THE INTERVIEWRACHEL ATHERTON
2015 MTB DOWNHILL WORLD CHAMPIONRachel Atherton is one of the most successful competitive mountain bikers of our generation. This year, she came back from a long illness to challenge for the UCI MTB DH World Cup overall title, as well as the World Championship medal. She succeeded in securing both, all the while only having lost out on the top step at only one of six World Cup races this year. Her career tally of World Cup wins has now reached 28, which is beyond that achieved - so far - by the legends in the men’s field.
With her work at the British Downhill Series this year to help more young female riders take to the hillside against the clock, Rachel has gone above and beyond what has been expected of her. Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed though, Rachel is probably one of a few downhill mountain bikers you will read about in national newspapers here in the UK, or get mentioned in top sporting awards like the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, or the Sunday Times & Sky Sportswomen of the year, or placed alongside gold medal winning Olympians, CEOs and broadcasters in the Independent’s recent Top 50 Most Influential Women in Sport.
As the door closes on her 2015 season, we sit down with Rachel and talk to her about how her year progressed, her thoughts on women in mountain biking, and her plans for when she finally decides to retire from competitive racing.
Congratulations on winning both the overall title for the UCI MTB Downhill World Cup and also the World Championship this year. Did you start out the season with the ambition to win both?
Losing the titles in 2014 by so little after being so sick all year really hurt. It was the goal to win them back but then I started training in the winter and I started getting sick again. It was then I had to make a decision to look after my health first and foremost, so training came second. I wasn't at all confident going into the first couple of World Cups this year, so getting second at Lourdes gave me a huge confidence boost, and then winning Fort William after having a steroid injection in a disc in my neck kind of made me think "I can do this no matter what happens to me!"
At the same time, I tried to focus on the race in front of me and only that weekend. I didn't think about the overall until halfway through the season. I’ve been competing for a long time and after 10 years, winning is the only thing that really feels acceptable to me. That’s the pressure I put on myself. We didn't see you at all of the British Downhill Series races this year. Why was that?
I really wanted to race more British races than ended up doing but World Cups had to be my first priority. I still needed a lot of rest after being so ill in 2014. I didn't race Llangollen which was a week before the Fort William World Cup, Moelfre clashed with Crankworx Europe and then I really wanted to go to Antur Stiniog but my granddad had recently passed away and it felt important that I support my mum and granny that weekend. I love racing at British Downhill Series, especially the local ones. Having Dan ride with us at Rhyd Y Felin
this year was awesome. It's important to me to race the British races, so I’ll try to get there when I can. You've done a lot this year to help more female riders at the British Downhill Series, including track walks to help guide the Junior racers. How has this all panned out?
It's been really great. I wanted to get to know the women who raced better, and that's what's happened. I wanted to know who they were and what makes them tick, and why they love racing. The track walks have been great, every single one the Juniors have come on and they have inspired me as much as the other way around! They text me every World Cup saying good luck and say that I've helped them approach racing differently; the way they attack stuff, and how dedicated and passionate they are. It's awesome, they inspire me and I'm proud of them! Would you like to do more of it next year?
I’d love to! I would love more women to come on the track walks, and hopefully more women will be racing next year anyway. I just want everyone to love racing as much as I do! Do you think the British Downhill Series should put a round on in England? Do you think there’s a track that would be ripe for it?
I guess I didn't really realise there wasn't one until you pointed it out! I think it just comes down to demand for the best tracks, the tracks the British Downhill Series does visit are so good and that has set a bar. I think England maybe struggles because no one is specifically building tracks there! The Welsh farmers, my brother, the Welsh bike parks, the same goes for Scotland... they're so passionate about making good tracks and they're on good sized mountains. There are tracks and hills in England that could host a national but they’d need some work. You went to Crankworx L2A with the team to race the iXS European Cup this year but opted not to race. What changed your mind about racing over there?
I was just exhausted really, and like I mentioned earlier, World Cups have to be the priority, so I had a week’s rest and got in the best possible shape for National Champs the following weekend and Mont-Sainte-Anne straight after that. People often think that the more you win, the easier it gets, when in fact it is the complete opposite. Winning is f*cking hard work! A while back you once said to me that you faced a lot of criticism for being on high-profile stages like Sky and BT's Women in Sports awards, and so on. Do you still face that criticism, and if so how did you deal it?
I'm not sure. I've sort of learnt not to look! I love working with the core MTB media, but I kind of think everyone has a unique angle to themselves. I am NOT the most stylish rider, I can't scrub or whatever, I just go as fast as I can so I'm never going to be whipping on the cover of an MTB mag. But I am good at bringing the sport to more people who might not see it otherwise, and opening the door for downhill to grow and reach a bigger audience which ultimately helps the sport. Also we did the Atherton Project for so long that we all felt we had kind of flooded the MTB media for a while, so we backed off, but maybe now it's time to bring it back?! How was this year’s Foxhunt? From the POV footage, everyone seemed very polite racing down the hill! Do you think us women take a different approach to racing competitively than our male counterparts or is the difference superficial?
Haha, I guess generally women are a bit more polite, but let me tell you those front few lines weren't giving each other an easy ride! Generally women don't like to cause another woman to fly over the bars and smash the floor... But some do for sure!
I think women do take a slightly different approach to racing, myself included, often we want things completely guaranteed before we try it! I can spend the entire weekend feeling like "Oh my god I can't do THAT, I couldn't ride down that!"
, then I talk to myself and I man the f*ck up. That's what is key. I believe it's mostly all mental. If you narrow your eyes, get mean and really channel that aggressive attitude you'll ride stronger and more aggressively which is often good. Don't go mad above your ability and crash, but channel aggression and it makes you strong; your stance changes, your heart rate rises, your belief in yourself, your strength, you think "I can do this"
. Swearing helps A LOT! Try it! You briefly mentioned how mind games play a big part in riding. How do you prepare yourself when you take to a World Cup race?
Physically, I’ll have been preparing all through the winter. When you prepare well, it gives you confidence, you KNOW you can do it physically, but mentally is a different ball game.
On the day, I like to take some time out to have a nap. I try to eat well but this year nerves have meant that I've thrown up everything I've eaten, but that's a part of it too, almost my routine. I love my routine, often when I'm too nervous to function, too sleepy to get on the turbo I just start my routine and I know that eventually I'll end up five minutes before my race run. When I'm in the start gate I'm fine. That's what I love, my body knows what to do then, it's the hours before that suck. I take things slowly all weekend, you don't have to be fast EVERY run. Just one run. One afternoon.
So much of racing is in the mental prep'. At Fort William World Cup, I can remember the exact moment up at the start when I thought "I can do this, f*ck it"
. Joe (Krejbich), my mechanic, said he could tell the difference in my composure, literally my whole body changed. At the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup, our grandpa passed away the night before the race and that made it really, really hard to get my head into gear for the race. The family was pretty upset as I'm sure everyone is at times like that, but mum was adamant that I had to get my head into gear for the race. Being so upset and sad inside, and then so strong and concentrated on the race run was pretty weird. You seemed pretty relaxed coming into the World Champs. You seemed to have an air of not being fussed about it. Was this your way of keeping cool, or did you still have butterflies in your stomach about the possibility of once again winning the Rainbow Jersey?
I honestly can say that I had done what I wanted to do that year, beyond all my dreams! I was having so much fun at Worlds, riding the track in the rain and mud... it was really fun! I wasn't stressing, sure I wanted to ride a good race and do the best I could but for once, I wasn't putting any pressure on myself.
The night before the race, just before bedtime I got a phone call to say that Dan had hurt himself riding a Hardline jump. I was scared then, to hurt myself, but that's when the autopilot kick in. When I crossed the finish line and I realised I'd won, the relief was SO HUGE. Deep down I know I must've wanted it. It felt so good; to know that whatever challenges I had faced the last two race seasons, I could still do it! The body is such an amazing tool. It’s a long way off I hope but what would you like to see yourself doing once you retire from racing downhill?
It's a long way off! I change my mind about my post-racing career about once a month, it's something that every athlete thinks about but doesn't really want to think about! There's a few things in the pipeline but I can't talk about them yet. I can't wait to have kids though. I love being at home, maybe a teacher of some sort, or practice Acupuncture. A lot of the continental European women riders seem to balance their academic life with their Elite riding (e.g. Ragot, Siegenthaler undertaking degrees) because they say they want to have something to fall back on once their race career is over. The Brits don’t seem to do this. What’s your thoughts on pursuing academic qualifications whilst trying to be a professional racer? Do you think our European cousins have got it right?
I can only answer for myself. For me college just seemed to be a distraction from training and riding but I wouldn't rule out doing some more studying in the future, you just have to do what’s best for you. I think the Brits are amazing at selling themselves for their sponsors. If you don't build a platform and an image for yourself then yes, you need to 'fall back' on something, but for me this is my career now; I'll give it everything I've got, 100%. It's sensible for those girls to build a separate career for sure because unfortunately, not many women make a good living from DH yet... But it's getting better, Tahnee, Pom Pon and Manon are pushing themselves, making videos, and sponsors want to endorse them. That's how you make money.
I respect hugely Ragot, Pom Pon etc... and wonder how fast they might be if they weren't at school, or maybe it helps them focus their training? But I think it's a huge shame that riders or their skills and talent cannot make enough money to live on, it's crazy! In terms of laying the groundwork for me female riders, what would you like British Cycling and the UCI to do more of to help encourage more women riding competitively?
It's a question we get asked a lot! I think it's important to have a good base line race series. Women shouldn't be racing World Cups as a first international step, they should be racing a good race series like the IXS Cups. I’d like to see British Cycling doing more to promote smaller race series, doing promo stuff in schools, opening girl’s eyes to DH, and not just cyclo-cross and XC. Maybe they could use their multiple array of world champions a bit more?! Would you like to see Red Bull develop a women’s version of Hardline or even Crankworx doing more to encourage more women riding in events other than just pumptrack and downhill?
I think these ideas have to come from the riders themselves. Red Bull did an awesome job giving Affy the resources to build his dream; they didn't impose a new event, it was Dan’s idea.
There used to be a women's Crankworx event that Claire Buchar and Katrina Strand organised, it was awesome to see… drops, jumps, wall-rides, but the idea comes from riders themselves. Event organisers can't develop a competition if there is no call for it. So if WOMEN want those platforms, then women have to organise them. I think there is a market for these women's events, but I love racing and so I will always promote racing over anything else :-) If you weren't a professional downhill racer, what career would you like to have pursued and why?
Maybe an English teacher or a track sprinter. I loved track sprinting (running) at school, held all the records! Yeah, I think I’d have ended up doing something competitive. I'm glad this is my life, it happened for a reason! Manon has been dabbling with a few no-handers at the S4P jump park recently. How are you with your tricks or do you not fancy them?
No, tricks aren't really my thing. It's funny because the women's scene is so much smaller than the men, everyone compares us all so much more, I think it's rad we are all so different. To have such different riders being able to win a DH race is pretty cool and says a lot about the future of the sport! I prefer my fun to have a motor! Would you like to see more coverage of the Elite Women’s race in World Cup broadcasts? Do you think the current coverage is enough to encourage more women to race at this level?
Being at the race I often don't see what comes out but I don’t think it’s really about that. Obviously, more coverage helps but we all do a pretty good job on social media these days. I think Red Bull do an amazing job, they have pre-race interviews and they are trying to build the riders' characters for the viewer. What I would like to see is a WOMAN commentating alongside Rob Warner during the women's race. There's so much story behind the women that no-one gets to hear, so if anyone out there fancies commentating with Warner for the World Cups, hit me up! What are your plans for next season?
Well I've never won consecutive World Champs so that's something I suppose! I feel in myself I have a long way to go physically with training etc... Every winter lets you get stronger and learn more, there's aspects of my riding that I want to work on, so yea, lots to do! Other than the obvious - winning the double - what was your most memorable moment of the 2015 season?
Fort William was pretty special – I couldn't stop crying, properly weeping, I guess it was the relief after a whole winter of questioning if I’d be strong enough! My dad was like "Rach, stop it – get out there with a smile and give people what they came to see!" What was the funniest moment of the 2015 season?
Playing Articulate in Fort William, whole team carnage! Gee and Marc Maurissen cheat, Taylor Vernon is really really bad at it and Lloydy is just rude! What was your lowest point of the season this year?
The night before Worlds, my stomach was already in knots. Then about 10pm I got a call to say that Dan had crashed testing Hardline asking me how to put his dislocated shoulder back in, only it turned out he’d broken it in three places! If there was one thing you could have done differently all season, what would it have been?
Not sure really... Nothing? I wish it wasn't Ragot’s last season. That makes me real sad. She has been such a fierce racer and she can still win, so for her to be out is pretty devastating. I wish her all the luck.
You can keep up to date with what Rachel is up to via her Instagram
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