The first UCI Mountain Bike World Cup downhill race of the season gets underway in Lourdes, France on April 29-30. British star Rachel Atherton has recorded 15 consecutive World Cup and World Championship wins in a row, including a ‘perfect season’ in 2016, but it hasn’t always been the case. Here, the Queen of downhill racing talks about her early life on two-wheels.
When I was a young eight-year-old girl first racing BMX, I could not win a single race. A British girl called Charlie Phillips, the sister of former world champion Liam Phillips, always beat me and I used to sing in the car on the way to races the Irish folk song To Win Just Once. So I grew up hungry for that win.
Eventually it came but I didn’t exactly plan then to win as much as I have, although winning races has always been a motivator for me since I was little, and I guess that’s important to develop that drive.
I wasn’t even aware last season I was going to equal Anne-Caroline Chausson’s record of consecutive wins until I’d actually done it. The team knew but kept it from me so I didn’t get stressed out! It's surreal as I used to chant “Anne-Caro” in my head when I was riding—she was my absolute hero and I still get nervous talking to her.
But the biggest influences were closer to home and I pretty much owe my entire life to my brothers, Dan and Gee. I wouldn’t have started riding and racing bikes if they weren’t doing it.
When we started racing mountain bikes, Dan used to say to me “if you want to be the best you have to ride your bike outside of races and practice more” but I just wanted to race and then get back to school sports.
Then Dan and Gee started to win races and I thought “I want to do that” and I got really into the racing.
Growing up with the boys was just mad, I wanted to be with them and do what they did. I had no idea how to be a girl, I wore their old clothes and rode their old bikes.
It was just so gnarly being a 14-year-old girl, totally out of her depth trying to get down the hill but there was no other way so I had to learn to ride it.
And when they started racing abroad, I missed them so much so I guess the only way to hang out with them all summer was for me to race too!
As the big brother, Dan did everything for me: got me old bikes, taught me how to ride and told me “if you want to race World Cups you have to start wearing goggles”. But I was like, “no way”, at least initially.
I think chasing anyone who is a little bit faster than you is going to bring out the best in an athlete—I don’t think it matters if that person is male or female.
But looking back my brothers were stronger than me, they were more skilled and therefore I was always pushing to keep up.
Men are generally more aggressive tackling things (of course there are exceptions), more reckless, stronger, that’s the way the human race has evolved but women, when it comes to mountain biking, can often be more skilled in their delivery, more calculated, more analytical. Because we aren’t as strong physically, we have to be more clever. Both sexes can learn from each other.
I have learned to be selfish and self-confident from men but, from being a woman, I have learned to be clever in my choices, to listen to my body, to listen to the earth and trust in things. To be a great athlete, it’s important to be in touch with both sides.
Going back to my brothers, having that support no matter what, them always there for me to ask questions and laugh with, that definitely allowed me to relax and develop into a natural racer.
I will never forget that feeling of Andorra 2008 when we all won World Cups in our respective disciplines. It was insane and I could have burst with pride.
There are many times when I would have given up my race win in a second if Gee could have had it instead—it’s the hardest thing to do well yourself as your sibling struggles to find speed or is injured.
We’ve all grown up a lot and don’t live together anymore. Dan has stopped racing downhill and I started riding and training on my own.
So we spend more time apart now and I don’t just blindly follow my brothers anymore. I am a woman who knows how to train and ride a mountain bike in my own right and I want women everywhere to have that recognition and respect that we can do it for ourselves.
For me, does that mean I’ll retain the rainbow stripes of World Champion? I’d love to but it’s such an all or nothing race—one day, one run, there are absolutely no guarantees.