From Racing the Giro to Running his own Business: An Interview with Aaron Olson

Interview and Images by William Tracy

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Since opening in late 2011, Handlebar Coffee has become a Santa Barbara, California, staple. It’s owned and run by former professional cyclists and partners Aaron Olson and Kim Anderson, hence the bicycle themed name. During his career, Aaron twice raced the Giro d’Italia, for Saunier Duval and then T-Mobile. Kim raced at both T-Mobile and Columbia, winning La Route de France in 2009. About a year and a half ago, the couple opened their second location: a 4,000 sq. ft. European-style café, complete with a kitchen and a large Probat roaster which they use to produce about 2,000 pounds of beans per week. We caught up with Aaron at the new location to learn a bit about his career and the café.

Interview and Images by William Tracy

Peloton Magazine: How did you get into cycling?

Aaron Olson: I grew up with it. My father and my uncle were big into the sport. I started out doing BMX racing when I was probably six, seven, eight years old in Eugene, Oregon, where I was born and raised. I put lots of focus, lots of energy into it and became pretty good nationally for my age group as a junior. My father and uncle raced back in the 60s and 70s so they guided me in that direction. And I got pretty hooked on the freedom behind it. I really am self motivated and driven to always better myself so it’s definitely a sport where the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.

I’d never traveled really outside of Oregon or Washington because I grew up poor. So cycling was this awesome opportunity to go to California and then to go to nationals. I qualified for my first national team when I was 17, and I got my first trip to Europe when I was 18.

PM: You raced the Giro d’Italia twice, in 2006 with Saunier Duval and 2007 with T-Mobile, tell us about that experience.

AO: For me it was one of my biggest goals, to race a Grand Tour. I feel super blessed to have done the Giro. The opportunity to do any of the three Grand Tours is pretty spectacular, but Italy is pretty special. The first year in 2006 we did some of the most epic stages: eight hour days on the bike back to back in the mountains, four one-hour mountain passes. I got to be on a team with a past winner, Gilberto Simoni, who had won two times before. And we won a couple stages in the race. I pushed myself to an all time new limit.

The second year I did it, I was part of T-Mobile and we had the leader’s jersey for six days. It was pretty awesome to be able to ride on the front for a good friend and teammate, Marco Pinotti.

PM: The Giro is notoriously difficult, some say it’s the hardest Grand Tour.

AO: The promoters do an amazing job making it a spectacle for the viewers, and it is a spectacle for the participants too—going up every climb on the hardest roads and through every little village is pretty special.

PM: Does any stage stand out as the most memorable or difficult?

I think the Mortirolo is the hardest climb. Just to do the climb was savage-hard—just to go up, let alone race up it. But it’s amazing.

PM: When did you retire from professional cycling?

In 2009. In 2008 I rode for Bissell. I came back from Europe because I wanted to see how well I could do and also I was a little bit frustrated with how much drugs were in the sport and how many investigations there were. I wasn’t part of any of it. It was a little bit demoralizing racing against guys who are taking so many drugs and testing positive and that seemed to be a lot of the conversation.

I rode my whole career clean. When I came to the realization that I was only going to achieve a certain level in the sport being a clean rider, I wasn’t willing to take anything to try to get to the next level. So I at least wanted to be competitive in the sport. I came back to North America to see if I could be a leader and do well in some big races.

Handlebar roasts 2,000 pounds of beans per week.

PM: Did you do anything between racing bikes and opening Handlebar?

AO: Not really, we [girlfriend and business partner Kim Anderson] went pretty much from professional sports to opening our own café in November 2011.

PM: How has being a professional athlete helped you in running a business?

AO: Professional sports has really helped us with the mindset and the work ethic we have to always better ourselves and be the best we can be. We’re not afraid of hard work. We’ve done over 100 hours a week for probably five years and now we’re down to 80 to 100 hours per week.

The only difference with professional sports is that at the end of the day as an athlete you at least get to turn your head off. You’re on all the time when you own your own business.

PM: How did your time in Europe influence Handlebar?

AO: Our whole life has been poured into the passion of trying to make people’s experience at our cafés great. We experienced a lot of rad cafés from all over the world, so we tried to pick up ideas from every café in every country and bring that back and put it all in one.

PM: You have two busy cafés. What do you attribute your success to?

AO: Having an amazing business parter, Kim, who is as determined, passionate, and stronger than I am. We both have the same mindset to push through any brick walls we run into and try to better ourselves and the café.

I think it’s just perseverance and determination. People think we’re crazy because we work so much—and we probably partly are. But I think that anyone who is partly crazy, that is probably what makes them successful at what they do.

Handlebar made a special Giro Blend with Peloton for May. Make sure you grab a bag at our shop before they run out. And subscribe by Sunday, June 2 and you’ll get a bag and Peloton mug as a thank you gift from us!

Trending on Velo

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.