Hanson locks up criterium jersey and still wants more in Europe

Optum sprinter continues to reach for Europe, now with a red, white and blue jersey on his back

Ken Hanson is a top-flight domestic criterium sprinter, and has been since turning pro in 2006 with the then-UCI Continental BMC Racing. Now, he has the jersey to prove it, but the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies rider doesn’t want to stop there.

The Santa Barbara, California, native beat out Brad Huff (Jelly Belly-Kenda) and Brad White (UnitedHealthcare) at the USA Cycling Professional Criterium National Championship on Saturday for his first-ever professional national title, and will wear the stars-and-stripes jersey as national champion in all criteriums over the coming year.

Hanson spoke with VeloNews Monday afternoon about his win, what it means to him and his push for versatility as a rider.

After having come close once before — second in 2010 at the Glencoe Grand Prix — Saturday’s win fulfills a major career goal for Hanson. “It’s huge,” he said. “It’s certainly been a top priority for myself and for the team… myself for a number of years.”

“This has kind of been the elusive one that I’ve been going after for a couple of years now,” he added.

Despite Hanson’s status as a prolific criterium winner, he has never been in a position to win a national professional title. The difference this year, he said, is in the team around him, specifically leadout men Mike Friedman and Alex Candelario, the latter of whom notched two top-10 finishes of his own in bunch sprints at this year’s Amgen Tour of California.

“The support of the guys was a big factor,” he said. “I had the perfect leadout train… two of the best American riders in front of me.”

Optum performance director Jonas Carney, in a statement on the team’s website, called the win “almost picture perfect.”

With his new stars-and-stripes jersey, it would be easy to mistake Hanson for a pure, American-style, criterium sprinter. Hanson, however, feels otherwise. “People can try to peg me,” he said, “but I’ve produced results at the hardest one-day races in the U.S.”

These wins — seven of his 14 wins in 2012 have come in UCI road races — are a result of his push for physical diversity as a rider.

“These last few years I’ve been trying to become more well-rounded as more than just a criterium sprinter,” he said. “I’ve been working a lot more on the endurance side, but being really conscious not to lose my high-end power.”

He points to his recent results outside of criteriums, including fourth in last year’s TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship, fourth in this year’s national championship road race, along with six UCI road race wins, as proof.

“It’s good to be versatile as a sprinter,” he explained. “It’s been a couple years of working on becoming more versatile as a rider, working on my four-to-six-hour endurance and being able to sprint after a hard road race… but still trying to keep my raw power for criterium sprinting.”

Candelario, whom Hanson described as, “the hardman sprinter,” does agree that Hanson still has an edge in short, fast, bunch sprints. However, Candelario, who took Hanson to within 300 meters of the line for Saturday’s win, has also noticed Hanson’s change as a rider.

“He’s showing that he can do a lot of different things,” Candelario said. “He’s ridden in some pretty hard breaks… he’s showing that he’s got more aerobic capacity than in years past.”

Hanson says his end-goal is to race in Europe.

“I would like to get an opportunity to go get a shot at doing the bigger races,” he said. “I would also like an opportunity to do a lot of the classic one-days, like (the Tour of) Flanders and Roubaix.”

Ken Hanson’s drive for versatility, he hopes, will propel him from top-flight American sprinter onto the international stage.