Rachel Atherton Interview: Women’s Cycling 2014

Women’s Cycling Magazine May/June 2014

Five years ago, World Champion Mountain biker, Rachel Atherton was involved in a head-on collision with a truck whilst on a training ride in California. Just one year after winning her first World Championship title and attaining the overall in the Downhill World Cup, dreams of repeating this feat were cruelly slashed. Instead she spent the year dealing with injury and intensive rehabilitation. ‘I detest getting injured. It takes away from me all that I am and love. It stops my life. But, it is necessary for our sport, it will happen and it has happened a lot to me. So I learned to deal with it. I take strength from it every time, you can always learn something.’

At 26, Rachel is one of the most successful mountain bikers in the World. With 19 World Cup wins to her name, two World Championship victories and four National Championship titles, her successes have come after plenty of hardship. ‘Injury has dictated a lot of my career, and even now it dictates the speed I ride at, I am not willing to risk it all anymore so I try to race at a speed I am comfortable with, a speed I know I can handle, and if that’s fast enough to win then great, but if it’s not, I’ll stay at that speed until I can get stronger, then together my physical strength and my race speed will improve.’

Early inspiration

Growing up, Rachel’s interest in bikes peaked early, she was racing BMX at eight and mountain bikes by the age of eleven. In 2005 she became the Junior World Champion and won Sunday Times Young Sportswoman of the year. For her, downhill is unmatchable. ‘Downhill is a sport in which the skill, ability and strength of the rider is equally matched by their mental approach, their ability to process a situation and react before it happens and the ability to perform right on the edge.’

Although she takes inspiration from her brothers, Dan and Gee, it was seeing other women ride that fuelled her passion and started her on the journey that would see her become World Champion. ‘Tracy Moseley… What a legend. Before I started racing DH World Cups I went to watch the World Cup at Fort William and Tracy won it, she was stood on the podium wrapped in the Union Jack, crying – everyone was cheering, I was like, that is what I want to do. So I did it.’

‘Anne Caroline Chausson. She is incredible, I still don’t get how she is how she is. I used to say her name in my head going up steep hills when I was about 14. There’s Sabrina Jonnier also, she was such a vicious racer, she was so strong, she could turn her speed on like a tap, it was amazing. Sabrina taught me a lot.’ It was watching these incredible women and racing alongside them that inspired Rachel. ‘I had a lot of 2nd places to Anne Caro, Sabrina and Tracy, I could not have wished for three better mentors. I was pretty sad when they stopped racing downhill, respect forever.’

In spite of the successes of women like Rachel, getting support and sponsorship as a woman in mountain biking can often prove difficult. ‘I think it is harder for women, less women means less available deals. Or maybe it means that as women we need to be smart and market ourselves really well, give sponsors something they don’t have, give them something that excites. In racing, if you are fast and marketable you will get deals, unfortunately I don’t think just being fast is enough anymore, people want more than just race results, they want more and if anyone knows that it’s me.’

‘If you look at the women who do have good deals, they all deserve them. They push themselves and find a niche they fit into that sponsors can relate to, whether that is being a fast racer, being a bad ass, a stylish and cool bike rider, or being a free spirit that spends six days at a time exploring on their bike. Whatever it is, as females we have to market ourselves hard and that’s the way it is.’

Life of a racer

From the beginning Rachel was hooked on racing, it allowed her to enter a different state of mind, unmatched to any other time on the bike. ‘I love how when I get in the start gate I am a different person. I love that as soon as I start a race run, I know I am going to be faster than I normally ride because I am a racer to my core, I never ride faster than on a race run. I love it. I love it when the racing is close, when I can’t guess the outcome, it’s so intense.’

2013 was Rachel’s year, after recurring shoulder injuries in previous years, she came back fighting and stronger than ever to dominate the women’s downhill. Training is a huge part of her career, with off season training and promotional work, she spends a lot of time with her trainers, team and media when race season stops. ‘I train a lot of the time. Every day, I train in the gym with weights, heavy weights. I work on my shoulder stability and power a lot too. I love Yoga and ride road bikes, as well as work on my weaknesses.’

From 2007 to 2011, the Athertons’ were on the Commencal team before transferring to GT Factory Racing in 2012 joining team-mate, Marc Beaumont. With GT on board, the Athertons’ were able to use their years of racing knowledge to help develop their own race bikes. ‘Working with GT has been incredible. They basically said what can we do to create a winning bike, and me, Dan, Gee, Marc Beaumont, Dan Brown, Pete Michaliszyn and Etienne the designer all gave our input. It was a long, long process, we did so much testing at our home in North Wales. We changed everything and tested everything. And now we have this race bike that for us, is perfect, it fits us just right, it is us as Atherton’s, but in bike form.’  

Feminine side

Body image is a highly debated topic in sport, but Rachel believes that female athletes can help give women a different perspective. ‘Body image is a real touchy subject. It is human nature to want to look at the best things, to have the best things, to be the best you can be, so a lot of that pressure is natural and is never going to change. I know from experience that sport, any sport, for me it is mountain biking that can give you a confidence that nothing else can. So who gives a crap if I take my helmet off when I’m buzzing from landing that big jump and my hair looks like shit and I’ve got no makeup on. I’m strong, I beat Mother Nature down that hill,’ she says. ‘The media play a huge part in what young girls think is acceptable and if we as athletes can prove that being strong and healthy doesn’t mean you have to have a six pack then let’s do it. I can beat Gee on the two minute sit up challenge, and I don’t have a visible six pack. He does. Go figure.’

Rachel discusses the fact women calculate things differently when riding mountain bikes. ‘I think men say, I’ll try that, and women think, I will only try that when I am 100% sure I can do it. That’s the difference. Women are calculated, they won’t rush into something because it makes them looks ballsy, they will make sure they are capable of something and most times they will execute it perfectly. I love the difference between men and women, we can learn a lot from the other.’

Women’s cycling is definitely growing, no matter the discipline, there is a definite buzz about getting out on two wheels. ‘A lot of people are doing some pretty amazing things for women’s cycling, women’s events, races, holidays, there’s a lot going on. I just race my bike. And maybe for me that is the answer. Bike racing, it opens a lot of doors. There’s a couple of things I have in the pipeline to encourage youngsters, and if I can spread the word that mountain biking sets you free and gives you a confidence that shopping can’t, then I’ll do that and that’s my focus right now. Good race results let me get into the front rooms of the general public sometimes, and that’s how I am encouraging more women, by making them aware the sport exists.’

What the future holds

Coming into the 2014 following one of her most successful seasons to date, Rachel has shown she is willing to work hard to get what she wants. ‘I am very proud of last season, I worked so hard to have a good year following 2012. I won the series but picked up a bad back before the World champs. I knew my weaknesses and I worked super hard to improve on them, and it paid off. I couldn’t have asked for a better season, winning every World Cup but two. I crashed once and the final round I got beaten fair and square.’

Looking into the future, Rachel has never kept her Olympic dream a secret, and although she loves downhill, she has considered trying new things. ‘Sometimes I see it clearly, sometimes I wonder if I could ever really leave the mountains, the freedom and the dirt. I would love to compete in an Olympic discipline I’m not ashamed to say it’s been a dream since I was a little girl, but I’m sure everyone has that dream. Enduro is something I would think about when I am done with downhill… But I ain’t done yet.’

It is perhaps her ethos that means she is one of the top mountain bikers in the world, the support of her family, team and sponsors, or the combination of all of those, but Rachel Atherton undoubtedly knows her own mind. ‘I have weaknesses, but I know what they are, I know my strengths normally outweigh my weaknesses. I have a lot of experience with every type of situation… I have won, lost and everything in between. I’ve had massive injury, I’ve been world champion at the top of the sport and I’ve missed whole seasons of racing through injury. I’ve crashed, I’ve cried – I feel that each situation I’ve been in before, if I look hard enough in my head, I can find the tools to deal with it and that feels rad.’

Photos: Sven Martin & Laurence Crossman-Emms

Featured Image: Red Bull Content Pool/Lukas Pilz