Interview: Phil Atwill - "No One Really Knew I Had an Injury and I’m Sure They Just Thought I Was Riding Sh*t"

Feb 6, 2019
by James Smurthwaite  

In an era of growing professionalism, there's one rider who is still willing to drink G&Ts on the hotseat, ride down World Cup tracks on hardtails and still be capable of podiums - Phil Atwill.

Phil burst on to the scene through his rowdy edits with the Dirt Propain team but he was soon proving himself on the race track too. In 2017, he grabbed his first ever podium and seemed poised to break into the upper echelons of the sport. Unfortunately, a couple of off-season knocks last year stopped him in his tracks and he struggled to reclaim that form in 2018.

This year he's back with a new team, Cube. It's fair to say Cube have been a largely straight-laced presence on the World Cup circuit, so how does that fit with Phil's wildman image? We caught up with Phil to talk about his struggles in 2018, his new team and how he's settling in to his new home in Greece.





How do you look back on last year? Especially the first three rounds? Coming off a season with a podium to then struggling to qualify. I mean obviously there was an injury at play but people didn't really know that.


Man, last year was hard. Snapping my ACL in late November and getting surgery in December 2017 wasn’t easy for me or my manager Ben [Reid] at the time because in a way we had to keep it quiet to get the deals secured during the off season. This was good and bad but it meant I still had a job coming into 2018. Not a nice position for anyone to be in.

After my surgery I got on the road bike pretty quickly and worked hard with my trainer at the time, Joel Llande, to get some fitness and strength back. After a month and a half, things were feeling way better, I could straighten my leg properly and was able to walk without crutches but I was a long way off riding my DH bike. In my head I was convinced I was going to be at the first World Cup and as competitive as I had left off the season before. I was also lucky enough to get a deal with CTi and got custom braces made up before the races kicked off and without that left knee brace I wouldn’t been anywhere at any of the races last year.

The first three World Cups were hard mentally, Croatia was really tough. No one really knew I had an injury and I’m sure they just thought I was riding shit. In hindsight I shouldn’t have even been trying to race. My knee was the size of a melon and I’d ridden my downhill bike three or four times prior. I was still so certain in my head that I could be back racing where I left off but practice was tough. When I missed quali by half a second, that was a cruel reminder I was way off the pace and had a lot of work to put in, and with the new top 60 rule it felt even harder to get qualified and get some confidence back.

In Fort William I was feeling a bit better on the bike but definitely wasn't my old self, my knee was pretty swollen but better than it had been. I was dead nervous up top before my quali run and crashed just after the deer gate missing the finals once again. I was absolutely devastated. I didn’t miss it by much at all but my Dad was there watching and that really hurt. A few beers were had that night to try ease the pain.

bigquotesI honestly reckon if I didn't qualify 60th then I would have just pulled out of the rest of the season

Leogang came around and I felt way better on my bike, I felt like myself a little bit, which was cool. Everything was going pretty smooth, I just made a few little mistakes in quali and it’s a tight track to qualify on, like within ten seconds of the fastest dude. Yeah sh*t, 60th, that was lucky, honestly I think I would have taken a step back and had a rethink what I wanted to do for the rest of the year If I hadn’t made the finals at that one but luckily it worked out the way it did and it was a huge relief.

For all the Atwill fans out there... here s the man himself.

Did that give you a confidence boost?


It was a relief, I honestly reckon if I didn't qualify 60th then I would have just pulled out of the rest of the season but it gave me the light to keep going and try and pull everything back together. It’s fair to say me and Ben weren’t getting on great at the time and going to the races was something I didn’t look forward to with in that situation but that gave me the drive to keep cracking on.

Phil Atwill has a plan to blow up everything until he gets his season back on track.

But after that pretty much top 20s right?


Yeah, I had four including Worlds but Val di Sole was the race of the year for me by a clean mile. I was just having fun on my bike like I used to. It rained for qualifying but I just took it dead steady and got 14th. I was like, “yep, sweet, back in the game”. It was dry for race runs and I just put down a clean run. I made one mistake on a left hander at the bottom but I was absolutely over the moon with 15th and got real drunk that night. Dad was there to which made up for Fort William. All the shit that had happened previous was forgotten and I was hungry for it.

When did Cube first approach you?


I've always been friendly with the guys at Bliss because I used to ride for them years ago. I always chat with Andi a bit at the races and he came up to me and asked me what my plans were for next year and if I'd be interested in having a chat with him. In Mont Sainte Anne he invited me for a meeting and we had a chat and then just continued talking throughout the season and it worked out pretty cool.

Were you looking to leave and ready to move onto something new?


To be honest I think it was pretty mutual between me and Ben, I think it had come to the end of the relationship within the terms of being able to work with each other and I knew if we wanted to keep a friendly relationship in the future it wasn't going to be a good idea to try and work with each other for another year. But with all that said, we parted ways in good terms and I’m sure I’ll be round there pits this year for a cuppa tea or two.


What sort of benefits are you expecting at Cube?


Yeah it’s cool. Cube being a factory team means the support is insane, we got invited to a Christmas party to meet everyone and get drunk for a day or 2 and they looked after us like you would not believe, it was ridiculous.

If you need something it's in the post that week, they're bending over backwards to make the schedule around my needs. They're supporting us with all sorts of media projects and letting me have a bit of a say with developing their new DH bike, which is really nice. Keep your eyes peeled good things to come.

bigquotesThe bike is very light and the components are very sexy

What about the races themselves?


It's hard to comment really as they haven’t started yet but we've got a nice trailer, a big old pits and the team's sponsored by Nissan so there's smart cars to run around in, which is sick. We're flying Lufthansa and I even got flown business when I visited Cube, which was pretty cushy. It has been stress free so far, which I’m into.

What differences have you noticed with the bike so far?


The bike is very light and the components are very sexy. It's cool to be on Fox and Magura, some good bits you can trust. My first thoughts when I rode the bike was, "holy shit", thing’s light, pedals well and the suspension is impressive.


It's a completely different bike, the Propain was a good bike and so is the Cube but it's hard to compare at the moment as I haven’t spent much time on the Cube yet. My first thoughts are its light and corners well. I get my new XL bike this week so I’m excited to get some good hours on it.

Are you a bit worried that Cube are a bit more straight laced than the old Dirt team was?


Yeah before joining the team I thought they were straight laced and to be fair they do come across a bit that way but after meeting all the guys it’s a cool place to be and I’m excited to get stuck in.

In a way I think that's one of the reasons they’ve employed me to try and add some more fun to the company.


Are you just doing World Cups this year?


I set my goals at World Cups this year, I want to finish top 15 for sure.

We're going to go to Maribor for the first IXS the weekend before the World Cup and it'll be like a little World Cup. I'm going to do some of the Greek enduros and DH Nationals I think and I want to get out to a couple Crankworx events there always so much fun and maybe even an EWS at the end of the year but let’s see.

How's life in Greece?


It's cool man, there's a good little crew and I've started meeting a few people out here. The bit where I hurt myself in Gamble is just above my house but someone wrecked on the same tree so it's all cut out now. I want to help the Greek riding scene grow because there's some real talented kids but there's no one really over here that's got the experience to guide them in the right direction, if you know what I mean?

But Greece in general is rad, well if you want to do anything bureaucratic it’s a complete night mare. It took me three weeks to buy a car! But on the plus side there’s limited laws or the locals don’t seem to abide by them. One or the other. For example if you're stuck in traffic on your motor bike and can’t get through it seems like to norm to drive down the pavement to avoid getting held up.

Phil pulling up into the unknown at his custom Malaka Line built specially for Gamble. Photo Boris Beyer

Is there much of a race scene?


Yeah, I did a national as soon as I got here and it was a bloody good track. I woke up race day morning and I still hadn't walked the track so I rode up the track on the TTR, had a look at a few sections and rode back down. There's boys that had done their own uplift that are dropping in and riding down as I'm like riding the TTR up the track and I get to the bottom and the boys from Red Bull Greece are all there, it was brilliant. So much fun the whole weekend and some good competition.

How are you coping with the language barrier?


Ha. Yeah, I can do a couple of bits now, I can understand when Kat my girlfriend's slagging me off now! I've learned enough to get by politely-ish - as long as you know the word 'malaka' you're pretty sorted. My road rage now is in Greek, it just comes natural!

Any last words?


It is so fresh and exciting, I am over the moon that I signed with these guys. It's cool signing for a new team especially my first factory ride with Cube. It has really made me get my shit together and focus on the job in hand. The main thing is that it's less stressful for me and good for my mental health. I didn't realise being a professional cyclist could be this easy!



Ben Reid asked for a chance to respond to some of Phil's comments. His words are below:

As Phil said, this [2017/2018 offseason] really was a difficult time for him and with a lot of new sponsorship deals signed only days before his incident we had to be careful what went out until we really knew what was going on with his knee. Phil had the choice to sit out as much of the season as he needed with zero pressure from his team, with his recovery going so well Phil made the decision to race at the opening World Cup after he raced Maribor IXS as a trial the week before which gave us a good gauge for where he was at.

Naturally Phil had high expectations of himself after his 2017 season where he scored his first World Cup podium and showed he was a force to be reckoned with, coming into 2018 on the back foot was undoubtedly hard for him and also for the whole team, as a manager and former World Cup racer I understand the importance for a racer to maintain a strong head and felt I was often looking for other things that Phil could blame even if that was me at times and just anything that would help him remain head strong at the next race. It took its toll and as a result neither of us were in an easy position.

We had a great four years together and I'm proud of him for how far he has come in that time. I look forward to seeing Phil on the podium again soon, he is one hell of a talent and with a bit more structure and forward planning I think he could find some real consistency which would be great to see. I really look forward to taking things back to just friends with Phil and its definitely time for someone else to have a go.. Wink Don't be surprised to see Phil under our tent again this season.



48 Comments

  • + 122
 Ben Reid, class act on & off the bike. Fair and just words.
Phill is such a talent and I hope this new ride for him brings the results he's capable of.
Best of times to Cube & Propain
  • + 1
 F*** yeah! PB I’ve found you! Hahaha! You can’t stay anonymous with that profile picture!!
  • + 1
 @FNDTN: Hola, alas I cannae see your mug in your profile pic and FNDTN ain't giving away shit as to your identity. Go on give me a clue. Could it be Jody 'big n badass' Sergison???
  • + 1
 Agreed. Fair play to Phil for giving an honest interview and not just the usual PR bullshit, and respect for Ben for responding in such a way. Looking forward to this season. Propain supporting some top UK talent again and a fully fit Phil on a new team.
  • + 52
 Phil is an absolute class. Getting into cool raw edits instead of making a fricking multi episode drama about coming back from his injury, having goals, living a dream, risking a lot, working hard in the gym and other pish. “Nobody knew I was injured”, can you people realize how hard that is to pull off in the era of social media hoes? Influencers? Nudgers?

You are one of the best Phil, everytime you pop up in a motion pi ture of any kind, you bring a smile on my face. Your cornering is out of this planet.
  • + 25
 Phil is an amazing guy and rider and we're glad to have him around. I hope he'll boost the Greek scene a bit.
  • + 22
 Tearing an ACL and racing a World Cup 4 months after surgery...talk about hardcore and nerve racking. Doc made me wait 9 months before MTB when I tore mine.
  • + 2
 Pretty savage, separated mine from the bone an even without surgery, I was fked for well over a year..
(yep I was stupid not to get surgery)
  • + 2
 Nine months!? Must have been something a little more involved than just an ACL reconstruction. That sucks!
  • + 1
 @freeinpg: Yeah, it was a hamstring graft which is supposed to heal stronger but takes a longer recovery than patellar or allograft.
  • + 1
 If you break ACL and keep doing stuff, isn’t your meniscus getting peeled off the bone?
  • + 3
 professional injury specialists just tear their ACL and meniscus at the same time!
motto: "why not both?!"
  • + 1
 @WAKIdesigns: personally, the doc said my meniscus needed a trim with keyhole surgery but, was fine because of my muscle mass around the knee. I'm just at a LOT more risk of a second injury to the PCL(?) without an ACL. At the time The years off work, riding an rehab put me off the surgery as mine would've been full knee reconstruction, they would've had to deconstruct an reconstruct every knee ligament to re'attatch the one seperated ACL :/
  • + 12
 Having met him a few times (he's really sound) I can imagine being his friend AND being his employer could be problematic!!
  • + 10
 I tore my ACL 2 weeks ago, this is inspiring... hoping to get at least a good half season this summer. what a hardo
  • + 21
 Unsolicited advice: Treat your rehab like it's your job and don't take any shortcuts!

On a happy note, bike riding will almost definitely be part of your treatment plan but might be flat ground for a while. I'd also suggest finding a physio who "gets it" and has a passion for sports, as sports injuries are only one part of the rehab world, and you'll likely be able to connect better with a therapist who understands how frustrating it is to not be able to participate in sport versus someone who doesn't quite have that shared passion. Also keep in mind that a therapist's job is to empower you to fix yourself by sharing their knowledge, but ultimately you've gotta be the one doing the work. And um, yes it will hurt Smile

(take it from someone who had 2 knee surgeries before turning 17 (ACL reconstruction, meniscus) who is now 30 and a couple years away from being a physio...) - good luck to you!
  • + 5
 @lalalalaura: This is absolutely spot on. 2 seasons ago I blew up my ACL, shredded my MCL, and split my meniscus in half when I got tangled with my bike and a tree up at Whistler. It was so bad to the point that when the doc went in there, they thought the other half of my meniscus had just "disappeared" (it was tucked behind some other junk). They repaired my original MCL, slung a 2nd MCL for reinforcement (took one hamstring piece), stitched my meniscus back together and replaced my ACL with the other hamstring.

My PT'ist was an avid biker (not DH oriented, but 2 wheels none the less) and I told her to kick the crap out of me, I needed to heal fast. It was super painful, there were tears at some points, but 6 months later I was on the snowmobile again (although it was probably too soon). She did an excellent job even though at some times I hated her.

I was good for the next DH season but could definitely feel that I wasn't right. Fast forward 2 years now. things will never be the same, but I'm still riding and have pushed myself harder than I ever had in the past and the leg is doing as well as it could be.

For the OP, Excellent advice here^^^ from @lalalalaura. Treat it like your job. There are no shortcuts with PT. With just an ACL injury, if you're diligent, you likely won't know it ever happened.

Now I need to follow all of it again for my wrist surgery next Tuesday...opening weekend here I come...!
  • + 1
 @krashDH85: haha - your experience reminds me of hearing PTs referred to as "physio terrorists" more than once Razz Good luck with your wrist!
  • + 2
 Couldn’t agree more with both @lalalalaura and @krashDH85. I’d add that if possible work with a physio who cares about you. Nothing more frustrating than feeling as though your physio doesn’t care how things are going
  • + 1
 Additional unsolicited advice: when riding with your knee brace you may want to pad the outside of it a bit. I chipped the hell outta my top tube the first time back out haha
  • + 1
 @krashDH85: I felt pretty discouraged 2-3 years after my acl, things didn't feel right,thought I was fooked. Kept getting better though, now it feels better than I could have ever thought, 10 years later. My best guess is residual scar tissue clearing and the muscles RE-balancing is what took place year 3-4.
  • + 1
 @game: really good to know. I have kinda given in at this point in thinking this is how it will be here on out. It hasn't hindered my riding at all, but def know it's not right, even through all the strength training I do.

Heck, I don't remember what good knees feel like anymore.

I guess we'll see, this upcoming season will be year three. I wonder if because I damaged everything in there if I'll be better or worse off.

@DGThree: My doc recommended that I not run a brace after my PT was complete. He was more adamant about getting all the supporting muscles back to 100%. That as well as even if wearing a brace and you crash or tweak hard enough to do damage, if the brace supports your knee from damage the forces related to impact or twisting will transfer to the next weakest spot (hip).

Interesting enough even though I haven't worn a brace ever for DH, I ride Mobius's X8 knee braces for moto and I plan on getting their wrist brace for post PT DH until I'm comfortable again. I just don't want to become dependent on it.
  • + 5
 Phil is the Drunken Master of downhill. Great memories watching that Drunken Foot style in UCI DH Vallnord 2017, every rider on the circuit has his special style but aesthetically Phil's is the most pleasant one.
  • + 2
 Ridiculous talent this guy is. Rides WC DH with a freshly rebuilt ACL and a knee brace. Then gets pissed that he can’t get into the top brackets! On top of that nobody knows that he’s riding Losinj, and Fort Bill (The rock garden from hell, and long brutal tech) with a knee the size of a “melon”! Exemplifies the term “British Pluck” Good luck next season Phil you’ve earned it.
  • + 3
 I went out and bought my Orange Five purely after seeing Phil's edit a couple of years back. Guys cornering skills are mental. His section in Gamble film is awesome too. Good luck with the new team!
  • + 1
 Always loved Phil and Propain, seeing him on the podium getting doused in bubbly is one of my favorite dh memories in recent years. Best of luck to both, I'm glad the friendship is intact or at least on the mend, it just wouldn't be in the nature of mtb to leave a hatchet unburied. Can't freakin wait for the season to start.
  • + 5
 This is epic
  • + 4
 That last shot is brilliant!
  • + 2
 Awesome to get back racing. Joint and ligament injuries are really tough to recover from. Many times a broken bone heals faster and stronger.
  • + 2
 The bike is light and the components are sexy No lies there, cuz that frame... Ugh
  • + 2
 Hands down my favorite rider. So much style and zero fucks given. A BORN HOMIE.
  • + 3
 Riders need to lick their bikes more often...

#Likurbike...
  • + 1
 Thanks for the insights! And the nice chat on the liason to stage 2 in Olargues last year. I'm looking forward to see some nice podium runs from you in 2019!
  • + 1
 I thought everyone knew about it...? Somehow i did and didn't hold it against ya. Like you said you were on form by the 2nd half.
  • + 1
 Hey good luck with new season & hope you can stay healthy all season long!
  • + 2
 Its like supercross now...secret injuries.
  • + 1
 Coming back from a blown ACL, LCL, MCL last October, this really put things into perspective for me.
  • + 2
 Keep having fun out there Phil!!
  • + 1
 Awesome Phil bey! Some tidy words from Ben too!
  • + 1
 Such a great guy!! Good for you man nice move!
  • + 1
 Love this. Phil is one of my favorite riders.
  • + 1
 "He seems to ride at whatever time or whatever way he pleases
  • - 3
 " We had to keep it quiet to get the deals secured during the off season."

Is it just me or is this sort of thing okay as long as you're cool and rad? If I were a sponsor and my athlete didn't tell me that he "MAY" not be able to ride 100% let alone ride deliberately would really piss me off.

Sorry man... Phil is a great rider, no question... but not too sure if I'd strike deals with him. And there something about doing that World Cup run on a hardtail that actually rubbed me the wrong way... Gwin could ride that track on a hardtail with one wheel and win but he didn't.
  • + 6
 His hardtail run was part of a protest, he didnt just do it for fun
  • + 0
 Fair point about hiding the injury though
  • + 2
 Nice one!
  • + 1
 Rock on Tommy ✌
  • + 0
 ????

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