Buchanan native first female BMX freestyler to win world championship
Perched on top of 6-foot tall ramp, Hannah Roberts, 16, of Buchanan, leans back on her bike and doles out pointers to 12-year-old Jacob Rorie.
Leading by example, Roberts demonstrates the finesse of gliding down the ramp in her own run.
Just months ago, Roberts stood on top of another ramp listening to the roaring crowd as she competed in the FISE World Series 2017 in Chengdu, China. Roberts walked away from the competition with two world cups and as the first woman to win the UCI World Championship.
Back home in Michiana, these typical Wednesday night practices at the Kitchen Skate Park in South Bend, Indiana are part of Roberts’ weekly 28- to 36-hour practice routine.
As any observer at the park can see, getting advice from Roberts is treasured, helping to conquer the fear of staring down a steep ramp.
“When I see someone who needs the help, I try to make it easy for them to learn new stuff,” Roberts said. “The younger guys really think it is cool that I get to travel. A lot of them have told me I am doing what they want to do in life.”
Practice makes perfect
As the evening progresses, Roberts works her way to the more challenging ramps and the tricks become more complicated and daring. Peeling over the top of more than 10-foot ramp, Roberts removes her hand from the handle bars, spreading her arms wide as she glides mid-air for mere seconds, before she returns to the ground with her hands repositioned on the handle bars.
Since finding her passion for BMX at the age of 8, Roberts said the Kitchen and its coaches have helped her to grow her skills and achieve fame at an international level. The Kitchen’s park terrain also challenged her skill level with each practice.
“It really pushed me as a rider, because you have to learn to ride really big boxes,” Roberts said. “If you can do a trick over these jumps, then you can do it anywhere.”
One of Roberts’ earlier coaches, Mark Osbourne, said he instantly recognized Roberts’ talent and passion.
“She was so driven,” Osbourne recalled of Roberts’ first sessions.
For Roberts, it is easy to picture her very first trick: a tuck no hander, which involved balancing the handlebars in her lap while balancing on the back wheel, without using hands.
“When you learn a new trick, you get a lot of adrenaline,” Roberts said. “It was a good feeling. Nothing else can compare to when you land a new trick.”
Roberts frequently rode BMX with her cousin Brett Banasiewicz, who founded the Kitchen Skate Park. She credits Banasiewicz for coaching and encouraging her throughout her career.
“It’s amazing for me, because I was that young and pushing myself just as hard. Brett was my mentor and so I wanted to do what Brett did for me,” Roberts said.
Banasiewicz also achieved fame as a BMX rider. In 2012, he fell and sustained a traumatic brain injury that dramatically changed the course of his career. Regardless of the injury, Banasiewicz has continued to be a coach and support Roberts. The support combined with Roberts’ perseverance as a rider has paid off.
In November 2017, she had the opportunity to compete in the inaugural world championship contest in Chengdu, China, which was hosted by the International Cycling Organization. She earned two FISE World Cups and became the UCI World Champion. Among the highlights of the freestyle competition, Roberts impressed judges with a cleanly executed backflip with a 180 landing, called a Flair.
“When they said I won, it felt like a big relief,” Roberts said. “I work all year to do these contests, so when I found out I won, it was a big release off my shoulders. It was an incredible feeling because you are surrounded by friends and people that you compete with all year. [You get to see] everybody grow as a rider.”
She also earned a Vans BMX Pro World Cup while competing in Huntington Beach, California and was named one of the Top 5 Women Riders by Vital BMX.
“That’s a pretty decent year,” Roberts said.
The victory in China could also mean a chance to compete in the 2020 Olympics. To be in the running, she would have to make the national team two more times and do well at qualifying events.
Learning to fly
As one might expect, it takes tremendous courage to be a pro-BMX rider. Not only do riders defy gravity with tricks, but they also have to learn how to ride again after a fall.
When Roberts was 10 years old, she fell face first down a 6-foot ramp. Her bike landed on top of her, breaking her back.
“I was the youngest person the hospital had ever seen with that injury,” Roberts said. “It was definitely a really scary one.”
After that injury, Roberts said there was a moment when she considered quitting riding, but while lying in her hospital bed, several pros from the BMX world reached out to her, including renowned biker Scotty Cranmer, encouraging her to get back on her bike and overcome her biggest fear.
“When you come back from an injury, it is really hard to get back on pace and progress as much as you need to,” Roberts said.
Once she overcomes the fear, Roberts said she can just enjoy the sport and the perk of traveling the globe and meeting some of the world’s best in the sport.
“It’s everything I could ask for,” Roberts said. “I love meeting new people and I love exploring. This is just a way to get there.”
Roberts thanked her parents, Rick and Betty, for being there to support her every pedal of the way, whether coming to her practices and filming her so that they can watch the footage and learn where she needs to improve, or helping her get to her next biggest competition.
“They are the reason that I am here and I couldn’t ask for better,” Roberts said.
Roberts is a Buchanan High School student, where she has also felt great support for her skills as a BMX rider.
“Before I left for China, they put up a big sign across the front of the school that read: ‘Good luck, Hannah,’” Roberts said. “This community is just amazing.”
Roberts said she is also happy to see more women participating in competitions and says she typically sees double the number of women competitors than in years past.
“The level of riding has just increased drastically and it is cool to see the sport as a whole coming together,” Roberts said.
Osbourne said other girls who visit the Kitchen Skate Park watch Roberts practice and it encourages them to be part of the sport.
“Hannah Roberts has proven that girls can do this,” Osbourne said. “She has influenced a lot of girls worldwide.”
In April, Roberts will compete again for the FISE World Cup this time in Japan. Once again, she is looking to push herself to reach new limits.
“You can’t be scared, unless you try,” Roberts said.
Photography by Emily Sobecki