The man who once left Pogacar and Vingegaard well behind at the U23 World Championships: a portrait of Jaakko Hänninen Cycling

The man who once left Pogacar and Vingegaard well behind at the U23 World Championships: a portrait of Jaakko Hänninen

The man who once left Pogacar and Vingegaard well behind at the U23 World Championships: a portrait of Jaakko Hänninen

Jaakko Hänninen seemed to be firmly on track in 2018 to become one of the best climbers of his generation. The now 26-year-old Finn finished an impressive third at the U23 World Cycling Championships organized in Austria. In Innsbruck, he managed to keep several of today's world-class riders, including Tadej Pogacar, Jonas Vingegaard, and Jai Hindley, well behind him. However, nowadays, we don’t hear much about the likeable Scandinavian. caught up with him for an interview after the team presentation of Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale!

"It wasn’t the best season I’ve had, not by a long shot. At the beginning of the year, I struggled with various illnesses," the young-looking climber begins his review of 2023. "Until April, I was sick three times, so that was far from ideal. It was very difficult to find my rhythm. Things finally started to improve by the summer, and I began to get into better shape. But then I fell during the fourth stage of the Tour of Burgos. I broke my collarbone, and that was the end of my season."

Hänninen starts 2024 in Australia

Hänninen does seem to have his share of bad luck. "But so far, in every season, even the ones with a lot of misfortunes, I’ve managed to find a period of good form," he says, showing determination, and quickly looks forward. "For 2024, the goal is to find that good form again and avoid the misfortunes. Or turn bad luck into good luck, something like that. Unfortunately, you don't always have control over that. My race schedule is not really set yet. I don’t even know if I’ll be doing a grand tour. The route of the Vuelta a España, for example, hasn’t even been announced yet. What I do know for sure is that I’ll start the year in Australia. The Tour Down Under is a beautiful race."

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Hänninen in action (behind him Dylan Teuns)

Finland and cycling might not seem like a perfect match at first glance, a sentiment echoed by Hänninen when asked about his initial encounters with the sport. "Cycling really isn't a big sport in Finland. I got into it through my father and brother. I was about eight years old then. They were amateur cyclists. But what really pulled me into professional cycling was simply a passion hidden within me. As a child, for instance, I had no cycling idols. In Finland, there were hardly any professional cyclists, and besides, I never watched cycling on TV. Actually, I didn’t watch any sport on TV, even though I loved various things. I found it much more enjoyable just to grab the mountain bike and zoom through the forest alone for an hour."

From mountain biking and cyclocross to full-time road cycling

Another significant factor was that Hänninen was born in Ruokolahti, a municipality in the Finnish province of South Finland and in the South Karelia region. It’s not densely populated and there's no abundance of asphalt roads. "Initially, my ambition was to become a professional mountain biker," he emphasizes his former preference for off-road cycling. "However, I soon realized that it was easier to pursue a professional career on a road bike. When I was younger, I also did a lot of cyclo-cross, but that’s not something I do anymore," he then turns to the present.

In short, transitioning from mountain biking and cyclo-cross to full-time road cycling is a brief yet potent description of Hänninen's journey. "As a youth, you make significant strides in your development and are continuously working on getting better. Back then, it was easier to choose, for example, to go mountain biking or cyclo-cross. Now, I often have to make compromises. Cyclo-cross for me is now just something to watch on TV," says the slender rider, who then explains how he ended up with his current WorldTour team. "In 2017, I rode for AS Bisontine, where my results somehow put me on the radar. In 2018, I rode for EC Saint-Etienne Loire. Both were club teams. During that period, when I was about 20 years old, I permanently moved to France. Things were going really well."

Third place at the U23 World Cycling Championships (Behind Hirschi and Lambrecht) is Hänninen's most memorable racing experience

Since August 1, 2019, Hänninen has been part of the French team led by Vincent Lavenu. Several top finishes in climbing races are among his best results, as a professional victory is still missing. "Looking at my entire career as a cyclist, I am most proud of my time in the youth categories," he says understandably. "In 2018, I finished third at the U23 World Cycling Championships, behind Marc Hirschi and Bjorg Lambrecht."

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Hänninen finished third at the U23 World Cycling Championships (Innsbruck, 2018)

Hänninen continues, "Even within my professional career, there are specific memories that stand out, although it's hard to choose. In the youth category, racing wasn’t really that calculated, while it definitely is among the pros. Also, my goals have changed, especially in the context of switching from self-interest to team interest. At first, you raced for your own prizes, while now I mostly hope to help someone to a victory. The tactics in youth races compared to the pros are really worlds apart. In 2022, I finished fourth in the Tour de l’Ain. That was a great performance. This year, I was in practically the same form during that race but worked for Nicolas Prodhomme. He ended up third, which was great. I finished eleventh, which is also a good result."

Cross-country skiing enthousiast Hänninen hopes to claim his first pro victory in 2024

Looking forward to the coming years, snagging his first professional win is the top priority for the mid-twenties cyclist. "I haven’t achieved that yet, so in that sense, it's a logical goal. Due to various circumstances, it unfortunately hasn't happened yet. But as they say: fortune will also turn my way." The type of race he wants to win doesn’t matter much to him. "I like both stage races and classics. In multi-day races, there’s the accumulation of fatigue, which I find an interesting concept. But going all out for one day in a classic is also very sensational. It’s a kind of unique vibe and experience that is very special. I like to switch things up a bit, although I think I perform best in stage races."

Before all this and his quest for a professional win, Hänninen will spend some time in Finland and also attend a training camp with the team. "In winter, I always include some offroad training. I’m usually in Finland for short periods, mostly around Christmas and right when my season ends. It’s mainly there that I train on gravel or mountain bikes. In Finland, I also do cross-country skiing," he reveals another passion. "Where I come from, there isn’t much to do. It’s literally a tiny place in the woods, with just a few houses and a lot of countryside. During the season, I live in France. When I’m there, I miss some things about Finland. But when I'm in my homeland, I miss some French things too. The training roads in France are much better than in Finland, for example. The weather is also more pleasant for training."

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