RISK VERSUS REWARD
When your job involves racing a bicycle down the side of a mountain as fast as you can, finding a balance between risk and reward can be more than just a prerequisite for a successful career. These two factors may well be the cornerstones of professional downhill racing, with the careers of many young and aspiring racers cut prematurely short after underestimating one and focussing too much on the other.
Even the best of the best make miscalculations, with top riders in just about every category taking unintentional time off during a race season to recover and hopefully make a successful comeback after crashing. But at what point does an injury force a rider to take a step back, take stock and allow their bodies, and minds, to recover? Ultimately, it depends on the severity of the injury, but perhaps more importantly, their mental capacity to push through the pain and remain competitive after a comeback.
With no fewer than 50 World Cup podiums under his belt, including nine wins, two elite world championship titles, and two Red Bull Rampage podiums, Gee Atherton is a rider who really doesn’t need an introduction. But after a less than ‘Gee like’ season in 2016, absent from World Cup podiums and seemingly struggling to find the pace he’s known for, something wasn't right. We headed deep into the Welsh boonies and to Trek Factory Racing’s headquarters for a catch up with the man himself to find out what happened and gain some insight into the mindset of one of the world’s fastest racers...
A slap into the race season
Rolling into 2016 on Trek's podium-smashing Session platform there was undoubtedly a lot of anticipation to see what the Atherton siblings could do on such a machine. With both Gee and Rachel fighting fit after a successful off-season spent training and preparing for the upcoming race season, all eyes were on Trek Factory Racing at round one of the UCI World Cup series in Lourdes, France. For Rachel, her season started much like it finished, but for Gee, he was slightly off the pace from the get-go. I say ‘slightly’ as he qualified third and finished seventh, only two places off the podium and five seconds off the win. But as far as Gee was concerned, seventh was never going to cut it. "It wasn’t what I wanted,” concedes Gee. "For me, it was a slap into the race season.”
A ‘slap’ perhaps, but one he’s had before, and something that years of racing had prepared him for. "You come in anticipating the speed at the start of the season and sometimes you’re there, sometimes you’re not, and sometimes you just slightly miscalculate it and it takes a race to just feel it and adjust your speed,” says Gee. Another variable that Gee had to factor in was his new bike. "When you’ve ridden a bike all year you know exactly what a race run feels like and how wild and lairy you have to get, but if it’s a new bike, you know it’s not that you can’t go that fast, it’s just knowing what that level is,” says Gee. “Lourdes wasn’t like, 'Shit, that’s as fast as I can go;' we just slightly misjudged it and we were off the pace."
After Lourdes, Gee’s focus was firmly set on a podium position at round two in Cairns, Australia, a venue that has been good to him in the past. Even after his win there in 2014, Gee’s not shy to admit that, “It’s not one of my favorite venues.” With an almighty sprint to the finish line that makes Pietermaritzburg look like Champéry, riders have to embrace the burn and dig deep, but in the weeks leading up to the race, Gee came down with a chest infection. “It felt like a strange race for me,” says Gee. “I didn’t have a bad run, and I just felt like I was below if you know what I mean.” Crossing the line in 22nd was far from the result Gee wanted or knew he was capable of, and one he wasn’t planning to repeat as the series continued on to Fort William, Scotland.
With a whole month between rounds two and three, Gee’s training and preparation went into overdrive. "We had some time to adjust and go into Fort William strong," says Gee. “We planned it well, did some testing, and with two races done we knew the speed and how hard we needed to push, and ultimately the level we needed to ramp things up to.”
With a BDS (British Downhill Series) round at Fort William just before the World Cup, and with many of the international top guns in attendance, the scene was set for a dry run. “I felt really good at the BDS, battling all week with Danny (Hart), swapping fastest times...he eventually pipped me to the post, but it was a great weekend of racing,” says Gee. With the BDS out of the way and the preparation done, one of the biggest races of the year soon came around and with it, sunshine, blue skies and 40,000 spectators eager to see a British rider take the win on Sunday.
As the week unfolded and the weekend’s timed runs came in, Gee knew he had the pace to challenge for the win, which he confirmed on Saturday by winning qualifying. Sunday came around fast enough, and as the last man down the mountain, all eyes were on Gee. Exiting the start hurt at the top of Aonach Mor’s iconic race track and negotiating the faster upper portions of the track with relative ease, Gee slipped in a corner and hit the deck hard. "It was a good crash; it just came out of the blue and I really wasn’t ready for it,” says Gee.
|I set off strong and my top split was fast, but when I watched the replay I could see how I came out of this compression and my front wheel began to wander in the wrong direction. It was such a fast bit of track and I was down before I even knew what was going on. It really beat me up but I was lucky that I didn't break anything. - Gee Atherton.|
Considering the speed at which Gee hit the deck and the severity of what he hit - rocks, and lots of them - he got back on his bike. “Although I knew it was all over, I carried on, and at first, I felt fine. But after a minute or so, I was like, 'shit, this is really starting to hurt,' and I could feel the pain building. When I got the bottom and the adrenaline wore off, I knew something wasn’t right.”Down but not out
With the fourth round of the World Cup series in Leogang, Austria, the following weekend another race was on, but this time it was to figure out what Gee had done to his shoulder. “I quickly got scanned and checked out by my medical team, but they weren’t really sure what I’d done because what the scans were showing and what I was feeling were two different things, so I was in a funny place, really,” says Gee. The doctor’s prognosis was that it was just bruising, and that Gee had damaged some of the soft tissues in his shoulder. Recovery times for soft tissue damage can be longer than broken bones, but Gee was still no closer to understanding the extent of the damage he’d sustained to his shoulder.
“I knew that over the days following Fort William something was up...I’ve been racing for a long time and have had my fair share of big crashes along the way, and I’ve raced in some pretty horrific states after crashing, but I’ve always found a way to step out of the pain. But this time I was like, 'Am I just not coping with the pain?' says Gee. “I know at the back of my mind that when I’m at the top of the hill the pain will be gone because you just want to race so badly and because I just love doing what I do. That adrenaline buzz can just power you through anything.”
While Gee’s experience and renowned physical condition have helped him ‘power through’ setbacks such as this in the past, this time it was different. “The problem with this injury was that it wasn’t just the pain, but that the pain had caused a weakness in my body,” confirms Gee. A weakness that would later be amplified by pain medication, but at this stage in the season, there was a lot to factor in, not least the amount of hard work that had been done in the off-season. If a medically invasive option was explored, recovery times would only increase. “We had some decisions to make after Fort William,” says Gee. “We could get some injections into the joint which could weaken it but they would also take the pain away. The other option was surgery so they could take a look inside and see what could be done.”
I wanted to talk to Gee about any possible pressure he was under from sponsors, especially new ones like Trek, looking for a return on their investment, or if Rachel’s destruction of the women’s field was weighing on his mind. “Not at all. Sitting here and talking about it, and in hindsight, you can reflect and see how much time and effort the whole team puts in to get you to the races. But during the season I didn’t care about any of that, I just wanted to race and put in the performances I knew I could and for me, that was the problem, and it was really burning me,” says Gee.
|I know that the sponsors will understand, after all, injuries are a huge part of our sport and I've been lucky to have never missed a World Cup due to injury. But at the end of the day, I wouldn't work with companies who didn't support their riders through thick and thin. - Gee Atherton.|
Clearly in pain and getting bombarded with advice and options from his medical team, Gee had to dig deep in the days preceding Leogang. If the pressure to compete, given his circumstances, wasn’t from his sponsors then it was evidently coming from elsewhere. “You love the sport, you love the atmosphere, and you love being at the top of the hill about to show the world what you can do, and that’s why,” says Gee. “Year-after-year we come back for more, and for me that was the killer and the reason behind my decision to power through and do what I could to race. It ultimately boils down to just toughing it out.”Powering through
Within days of crashing in Fort William Gee was back on another mountain, this time in Leogang for round four of the World Cup series. But Gee wasn’t having the best of times. “I kept telling myself that it will be fine and I can deal with it," says Gee, but it wasn’t until after his race run that his situation caught up with him. “I had this slightly overconfident mindset where you think you can just power through anything and that you’re going to be fine. It wasn’t until I struggled to put anything together in Leogang that I knew it was going to be an ongoing thing."
Struggling perhaps, but Gee’s 15th place finish in finals only proves his steadfast mindset, insane bike handling skills and ability to block out the pain. For many World Cup pros, this would be a result to be happy about, but not for Gee. "Obviously I was pissed off with 15th” confirms Gee. "It wasn’t where I wanted to be, but all things considered and looking back now, it guess it wasn’t too bad a result.” But it was enough to keep Gee in the game and off the surgeon’s table, although that didn’t mean that they could ignore the issues with Gee’s shoulder, far from it...
|We were still in this funny place. We've got great access to this amazing medical team who short of opening me up and looking at my shoulder, delivered a prognosis that everything will be fine. By this time a few weeks had passed since the crash and things were getting worse. We had to figure out what to do next, be it rest up and chill on the couch, get in the gym and work through it, or have an operation. - Gee Atherton.|
Two weeks after Leogang, Gee had more scans and meetings with his medical team, but the only conclusion which could be agreed upon was that if Gee wanted to race, he’d have to suck it up and offset any increase in discomfort with more steroid injections, issued straight into the damaged tissue in his shoulder. “Looking back, I probably could have done with taking six weeks off to rest and let it recover naturally, but at the time, it was hard to make that decision as I still felt competitive,” says Gee.
At this stage in our chat, I became very curious as to whether Gee would do anything differently if he could do it all again. “Maybe…I think,” says Gee. He’d clearly spent some time mulling this over, if not at the time, he certainly has since the season concluded. "Having an operation after Fort William, I’d have only missed one round and could have recovered and come back strong even if at the end of it we’d have the same overall result. But at the same time, with the options I had at the time, I wouldn’t have made that decision."
It wasn’t long until Gee was back in the mix, this time in sunny Lenzerheide, Switzerland, for round five of the World Cup series. Gee would wrap this one up with yet another respectable 15th place finish, but Gee, of course, wanted more. 'My head was at full speed and chasing the podium, but my body just didn’t match up and was a certain percentage off,” says Gee.
Not only was he struggling to find harmony between his mental and physical state, he was similarly having to adapt his technique on the bike. These adjustments were just the tip of the iceberg of what Gee would have to do to soldier through the remainder of the season, which at this stage included two World Cups on two of the toughest courses of the year, the world championships on the
roughest track in the world, and Hardline, which really doesn’t need an explanation. Given all this, Gee needed to catch a break, but that wasn’t to be, and after crashing hard the day after finals in Lenzerheide while doing some mid-season testing Gee aggravated his already battered shoulder. Things weren’t looking up.Adapting to new challenges
With a few weeks between Lenzerheide and round six in Mont Saint Anne, Canada, Gee’s day-to-day activities remained unchanged. "It sounds stupid saying this now,” says Gee, “but I know how stubborn and over-confident I am during the race season...I just wanted to train and keep pushing through it." Gee’s training showed little compassion for his damaged shoulder, training hard both in the gym and on the bikes. But with some of the roughest tracks yet to come, Gee felt that proper preparation would be the only way he’d get through what lay ahead and hopefully get a result.
Racers and fans alike know that Mont Saint Anne doesn’t take prisoners. Consistently rough and physical, but to add salt to Gee wounds, the course used in 2016 was especially fast and inevitably as wild as ever. Mont Saint Anne is a track that requires a 'direct approach' which wasn't helping Gee one bit. "You know when there’s a rough, deep turn and you just want to dive into it and smash it, but instead, I was nursing the bike in and it was just really hard to attack,” says Gee.
Having to face constant reminders of an injury that wasn’t going away, Gee’s position on the bike began to change to compensate for his weaker shoulder. “I’ve seen photos where I’ve had my elbows in funny positions and I just looked wrong and weird,” says Gee. Even Gee’s sponsors were calling to ask what was happening and if he was okay, picking up on his new riding style from photos they’d seen online. “It was a subconscious thing that my position was changing,” says Gee.
Not only was his position on the bike changing, his bike was to, most notably his suspension set up, altering all the time in a bid to offset his weaker shoulder. “Those guys (Fox technicians) are amazing. I’d talk through the entire track and work on solutions to the problems I was having. They’re really patient and could easily have said, 'It’s your problem and you’re not riding properly,' but instead they go above and beyond to help alleviate the problems I was having." From a softer set up to help with the force of impacts through his arm and to his bad shoulder to a harder set up to keep the front end up and prevent it from diving. Gee’s bike set up was “jumping all over the place” but Gee also says, and rather unsurprisingly, that it was a tough time for his mechanics too.
After adopting this new position and making his once familiar bike feel increasingly alien, Gee crossed the line in a highly respectable 11th place. The significance of this result given all the issues ultimately kept Gee’s head in a positive place, even though his body was struggling to keep up. This balancing act between his body and mind exemplifies how mentally strong Gee’s character is; who knows what he would have done had bikes not been such a big part of his life. “I’d be racing something else, that’s for sure,” says Gee.
But I was interested to know where his head was, especially after an 11th place finish, which was pretty incredible. “I was still in a weird place as each round wasn’t bad enough to make me rethink things and take a step back. I was slightly missing it and it was almost as if I had this carrot dangled in front of me. If I’d done a round after my crash and finished 30th or 40th, I’d have thought, no, let’s regroup and start again.” Given all that happened and all that was in front of him, Gee’s eyes had never strayed from the prize and the push for a podium was still on. Unfortunately, Mont Saint Anne put one dream to bed. “I came to terms with the fact that a win that season just wasn’t going to happen, but I was still hungry for it and when you’re like that, it’s mad what you’ll do," says Gee. On the home straight
For Gee, dealing with his shoulder injury became an everyday frustration regardless of his abilities to focus on the bigger picture and manage the pain. At the root of this, aside from saying goodbye to the possibility of a win in 2016, was something else we can all relate to; having fun on your bike. At the end of the day, professional downhill racers like Gee love to go out with their mates and mess around on their bikes just as much as the next rider. “I was thinking twice before going for a ride, which is really unusual,” says Gee. “Be it a day out in the hills on the trail bikes with the local crew, an afternoon moto session or out dirt jumping with Affy.”
It wasn’t long before Gee and the team found themselves in familiar territory and the final round of the World Cup series in Vallnord, Andorra. Having won here before, Gee knew what lay ahead, and even with his bad shoulder came in feeling strong. “I had that home straight feeling,” says Gee. A big fan of the track, Gee was looking forward to what lay ahead, but a big crash on the first day of practice put an end to his final chance for a World Cup podium in 2016. “Even before I was out of the dust and stood up, I knew I’d made my bad shoulder even worse," says Gee, who would go on to miss the remainder of practice to only roll out of the start hut for qualifying and forgo his run.
|One minute Gee's sat on the sofa chilling and the next he's in his race kit and on the (turbo) trainer warming up for his race run... I wasn't surprised, after all, look at him, he's a bloody animal isn't he. - Dan Brown, Trek World Racing's team manager.|
With his shoulder in an increasingly bad place and eager to avoid another crash with greater implications, Gee would spend the next 24-hours making his mind up whether or not to race. “I decided not to do it about a hundred times. Even if someone could have fixed my shoulder right there and then, I’d only completed two and a half practice runs all week and the track was changing all the time.” From taking a massive crash, missing nearly all of practice and more steroid injections in his battered shoulder, Gee decided to race. "The thing that swung it for me was all the fans who were coming up and saying good luck and that they couldn’t wait to see me race. At this point, we hadn’t publicized my injury or how bad it really was. It was such a good crowd and such a good atmosphere and all these amazing people had made all this effort to come to the track and watch us race...”
With this in mind, I was curious to know if Gee feels a sense of pressure from the fans, and if it was something he ever struggled to cope with given the task at hand, especially during a season such as this one. Gee, as ever, is focused on one thing and one thing only, winning, and says he doesn’t feel affected by the fans' presence, but more so that he feeds off their excitement and positive energy. Gee’s take on World Cup racing is that it’s a show and everyone plays a role. "You feel like you need to keep your side of the deal. They’ve (the fans) come all this way to watch and it’s catchy," says Gee, but he was similarly under no illusion as to the task he’d decided to undertake. “I was pretty nervous, to be honest,” referring to the beast that is the Vallnord World Cup track.
Gee crossed the line in 60th, twenty back from last and his worst result by some way that season, but that would not take anything away from the elation Gee had after getting down in one piece. "It was so gnarly, I was buzzing...just so stoked to make it down.” With the 2016 World Cup series done, dusted and in the history books, Gee’s attention swung to the two remaining events of the year; World Champs in Val di Sole, Italy and Hardline. One brutally savage and the other quite possibly the most progressive downhill racetrack ever constructed. Easy...Rock, paper, scissors
Making the selection criteria for Team GB at the downhill world championships is no mean feat with so many top riders heralding from the UK. Gee made the team for 2016 having won twice here in the past and was determined to test the waters before confirming if he could race or not, “I was sore, but I could still ride and felt balanced on the bike,” says Gee. At the top of the mountain and staring down at the monster below, it was time, but, “as soon as I dropped into the first steep chute, I wished I hadn’t," says Gee. “From this point on the track was brutal. I was nursing my way down with a queue of riders behind me…it wasn’t good.”
Bowing out and giving the green light to wildcard and wild child, Bernard Kerr, was an easy decision for Gee. “I was stoked that Bernard could take it on and make the most of it...it was pretty awesome to see him come down and kill it, but at the same time, it was a weird experience for me, having never been in this position before.” Gee for the first time ever had to stand on the sidelines and watch; ”It was great to see another side to the sport, as a spectator and witness the build up and the excitement.”
All that remained was Hardline. Granted, there was the Red Bull Fox Hunt, an annual event, and one that Gee doesn’t class as a ‘race’ and more a weekend away in Ireland messing around on bikes and drinking beer, and of course the matter of fixing his shoulder. At this point in the season, Gee conceded to the reality. “...I was beat!” From the Italian Dolomites to the rugged demeanor of Dinas Mawddwy in the North Wales, Hardline was literally the following weekend. “I really wanted to do Hardline as I knew how much work the boys had put in, but the tough thing about Hardline was that someone had to test it all before the race and pre-run everything to make sure it worked," says Gee.
After successfully testing the track and completing a few runs, disaster struck. On the morning of finals, Gee crashed, once again aggravating his already severely weakened shoulder. At this stage, word was getting out that Gee had been in the hurt locker for most of the season so I had to know, was he having second thoughts? “Yeah, 100%! By this point, there’d already been a few bad injuries and there was a feeling of nervousness from all the riders. The track was hard work.” Gee would go on to skip qualifying.
Once again, spurred on by the energy of the event, his brother’s hard work and the desire to ride the most progressive track out there, Gee got ready for finals. But not before taking something for the pain: a few painkillers and more steroid injections later and Gee was ready, or so he thought. “I felt dizzy and probably shouldn’t have gone up the mountain,” says Gee. On his race run, Gee’s strategy was simply to have a ‘clean run’, which at Hardline, is no small feat. Gee once again had to factor in his weak shoulder, constantly adjusting his position and shifting his body weight over the huge drops to compensate. With the race over and Gee safely across the finish line in one piece, it was time to go have “a good crack” in Ireland for Fox Hunt and get back to the doctors to get his shoulder fixed.For the love of it
After a number of MRI scans following his crash in Fort William and with a lack of any conclusive signs as to the true nature of Gee’s injury, his medical team brought out the big guns. This would come in the shape of an MRA (Magnetic Resonance Angiogram) scan that uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to provide pictures of blood vessels inside the body. The scan duly delivered; Gee had torn his rotator cuff. With a few options available, Gee chose one that would work with his training plan for 2017, giving him nearly two months and the holidays to recover after surgery. Talking to Gee in early December 2016, with his arm still in a sling and recovering after surgery, I was curious to know, given the slams he's endured and the achievements he's already racked up, why he's still pushing as hard as ever. "Everything boils down to how much you love it and that really sways your decision," says Gee.
Understanding the risks and the implications of ignoring them must be hard to get your head around, especially when you're still coming through the ranks. "Without exception, there’s an injury point for every rider and the inevitable dip in results that follows,” says Gee. But this is the tough reality of professional sports, and like any job, it's something which you will inevitably master with a bit of luck and time. "The longer you race, the better you are at dealing with the variables and assessing the balancing point between risk and reward.”
While many of us will never get remotely close to a World Cup podium, the parallels between a pro rider and a weekend warrior are stark given that we all have to deal with the inevitability of crashing and the consequences which follow. How we deal with these setbacks will undoubtedly shape who we are, both off and on the bike. Granted, Gee's an athlete at the top of the sport with the support to match, but there's a lot we can all take from his 2016 season, be it remaining positive, getting the job done or perhaps, more importantly, not losing sight of the real reason why we all ride bikes.
/ @foxracingshox / @shimano