The rumor mill went into overdrive when the Athertons and GT announced a parting of ways
earlier this week, but it has now been confirmed as to what machines we'll see Gee, Dan, and Rachel on in 2016 and beyond: all three will be riding and racing on Trek bikes. The Athertons have signed a three-year contract with Trek as the title sponsor while they retain ownership of the license and management of the team. The outfit's name will be Trek Factory Racing (it was called Trek World Racing in the past), and it will also include young gun Taylor Vernon, the junior who raced under the GT banner with the Athertons over the past few seasons.
That means we'll see Gee and Rachel on the Session, a bike that Trek has been developing since 2008, with Trek strongly denying that they'll be pursuing a new design. ''They’ll be racing on the Session that everyone already knows. While the 2008 Session and 2016 Session share the same name, the bikes are radically different,'' Travis Ott, Trek mountain bike brand manager, explained when I asked if the Athertons might have a hand in something completely new as they did at GT. That's not to say that we won't see changes, however, with Ott going on to say that the Athertons will be working tightly with Trek's California-based Advanced Concept Group: ''Suspension is a big deal, and we’re taking full advantage of this to refine existing offerings and test some new ideas." It certainly won't hurt that the Athertons and FOX have a long and cozy relationship, as does Trek's ACG branch.
Trek is obviously excited to have the super siblings on their bikes for at least the next three years (and possibly longer), but we thought it best to reach out to Athertons to get their take on the new partnership and what it might mean for them in the future. How many years have you signed with Trek for, and are there performance bonuses penned into the contract?Gee
: The initial contract is for three years which is how it was when we joined GT. We set a minimum term of three years because that gives us enough time to really get under the skin of a bike, to give our feedback, test the results, and race the results. We are all passionate about the bikes, about the progression of the bikes, and there’d be nothing worse than getting a bike perfected and then watching somebody else ride it to victory! It won't be just the Athertons on the program, though, will it?
Gee: We’re stoked that we are going to have another season with Taylor Vernon - it was really important for us to be able to keep on guiding him as he settles into the elites. The move up was hard for him last year, he’s said as much himself loads of times, but we think he’s got a lot more potential to show.
Rachel: Watch out for more from the Atherton Academy over the next season and next couple of seasons. We want to bring on new talent, and we’ve had some pretty awesome success already... For Tay to come back from a crash like he had to take his first World Cup just a year later shows he’s got proper guts.
Dan: Yeah, the first edition of Atherton Academy did pretty well, with a World Cup win for Tay and Martin Maes proving himself a total phenomenon, Junior World Champ in enduro and then mixing it up with the GC to take a podium this year. I think people forget that he’s still a junior. We loved it when he took the downhill World Cup at Fort William two years running - that made people sit up for sure!
Rachel: This year we are going to keep on supporting Kade Edwards through the BDS Series, and I’m also actively looking for a female rider. I think it’s important for us to have other riders around, we’ve all been racing for a long time and watching the way the youngsters attack a course and progress so far so fast is inspiring. It's common practice in some circles for an athlete to test a prospective sponsor's bike (or motorbike, car, etc.) before signing a contract. Did you spend time on the Session before you committed?
Gee: There’s no way that we’d sign a contract without testing the bikes, but due to contractual reasons we can’t talk about it now. What I will say is that I think that all of us respond well to change, so we are stoked to get started.
Dan: Yeah, my whole riding life has been about progressing the sport and change helps that progress. It can be uncomfortable to step into the unknown, but it’s far outweighed by the potential benefits. A World Cup racer is obviously going to be extremely quick on any bike, but how much time do you believe being on the right bike for you really counts for?
Gee: At the level we ride, only total confidence in your bike is going to allow you to put it on the line to the extent that’s necessary to win a World Cup or a World Champs. The GT Fury is an awesome bike that's carried me to three World Cup victories and a World Championship, and Rach has had two World Champs and about seventeen World Cup wins on it. Those are great results by anybody’s standards, but this is a new chapter, and I’m stoked to get my hands on the Session. We saw you heavily involved in the development of the second-generation GT Fury. Is this a process that you enjoy, and should we expect the same sort of approach with Trek?
Dan: Yeah, we’ve all been very involved, Gee and Rach with the Fury and me with the Sanction. It’s a process that we enjoy, and we’re really looking forward to working with Trek to develop the Session and the Slash. Trek’s Race Shop is rad; they can turn around a prototype in two weeks, and they’ve shown us how important rider feedback is in that process. That was an important factor when we were considering the move, and we’ve always wanted to put our own touch on a bike, to get under the skin of the product and make adjustments to suit our riding styles. It’s a big thing for us. Who will be the key suppliers for the team when it comes to drivetrain, suspension, and brakes?
Rach: We’ve been working with Shimano forever, and we are totally confident on everything they give us - that won't change. Similarly with FOX, and I don’t really understand how, it is that they keep coming back year after year with a better product. None of us do, but we all have complete confidence that the suspension we’re riding is going to be the absolute cutting edge.
Have you tested and will you be running Bontrager tires for the 2016 race season?
|When I get into that start gate, the feelings are as intense as they were when I was 15 or 16 and racing Dragon Downhills. What has changed, of course, is everything around the race. We have an awesome support team, great race set-up, and the sport has exploded in popularity, which is something we're real keen on helping to promote.- Gee Atherton|
Dan: Again, that’s something we can’t talk about much yet because of where we are at with Continental and Stan’s. I can say that it will be a huge wrench to part company with those guys. We’ve worked with the guys at Stan's for two seasons officially, unofficially a lot longer, and Continental for five years. We’ve enjoyed great relationships, and we’re parting on the best terms and with pride in what we’ve achieved on both sides. Gee, you're going into your 15th season on the World Cup circuit. How have your feelings about the sport changed since you first lined up in a World Cup start gate back in 2002?
I’m not sure it will ever change. When I get into that start gate, the feelings are as intense as they were when I was 15 or 16 and racing Dragon Downhills! What has changed, of course, is everything around the race. We have an awesome support team, great race set-up, and the sport has exploded in popularity, which is something we’re real keen on helping to promote. Red Bull do an awesome job of getting the race coverage out there, but there’s also the work that Rach has been doing with the mainstream media and our own moving image projects - that’s a big part of what we do here. Watch out for some rad Dan Atherton builds later this year. Rachel, does having such a commanding performance in 2015 make the off-season easier? Or do you feel like you need to increase your efforts even further to make sure you stay at the front of the pack?
I’m never going to have an easy off-season! The women riders are getting faster every year and after racing for so long only the win feels acceptable to me, so I know that I’ll have to work hard to stay out in front. I’ve never won all seven World Cups or consecutive World Championships, so that’s a huge target for me. Dan, will we see you at some (or all?) of the EWS races in 2016? And if so, did you spend time on a Remedy before signing a contract?
The full schedule for 2016 is still to be confirmed, but I’ll definitely be putting in an appearance at some of the Enduro World Series events, as well as focusing on some exciting new building and moving image projects, so people won't have to wait too long to get a look at the new bikes in action. I haven’t been able to ride since I fell testing Hardline - I broke my scapula in three places - but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t done my homework. The bike has served Justin Leov well this year at the EWS, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
What exactly are Trek getting by putting the Athertons on their bikes?
The obvious answer, besides a whole lot of talent, is a two-pronged winning machine in the form of Gee and Rachel, who have an astonishing thirty-four World Cup downhill victories on their résumé, as well as a handful of World and National Championship jerseys spread over the years. Rachel is responsible for a ridiculous twenty-six of those on her own, which, despite numerous injury-plagued seasons, gives her a win percentage somewhere around Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls team. For reference, Greg Minnaar is the winningest male World Cup racer with only
eighteen wins over the last fifteen years of competing. Gee hasn't been quite as prolific, but his eight World Cup DH wins aren't anything to sniffle at, and the same goes for his World Champs performances. Sure, Bryceland, Gwin, and Minnaar have been ticking off wins more recently, but Gee is always close enough to them that it'd be silly to assume he couldn't put together a dream season.
Older brother Dan has a long history of racing behind him as well, including podiuming at World Cup downhill events and winning World Cup 4X races (remember those?), but it's his digging prowess and jumping skills that have made him a fan favorite. Once a racer, always a racer, though, so don't be surprised to see the elder Atherton show well on the 2016 EWS circuit in between building ridiculous things to ride.
On top of the ability to win, Trek is also getting a very marketable package. Their 'Atherton Project
' series has roughly ten zillion views here on Pinkbike, and it's been one of the most popular web series in recent times. There's something about a team of successful siblings and their backstory that makes for much more interesting viewing than another World Cup guy's three-minute long video that looks like it was filmed on a potato. The Atherton Project was a quality series that gave the viewer actual insights into the life of a World Cup pro, which is why it was so successful, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a similar Atherton-based series debut in the near future. And let's not forget that Gee even made an appearance on the BBC's Top Gear, which is one of the most watched television series of all time. That sort of crossover to the non-cycling world is nearly unheard of and is of incalculable value. What are the Athertons getting by signing with Trek?
Changing bikes is a big deal for someone who's counting tenths of seconds on any given weekend, and while Rachel is likely hoping and working towards carrying the momentum she has into 2016, Gee will surely be looking at the change in scenery as a new beginning after a winless 2015 World Cup season. The last time he stood atop the podium at a World Cup downhill event was in Cairns, Australia, in 2014, which was his sole victory that year. The large majority of racers would be fill-their-pants happy to call Gee's 2014 and 2015 season's their own, but Atherton spent much more time spraying champagne in the years prior to that and he'll be looking to get back in the habit next year. Likewise, Dan will be hoping for less time recuperating from injuries and more time holding onto both a set of grips and a shovel, and we could see some absolutely mental things in 2016 if he manages to do that.
The Fury and Sanction are badass bikes, bikes that were developed by and for the Athertons, so I don't believe that their GTs were holding them back in any way. But there's something to be said about a new bike and a new sponsor that's certainly going to stoke the fire that already burns under the Athertons' collective asses. The siblings have all been around for many years now, so you know that their competitive side will be doing everything possible to say, "Hey, we still got it.
And how do I see it? You'd have to be an idiot to think that Rachel won't continue dominating, so I see her winning a handful of races and taking another overall title home with her. Gee is the real question mark, however, as the field is faster and hungrier than ever before. Bryceland and Gwin have both stepped up their game since Gee was taking wins on a regular basis, and it will be no small feat to usurp the consistent American. Think of the story if he did, though: Gee returning to the top on the same bike, more or less, that Gwin had his most successful years aboard. I don't see Gee dominating in a Gwin-like fashion, but I am going to say that he will win at least one, maybe two World Cups in 2016, which would put him on contention for the overall.
Whatever happens, the merry-go-round of racers switching teams during this off-season is going to make for a very interesting 2016.