As I pull into an unmarked farm track in the middle of nowhere, I question if I’m in the right place. I check the directions on my phone for the third time – directions which are delightfully vague – but then from over a hedge I am greeted with a warm smile and cheery wave. “No way!” I shout. “You really do live in a log cabin!”
For those who don’t know, Hannah Barnes rides for Specialized Racing and is one of a new generation of sponsored athletes, advocating adventure and exploration just as much as hard race results. Hannah’s new home certainly fits the bill, looking more like a chalet from the Haute Savoie; the small log cabin looks every inch the sanctuary hidden away in the hills behind Fort William. Stacks of firewood dominate the driveway and a contented cat basks on the front porch. We walk into the cosy interior, and after a long drive I am relieved to smell the aroma of fresh coffee in the air. Hannah’s excitement over her new home is overflowing. So keen is she to show off her new home that as we talk, the milk boils furiously over on the Baby Belling stove and a plume of smoke from under the grill suggests that the bagels are going the same way too.
The grand tour is a short one, as the cabin is just one big room with a studio kitchen and mezzanine deck for sleeping, but Hannah has big plans: “I have some land round the back, and will be building a bike shed and sleep-out for visiting guests, and also a big fire pit and pizza oven. It will be amazing!” Hannah’s disarming good nature and warmth is infectious, and as we crunch through the slightly carbonised bagels she extols the virtues of living in Scotland’s Adventure Capital: “I love living in the Highlands. The more I travel, the more I appreciate the rugged beauty and charm this little part of the world has.”
Hannah’s unrelenting enthusiasm and drive to experience the world is vibrant and has allowed her to achieve the impossible, living ‘the dream’ and turning her passion for meeting new people and enjoying new places into a career. Her love for adventure was sown at an early age; her parents took both Hannah and brother Joe on a sailing journey from Fort William to the Caribbean and back, instilling a sense of ‘get out there and live it’ that never left the pair. You may not know it, but Hannah spent many years (and occasionally still fills in) as a nurse in the far less glamorous surroundings of Fort William A&E. Hannah adds, “I am really happy that I studied nursing early on, although it means that I didn’t start riding until 19. I have this whole other world which I’m part of, and it makes me appreciate my life as a whole. I never expected and in a way didn’t chase sponsorship, I just gradually shifted more and more into this new career path.”
For a while she was a voice for Scottish riding, but over the last few years she has taken her role fully global. However, it was not until Hannah joined the Specialized Racing Team that her dreams could be fully realised. Specialized undoubtedly saw not only the potential to have an influential ambassador for women’s cycling, but also to have Hannah play a larger role in spreading the message of the joy that mountain biking can bring. “To be with Specialized is amazing. When I initially talked with them at the end of 2014, I was a bit apprehensive to be with a company with such a strong race-winning and high-performance ethos, and I wasn’t sure how I would fit in. I just didn’t want to feel like I couldn’t meet their expectations. After more talking, it felt more and more like it would be a great fit and we could work really well together. The women’s side of the brand is growing so quickly, and it’s great to be part of that. The team feels like a second family, and as much as we’re there for business it’s constant fun and laughs.“
When you become well-known in your field and representative of a brand, you are always working. While out checking out the local hill-running spot, we were stopped by a vacationing couple from London on their first trip to Scotland, curious about the big DSLR I was carrying. An easy conversation ensued, and despite the building rain Hannah was happy to spend time with the couple; her enthusiasm for cycling made such an impression that they left promising to invest in some bikes – Specialized, of course. Hannah is pretty clear in her role: “Whether you’re winning world cups or doing video projects and adventures, everyone is an ambassador and representative of the brand they are part of. People do form opinions of the bigger brand as a whole based on the people they meet who are part of it, so it’s important to be friendly and give time to everyone as much as possible.“
However, you do not get anywhere in life by just riding your bike, and Hannah certainly puts the time in. As we spend the day shredding down the impressive Nevis Range trails, Hannah fills me in on her hectic schedule… bouncing from country to country, it’s a life of adventure and excitement for sure, but also hard work with little down time. I want to know more about how Hannah lives her life. Social media and Instagram have become a business, and Hannah has it dialled. Instagram is the gentle art of capturing a moment, applying a filter until it looks extraordinary, then passing it off as ordinary – and we all love it! However, Hannah has made it her job, generating a staggering 50,000 Instagram followers. With a social media status that rivals many brands, she has become almost a brand in herself. No doubt this is a dream come true for Specialized, who have always focused on the average rider as well as the racer.
With success always comes criticism, and a number of influential female racers have fired very thinly disguised negative comments in her direction. Yes it’s true, Hannah does have a very large male following, and yes her appearance has certainly helped her rise in a male-dominated sport, but let’s not forget she has a huge female following too and has inspired many to take up a life behind handlebars. We have to ask ourselves, where is the harm in presenting a healthy, fun-loving message? Hannah is certainly not the fastest EWS racer, far from it, but the belief of some that the only way to represent a brand is by winning races is both short-sighted and outdated.
Social media has changed everything, and savvy athletes like Hannah work hard to remind us that our bikes are for more than just racing. To argue that Hannah is drawing focus from other elite racers is forgetting that brands want to send a bigger message, showing the places and people that a bike can connect you to; this is more appealing to many more average riders than the few hardcore race fans. These new ‘brand ambassadors’ are not trying to take a bigger piece of the cake, they’re making the cake bigger for everyone.
As I say goodbye, I reflect on an interesting visit. I found nothing calculated or contrived about Hannah. Yes, she is social media dynamite, but she also has a warmth and genuine passion for adventure and exploration which is contagious – she really lives the life she champions. Hannah is one of the next generation of social media athletes, inspiring a new generation of riders and creating an entirely new sector outside of the racing circuit. Hannah has shown that with enough passion it’s possible to make a living from enjoying her bike, and is perhaps pioneering a new age in advertising.
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