Professional cyclists take a lot of flights. Back and forth between home, races and training camps and even the odd occasional transfer on Grand Tours.
Most riders don’t think twice about cruising along at 35,000 feet: it’s second nature, mere drudgery to them. Well, Adam Hansen (Lotto Soudal) is different: he has a fear of flying.
“I have good days and bad days. If I have a bad feeling – and it can be anything, if something small on the plane isn’t right or doesn’t add up – I’m just a nervous wreck. I have a heart rate of 150 almost the whole flight,” he says.
“The strange thing is that my father and mother were pilots. As a child, we flew quite a lot and I used to love it.”
It stems from the early days of his career during a week spent on the indoor trainer in winter. “I was watching aviation stuff on TV and really got into it. I didn’t realise how the smallest, most simple thing can make a plane fall out of the sky.”
A technology nut who understands the inner workings of aviation inside out, Hansen essentially knows too much. “Once you find out all the reasons that the planes crashed, it just gets in your head,” he says.
Hansen’s fear has not been helped by several heart-in-mouth moments on planes. “I’ve been on two flights in bad weather where we’ve done two attempts and the pilot’s just said ‘we’ve ran out of fuel, we have to make this landing now.’”
“There was one where we stayed above Brisbane and didn’t land. I had the lady next to me holding my hand like full tight grip and her son was by her side. When he saw her holding a complete stranger’s hand, he was screaming too.”
The more Hansen calmly explains his phobia, the more sense it makes – and the more it makes me a little fearful about my next flight.
“Cyclists have been on so many planes, I think when you fly so much, something has to happen one time. I know that’s a really bad way of thinking but it’s not surprising, if you know what I mean.”
Another occasion after a race, the plane on which Hansen was travelling stalled. “It was raining heaps, you couldn’t see anything outside. When the engine stalled, we were weightless, totally weightless in the craft. Understanding lift and everything like that, I saw that the pilot recognised directly that we stalled, so he put full thrust on.
“That’s where you nosedive down, then slowly pull up. Those five seconds felt like a lifetime. I thought that was the end of it.”
So, the Australian is well-known in the bunch not just as the head case doing 18 consecutive Grand Tours but as the fella fretting on flights.
“When there’s bad turbulence, all the riders look at me and have a little joke because they know I’m just totally freaking out,” he says. “In some senses, I look at them and see they’re so relaxed, that helps a little.”
Are there any other professional cyclists with a similar fear? “There are others, but not as bad as me. There was one guy, I don’t know who, but I remember we were flying to the Tour Down Under and we had bad turbulence.
“Everybody stopped talking and this guy three seats across from me put his helmet on – his bike helmet. There was someone else panicking, and that made me panic even more.”
Hansen is far from the only sportsperson to suffer from aviataphobia. There were European football matches that legendary Arsenal player Dennis Bergkamp simply wouldn’t attend if he couldn’t reasonably get there by car or train; Muhammad Ali also claimed that flying terrified him. Olympic shot putter Geoff Capes even travelled to the 1976 Montreal Olympics by land and sea.
When possible, Hansen gets in his car and drives. “I’ve driven to Belgium a few times from my place in the Czech Republic… everyone says you’ve got a greater chance [of dying] driving a car than flying. But nine times out of ten when you crash a car, you can walk away.”
Other times, he just opts out of flying altogether. “There’s been a few times where the weather’s been really bad at the destination and I’ve chosen not to go on a plane,” he says. “I’d rather spend a night at the airport and fly the next day when the weather’s better.”
Has Hansen tried anything to alleviate it? “I normally travel with a Rubik’s Cube and I have to do some complex puzzle. When there’s turbulence, I just pop the Rubik’s Cube out, I focus and work on it.”
There is no clear solution. “I think too much, that’s all. I probably look into it too much,” Hansen says. “I need to be a bit more naïve.”