Conehead: The Rise of The Athlete
Darren ‘Conehead’ Roberts looks into what it means to be a modern-day athlete
What is an athlete? It’s a question I’ve asked many times, and when working with action sports that definition and what it applies to starts to get very grey very quickly.
Photos by Rutger Pauw (main) and Atherton Team Coach Alan Millway.
Having been lucky enough to work with world class action sports athletes for almost 15 years, I’ve been able to see different things come and go, ideas, methods and ideology. What has happened is the steady march to what I call the ‘performance professionalisation’ (one of my many made up descriptions) of action sports athletes, and World Cup MTB is no different.
The Atherton family (Dan, Gee and Rachel) were always pretty vocal about the time and effort they put into the physical and mental preparation for their racing, and of course I played my part in telling that story. It was impossible to see or read anything about Gee without mention of his ‘fitness’, whereas any interview with Peaty was conducted in a pub with a pint in front of him. Perception is greater than reality, and the reality was that all the top guys were training and preparing hard as each other - just maybe not telling anyone about it or when being interviewed made sure it was in a pub…
It was easy for me to come into WC MTB nearly 10 years ago and see the glaring preparation gaps, the training programmes built on ‘I saw someone else doing this’ and the bizarre fixation with peak power, with no understanding of what it actually means, whether it actually matters… just a peak number that looks good. Whether it was right or wrong, they were all training hard (albeit under the radar), and this was nearly 10 years ago.
Since then the riders have become much better educated in what they need from their preparation and how that actually transfers to racing. One of the many pieces I’ve written for Dirt was on strength training, and its foundation of athleticism and how riders should prepare with strength training. It was probably unthinkable to see something like that 10 years ago with the fixation on steady state aerobic work and endurance training for racers. There hasn’t been a tidal shift, because as mentioned everyone was ‘training’ even back then, it’s been much more subtle than that.
With each passing year another crop of younger riders come through, who’ve had access to more information; with the senior riders seeking out more and more detailed advice to maintain a competitive advantage, which in turn the younger riders aspire to. It has almost gone full circle, with no one talking about their training anymore, not because it’s ‘not cool’ to train but because they don’t want anyone to know what they’re doing and how. Away from the season long battle for results, there is also a wider current of injury prevention (not to mention rehabilitation) and prolonging racing careers by taking better care of the body - all key pieces of the overall performance pie.
I don’t necessarily see riders simply getting bigger and stronger each year as their traditional counterparts in rugby. However their athleticism, the teams and the riders own investment in bespoke performance training and advice does seem to increase each year. Having a conversation about force velocity curves, speed strength rep schemes and movement dysfunction patterns are all normal now. This all has to be balanced with being able to actually ride a bike fast down a hill, and there’s always a danger that the sport can get lost in the preparation. It’s no good being just ‘good' in the gym, but that’s simply a factor in all professional sports and preparing for them.
So with the season about to get started, riders can give as many interviews as they want sat in pubs with a pint in front of them, however the six pack and lean athletic body kind of gives the game away…
Darren ‘Conehead’ Roberts is High Performance Manager at Harris & Ross Healthcare. He’s been working with some of the UK’s and world's biggest household names in extreme sports for nearly 15 years.