It was another record-breaking season for Rachel Atherton. Her sixth World Cup overall and fifth World Championships were both historic in their own rights and now, 12 years on from her first World Cup win, she’s closing in on the all-time tally of the formidable Anne-Caroline Chausson.
Rach isn’t in this for the records though and her relentlessly competitive nature has persisted from her explosion onto the World Cup circuit as a teenager. Week in, week out, each race means as much as her first.
The Queen of Downhill looks back on 2018.
Coming into 2018 was pretty different to coming into 2017. Last year you were still on your win streak and pretty much unchallenged. Do you feel like you had something to prove this year?
You always come into every season the same, you train all winter, you're really fired up and you believe you've done as much as you can. I was injured at the end of 2017 so I was a bit nervous to come back to racing full speed; it had been a good few World Cups since I'd felt like I could push the limits.
I knew it was going to be a long process so I was happy to be in Croatia and didn't really feel like I had to win, which is unusual for me.
Were you happy with second?
Yeah I was. Croatia was a beautiful place and it felt like we were just on a massive holiday with our mates with a World Cup in between. New tracks are good, they freshen it up and I think most people are a bit fed up with going to the same places, even though they are some iconic venues.
Pompon put a really good run together. I felt like I could have worked a bit more on my bike set up the first half of the season, I really struggled to get it right and I felt like that showed in the results at the time.
Onto Fort William, is it still special for you?
Over the years I used to hate it, it's a big track, you have to be strong and fit but I learned to love it and trained into it - you develop yourself as a rider to love Fort William.
Coming into that World Cup, I trained like f*ck. I pushed it hard and I felt amazing on the bike, everything was really, really good. At the National beforehand, I beat Tahnee by a big margin so I felt like it was going to be game changing and then I snapped my chain.
So 3 or 4 pedal strokes in, your chain goes. In your head are you thinking, “that's the run over” or are you thinking of Gwin and Mulally?
It was so bizarre, you just are not prepared for that. I looked down, I could see it just flapping there and I couldn't believe it. For a few seconds my head was black. Then I thought, 'Well of course I’ve got to carry on, I'm in a World Cup run. I'll just go as hard as I can until I crash.'
It felt like I had two different mindsets - the one that was riding the bike and racing and then this other space in my head that was going through all different scenarios, thinking about things Gwinny’s chainless run, thinking: 'you don't know what the other girls have done, they might have all crashed and had a great big pile up. You've just got to keep going.'
And then I did crash because I had no chain, I slipped and I couldn't push against the chain to hop over the rock. I jumped up and I thought it was done so I just carried on a bit devastated.
I couldn't comprehend what had happened. I was furious that my chain had snapped and I didn't know what to do or where to go in the finish area. I just stood there like a complete lemon absolutely devastated.
If you took your chain off before you raced, it wouldn't be the same so to actually feel that “f*ck it, I don't care, I'm going for it”, was amazing. To ride like that where you're full tilt, trying not to brake and really carry your speed in a different way to how you normally ride was amazing to experience, so I can tick that off the list. You've got to see a silver lining, I guess. From the competitor’s side you're just pissed off but from every other side it was an amazing experience.
Leogang seemed like a fairly routine win but then we went to Val di Sole and you seemed to lose it on the final turn.
For me that was the turning point in the season. In Val di Sole all the splits were green for me until the field which is thirty seconds. I lost two seconds there and I was f*cking livid.
I don't know if the boys are the same but for girls it's hard to keep the emotion out of it and after Val di Sole I was so angry. It was pretty hard to deal with that but in hindsight again that gave me the courage to keep looking for that change or that thing that was going to get me back on top.
I felt like I was riding well, I was committed and I felt like I was getting my confidence back but, like I said before, I was still struggling with my bike set up. I started to realise what the problem was with it but it took me all the way to Mont Sainte Anne to get right.
In what terms?
On the Trek Session, the standard link has 19 per cent progression but we ended up going to a 30 per cent link. I couldn't put my finger on it really, I just felt when I was going full speed in a race run I couldn't handle it. Then obviously in Andorra I went off the track, which was just a strange thing to happen. After that I was 100 per cent sure that it was my bike, not me.
Against everyone's recommendation, I went back to the standard 19 per cent link and I actually loved it, I felt so comfortable on the bike.
In Mont Sainte Anne, everyone noticed there was a difference and now we know it was the bike so, what differences were you feeling?
I went to Mont Sainte Anne and I wanted the overall title, I wanted to be number one again. I felt like I could ride a bike like I used to and be really committed and I felt like I could push it and it wouldn't just throw me off.
When you’re racing World Cups and you're at that level, tiny little things make a big difference so I was disappointed that we hadn't got to that point earlier in the season. That's the way it goes, you know, that's racing and when you're trying to be at the top, you're trying a lot of things and some of them work, some of them don't.
Were there thoughts of playing it easy in La Bresse?
It was a strange one. I couldn't decide whether to go safe or go for the win but when you're in that start gate, your mind just changes to race mode. As soon as I left the gate I just thought - go for the win.
After I crossed the finish line it actually took me a little while to realise that I'd won the overall too, I'd just forgotten about it in the heat of the moment.
How much do the records mean to you because you're closing in on ACC's wins?
It's hard because people love it but as a rider you don't really care, you just love racing and winning. I had no idea that six titles would be historic so personally I don't set out to do that. I've basically just got no idea what's going on, I just race. You don't need any more random facts to put pressure on yourself but everyone else loves it.
Do you still get nervous?
I really still do and it has really got a lot worse in the last few years. I used to be able to deal with it quite well but now I'm too nervous, I'm physically sick. At World Champs it was horrendous, I was a complete mess until I was on track. That pressure comes with the territory really. When you're at the top, people expect you to be there, you expect it of yourself, you know?
The more injuries you get the more scared you are too so it just ends up being a pretty nerve-wracking weekend. At the end of the day, you're risking your life and limb racing. "Vouilloz once said: 'nerves are there for a purpose and if you can harness them and use them in the right way then you'll be an amazing athlete.' I've always tried to do that in the right way.
On to Lenzerheide and your biggest winning margin of the year.
I felt like all year I'd been coming to terms with risking it again and World Champs felt like the first time I was like: 'f*ck it, I don't care if I get hurt,' I actually thought that to myself at the top of the hill, 'I don't care if I break my collarbone again, if I break my leg, whatever.' I wanted it that much.
When you ride with that much commitment that shows in the results but I had no idea that was going to happen. That determination to win, when the World Cups are finished, you don't have to think about the next race. All or nothing, it's pretty cool.
Do you think the current women's racing scene is a strong one?
Yeah I do, I really do. The field is a lot better than it was three to five years ago. That fifth spot on the podium is always up for grabs and it's filled by a different person almost every week. They're really good technically and I often learn a lot from them on race weekends.
Outside of the top five, they're not really supported and they're working and struggling to make it to the World Cups, let alone fund full training programmes but regardless of that, they're still up there and that's amazing.
I think the sponsorship definitely needs to improve, I think it's ridiculous that big companies don't have a female rider and I think that's really shameful on their part.
How does Tahnee compare to your rivals of the past?
There's always that battle going on between whoever's at the top and whoever's second. I've had some pretty intense battles with Jonnier, Moseley, Ragot, Manon and now it's Tahnee.
I remember me and Sabrina having some pretty harsh words to each other but at the end of the day everyone offers their own unique battle. Tahnee is really strong and she's a great bike rider. It's been amazing to watch her come up through the ranks - I can step back and look at it from that point of view. I've known her since she was a little girl and it's been amazing to see her turn into this world class athlete.
Then from the rival’s side it is quite intense. We're quite similar, we both ride for the same country and we're not really the best of friends. I've never really been close friends with people I compete with, that's just me and that's just how it is.
We don't dislike each other at all, we get on really well when we spend time with each other but we definitely have a real strong rivalry going on and it really makes each of us dig that much deeper and we respect each other hugely.
People love to see it don't they? From my point of view I'd love to come in and walk away with a win every time but I can see by what people say it's really exciting to watch a battle happen and watch people fight it out for the win. When I was injured last year and I watched some of the World Cups it was interesting to see who would win and how they'd do it so I can appreciate the excitement of not knowing.