
When you were in the start gate did you know Marine was in the hot seat?
Do you want to know the most awful thing that happened? I got into a place where I was in the zone, I felt good, I had to get a top-six, sweet. I got in the start gate and for some reason, those Americans had a speaker at the top of the hill. Just before I started to get my ten-second countdown I hear, "And Marine goes into the hot seat!!".
Every calm thought, everything that I had ready in the start gate literally left when those words came through and that thought was on my mind the whole run. You can't even imagine riding a four-minute track and starting with that.
Do you have any memories of the run itself?
I was talking to myself the whole run like "Marine's on the hotseat”, “you're riding too slow”, “you're riding too fast”. I was out of control in my mind but in way too much control on my bike I think.
What were the first thoughts when you crossed the line and realised?
Relief, I did not want to have the feeling that I knew I would get when I was at World Champs. I had my friends, my boss my family all there and I looked up and they were just running before I'd even put the brakes on. I couldn't believe it. None of us could believe it. I got to Couscous he was crying, my mother was crying. It was unbelievable, it still brings a tear to my eye.
That's why you train and that's why you work hard because that's a feeling you'll only get if you give everything. You might never get that feeling but if you work hard enough you might just get it once in your life.
Does this make up for Cairns 2017?
I think this is because of Cairns 2017. When you make a mistake or you fail at something, if you really want it, you work even harder. Because of Cairns, I have had the opportunity to work extremely hard and reach a goal. Cairns made me so determined not to let things like that happen again, I just want to do better and because of that I've had the opportunity to do something that I've never even dreamed of, to win a World Cup overall and it's unbelievable.
What are your goals for next year?
Rainbow jersey. I guess the best thing about winning the overall is that you really can focus on one race. I'll be thinking about that rainbow jersey and how I can use each and every race to work towards that one race which will be my main focus.