Julbo Athlete Hannah Otto Wears the Fury

Behind My Lenses, An Essay

If you could see behind Hannah Otto's sunglasses during a bike race, you'd see a lot of things: pinpoint focus, hope, the plotting of a plan, the wince of pain. In this essay, the gravel and elite cross country mountain bike racer from Salt Lake City, Utah, shares the emotions of race day and how her glasses serve as both a mask and superhero's cape.

Words by Hannah Otto

Buzz. Buzz. My eyes dart open as I reach to turn off the alarm. In the early, dark hours of the morning, I stare up at the ceiling and consider all of the possibilities that today will bring. I think about the race, the day and the fact that the next time I shut my eyes to sleep I’ll know the outcome. The race will be finished, my result etched in stone, and I’ll have to wait another year to try again.

They say the eyes are the window to the soul and on race day it’s no different. In fact, it feels like on a day like today, my eyes can often betray me, giving away the way I feel with just a glance. There’s no hiding emotion on race day. My eyes tell it all.

As I sit in my hotel room early in the morning, my eyes tell a sleepy, nervous story. My brow furrows a bit as I think through all of my equipment one more time. There’s no time to second guess now.

Hannah Otto warms up for Utah's Crusher in the Tushar alongside husband Clayton. [Photo] CX Hairs

As I arrive at the race venue, I smile at those passing by. I am happy after all, but looking deeper anyone could tell that happiness is laced with nervous energy. I stand to the side as I prepare myself for the race ahead. I close my eyes. I rest my senses and try to briefly escape to a place where I can imagine my dream day on the bike. As I open my eyes it’s time to head to the start line. I look at my support crew, led by my husband. He wishes me good luck, reminds me that I have everything I need inside of me to win. It’s not the words that hit me though; it’s the eye contact.

As we look into each other’s eyes there’s a million words and stories being shared. We both see each other’s nerves and excitement for the day ahead. I look to him almost in desperation, as if to ask if he could race with me. His look back is one that comforts me and reminds me that even though I’m on course alone, I’m never alone. This moment that lasts less than three seconds is one of my favorites of the day, a silent communication that says more than words ever could.

With that, it’s time to disappear into my own world. I reach up to my helmet, pull my glasses down and cover my eyes. My glasses are almost like a mask. When I put them on, I feel like a superhero donning her cape to go out to save the word. My emotions become mine alone.

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As I roll up to the start line, my lips curl up at the edges as if to signal a smile to all those around. They can’t see my eyes riddled with nerves. My head sits firmly straight, but my eyes dart around behind my lenses taking inventory of those who have yet to put on their glasses for the day. I see red eyes, nervous glances, even tears forming in some who can’t seem to grip their nerves. All at once, seeing the eyes of others, my eyes change behind my lenses.

As the minutes countdown to race start, if you could see behind my lenses, you would see the changes happening. The nerves dissipate and become a laser-fixed focused. My eyes no longer dart around behind my glasses but look straight ahead. They stare off into the distance as if I can already see what’s coming.

As the race unfolds, my glasses continue to be my shield. Traditionally glasses hide you from the elements: They catch dust, mud, debris, harsh light and weather. My glasses do all of these things, but they hide my plans as well.

As I sit in the pack of racers, my eyes are scheming, but from outside my lenses you see someone calm and collected. As the pace ratchets up, my eyes wince in pain. My competitors look over at me to see if the pace is causing me to suffer. If they saw my eyes they would know, but all they see is their reflection in my lenses.

Hannah Otto crosses the finish line to win the 2022 Leadville 100 MTB. [Photo] Wil Matthews

When it comes time to attack, I’m breathing hard, and my eyes are wide as if I could take in more oxygen through them. If you could see my eyes, you might see someone with pinpoint focus. You might see someone with unaltered determination. You might see someone who looks as if their passion is driving them to do something they didn’t know they were capable of. You might even see hope. But you can’t see my eyes; you just see me attack and ride away.

When I come to the finish, my eyes begin to fill with happy tears. They begin to dart around again now that the work is done. They are looking for my support crew and my husband. As I cross the finish line, my eyes are released from behind their mask. I want the world to see this emotion. My eyes are sparkling. My words are saying, “We did it!”

As I step onto the podium, my eyes are still unveiled so the world can see my joy, but my glasses rest atop my hat because they helped me get there.

Hannah Otto is the 2022 winner of the Leadville 100 MTB race, a World Cup cross country mountain bike racer and a competitor in the 2022 Life Time Grand Prix. She'll wrap up her season with this weekend's Big Sugar gravel race in Bentonville, Arkansas, and will be doing a poster signing at the Julbo booth at the expo on Friday from 1-2 p.m.