Trials rider, adventurer and all round mountain bike legend; Hans Rey has witnessed mountain biking turn from one leaf to another, and into the sport we know today. We recently caught up with him to talk adventures, changes in the sport and what he’s been up to.
Hans, you just got back from a huge road cycling trip in the Alps. What was that all about?
Yeah, I recently accepted an invitation by the owner and founder of Clif Bar, Gary Erickson and his wife, Kit, to celebrate Clif’s 25th anniversary with a road bike ride over some of the legendary Giro d’Italia passes in the Italian Alps. I had never ridden big mountains on a road bike and I had no idea if I had it in me to ride over 10,000 ft. vertical and 100km per day. I started training two months prior, and to my own surprise, I enjoyed it more than I thought. It was an unbelievable experience.
You’ve built up a reputation over the years for going on some incredible adventures. How did that begin?
I’ve always tried to take my trials biking skill to real life situations where you can do a super gnarly descent or only get there if you have certain skills. I was always interested in travel, history, and mystery, and I started combining those things in the mid 90’s. At the beginning it wasn’t easy for me, the whole mountain bike scene was really fixed on racing and they didn’t know what to do outside of racing. Freeriding was just kind of coming onto the scene when I started doing these adventures. At the beginning, it was not an easy sell, even to my sponsors. They didn’t quite get it. I always thought adventures can appeal to a bigger audience than racing, and it would make really good television. It’s not all about the bike and bike riding, it's about the cultures, the history, the side story and the personalities.
Are there any adventures that really stand out to you?
I’ve been lucky enough to do this professionally for over thirty years and go to over 70 countries. My last trip to Africa was one of the best. We did Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro back to back. Those are the two highest mountains in Africa and they were really challenging. I was actually the first person ever to do Mount Kenya back in 2004. Richie Schley and I went there and it was a tough trip, we did it in 6 days. This time, I don’t know what made me think it would get easier at the age of 50 but we went back and did it as a warm up and we did it in only 4 days because we had a tight schedule. That’s a trip that will always stand out.
Is there anyone you’d like to bring on a trip in the future?
The best people to travel with are the ones who really enjoy the adventure and don’t mind changing the plan or roughing it if need be. I’ve been friends with Timmy C from Rage Against The Machine for many years and we’ve been riding together a lot but we’ve never actually done a trip together. There’s something I’m working on where he might join me, that would be fun to do a trip with him.
A lot of your traveling has been centered around your charity, Wheels 4 Life. How’s that going?
It’s in its 11th year and it’s going well. It’s basically just my wife and I who do it all, and we always said we’d do as much as we can. There is a real need for millions of bicycles in the world and we can never satisfy that need but we can make a little difference. I always say that as long as I ride professionally and I get paid for riding a bicycle I can afford to do this charity work. This is mine and Carmen's way to give back. A lot of friends in the industry and strangers I’ve never met have supported our cause and I want to make sure they all know that their money is being well spent.
I saw on your website that you’ve donated over 9,500 bikes. Did you ever imagine when you started that you’d be able to do this much?
It all started when I committed to doing a community project. I said I would give 50 bikes to somewhere in the third world where I had traveled with my bike in the past. And then I started looking into it, the logistics, and all this stuff and I realized how complex it was. I didn’t even know what a nonprofit charity was. I learned all that quickly and realized it was not going to end with those 50 bikes. I’ve never set myself a goal, but I’m pretty proud to say that we have almost reached 10,000 and the coolest thing is that I could probably almost give you 10,000 names as well. We really know where every single bike went. We’re not just giving bikes out to whoever raises their arm, we’re giving them to whoever needs them the most, who will appreciate them and use them where it makes the most difference.
So this takes up a good amount of your daily life?
People don’t realize how much work it is to raise the money and then spend the money. You have to do all the accounting, reporting, 'thank you' letters, website stuff, social media, and fundraising events. It’s a full-time job in itself.
Hanging out in your garage yesterday, it’s clear you’ve been part of mountain biking during some huge changes in technology. Is there one that stands out as the game changer?
Yeah, it’s hard to say. There was some trial and error, there were some mistakes, and that’s all part of progressing and moving forward. I started riding here in Laguna Beach thirty years ago. Some of the trails we ride today, we rode back then on hardtails with skinny little tires and sometimes I wonder how we did it. The riding style has definitely evolved with full suspension, hydraulic brakes, bigger and better tires, and adjustable seat posts.
My garage kind of tells that story you know, you can find some stuff in there from the early days; some of the prototype pieces and parts from early generations. There might be some prototype V brakes laying there or some snow chains that somebody once gave me. People were thinking that in the snow you would put chains on, like on a car, and all kinds of weird stuff, even that Tioga disc wheel with the porcupine tire.
So looking forward, what do you think will be the next big thing that changes mountain biking as we know it today?
I think more than anything the trails will change, and you see that already with these purpose-built trails that are starting to pop up all over the world. They don’t have to be gnarly bike parks you know, they can be trail centers or flow trails. I think if you have good trails, that will open the door for more people to do the sport. It’s a double edged sword — yes then you have to share the hills with more people but at the same time, especially for someone like me who works in the bike industry, I like to share the joy of mountain biking with others and I like people to have a good experience on their first ride. In order to do that we not only need great bikes and great product but we need great trails so I think that’s going to be one of the biggest things in the near future.
And what about e-bikes?
The whole e-bikes thing will be interesting to see. I know people have very different opinions on them here in America but in Europe it’s a completely different ball game. I understand the fears of some people that e-bikes could jeopardize access and it could make it a bit more dangerous if people who don’t know about braking and descending go down way too fast. But at the same time, the biggest critics are the people who have never ridden one. And once you ride one it's actually a really cool thing. For me it's not meant to replace mountain biking, it's just an alternative way of being out there and having fun on two wheels.
One thing that seems to be advancing is racing — racers getting more exposure than ever with races broadcast live online. Do you still follow the races?
Yeah I’m a big fan of racing and I do follow the race results and the races and I watch some of them live on TV. I watch a little bit of everything because I have a lot of friends still racing and I think downhill racing is super exciting to watch. I wish they had a bigger season or more races though. Even the cross country races, this new generation of racers like Nino and this whole gang have made cross country really cool again and it’s fun to watch.
Some racers have quite short careers these days. While you’re not a racer as such, you’re certainly a professional. Have you put a great emphasis on providing value to your sponsors and having a long career?
Yeah, I have. And the traditional racer hasn’t. I think that’s a big difference why I am still around. At the end of the day, it’s a business, and these companies don’t pay a guy because he’s nice or because he can do a big bunny hop. They pay him to boost their brand and help create a favorable image. I won my share of titles but I learned at a young age that I can get a lot more media attention and exposure for the sponsors away from competition, whether that be with some stunts and adventures, or advocacy or whatever. I think I’ve always been very good at that and communicating with people and reaching people for my sponsors. I think I had a knack not only on how to market myself but being able to see new trends and doing things that are valuable to my sponsors. And that’s why I’m still sponsored at 50 years old. I might not be the fastest, but there are areas where I still lead in our industry and sport.
Finally, what’s next on your list of goals and achievements?
There are always new levels you can reach in your career, riding or your personal life. Personally, I want to get a little bit more into advocacy. I’m already on the honorary board with IMBA, work a little bit with the mountain bike hall of fame, and I support a lot of the cool causes we have including my own charity, but I’d also like to do more talks and presentations.
I’ve been doing several talks and speeches over the years; last year at the IMBA World Summit and this coming November I’m booked for a 10 city talk tour in the UK. I recently spoke in Las Vegas; it was a keynote speech at a technology conference. I talked for an hour about my career and adventures, drawing parallels to their world and business, things like preparation, risk management, pushing and knowing limits, trend setting, analytics, pioneering, failures, as well as about my charity Wheels 4 Life and Flow Country Trails. The cool thing was the audience was really stoked and interested, plus I got to talk right before the CFO from Microsoft took over the stage. I’d like to do more of that stuff and maybe even a TED talk one of these days. There’s so much to share and stories to tell, and you can inspire people and lead the way for them with these talks. You can go out there and make real impressions. If you do an evening in front of 500 people, you have the attention of these people for three hours. Maybe some of the things they see or hear they will hopefully remember ten years later. Those are real impressions, not like the one minute or one second like on Facebook, so I think that can be of great value but also hopefully inspires people to go out and live their dreams.