Rachel Atherton is currently ranked world number one in the adrenaline-filled discipline of Downhill MTB racing.
We caught up with the GT Factory Team member in Fort William, on the eve of her decisive victory in round one of the UCI MTB Downhill World Cup series.
I got riding through my two older brothers. Having brothers that ride bikes and do the sport is the best way in, I think. I was always trying to keep up with them and chase them, just following them around. I didn’t want to be left behind when they were racing at weekends.
When they were racing, I wasn’t really into mountain biking. Then I went to a couple of races and they persuaded me to compete. I won them, and I liked the winning. So I never rode my bike unless it was at a race and I just wanted to win. Then I started enjoying it and it went from there.
My brothers are both professional mountain bikers, and amazing racers. They’ve both got very different styles and approaches. Gee’s very much full-on, attacking. Dan’s more calculated and assessed, a perfectionist, so I take a bit from both of them, and it’s definitely helped me get to where I am today.
It’s not all plain sailing being on the same team. Living together and training together is quite intense. There are a lot of bust-ups because the end of the day we're both trying to be the best in the sport, so if he is taking up the sofa then I want to be taking up the sofa!
But all in all, having a family as your team members is amazing. When the going gets tough, that support goes deeper than team mates.
It’s really good and it helps you get through the tough times, the injuries, stuff like that.
This winter was the first winter I didn’t have surgery on something at the end of the race season, so starting it strong was awesome. Being able to ride and have fun instead of rehabbing and stuff like that feels amazing, and then being able to come into the training already strong enough is great. Its just been really good fun.
We’ve changed a few things, started to work with a new trainer, doing a lot more strength work for injury prevention. I see my physio twice a week and though we’re not old, obviously, we’re definitely not as young as we used to be. It all adds up, all the crashes. I think recovery and making sure you are strong and can handle racing week in week out seems to be what’s working for me.
Fort William is a pretty unique race; the home race. There is a lot of pressure, and up until this year I’ve always crumbled under that pressure, but having those bad races here has helped. I feel calm and relaxed. You definitely learn from your mistakes and now I try to enjoy all the media and the hype and the fans without letting it get me nervous. You’ve just got to enjoy that as part of it.
The faster you go, the more fun it is!
In qualifying at Fort William I had so much fun, it was so cool. There was a big step down in the woods and I did a big cheer to the crowd; I went ‘wahey!’ as I jumped off and they were so appreciative of it.
When you ride well, and ride fast, you enjoy it and that’s what you do it for. That’s why we love it. Obviously winning is a bonus. I want to win, and when I don’t win, I get really mad! [laughs]
I think a lot of athletes would say it’s not about the winning, but it is. You don’t go through all this otherwise; all the injuries and the training. I’m racing to win and that’s what I want to do.
I’ve noticed a big increase this year in the women’s field. There are a lot of women racing, and the standard, the depth of field, the talent is increasing.
Everyone is really capable and strong now, and it’s amazing to see. Obviously the women aren’t as strong as the men but we’re getting there. We’re getting faster, and as well as that we’re still women at the end of the day, and that’s cool. Everyone has their own style and it’s a cool sport. It’s a nice time to be a woman in mountain biking!
I think a lot of the increase in women racing is down to the sport. Companies and teams are willing to give the women riders a chance. Companies are recognising the women’s side of things is a big market, with specific race kit and everything. So instead of coming out looking like guys, we’re coming out in our own kit, looking like girls, feeling like ‘I wanna ride’. Maybe the media side of things is helping it as well. There’s a lot of hype around the women, and after the Olympics, which all helps.
[My advice to an aspiring downhill riders would be to] spend two years in the gym first and get strong! No, I think you can tell people that ride because they enjoy it. If you enjoy riding then you will like downhill, because it’s the best bits of riding your bike, all rolled into one.
I think that girls would often like to race but they think they’re not good enough or not fast enough. But enter a race if that’s what you want to do, and take your time on the track, learning it, and enjoy yourself. Don’t be pressured – that’s when accidents happen.
Be your own rider and do it your own way.
Downhill is so gnarly, it’s a hell of a sport and you’ve got to be so sharp mentally. I think having enough off time between races is important. You’ve got to race strong and fast and then switch off, let yourself be a girl, and let yourself chill out before you’ve got to do it again.
It’s a testosterone fuelled sport, and you can’t stay up at the top of this testosterone peak for too long or you’ll just collapse. Giving yourself time to chill out is a crucial thing and maybe people don’t do it enough.
I like to walk my dog. Last year was the first year I’ve had him and it was the best year of racing I’ve had for ages. I do think that having something outside of riding is important. Riding my bike is what I love and its what I do to relax, but if you’ve been racing for 6 weeks you need to do something else. It took me a few years to learn that. Now I do yoga a lot, and that’s an amazing thing to relax you, and get you in touch with your feminine side. Dog and yoga combined seems to work!