Downtime with Rachel Atherton | Interview
We catch up with Rachel Atherton, the most successful British mountain biker of all time...
Late February 2014 and we took a day to relax at the home of Atherton Racing, the epicentre of modern British downhill mountain biking. We were there to catch up with Rachel Atherton, the most successful British mountain biker of all time (with more World Cup wins even than Steve Peat), who approaches the 2014 race season bearing the titles of National, World and World Cup Champion – huge accolades that the smiley character seems to take in her stride.
DIRT ISSUE 146 - APRIL 2014
Words by James McKnight. Photos by Laurence Crossman–Emms, Seb Schieck and Sven Martin
Having had what one would assume to be an exhausting career up to this point, with a never–ending amount of media coverage and relentless pursuit of victory, where life as a public figure has consumed nearly every moment (during the race season at least), with ‘home’ being that of her workplace, and having won everything there is to win, it is quite astonishing that Rachel stays motivated to train and go through what must surely at times become the rigmarole of ‘Being an Atherton’. But then hard work and devotion is something that this special family does very well.
What will the short–term future hold for Rachel Atherton? Undoubtedly it will bring more success, but could her desire to compete at the highest level and to better herself potentially take her on to even bigger things, away from downhill even?
Dirt: Do you ever feel you want to have a separate life away from Atherton Racing, away from it fully?
Rachel: Well it’s interesting you know, because we’ve obviously lived together our whole lives and that’s one of the reasons we are who we are, and the business – we’ve built it up and it’s at the house, but 100% it’s changed over the last year. We’ve made the decision that if we want to expand the business and push it, for it to achieve what we want it to achieve in the future, then we’ve got to separate it out. It’s got to be a business in its own right, it’s got to have its own property and stand on its own two feet, and we need the space and stuff. So the next couple of years things are going to change, and I think that’s good, isn’t it? Change is good for everyone.
So you really do think of it as a ‘business’? You’re really thinking about the future?
Yeah, because you’re not going to race forever, we’ve worked hard to build up a name and the brand of Atherton Racing, so we obviously would be stupid to not take that somewhere, even after we’ve finished racing. Or Brownie (Dan Brown, team manager) to take it somewhere (laughs).
What do you think is a good career length for a mountain biker is, or for any athlete?
I dunno. It depends physically how long I could keep doing it because any sport is so tough to do. Being an athlete isn’t very good for you I don’t think. Mentally you can turn it on or off; if you’re up for it, if you think ‘right, I’m going to do this for another couple of years and then that’s it’, that gives you an extra buzz. There are always things mentally that can help you raise the game, but physically you’ve got what you’ve got and that’s probably what’ll stop people in the end. And living in the UK makes you old…
You’ve had amazing seasons over the last two years?
Well, standard… no not standard, it’s just what you aim for. Two good seasons out of f–king 10 years is not that good (laughs).>>
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[part title="DOWNTIME WITH RACHEL ATHERTON | INTERVIEW PAGE TWO..."]
Well, if you’re winning all the time. Alan Milway (Atherton’s coach) wrote a piece about complacency being one of the biggest dangers for any athlete.
I’m smiling because I knew that was going to come up.
It’s the most asked thing and I don’t know what to say, because… we’ve just got to wait and see. I don’t feel at all like I’ve got complacent. Every year that you race you race to win and you think that you’ve done everything you can. Sometimes you really have done everything you can, sometimes it turns out you haven’t. But every season you go into it thinking ‘right, this is it, I’m going to absolutely smash it’ and obviously you can tell. For me it’s been amazing the last couple of years have been injury free, which has made such a big difference, and now this is another year on, and the training carries through, and you build and build on it. I feel like I’m just getting going and people are asking me how long I think I’ll race for. I feel like I’ve just figured out what to do and how to be good.
You see it as you’ve actually got to the point where you’re just getting going, you’ve got it figured, and you’re really enjoying it still?
Yeah, and when you have a good year you definitely feel confident and stuff, but all anyone ever says is that everyone else is obviously coming for you now, and that’s all I think about really. I’m not ashamed to say that most of my motivation comes from the fact that I know the other girls are, like, going for it, and they want to catch me up, which happened last year towards the end of the season. They all get real fast toward the end of the season and I kind of reach a plateau.
Are you calculated when you’re riding?
Yeah, I think. The last couple of years I’ve got injured so much and I learned, I was like ‘right, it’s not worth it’. You add up the risks and now I know how to race safely. Not saying that I don’t let it hang out a little bit but I almost know how much I need to do, like how fast I need to go to win, and it’s interesting because you can really see that at the races where it’s been a bit up in the air and I’m not quite as confident, or the weather conditions change or something, I’ve ended up winning them by miles. Then the races where you’re like ‘I’m feeling good here, I’ve got this covered’ it’s always real tight with the margins, so that’s quite interesting really, because you learn. I know how fast I can go without risking too much.
How dangerous do you think it is riding at your level?
I think it’s f–king dangerous.
Haven’t you just said you’ve struck a balance, where surely you’re not going to be killing yourself all the time?
Yeah you have to because at the level we are at, and the speeds everyone’s going – everyone’s getting faster and faster all the time, but we really have only got the same bodies as we’ve always had, and especially the girls. We’re getting so fast and not really getting much stronger and so you think that there’s going to come a point where you think ‘something needs to give here’. Like now I feel I’m riding the best I’ve ever ridden, I feel really comfortable and really confident, and when I ride with the boys and stuff here at home on our tracks that are pretty real and pretty gnarly and I’m not really going much slower than... obviously slower than Dan and Gee... not much slower than the other lads, and you kind of think, compare that to how much stronger they are.
I asked Brownie earlier what the difference is like between his start at Atherton Racing and now. There are now a lot of staff employed (13 salaried via Atherton Racing).
Sometimes I think how lucky we were to find Brownie. You couldn’t have a better person, and he’s so invested in us and the team and everything, it’s as much his life and passion and baby as it is ours. Sometimes it blows my mind how much he gives.
It seems similar for everyone who works for you?
Yeah it is, and I guess that’s what you need isn’t it? Everyone plays such a big part. Brownie’s just lush (laughs). We all clap every time he comes into a room.
Brownie was saying that before he started you were just running everything yourselves, with a little help perhaps?
No, it was just us really.
That’s a ton of pressure, right?
It got to a point where Gee started winning a couple of World Cups and Dan was obviously oldest, and Dan’s results were suffering because everything came down to him; he drove us to the races, it was all up to him. He couldn’t give it 100% because if he got hurt, what could we do? Like I was saying before, everyone having a role: Gee’s role was he was very good at the business side of things, so that fell to him a lot, and Dan’s role was the doing side of things, and the track building and stuff. I don’t know what mine was (laughs).>>
[part title="DOWNTIME WITH RACHEL ATHERTON | INTERVIEW PAGE THREE"]
Do you feel pressure these days because there are so many people supported off the back of the whole Atherton program?
No not really. I think that mainly I just feel bad if I don’t put in the effort that I know I should, to training or whatever, and then if it all goes terribly wrong I feel bad as well.
So you do feel a sense of responsibility?
Yeah because if we don’t get the results then there’s not as much money coming in and Brownie’s got a family and kids and stuff.
So everyone at Atherton Racing is devoted to it? That’s just more motivation for you? It’s not scary or anything?
No I don’t think so. Because it’s all happened so slowly and naturally, we’ve built it up so slowly and it’s just progressed with us. If you were coming into this and thinking ‘shit, everyone’s relying on me doing good’ then it might be a bit different.
Because of the good thing you have going on as a team, do you think your competitors look at that and find it intimidating?
I don’t know, I think sometimes I should be way better than them considering what we’ve got. Particularly some of the French girls, they’re all studying at uni and stuff like that. And then there’s me just doing this full time, and we’re still pretty close you know. Like Emmeline Ragot, she smashes it and I know she studies and stuff. So massive respect to them, and how fast would they be if they all had this? But then on the other hand, all the teams have stepped it up in the last few years anyway, everyone’s got the managers and God knows what. So everyone’s doing pretty much the same thing as us, although they may not have everyone living together and everyone working 24/7. But doing it this way there is downsides as well. Sometimes I wonder how much faster I’d be if I wasn’t surrounded by Atherton Racing all the time (nervous laughter).
What do you think Tracy Moseley and Sabrina Jonnier had that put them ahead of others?
I just think the same with anything: the more you do something, the more experience you get and the more comfortable you get doing it, the better you get. Definitely when I started racing World Cups I couldn’t beat them, they were the girls to beat, and they had that much more experience. Now I almost feel like I’m them and the younger girls are me – how I was a few years ago – which is quite cool, it happened all of a sudden. One minute I was chasing them and trying to catch them and thinking ‘what the hell can I do’, and then the next minute I was suddenly up there. Every athlete has their moment at the top and regardless of whether they’ve got a big team around them like this or they’re just good on their bike.
Maybe as a family we’re not quite as naturally talented on our bikes as other people who’ve been good in the past, but we do everything else good. Everyone has a reason why they’re good: Sabrina was really powerful and a really good racer, to me it seemed like you couldn’t get into her head, she was just like, “F–k you". Tracy was almost the same, really strong and really sure of herself. But I know it took them both a while to get there.
Do you wish the World Cup season were longer?
Yeah I think I do wish it was longer, definitely, I think it makes it more interesting because everyone kind of evens out a little bit. There are always people that start super strong and people that end super strong. I wish it was longer because I love it, I love racing and when it comes to the end of the season I think ‘what am I going to do now?’ Because it’s my whole life, it really is. I don’t just race, I absolutely love it and when I don’t race I’m not quite right, I don’t really feel like a whole person. Sometimes I feel like I race because… well not because I wouldn’t know what to do, but it does give you a purpose. But it is only mountain biking!
Do you ever think about not racing?
Yeah definitely, when I was injured a lot I was like ‘what’s the point’, because as soon as you get injured your whole life goes on hold, you literally can’t do anything. And then you think ‘is it really worth it’. Definitely the older you get the more you think about what you’re going to do after racing, because you can’t race forever. A little part of me does think that I could race forever, just because I don’t know what else to do.
Steve Peat has got almost 15 years on you.
Yeah and when I think about that I wonder how on earth he is still doing it. But then when you think about not racing… I guess that’s why it’s so important to have a break from it. A part of me feels like I don’t want to get to the end of my career and this is all I’ve done. But I haven’t done everything I want to do in mountain biking, and there’s only a certain amount of time in life to do things.
[part title="DOWNTIME WITH RACHEL ATHERTON | INTERVIEW PAGE FOUR..."]
You’re quite similar to Peaty, a spokesperson for the sport and a role model. You must feel you influence a younger generation coming in?
There isn’t a younger generation coming in really.
What about Manon Carpenter?
Yeah, and Tahnee Seagrave… but they’re not that like, the ‘young’.
Do you feel you’ve helped or influenced those two?
I do think about the fact that one minute they’re just younger girls riding and then they’re suddenly really capable and they’re racing and they’re really fast. It’s nice to think that maybe in the same way as I grew up and was a younger racer looking up to Tracy and Sabrina and then had a real good few years racing them, I’d like to think that it’s the same.
What was your biggest accolade of 2013? Was there a defining moment or is it just going to go down as an amazing year?
Probably Fort William to be honest, that was just insane and I still can’t believe what happened, you never really think about it. Obviously all three of us are striving for the same – we want to be the best in the sport – and then when Dan, Gee and I all won the world Cup in Andorra in ’08 that was so mental because the thought had never really crossed our minds until that day and then suddenly it was like ‘this is amazing!’ It was kind of the same in Fort William: never in a million years did I think that Gee and I would both win it, then suddenly I’d won and he was winning, coming down the track, and… I couldn’t handle it. It was so gnarly. And then I couldn’t believe that Dan wasn’t there. It was all because of him and he wasn’t there.
You put that above your overall titles too? Just that moment.
Yeah, you can’t beat that. Obviously the overall World Cup was pretty stressful, and personally that means a lot to win that, but the actual excitement of that one day at Fort William was just mental.
There has been a ton of interviews with you in the mainstream media recently. I guess, like Peaty’s, your reach outside of the sport has been massive, and it seems like you almost get more attention from the mainstream media than you do from the MTB media, would you agree? Is it disproportionate?
I definitely know what you mean, because I’ve thought it in this last winter and this off season and stuff, you know, especially with the video and stuff, obviously with the Atherton Project and the stuff before that, the Four By Three stuff. Our focus used to be pretty huge within the industry and I think we did it for so long, and so full on, that I think for a while, for a good few years, it was kind of flooded. The mountain bike industry was flooded with us.
You personally though, I’ve seen so many features in newspapers, you’ve been on the radio…
Well as a team, as Brownie and Gill (Atherton PR) have worked super hard with our marketing and pushing that side, pushing us into the mainstream, pushing the sport into the mainstream, now we’ve got some really good contacts, and for us in the last couple of years that has been really important for one reason and another. When you go to a big TV company and they have no idea what downhill mountain biking is, and then they watch it they are absolutely blown away by it, they love it and it’s amazing. With BT Sport particularly this winter, that’s a sort of new channel and stuff, they are really behind it and they love it. It only takes a couple of people who work there to really appreciate it and really get into the sport and suddenly you end up realising what a legitimate sport it is and then suddenly it’s there and other people see it and then maybe before you know it it’s been considered by the IOC for the Olympics or something. If I just race mountain bikes and I do a lot of stuff in the mountain bike media – I’m an awesome shredder and all the photos I do in the MTB mags are sick and stuff – but when I stop racing the MTB industry will have appreciated me, but unless people are already into mountain biking they’re not going to know. I want to try and make MTB as a whole so there’s more people, so the whole industry and the whole sport grows. Because at the moment it really makes me sad that there’s no junior, young British females… you can’t even understand what that makes me feel like. It’s like my whole career’s been pointless. If when I finish racing there’s no one coming through it makes my career and the women’s side of things feel not very legit, because there’s probably loads of people out there who could be really good but they just don’t do it. The broader the competition, the more legitimate my winning a race feels. For me it’s really important to try and get the whole sport more coverage.
[part title="DOWNTIME WITH RACHEL ATHERTON | INTERVIEW PAGE FIVE..."]
Do you ever feel that women get ignored in the MTB media?
I think it’s getting better. The thing that gets me down is the coverage of women’s racing, I think that’s disastrous, pretty awful. I think it’s pretty disrespectful and pretty lame: a paragraph for the whole of the women’s World Cup. You just think ‘I would kick your ass’.
I read in an interview somewhere and you mentioned the possibility of changing discipline or sport. Was that just a fleeting comment or did you mean it seriously?
It wasn’t said just in passing.
Brownie was saying you’d rank as a world–class athlete.
Yeah he dribbled something about that the other day, I was wondering what he was on about. Like I said before, I love mountain biking and I love racing downhill. I’m good at it you know, and obviously it’s hard and it’s a challenge and stuff, but I don’t want to get to the end of my able career and this to have been the only thing that I’ve done. Whatever that is, wherever that goes, I’m pretty keen to do something else.
Is there a sport or discipline in particular you’ve thought of?
Hmm, not really… obviously two wheels would be better than anything else. There’re a couple of things that I’ve definitely got my eye on, but who knows?
No! And I don’t think that you can escape the fact that no matter what anyone says, everyone as an athlete dreams of being in the Olympics, and over the last few years that’s something that’s come in. I don’t want it to, but that is something that I feel quite strongly about now. I wish that it wasn’t like that, but…
So do you go to the track (velodrome) much?
Well we’ve been a couple of times this winter and I love it, it’s amazing. I just like the fact that it’s almost the opposite of downhill. All that matters is how f–king fast you can go around the track. Nothing really changes apart from what you can put out with your body. I think that for a girl to do it is amazing, because to work, to get your body into that shape. For me I love being powerful, I love putting out a lot of power, but for the downhill track there’s a point when it’s detrimental, there’s no point in putting out a certain amount of watts out the start gate, because you’ll just fall off in the first turn.
Track gets a lot of focus on it in the media doesn’t it?
Imagine the interest or how it would help mountain biking as a sport if (I’m not saying this is going to happen) but, say I went to track and became quite good at it and quite successful, then obviously my background’s in downhill and people would see it more, and it would definitely generate more interest in it. It’s really a logistical nightmare to get into it, because of this four–year cycle with the Olympics really bothers people…
So there we have it, Rachel Atherton, the most successful British mountain biker of all time, goes into the 2014 season on the back of her best two years of racing to date, and seemingly with as much motivation as ever. Complacent? Hardly. I have a funny feeling that we will be seeing Atherton on the top step of the podium for a long time to come. Whether that will be at World Cup Downhill races we will have to wait and see.