She’s fast, focused, and fit. And, it is this very determination and drive that has led Rachel Atherton to dominate the women’s field on the World Cup Circuit. As the 2008 World Champion for downhill, at 20 years of age, Rachel is so fast that she often beats nearly half of the men trying to qualify for the final round at the World Cups.
Rachel’s world title wins haven’t slowed down since Livingo either. She’s continued to prove that she truly deserves the rainbow stripes by confidently walking away with 1st place finishes at the last two World Cups in Mont St.Anne and Bromont, Quebec.As part of the series of articles that I have been writing focusing on women riders, at the Bromont World Cup, I chatted with Rachel about her background in the sport and training and preparation for World Cups.How long have you been racing and how did you get started?
I’ve been racing world cups for four years, but I’ve been riding bikes nearly all of my life. I started racing BMX when I was little and then got into mountain bikes when I was 10. My brothers encouraged me and I just always wanted to race. I love to race. I started out racing the Nationals back home (in Britain).How do you prepare for a world cup race in the days leading up to the event?
It depends where we are. I try to chill out, relax and have fun. For exercise I mainly spin-out and stretch and try to keep my body fit. It’s really hard to keep fit in between races, so I try to keep my legs spinning. After the Worlds I trained really hard at home because there was a big gap in between the races. I do a lot of sprint training when there are big gaps.Where does your drive come from to race? What do you like most about racing?
I like winning. There is nothing like knowing you are the fastest girl down the hill at a race. You have to push yourself in your mind and body. There’s nothing like the feeling of racing. It’s incredible when you are riding so fast and everything falls into place, you get all your lines.It must take a lot of focus to do so well. What do you think about before the race?
I try not to focus on anything before the race so that I am not tired in my head. I switch off and get away from it. I have to make sure I am having fun – that’s always when I perform the best. When we are at home, we work 1-2 times per week with a Sports Psychologist that Red Bull sets us up with for mental training. He shows us how to switch off, how to have a racer side and still have another side to you. I’ve learned so much about the mental side of racing in the past two years.After winning the World Championships this year and with your sponsorship commitments, do you feel a lot of pressure to do well?
Winning gives me confidence. In my head I am always trying to win when I am racing. I am in it to win it - every race.That sounds like a good philosophy. But, what about when you are finding a section of a course really challenging or you don’t get the result you wanted?
It’s hard to let go when you do badly and make an error. That happened to me at Maribor at the start of the year. Being able to win AND lose makes you a good racer. You have to ask the right questions about why it happened, what went wrong, what you can learn from the experience. Working with a psychologist helps. Although it’s important to be able to be a good loser, you also don’t want to lose too easy because then you aren’t focused enough on winning. You have to be able to focus on doing well to be successful.So, it must be great having your own team (Animal-Commencal/Red Bull) with your brothers. Are Dan and Gee your biggest supports?
Yeah, I’d say they definitely are. Traveling with them is rad. They help me out a lot. I follow them a lot in practice and they act as two extra sets of eyes. If I am thinking about something I’ll probably do it, but sometimes doing it can be hard, and they know my limits just as well as I do, so they can push me. It would be hard to travel if you aren’t close to your team. They are the people that I am closest to in the world. They are my biggest support and I hope I help them out too.That’s pretty awesome to have such a tight relationship with your brothers and travel and race with them. So last year, when you broke your wrist, you bounced back quickly. How did you do that and not let it get you down?
Time off the bike just makes you want to come back. I was hungry to ride. In some ways it was good to have a break because you get back the drive that you have at the start of the year. I went to the races still and watched other people. I looked at lines, walked the courses and figured out where I would go. I learned a lot during that time off.You mentioned it wasn’t that bad to have a break because it really motivated you when you were back on the bike. Do you ever get burnt out from all the racing and traveling?
A bit sometimes. This year I haven’t much though because there was a big gap between races. It only takes a few days of not riding to get motivated and be thirsty to be on your bike again. You mentioned sprint training, but what else do you do for training between races?
I just try to get out and ride tons everyday on all different types of bikes – my hard tail, go street riding, or hit the BMX track.How about in the off season?
I do a lot of road riding and I go dirt biking at home for hours. Dirt biking is rad for endurance and strength training. It teaches you to go fast on a bike. In the winter I race Enduros which give you three hours or so of intense training. They are super fun. The person that does the most laps usually wins. Often we will be out there in the dead of winter, when everything is iced over and snowy and we will be huddling around the exhaust trying to warm our hands. But it’s fun.Outside of riding do you have any other hobbies or activities you like to do?
Everything is about bikes in my life. But I do a lot of reading. It helps me to switch off at races. And if I am reading a good book, sometimes I can’t wait to get down from practice just to keep reading.So what is your biggest accomplishment to date (riding or other)?
Well riding is my life, so winning the Worlds was a pretty big deal. Getting to where the three of us are, having our own team, making our way in racing is huge. We just bought our first house together back home – so that is pretty rad. It’s amazing to have a team where we all work together and support each other. I’d like to see more high profile teams in the sport and hopefully what we are doing will help pave the way for others. That’s awesome about the house. You must be stoked. So you must have liked the track in Livingo to have done so well there?
I’d say it’s my favorite track now. We had the European Champs there a few years ago and I liked it then too. It’s full on all the way down.There are a lot of girls and women out there that really admire you and wonder how you are so fast. What advice would you offer other females that are getting into racing?
Try to ride with people that are faster than you, especially boys that you can watch. I like to follow people, it helps me a lot. Create a good base for racing by having ‘fun’. You have to be having fun with racing. When I am not having fun, I suck. When I started racing I didn’t have a clue, I went to a race in the woods with a bunch of people and just had fun with it. I started loving it and as I got faster, it got easier. So to wrap-up, in one or two words, how would you describe yourself?
Happy. And real moody sometimes.Thanks for sharing your tips Rachel and best of luck! Please visit www.animalcommencal.com to learn more about Rachel and her brothers
This article is part of a series of pieces that Amber is writing for Pinkbike.com focusing on female athletes in both DH and freeriding. Stay tuned for Amber’s next article. Amber Zirnhelt
is a writer, racer, coach, and member of Canada’s Esteem Team. She is supported by: Dunbar/Devinci, Race Face Components, Loeka Clothing, MRP, Bell Helmets, Industry Nine, ODI, Maxxis and Crankbros.