Words: Rachel Atherton
2016 was my perfect season. I had won every World Cup apart from the very first one in 2015 up until now - almost two solid years of winning including the World Champs in 2015. It was a huge effort and I felt really happy and relaxed after achieving it the week before at the World Cup finals in Andorra. I was also nervous as hell, because “Imagine if I had the perfect, perfect season?!”
The start of World Champs week was mainly focused on recovering from the brutal track in Andorra days before, and indeed the entire race season. I was ruined! I made sure to sleep and rest a lot, and not go to the lake sailing with the others, because I knew that would lead to me being overtired and exhausted come race time. Something I like to do before a big race is make myself so bored and over-rested that I am buzzing with excitement to ride my bike at the race!
What I like about World Champs is that it's a lot more laid back than a World Cup, with many extra days of practice and being at the venue. It meant that this year, 2016, I was actually really focused on having a good time and approaching the week with a more relaxed attitude than normal. I love the first couple days of any event, but at Worlds especially, I felt like a lot of pressure had been lifted off my shoulders by winning in Andorra. I was really happy to be well-rested and bored, so I hung out at the pits a lot when we first arrived instead of being grumpy and tired from travelling like normal!
I remember rolling into the pits and all the windows were down and Joe, Pete, Will (our mechanics) and the crew were all just building the new black Trek Worlds bikes and chilling. I felt like I had walked into a real comfort zone - we know each other so well and I love them all, we talked and I just hung out annoying everyone and being over-friendly! I spent a lot of time hassling Sven while he was taking photos of our new bikes and then I basically invented the “photo booth” that he then took everyone's photos at by telling him the pit photos looked crap.
The next day was track walk. I love Val Di Sole big time so Gee and I rode up the cycle path and talked a lot of shit, which was nice. We have some amazing memories at Val di Sole, double wins at World Champs and at World Cups and I was buzzing already.
I hung out with Brendan Fairclough a lot. Brendan and I are pretty old friends so it's really fun hanging out with him. I never really see the elite guys anymore since we don't practice with the elite men and I definitely miss those old friendships. All day I talked to more people than I have all season. I just felt so happy! I keep to myself a lot at the races because I'm so focused on winning and I get very nervous, anxious and tired so I really try to save my energy, but I was very aware that it was “the last race” and I was sad deep down. In the off-season, I miss racing so much and the people in it, so I had to make the most of that week with everyone!
Sven set up a shoot with me, the bike, and my perfect season World Cup overall trophy. We took some funny shots with Joe and Browny in too, and it was just rad. I felt so happy standing there with them and Sven. All the hard work had paid off all season and it was done, and won! Those photos are some of the most special photos to me ever. The feeling I get when I look at them or remember that first day, the friendship, the happiness, the warmth and contentment, the commitment to racing, to winning, the perfect season, done.
Track walk was mental. It looked so rad that I was actually buzzing with excitement and energy thinking about how fun it was going to be, but then my brain actually started to hurt halfway down with the sheer amount of detail. Trying to remember every single rock and root, there were so many line choices and many more lines that could appear. Halfway down, I just thought "f*ck this” and made a decision just to ride it and learn it that way. Learning the track “on the bike” is what I like to do. I smash out a couple of kinda full runs early on so I learn naturally the flow of the track, how it rolls and where I end up in what sections, and then refine my lines based on where I naturally want to ride. Every rider is different, so what works for one doesn't necessarily work for another rider, which can be daunting when you see everyone else “on the line” and I'm on a different line, but I often stick to the lines of my very first run come race day, as they are what works for me.
This is a direct quote from me to Olly the first day: "My mind is melting! I feel so over-excited! The opening ceremony just now has got me buzzing and all day just been hanging out with everyone and chatting and it's been so friendly and banter-full! My brain is in overdrive!"
Practice Day 1
I was pretty excited to ride the track because it's always one of the best. It's so hard just to even ride down, to know that I will get to race pace in a few days on such a gnarly track is quite an overwhelming thought. The first run was so hard. There's no flow at all when you don't know a track. The holes and rocks were massive already, and my suspension wasn't set up yet. I was annoyed and frustrated for sure, so after making some changes to the suspension with Jordi at Fox, I did a second run and it was awesome!
It was so fun. I continued to have fun all day, just riding and not even bothering about looking at lines because I knew the track on that first day would be almost totally different from the track we would race on. I just focused on getting used to the layout of the track, where all the corners were, doing as many full sections as I could and getting used to what I was hitting so that the next day I could start to change lines and not hit so much stuff!
I think I was the only person not to stop at the top of the track the first day and look. It felt pointless looking at such a gnarly track when riding it feels totally different than looking, so I looked with my wheels. I love just riding a track and going on my natural line. Once I learn exactly where I'm going, I hate changing lines, although sometimes it backfires and I'm not on fast enough lines.
So, the first day went really well and I had a lot of fun - something that is actually a really bad sign for me because when I'm having fun and enjoying myself, I usually don't do that well in the race. Finishing so early on in the day also meant lots of time for recovery. I got a lot of massages and soft tissue treatment cos of all my injuries. I had some time for more banter and chilling, so I was in such a good head space all day. There was no rushing to warm down before a massage before rushing a shower and dinner and bed.
Another direct quote from me to Olly: “Wooohooo practice was siiiick! Track is unreal so fun, so rough and gnarly! I was grinning so much! Finished now for the whole day it's 12.30 mental!”
Practice Day 2
Every morning when I got to the pits at 7 a.m., I felt like I was wired on 50 Red Bulls! The first two days of practice, I literally had to run up and down the pits and around the tents like a dog, using up enough energy until I was calm enough to ride without crashing. It was unreal. I think it was the excitement and adrenaline of knowing what was to come. When I know how gnarly and wild a race is going to be, I get so overexcited and nervous, because you know you're going to have to throw it down, to put it all on the line. It's a little bit scary so you kind of lose your mind a little bit. I really try to come down off that high and force myself to be chilled, watch films and get my energy low so I can recover my core energy. That is the most important thing in racing, that you don't dilute your core energy too much. That's where your fire lives. That's where the win comes from.
On the second day, I punched a rock on the way past at the top of the track and smushed my little finger and hurt my shoulder a bit, so then that brought me back down to Earth. I struggled a bit all day, getting angry with myself and letting things affect me. Every time I stopped to figure something out, a camera would be in my face and it was hard to deal with the emotions and the pressure I was feeling while also keeping up a good “front.” I cried in the gondola to myself and had to ask Joe for a hug because I felt so down.
I remember feeling really so damn annoyed that the track had already gotten so ruined and much rougher. On the first day, I could've done a race run easy, but now I couldn't even get down the track! I knew it was time to get more serious and start paying more attention to line choice, so I made myself stop on track, use and talk to Browny and Alan Milway on track, and watch the other riders. Serious game on.
I practiced sections where I knew I could be fast, like the final pedal. I always practice the final sprint a lot. It makes me feel strong and confidant that when I'm empty, I know I can still make time. I walked the track that afternoon and wow, I haven't really watched the Elite Men riding for such a long time. It was amazing! I was whooping and cheering all the way down the side like a little grom. Being on track with the guys, the guys I am used to riding and racing with, the guys I grew up with, was so much more fun than practicing on my own in our women's practice. Watching them ride gave me a whole new level of perspective of what is possible on a bike.
I asked Charlie to do a GoPro of his practice because I forgot to. Who forgets to use their GoPro at World Champs?! I made friends with one of the young marshals. He was cool, he did a running race up
the track after the timed runs - mental!
I can't really remember much about seeding, only that it kicked my ass. It was such a hard run. Halfway down you cannot hold on, but you must, your arms are like wood, your legs on fire, my eye was blurry the whole way down because I didn't blink soon enough. I choose my place on track to blink, I hate blinking in the first 30 seconds of a race track because I don't want to miss anything important and your eyes are not yet used to the speed. I really have to choose my spot to blink early on so I don't miss a root or rock.
After the run I knew I had to make some big changes. We all talked about it so much all afternoon. Bike setup is the most important thing to me, and I could write entire pages about it. I work so hard on it, and I feel like my understanding of suspension feel has gotten me a lot of results. Fitz at Fox often said to me that he could tell the men's and women's winner just by looking at our settings and how similar our settings were compared to the other riders' settings that didn't end up winning. I think I'm often closer to the guys' settings, percentage-wise, because I like my suspension to be stiff and firmer than it maybe should be, especially the front end because I hate going through my travel!
I stretched a lot, warmed down, sang songs. iced arms... Iced everything!
I drove up the road at bottom of the hill to find a way to the bottom of the track to walk it. I only wanted to walk the bottom half, to look at holes and how huge they were, but wished I hadn't, as there was no way to avoid them!
I talked all evening about bike setup and suspension. What worked last weekend might not work this weekend so I studied videos of my body position, and other riders' body positions. I studied lines all night, I played different scenarios in my head, I said goodbye to my World Champs top - just in case. I always say goodbye and thanks for the memories. I believe World Champs tops have a soul. They are a real “thing” to be lived with for a year. I never frame them, I never lock them up but leave them free so I can feel them and remember.
I made myself live out how it would feel if I didn't win. In 2014, when Manon beat me in Norway, the pain was so vicious and real in my chest, especially as Gee won the men's and so I let my side of the bargain down. I can't ever let a loss affect me that much again. It almost ruined me how much I wanted it, so I prepare for it to hurt. I acknowledge that I might not win so the loss doesn't affect me as deeply.
Finally, I watched Horton Hears a Who, the funniest cartoon I have on my laptop, and went to sleep.
The only thing I want to do is stay in bed, undiscovered, forever. Please no one find me. Go away!
6am. Get out of bed and into tracky-bottoms and coat. Too early. Too cold. Too tired.
I played the Sam Smith album 'Sing' to take up my mind space. I played Sam Smith all weekend, I like chilled music at races because it helps me be calm unless I'm in “warmup 1” in the race pits, then I like my race songs: lyrics that fire me up, like Britney: “There's two types of people in this world, the ones who entertain…..Baby, I'm a put on a show kind of girl… Don't like the back seat - got to be first.”
I sit at the breakfast table staring at porridge, force a bit down. Stare at cup of tea. Retch. Force some eggs, roasted squash, avocado, bacon down. It's such a shame today is nice food and I can't eat as tomorrow I'll be starving and it'll be gruel again!
I freewheel down the hill on my bike to the pits singing Sam Smith. It calms my head and my heart. I look at the mountains, the world is bigger than this race, the world is bigger than me.
I put my music on real loud in pits and sing loudly, everyone pretends they like it!
I wander around pits doing nothing, procrastinating, sweeping the floor, just being nervous, and doing nothing until I am late, then I can rush. I hate having plenty of time, it messes my head up having time to think, so I'm always late!
I get on the Turbo and bang out my warm-up: spin legs, hard efforts, warm up on TRX, therabands, activating my cold and tired body.
I get the gondola to the top. Do I look out at the track and watch riders, or do I not? One of the days, I saw PomPon crash on the steep chute and I was right above her in the gondola. It was horrible, I heard people shouting she was out of the race and I felt so sorry for her.
In practice, I changed lines at the top. I'm very happy with where I am going now and I know the track perfectly. I mess up sections, push back up do them again. I always push back up on race day and I'm always the last on the track in practice, pushing, sessioning, learning until the last minute as close to my race as I can. I tried a change on my suspension but didn't like it and went back to how it was the day before, hoping it was the right choice!
Often rad settings involve some guesswork, for me anyway. Jordi: “Well, how much faster are you going to go in race run than practice?” Me: “Probably loads faster, at least 10 seconds faster.” Jordi: “Well then you should add a click or two maybe." Me: “Yeah ok, let's do it.” You never ride at race pace unless it's a race. I can leave it all out there in a race, the risks are worth it, but in practice I never ride that fast. That's just the way it is, I wish I could but I can’t!
Practice finished and I'm back in the pits. Nothing to do now but get my body in the best shape possible for later on. I make myself drink a mixture and force something to eat. I sit looking out of the window at the team below, wondering what will happen. I saw Sven come into the truck so I run downstairs to plead for some last-minute advice, I want him to say anything that might just help. Sometimes he says useful things, sometimes he just says, "you know what to do." I need to rest.
I lay down, listen to chilled music and feel my heartbeat. Tomorrow will come. The only certain thing is the passing of time. No matter what happens, tomorrow will still arrive.
We have everything timed to the exact minute. Browny even puts time in the routine for me to stand there doing nothing, or lose my marbles or lose my shoes, or lay down, or lose my helmet. I am always late for everything, so I am sure that gets factored into the time I have to arrive at the top.
I do my warm-up in the pits. I have moved the turbo behind the screens so I am not being watched by passers-by, as it's easier to focus. If I'm being watched, I can easily waste my energy wondering what people think of me, and I need that energy to race.
I find myself not being able to warm up. I'm too nervous. I start singing really loudly. It eases the nerves, takes up space in my mind - sorry everyone in our pits listening! I sip a Red Bull as I turbo, eat a banana, and try not to puke.
Finally warmed up, it's time for me to get dressed. For success. That's a Roxette song.
The last few minutes in the race truck are spent alone, being me, before I have to be Rachel, before I can unleash. I look at my locker door. I have photos of wins, number plates, quotes: “Smile,” "Don't forget GoPro”. I put my Great British Jersey on - it feels weird not to also throw on the leader's jersey - a good habit from the last two seasons, the perfect years. I take one last look at my old World Champs race tops - "See ya, never maybe."
Outside, I find Joe Krejbich, my mechanic. I give him my precious things to take up in his bag: goggles, body armour, gloves, Red Bull, Haribo. I do the secret lucky handshake with Browny until we get it right. It's not even secret, just normal, but we have to get it spot on. When we hit our hands together and they make a certain noise and perfectly connect, then we know I can win, so we keep doing it until we get it right!
I don't touch anybody else. I barely look at anybody. I hate people touching me or saying good luck or anything. It really f*cks my head up. Selfish. Athlete.
I ride to the lift and focus on breathing. Breathing now is the most important bit. Keep breathing, breathe well. I get in the lift, thank f*ck. I look at the finish area as we pass overhead and double-check line choice all the way up wherever we can see the track. I pay close attention to the crowd, feel the atmosphere, hear the noises, I get myself ready for the onslaught of noise that is coming. Seeing the track from the gondola is good, but horrible. Being prepared for the crowd is really, really important.
I start getting a nervous flutter of excitement. I see PomPon through the top section. She looked good.
We find a warm-up spot at the top. I am always last to arrive, so there are never any good spaces left. Tahnee's spot from timed runs is free, as she has changed warm-up spots. I think that means she must be feeling nervous. In my head, if people change spots it means they didn't have a good run before, me included. I take it, also changing my spot from timed runs. I'm also feeling nervous.
I go onto autopilot now. This is what I do, I've just gotta do it. It's exactly the same thing at each race. Visualize, drink Red Bull, warm up, worry. Joe tries to make a joke but it falls on deaf ears. He's used to me barely talking as I go inside my head.
“9 minutes,” says Joe. I'm still on the turbo but I can feel my blood pumping in my limbs, so everything is going to plan. The Red Bull TV crew film us at the start and I ignore them. I pretend I can't see them. It makes me too nervous to imagine everyone watching.
I get kitted up and tuck my shirt in for race run performance, then roll around in a circle on my DH bike. I do a sprint start or two and end up stopped next to Peaty. Of all the people to be course sweeping behind me, it's Peaty! Course sweeping the World Champs track in his final season before retirement. I'm still a bit nervous about talking to Steve after all these years of being friends. I imagine how bad it would be if I crashed in the woods halfway down and Steve had to stop and sweep me up!
Tracey and Manon are ahead of me in line. I look at the floor and try a track stand. I can often gauge how my race run will go by how well I can track stand.
I clean my goggles, again and again. Tighten kneepads, again.
I hear some cheering or some commotion on track. Something must have happened to Manon. Oh dear.
I turn on the Go Pro and check my starting gear - 4. I love the start hut man. He is funny, kind and smokes like a chimney. I've seen him every race for the last 10 years of World Cups. 3 minutes is a long time to wait - Do I wait in the gate? But then I can see the track and that's hellish, so I roll backwards. A TV camera is there. Joe is there. I am ready and I look at the mountains opposite. The world is bigger than me.
1 minute, he tells me, and I think, "Shit! I've cut this one tight!"
I give Joe the handshake and roll into the start gate, look down the track, look at the mountain opposite, breathe.
Goggles on - 30 seconds.
There is nothing in my head, totally nothing, just the clock.
10 seconds he says - 9,8,7,6 deep breathe, 5,4- GO!
Go. Going. First turn, fast, good. First gap, good. 2nd turn, blown out and dusty, caution, good. 3rd turn, hit a hole a bit slow, pedal in a mad panic. I turn too much off the fly off and see poles. I'm about to land on them so I lean into the track. I land and hit a pole on the backside of my bars, smashing my thumb and stopping my breath. Pain. I think, "f*ck, I've broken my thumb".
Instant pain. I think "f*ck, f*ck f*ck f*ck, who cares? Carry on, keep moving." I brake too much off the blind fly off and start to panic.
In the next two-second straight, I compose myself, lower my energy, lower into my body, away from my head, and ride exactly where I have been riding in practice. I blink where it's safe, brake where it's safe. I try not to over-ride the top like normal and try to save an ounce of energy for the bottom half.
The run goes smoothly until the middle section, where through sheer tiredness I think to myself “Bollocks, I'm not going quick enough here,” but I can't push anymore or I will crash, so I keep going. I push more on the bottom half, making sure if nothing else, I keep moving, keep going, the pain in my arms and legs now is almost too much, but this is World Champs! f*cking come on!
I push all the way, push through the pain and almost crash a couple of times. I hold it upright, hit the jump out the woods and think, "This is the final stretch, give it Rach!" Final corner, final sprint. I've practiced this. I train for this. I start pedalling and realise my pedal is totally bent!
I huck the bridge and cross the line. I decided yesterday that I would look at the hot seat to see what the other girls were doing - if they were celebrating or what. I looked, but I couldn't understand what I was seeing. I was too tired. So I turned around to the leader board and looked at 1: Rachel Atherton. f*cking f*ck yes!
There's no point trying to say anything that isn't a swear word, because that is all I can think.
It was an unreal moment, seeing my name at the top, as it is for anyone. I couldn't believe I was World Champ again, consecutive years, then I realised it meant the perfect
, perfect season, and I was stoked all over again. And relieved. I felt so much relief.
I wanted to see Browny, Olly and Dad. I looked for them but I never can find Browny's face at the finish, it's always a bit of a blur and I can hardly walk. My leg is hurting so much and my thumb is throbbing. Then I see Dad being held back by security guards, and I push my way to him and he's crying. He hugs me so tight I almost faint, then I stumble as my legs give out. Browny is there grinning like a mad man, then Olly is just saying "No way" and kissing me. Gee is hugging me tight and grinning.
Then it's interviews and photographs. I try to hug Sven, but he is too busy taking photos. It's always like friends and also business with the photog dudes, I owe them so much, and I love seeing their faces at the finish, as much as my team. After the Red Bull TV fake podium and interviews, we go straight to doping control. It's so weird and it's quiet, away from everyone and all the celebrations, and you think, "What the f*ck just happened!?"
It's always over way, way, way too quickly. Five minutes and that is that, history. That is why I can't stop racing because it's over too quickly to really enjoy, so I keep coming back for more, determined that I'm going to chill out a bit more and enjoy it more!
On the way to anti-doping, I catch sight of the finish board and see the margin to PomPon - 3 seconds. Shit Rach, that's close. That's it, I'm fired up for winter already!