For Gravity-Shredder Blake Hansen, Mustering Courage for Big Gap Jumps is the Easier Part

All photos courtesy of Blake Hansen

Blake Hansen’s response to our question about mustering the courage to huck massive freeride lines offers a glimpse of her overall courage. When sizing up a feature, she thinks to herself, “I’ve hit a jump twice this big on my snowboard, so this is fine. I’ve got all this suspension with the bike.” Hansen is a transgender mountain bike athlete, and finding the courage to gap piles of dirt is potentially less daunting than some of the social challenges she regularly encounters. Part of her shreddy story was recently told in a beautiful film titled Fuel for Life, which was funded by her sponsor Gnarly Sports Nutrition, and was further detailed in a touching interview by transgender athlete Alex Showerman.

We chatted with Hansen to continue sharing her story with folks who look to her as a role model, and those intrigued by the trail to equity and inclusion that she and other athletes are digging. To spoil the lead slightly: Hansen sees positive change happening in several corners of mountain bike culture, and she’s stoked on what some athletes and brands are doing to make the sport more welcoming. Chatting with Hansen is a particularly lovely experience that I don’t have with every interviewee. She’s patient, with notable openness and fresh perspective even while discussing the hard stuff. She’s also disarming in a way that takes practice, likely leaving anyone who wants to be mad at her feeling pretty terrible about themselves.

Growing up skateboarding in southern California, you could say that Hansen has always had a passion for hang time and balancing on the limit. She now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she splits the season between a committed enduro racing and freeride flying career, and her other gravity-fed love of snowboarding.

Gravity riding isn’t quite paying the bills yet, and Hansen also works as a freelance videographer, grip, and film editor. After growing bored with academic studies in photography she found a gig helping out on a film crew, learning along the way until it bloomed into a career. Balancing this work with training and her race schedule isn’t easy, but she says that she has found a number of clients who are excited about her athletic endeavor and they are willing to work with her schedule. She says that a lot of Los Angeles based filming has been moving to Utah, and she’s happy to have the work. This year the content has shifted from a broad collection to more outdoor and bike related video, and she hopes to see that trend continue.

On the gravity front, Hansen has a few remaining events to fill out the 2021 season. Her next enduro race is the Big Mountain Enduro in Winter Park Colorado, which she’s excited about because she knows the trails well and is confident that she can ride fast there. She’s had her best races on those slopes and loves that all of her friends come to together to enjoy the event. Next, she’ll head off to a jump-jam with Hannah Bergemann, where freeride specialists will sharpen their skills ahead of the Proving Grounds event in Oregon.

After those summer parties, Hansen will be working on future projects, looking to what she can create with her sponsors and what events she wants on the calendar for the following season. Her hope is to shift from mostly racing to more of a 50/50 split between freeride and enduro. She has high hopes to head back to Red Bull Formation if invited, as that event was quite special. She will be hitting Woodward in Park City to keep comfortable in the air between events.

Hansen says that she loves Winter Park because it fits well with her strengths.

“It’s a little less jank, and a little faster and a little more flowy. Even the technical sections are pretty proper DH-tech, so you can keep your speed faster. Generally speaking, those things are my strengths, compared to Big Sky where it’s steep and it’s loose and it’s absolutely rowdy.” In a similar vein, she loves riding Deer Valley, as she knows every stone and can let go of the brakes there. Hansen says that she enjoys the steep and janky stuff as well, but knows that’s where she needs do the most work to gain comfort and confidence. She adds “the act of racing has caused me to be aware of where my weaknesses are, and to spend time improving.”

While not every transgender athlete wants to dig into politics, we asked Hansen how she feels about the recent legislation against trans athletes in states like Arkansas. She said that “it’s such a hard thing to wrap your head around. There has been such a weird attack on trans people’s rights in the United States this past year, and I really don’t know why or how it’s been so unanimous. To me, at the root of all of [the laws] is an unfamiliarity with who we are and what our intentions are. Why we exist. I guess that people are scared that our existence takes away from their existence. They feel defensive, and they need to control the situation. At the end of the day there’s no controlling any situation, other than the reality that trans people exist, and we have rights because we’re humans, and we’re Americans.”

She says that as a rational thinking person, it’s frustrating to see people making laws that harm people like her and that are not based on reason. “I’m logical too, and I’m this way. I tried to be different, but here I am and I couldn’t change it. I still want to ride bikes. I’m still a snowboarder. I still want to have fun. I still want to participate in the communities that I’ve been a part of since I was born. So, I don’t know what to tell the people who don’t want me to exist, other than that I’m here.”

Hansen is becoming the positive role model that she didn’t have as a kid, and she shared some words for the people who want to stifle the efforts of young trans folks. We asked her what she would like to say to people who feel that transgender women shouldn’t be allowed to participate in elite women’s race categories.

“I wish that people could open their minds a little bit, and learn the entire base science before they decide how they personally feel about it. There’s so much nuance. And aside from the nuance, there’s a lot of definitive scientific facts to show that the basis of their opinion is not entirely sound. I wish that people could be more realistic and logical about that. If the science is not pointing to us having a specific advantage, then stop thinking that, and start listening to us. It’s not going to lead to trans women taking over women’s sports. If it were going to, it already would have. We’ve been allowed to compete for many years. If people cared to see the facts they would see that we haven’t taken over women’s sports. So there’s no reason to fret.”

She suggests dialogue between both sides of the discussion as a way to move forward. “Chill out, read some facts, and chat with us. Let’s all get on the same page. I wish that people on both sides of the argument could take a few steps forward and talk to each other, and permit each other to exist for a minute, and learn from that experience, instead of being so far away from each other, pointing fingers and saying ‘this is the only way that it can be.'”

“If people cared to see the facts they would see that we haven’t taken over women’s sports. So there’s no reason to fret.”

Hansen has attended a few USAC roundtable discussions on diversity and inclusion, and unfortunately she’s found the organization slow to show consistent support for trans athletes. “There are good people within USAC who are trying to make a difference. There’s a disconnect between chatting with those good people about the DEI initiatives at the company, and then seeing that get implemented. Mostly, it doesn’t. As long as those people aren’t operating at an even level with the executives, nothing’s going to change.”

Hansen shared a specific example of the disconnect between what the team at USAC wants, compared to some of their actions. “People like me are still going to avoid USAC races because we get emails that say ‘Mr. Blake Hansen, included is your racing license.’ And it’s for the men’s category. This was after we had like eighteen email strains about getting this all switched, with all kinds of documentation. This is bullshit. So I have a little bit of cognitive dissonance with them. I know they’re trying, but overall I wish that would trickle up and become part of their culture.”

Having trans athletes and people from a wider spectrum of cultural backgrounds working at USAC and in the bike industry will definitely help to tilt the needle toward the “welcoming” end, but to get more young people involved we need athlete role models like Blake Hansen. While it wasn’t her initial goal, Hansen has consciously stepped up as a role model for trans athletes, and she sees the power and positivity in that position. “If you’re a thirteen-year-old kid, and you’re going through a transition, or you’re Black, and you’re an aspiring cyclist, you’re looking at the athletes because you want to be like them. That’s what we all did as kids. If you don’t grow up seeing Elliot Jackson, or me, I guess, then you’re never going to have a role model. So I hope to have more interview opportunities like this, and more film projects so that any of those kids out there that were me ten or twenty years ago can see that it’s realistic to pursue your dreams.”

In addition to interviews and trail films, Hansen knows that being open and honest on social media has been a good way to connect with other trans athletes and to help folks feel seen and supported. She is also very intentional about connecting with sponsors who want to do more than check their annual “diversity” boxes with an athlete like her. Starting out, she said it was pretty scary to pitch to a brand, knowing that they might pull their sponsorship if they found out she is trans. As a result, she only works with companies that she believes in, and that support her mission to be out and honest about who she is. Those relationships require extra work, as she wants to research companies and meet with them to ensure that they have similar trajectories. She mentioned that Gnarly Nutrition and Specialized Bicycles are two of the companies she’s working with that are genuinely pushing to make our sport more inclusive and equitable, and she’s excited about the possibilities with those partnerships.

Hansen has also noticed that more companies see the need to support a diverse spectrum of people and communities.

“People are definitely waking up to what inclusion in business marketing looks like. I hope to see that wake up call become something more implemented and serving to underrepresented communities. I hope this wake up call benefits both parties, like it did for me with Gnarly, rather than just checking things off to say ‘well we had a few Black people in our marketing this year. More than last year, which means we’re better.'” The change, for Hansen, needs to be more direct. “Instead of just hiring me as a model for an ad campaign, actually supporting me as an athlete so I can continue to represent a community.”

Hansen truly is a role model for folks who work harder than many of their peers to be accepted and to simply be themselves. Most riders can learn to hit big jumps, but learning to love and fight for ourselves takes more than practice.

You can follow along with Hansen via social media, and keep watch for more sweet trail edits as the camera keeps rolling.

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