Once in a while, we are reminded that the mountain bike athletes we love to watch are also so much more than that. After Rachel Atherton announced her pregnancy on Instagram, we wanted to know more about Rachel Atherton the future mother, rather than just Rachel Atherton the really-blazing-fast-iconic-record-smashing mountain biker. When I first reached out, Rachel mentioned wanting to normalize the idea that mountain bikers can and do get pregnant, since there's been so little discussion around a gravity racer ever having a child. In this interview, Rachel reflects on how she has balanced the first four months of pregnancy with everything else she does in the bike world and what this change might mean for her future.Photos: Dan Griffiths
What has it been like balancing pregnancy with everything you do in the bike world?
It's a steep learning curve, that's for sure! It's a really crazy time because one minute, you aren't pregnant and you're just doing your thing, and the next you are pregnant, there's no “warm-up” for the event, so you have to learn on the job so to speak! I get obsessed with things, hence the obsession with racing and winning, and this has been no different, I'm full-on researching everything and trying to find out everything I can, it's SO interesting!
I'm so excited to be pregnant, and figuring out what pregnancy looks like for me has been a challenge already!
When we first found out, it was so hard to comprehend, it's just surreal, you feel no different but there are cells multiplying inside you?
I was riding laps at Dyfi Bike Park every weekend, and then one day we found out was pregnant, I think on a Thursday. Olly and I rode the bike park that weekend and I hadn't quite wrapped my head around the fact, I had so many questions - should I stop riding immediately? What can and can't I do?
I found a lot of cross country racers that were or had been pregnant and their experience helped, and snowboarders too, but specifically for what I was doing on my bike, I couldn't find anything online to educate or guide me. I know there are ladies out there who ride MTB and DH because many of them have been in touch with me and told me their stories which is so cool! But I had no access to their stories at the time, and very little to go on as to what I should do...
So I decided I would do what I always have done - listen to my body and my instinct!
I made the decision to just ride that weekend like I do every day, with the same confidence and ease and not to suddenly feel scared, riding hesitantly is more dangerous, and I was the same exact person with the same exact skill level I was last weekend before we found out.
It was SO early in the pregnancy, only a few weeks and I felt totally normal. I rode that weekend, I felt good, I felt really calm and happy like I've never really felt before, I did all the big jumps and loved every second, and as I hit the big last hip, following Olly, I knew that would be the last time I would do big jumps until “afterwards” and that was actually quite an emotional moment…
Because I had only been riding properly since my Achilles rupture for about 6 months that summer, and it felt so, SO good to be riding again, the injury, recovery and now being pregnant has been such a tightly packed year of emotion! But that is the beauty of life - the only certain thing is change!
Everything that happens in life is always an opportunity to learn something about yourself, and for me, the last 4 months have taught me to see the bigger picture I suppose. Before anyone knew I was pregnant, we would go trail riding, and I would really keep a check on myself and push down the super gnarly sections, or go around, and the lads we were riding with would look at me like “what the hell is she doing?” And surprisingly to me, I was totally OK with not riding my fastest or at my best, accepting that right now, it's about the bigger picture than this ride here today because I have a life inside me that I am nurturing and growing, and that is so damn special! And I will get back to riding gnarly stuff at some point!
When I got to about 6-7 weeks, the sickness hit me, and that was so hard! The excitement of being pregnant was replaced by feeling grim all day, like a bad hangover all day long, and I really was surprised how bad it was! The only thing that helped was being outside, easy rides or hiking, and eating food, it was almost like being injured again, which threw me mentally, and I had to work hard to remember it was a good thing this time, and not an injury as to why I felt crap!
I was not feeling great for 6 weeks but I hiked a lot, and I rode the ebike a lot and managed some trail rides which made me so happy, and luckily at about 12-13 weeks, I started to feel better again.
I definitely questioned over that time what I should do - should I stop riding completely? It was quite a confusing time, you ask about balancing pregnancy and that is exactly what I decided it should be - a balance.
I knew that mentally, I could not stay off a bike for 9 months, that would do more harm to me and the baby, but I could find a balance - a balance of enjoyment, exercise and rest, a balance of my skill and the need to be safe, and I think I've managed it pretty good so far, and that's what I'll continue to do - balance the growth of my belly with how I feel riding. It's a good life lesson really, and one that athletes struggle to find, balance in life.
I feel so in tune with my body from all the years racing and training, that any tiny difference is huge, so my body tells me exactly what it needs: more sleep, more food, to really rest, to really move or ride, to get away from the wifi signal, to be outside, to watch TV all day, if we actually listen to our bodies, they are bloody good at telling us what we need and as athletes, that's what we do day in day out anyway. So maybe being pregnant is actually like being an athlete - you do some exercise, move or ride, then you eat and sleep until recovered, then repeat! Haha!
I have definitely learnt through my career the importance of rest, I've had burnt out, chronic fatigue, whatever you want to call it, but it comes from not having that balance right, overdoing it and not keeping your core reserve, your core energy topped up, so I understand that even more so in pregnancy, when you take from your body, you must put back in right away.
The most difficult thing I found was imagining how I would approach social media - let's be honest here, as we all know and feel the pressures of social media. I was and still am nervous about what I put out there, how I portray this journey. It's very different from racing and winning that I feel has defined me over my career, but it means a lot to me to show this journey, and when I stripped it back and thought about it, what I want and always try to be is honest, and it was getting to me in the first 3 months that I couldn't be honest online - I was not talking about being pregnant when I was pregnant!
So I am keen to just be honest and pleased that I can now talk about it, and the support from sponsors is brilliant. I feel so proud to be associated with these companies that are a part of the modern world and know that athletes and women can have babies and still do their job in sport!
What are your racing plans going forward?
I am just going to take each day, week, month as it comes, having a baby is something I have looked forward to for a while and so I'm going to enjoy it and commit to it as much as I commit to winning races, and not put any pressure on myself to return by a certain date. The challenge to return to the podium after having a baby is a real one and I can feel it burning away inside me, I love an obstacle! And I feel that the bigger the obstacle or challenge, the harder you work to overcome it and often the better the result / outcome - but at this early stage I can't tell what racing will look like after having a baby, so I'll take it as it comes! I'm on 39 World Cup wins and Anne Carro's record is 42. I've never set out to chase records or achieve certain milestones, but it's annoyingly close!
What do you think this will mean for women's DH results in the next few years? Do you plan to take on more of a mentorship role?
I guess it means that I will definitely not win a World Cup in 2021! But I mean, I love it when the ladies racing say it's not the same without me there, of course, I love that!
I'm an athlete that loves winning and racing, so even when I'm not racing I get sucked into watching and supporting, and it's so exciting! I love analysing what they're doing and picking everything apart and looking for things to improve, as much as I would do when racing myself, but it's kind of more fun watching 'cos when you're there racing in it, it's so damn stressful!
The women's racing this year is going to be wild, the field is hungry, and I feel like they all have different strengths that will shine through at different points, which will be epic to watch unfold.
I love talking to the girls. I message some of them quite a lot, a few ladies at different levels, and I really, REALLY enjoy giving advice or helping with anything I can. I feel like I have so much race knowledge in my head that could help racers and I really enjoy giving that out, so for sure, I can see more mentorships in the future, there are some really exciting women just off the podium that I cant wait to watch!
What are you looking forward to with motherhood?
Oh my god, are Pinkbikers even still reading this far?! I guess without being too soppy, I'm a woman, and an emotional woman at that, so I literally can't wait to have a baby and everything that goes with it! I keep having pretty strong daydreams about riding park laps and having cuddles and feeding in between laps, the baby chilling with my mum or Olly…. rad!
Will there be an Atherton balance bike?
100%! I've thrown a spanner in the product timeline by getting pregnant! I'm gonna force the crew to bring the balance bike to the top of the list!
But seriously, a large reason for Dan, Gee and I wanting to start Atherton bikes was to see kids and youngsters on them, so to suddenly have that kid in the near future be my own, it's mind-blowing really! We have some big stuff going on with Atherton bikes this year which is so exciting, and I feel incredibly lucky to have that business to be involved with!Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rachel! Huge congratulations on the pregnancy. We can't wait to see what the future holds for you and your little ripper.