• Mick Hannah performs during Red Bull Valparaiso Cerro Abajo in Valparaiso, Chile. (RedBull)Source: RedBull
Michael “Sik Mick” Hannah, a professional downhill mountain bike rider from Cairns, Far North Queensland, looks up at the mist that has made its way from the Pacific Ocean and descended over the Chilean port city of Valparaiso.
Robert Kidd

Cycling Central
23 Feb 2016 - 12:42 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2016 - 5:18 AM

“I hope it doesn’t rain,” he says. “If it rains it just won’t happen, it’s too dangerous.”

Another rider staying at the same hostel, Bernardo Cruz, from Brazil, smiles: “even if it’s dry it’s too dangerous.”

The pair are among 50 international riders competing one of the most unusual and extreme sporting events in the world.

Cerro Abajo, an annual urban downhill mountain bike race sponsored by Red Bull, is a unique test of speed, skill and nerve.

The 1.7km course through the colourful and occasionally chaotic city of 275,000 challenges riders to surge down “Valpo’s” soaring cerros (hills) at up to 60km/h. They crash over cobblestones on World Heritage-listed streets, ride past walls adorned with colourful street art in front of 10,000 screaming locals, and fly off eight metre high jumps with sweeping views of the port below. All while trying to avoid sleeping stray dogs.

“This is the first race of the year, my last one was in September,” says Hannah, who has kept his Aussie accent despite a decade in the United States.

“Ideally I’d prefer a more traditional, controlled environment for a first race and this course in Valparaiso is probably the most challenging of the urban series.

“A lot of team managers won’t send their riders to these races because of the perceived danger. Yes, there are risks – there’s old rusty guttering, things sticking up from the road, it’s a city environment.

“If something does go wrong, there’s potential for it to get messy. But it’s no different from any downhill race you do. It still comes down to making a good decision on what you know is within your reach.”

The race, held for the sixth time, is the first event of four that comprise the City Downhill World Tour. Hannah has taken part twice before, finishing 4th in 2014 and 5th in 2015.

Locals use Cerro Abajo as an excuse for a party. There is a carnival-like atmosphere from 11am – about seven hours before the final run – with families setting up at spots along the course and feasting on fried empanadas and corn-on-the-cob.

By the final qualifying run, featuring the quickest 20 riders, people are packed into every possible space to get a glimpse. They whoop and holler as whistles from security announce the next rider is approaching, setting off car alarms which in turn set off dogs barking.

Hannah pings out of the start like an elastic band being released. He launches off the ramp alongside a two-storey house and lands with a thud on the ramp below before vanishing down a narrow staircase.

“Maybe the first time hitting a jump it’s hard to stay focused,” Hannah says.

“You just get that spike and it’s hard to think clearly. But after that you’re generally focused and if you’re going off a jump you’re focused on the next section and the next turn.”

Hannah fell in love with downhill racing aged 12 at mountain bike camp. Previously a BMX racer, he was drawn, not just by the adrenaline, but by the lifestyle and more friendly environment that came from racing against the clock, not other riders.

His family has always been supportive, even if his mother still sometimes finds it hard to watch, and his younger sister Tracey is also a professional downhill rider. The siblings both race for the Polygon UR team.

Downhill racing requires the commitment you’d expect from any professional athlete. Hannah is used to training in the gym and the more traditional wilderness bike tracks six days a week.

Injuries are part of the job. He shattered a collar bone at 17, suffered an acromioclavicular joint separation in his shoulder in 2014 and tore his anterior cruciate ligament five years ago. Those are the serious ones.

“It’s a few big injuries but I’ve been on the World Cup circuit 15 years so I don’t think it’s too bad … it’s not exactly an office job,” he says.

Hannah flies right round a corner and on to the ‘wall ride’, briefly flirting with gravity and sending cameras clicking before turning the right way up and pedalling furiously to the next obstacle.

Downhill mountain biking does not have the recognition of its cycling colleagues in road, track or BMX. It is not an Olympic sport (though cross-country mountain biking has been since 1996) and in Australia no mountain biking of any kind receives direct Federal Government funding.

Hannah, whose salary is paid predominantly by sponsors rather than prizemoney, believes events like Cerro Abajo help raise awareness of downhill racing.

“Australian downhill riders have been near the top of downhill rankings for years. We’re not putting in any less effort than anybody else and we’re doing it on a pretty limited budget,” he says.

“It’s a sport that I love so it’s hard not to be biased about it but it’s a really pure sport.”

Hannah bumps over the cobblestones in the historic “plano”, or flat part, of Valpo. He approaches the end of the circuit, finishing with a dramatic jump through a shipping container.

His final time is three minutes 22 seconds, leaving him 18th and 29 seconds behind the winner, Johannes Fischbach, from Germany.

Now 32, there is no rest for Hannah, who heads to the airport straight after the race to catch a flight to New Zealand for a team camp before the Crankworx event next month.

He hopes he can put a couple of injury-plagued years behind him and regain the form of 2013 that saw him crowned Australian champion and ranked 2nd in the world. There is no better incentive than the second round of the World Cup in April, in front of friends and family in his hometown of Cairns.

While questions of what to do after retirement are inevitable in the Autumn of his career, Hannah remains committed to the sport to which he has gladly dedicated two decades of his life.

“The oldest guy on the circuit is 42 this year and he’s announced it’s his last season,” he says.

“My first season I was 17 and I thought at the time ‘I hope I can do this for 10 years’. Ten years is a long time when you’re 17 but that was 15 years ago and I feel better than I ever have.”