WORDS & PHOTOS MATT WRAGG
This year didn't exactly go to plan for Dan Atherton, the older brother of the Atherton family. At the end of the 2012 season he had his biggest ever win in an enduro race, taking the victory in front of a stacked field at the Superenduro in Finale Ligure. Coming off that kind of form he was many people's bet for the title this year, but it wasn't to be. In the opening rounds of the Enduro World Series this year, he was close to the top times, but any racer will tell you that "close" is not the same as "there" or "winning." Then came the shoulder injury this summer. After that he made maybe the toughest decision of all, to call time on his season and have surgery with more than half the race season still to go.
We caught up with him at the Roc D'Azur festival in Southern France so see how the shoulder was healing, what he thought of enduro's first year of international racing and the demands of living in front of the camera. What happened with the shoulder injury that took you out of the season?
I guess it's been coming for a while. The first time it came out was filming a backcountry video with Robbie Meade, around our place. End of the day filming, I crashed, a little crash, the shoulder came out and it went from there. I did a load of strength work, but it was never the same after the dislocation, it got worse and worse. It then came out at the quarry... How long ago did you first injure it?
It was 2011. Then in 2012 it came out again and then this year at the quarry, trying to 360 the step-up. And that was the one that really loosened it up. After, at Mountain of Hell, I just dropped of an off-camber bank onto a flat road and it kind of subluxed in the race, but went straight back in. From there I decided, there was no point carrying on with the season because there was no time to rehab it, I might as well sack the season off. That's a very mature decision to decide to stop mid-season, one that few racers seem to make.
I think with enduro, when you come into a season and race a few races, you know your level. With downhill a racer can have a good weekend and get a good result, but with enduro I think it's a lot more training-based, it was the same riders in the same positions all year. So when I came into the season and I was a little bit off, I realised I hadn't done the preparation I needed to. At Mountain of Hell it came out and I had about a week before Colorado [Enduro World Series round] and there was no way I was going to rehab it back. I thought, "my training's off, my shoulder's out, now is the best time to get it done." You finished the 2012 enduro season with the big Superenduro win at Finale Ligure, which was a big victory, but were a little way off Clementz, Graves and Barel at the start of the season. Do you think the level changed between Finale and the start of this season?
I think there was a massive step in the performance level in enduro this year. Gravesy has pushed the sport pretty hard, he's bought his professional attitude to training that came from 4X and Olympic BMX into enduro and it has really raised the bar. Jerome was already at that level, he's been at the level for years and has so much experience that he can step it up if needs be, but I think other guys need to fall back on their training a bit more to get to that level. A few people said that Fabien Barels stage one a Punta Ala really opened some people's eyes to how fast these races could be, is that symptomatic of the jump in level?
Punta Ala was a strange race, a few guys had been up there practicing and it was hard to put a benchmark on where the sport was at that point because it wasn't so much of a level playing field. You had Gravesy there who couldn't even get a lift to the top because he didn't have a mechanic, then you had other guys there that had been there for a week or so practicing, so I think that's a strange race to look at and say "This is where the sport's at." You have to look at the season overall and riders who have been consistent to see who's really raised their game. What do you see as the "spirit of enduro" that a lot of people seem to be talking about?
I think that's been a big question on everyone's lips this year, what is the spirit of enduro? To me... I think Ok, at races like the Trans-Provence and stuff like that, it's there, it's great, fair enough, but when it's a World Series, with big sponsorship, titles on the line and big money you can't ignore the fact that people are going to get serious about it - it's a race. When sponsors are paying you thousands of pounds to go and ride your bike, to go and race your bike, they want to see results, their bike at the top of the sport, and when an event like Crankworx puts $10,000 on the line, people want to win. In what direction would you like to see the race format go?
I had a big talk with [Superenduro organiser,] Enrico this week, me and Browny [Dan Brown, Atherton Racing team manager], and I don't know, it's tough... It's a tough discipline because there are so many rules involved and it's so easy to break rules when there are so many rules involved. That's got to be down to race organisers, to draw the line as to where they stop making rules. For me, I felt two years ago, when I raced a full season of Superenduro races, that felt more professional than this year. I've been quite confused at a lot of races and I've spent a lot of the season learning. I guess a lot of other riders did as well, but you didn't really know what was going on. At some races it would be like this, at some races it would be like that, and it was really hard to get into a routine, to get into a race programme. Maybe that's what enduro is needs, to be switched up every week. For me, I would prefer it goes down the Superenduro route, but maybe that's because I come from World Cup downhill and I'm so used to being able to train on the track before. You don't need a week of training, two days, a day or two, just enough to get two or three runs on each track is enough. Practice has been one of the biggest questions, how much practice would you like to see?
I think, with downhill, the practice that is allocated is enough for everyone to get as fast as they want to on the track, so it doesn't really matter if you go there a few weeks before and ride the track. But with enduro, there are so many things to remember and so many lines and so many tracks, of course if you go there before it's going to help. You can't go to every race two weeks before, because it just takes over your life. You would do nothing but train on those tracks and then it becomes a question of how far do people want to give their lives to this one discipline and one race series just to win? That's what it comes down to really, and there's no way they can police that. I don't know if there's an optimal training time that would see everyone reach the same speed, but that's definitely not riding it blind. Riding blind, of course people are going to go and practice and it isn't going to be riding blind. It's a really tough question that's going to have to be answered before people get pissed off. There's a lot of money on the line, there's a lot of the industry on the line, the industry is putting a lot of money into enduro and they want to see results, they want to see their bike at the top of the sport. Because that's the benchmark, the bike that wins the overall is the benchmark for enduro. It's tough... As a family you talk a lot about your training programmes, does enduro mean your programme is very different to Gee and Rachel?
It is very different. This is the first year it has been different. We're still going away in the winter on training camps together, but Gee and Rach never ride cross-country. They'll never do anything for more than an hour really, just because it's such a sprint discipline in downhill. It's short and intense and you've got to be trained at 100%, there' s no point training at 75% because every world cup is 100%. It's got to be short and it's got to be intense, but enduro is not 100%, it's a little bit off. Your training needs to be a bit longer and bit broader. Has the focus of your gym work shifted too?
That's changed massively, and I think if you ask Gravesy, I'm sure he'll say the same. You've got a lot of power left over from all those years training for 4X, so you've got to keep on top of that so you've still got that advantage, but definitely cutting down on the weight and going up on the reps. Just going up on the length of rides is the big one. I still struggle with long rides, definitely. Away from the racing we hear a lot about your quarry line. How did that all get started?
The quarry line came about because Gee was going to Rampage, so needed something to train on. We started riding in the quarry again, then the guys from Revolution Bike Park bought the quarry, so they pretty much said we could go on and do what we want in there. Can anyone just go there and ride it?
No! It's all chained up. By the looks of it, a lot of people wouldn't survive that line...
It's not too hard, it's really wide landings... But, if you crashed it's really big consequences... It's hard to judge, but I tried to build stuff where you have to get the jump before right to get the next one. The quarry line is definitely like that, you've got to hit the first one perfectly to get to the end, so that deters people from doing it. There are a few squirrel catchers (laughs). What are you working on this winter?
This winter is pretty exciting, there are a few new projects with Red Bull coming up next year, and Clay Porter. We didn't see a new series of Four By Three from you this year, what happened?
It's gone into a two year plan, because the quarry video was quite well-received by everyone and so we kind of knew what we wanted to do for this year, but it was too much work to do in one year, so we put it into two years. We've just been trying to buy a new house, in the mountains, which is going to open up a lot of new opportunities for riding and filming. We've found some rad new venues, some new quarries and stuff... New ridgelines... How involved are you in putting together the media work you do?
We're pretty involved. With Atherton Racing, racing is first, but the media base is a close second. It's really important, we have a lot of meetings about it between us, and with Red Bull. We try and do long-term forecasts for media output. It's really important that you stay fresh. The Atherton Project was cool and we get a lot of people asking when it's going to be back, but you can only do three years and then you're just covering your own tracks really. There's nothing, we've got Martin, Taylor and Marc on now so that would be fresh, but Clay Porter had had enough in Wales, pretty much. He came to us and said, "Do you want to do something higher quality?" Something, that isn't reality TV and trashy, but something polished and finished and where Four By Three came around. For the future, we're definitely going to go down that clean, polished, finished line, as opposed to the Kardashian Show (laughs). You strike me as quite a quiet, private man, how did you find the reality show format where so much of your life was on show?
(Laughs). I do struggle with that sort of stuff, it went on for so long and it can be hard to be fresh and be new without being fake. I really prefer the whole clean, polished approach. Was it hard at times, with people expecting you to be more like a bubby, smiling teen popstar, but finding you aren't that guy?
Yeah... I think I've had people think I was pretty arrogant... It's not because I don't want to talk to people, it's just that I can't always think of something cool to say to them. If I don't have something genuine to say then I'm stuck, I'm really bad at chatting shit. But yeah... Switching to enduro from downhill was weird , I spent so many years racing downhill and I knew who everyone was and I could talk to everyone about something that we all remembered, or whatever. Suddenly there were all these new faces and all these new people and I didn't really know who anyone was. It was hard to gauge people and get on the same wavelength, Sven Martin helps me out... He's good at chatting shit (laughs).www.athertonracing.co.uk