Pro Chat: Rachel Atherton

The super-talented UK mountain biker on having world-class athletes for brothers, coping with a crazy amount of injuries and why women-only races would be good for the sport

Interview by Sam Del Greco and Sam Haddad, photos by Steve Martin

Do you enjoy filming ‘The Atherton Project’?
Yea we get to do some pretty awesome things outside of the World Cup races, for instance a few weeks ago in Austria we visited Red Bull’s Hangar 7 and were taken up in those crazy acrobatic air race planes, it was so gnarly, dead spinning and pulling -7 G’s, I got to fly it too which was amazing! So yes, filming for the Atherton Project is rad and I love seeing people’s reactions, good or bad, when a new episode airs.

Do you like being in front of the camera?
Without sounding big headed, I do like being in front of the camera! I think being an athlete you have to be comfortable with media. There are times when it is really hard though, like at a race when you have to focus 100 per cent and you still have to be camera friendly, but The Atherton Project is about showing people everything that goes into racing, not just the good parts!

Do you see your brothers as rivals or inspiration?
Oh inspiration for sure. Being men they are always going to be stronger and faster than me on a bike, but I still like to work hard to stay with them! It’s awesome having 2 world-class athletes for brothers, they pull me through the hard times and make me believe in myself. Friendly rivalry is always present though, and I won’t let Gee forget I can beat him at sit up races!!

You got hit by a truck during pre-season training a little while ago. Have you completely recovered now? And did it affect you mentally at all or just physically?
That incident definitely changed me. It was at the end of my best ever season, World Champion and World Cup Series Champion, and it put me out for the whole of the next year. I dislocated my shoulder, which is nothing new to me, but the axial nerve (which controls the Deltoid) was severed and after 3 months I underwent extensive nerve grafts, another few months later I underwent basic labrum repair surgery. I was devastated and since then I’ve struggled with shoulder problems on both sides. Mentally I realised that no matter how talented you are as an athlete, you HAVE to work hard on your physical strength. We throw ourselves down the steepest gnarliest mountains we can find on bicycles and when I was young I thought talent alone would make me the best. Now I respect the need to train my body for that level of extreme sport, and I respect the fast that I am not invincible!

How did you cope with having to pull out of races due to the injury?
I was devastated and I couldn’t imagine not racing the 2009 season. Dan my older brother made me see that if I wanted to be in this game for the long run, I had no choice but to sit it out. I was just 21 at the time. In 2010, my “comeback” year, I won the first round by 10 seconds, then the next round I was 2nd, the 3rd round I crashed and dislocated me other shoulder, so I sat out the remainder of the season and came back to win the final World Cup. I underwent surgery on this shoulder last September and spent the winter rehabbing, but through all the sitting on the sidelines I gained such knowledge of my body and what I need to do for it to last.

Out of all your wins which one felt the best and why?
In 2008, Andorra, World Cup 2. I won the women’s DH, Gee won the men’s DH, and Dan won the men’s 4X. It was awesome, as a family, we were on that top step!

Is there a particular title you’re aiming for which you haven’t won yet?
I have won all the titles, National Champion, European Champion, World Champion and World Cup Series Champion, but not all in the same year!!

Who do you see as your biggest rival in mountain biking?
2011 has seen 2 younger girls step it up, both French, both fast, so along with Tracey Moseley (Fellow Brit and 2010 World Champion) Florianne Pugin and Myriam Nicole are the pinners!

Do you do any other sports?
I love to ski in winter and I ride Motocross and Moto Enduro a lot.

How do you calm your nerves?
I like to sing. It calms me down…or going through the track in my head, then I can focus and ride sections as much as I want!

What’s the best prank you’ve ever played on someone?
The other day I did a twitter: ”Gee is being an idiot, please unfollow him” he lost 200 followers!

Which competition has had the best track?
Val Di Sole, Italy. That track is amazing, steep, fast, technical, rocky, rooty, gnarly and awesome!

Are there any riders who have been an inspiration to you?
Anne Carroline Chauson, she was dominant when I first started racing. She has a crazy amount of World Titles, then she got Olympic Gold in BMX. She is a machine and I respect her hugely.

Of the bikes you’ve ridden which has been your favourite?
Commencal create awesome bikes. A smaller company than their rivals, but they put in the passion and the riders’ feedback so the bike is like an extension of my body. Love it!

Has your bike ever malfunctioned when you’ve been riding?
Mechanicals as we call them, are all part of the game. Even in this day and age where millions of pounds are spent on product R&D, suspension, brakes, gears, geometry, a simple old school puncture still rears its ugly head!!

Did you have an embarrassing bike when you were little?
Yes!! At the BMX races everyone would laugh at me because I was on a mountain bike but made into a BMX, I loved it, they thought it hilarious.

What can be done to get more girls on bikes?
The women’s side of mountain biking is growing fast. Companies are catching onto specific women’s products and clothing in a big way and places like Whistler, BC, are overrun with ladies riding, it’s so cool to see. I would love to see women’s only races at events because I think ladies are sometimes deterred by the guys and how fast they are, but women’s only events would solve that and they wouldn’t feel so different to the other ladies there!

Rachel is sponsored by Oakley, Red Bull, Animal and Commencal. She is running a competition, with her brothers Dan and Gee, and Animal clothing to design their race kit for next year. Head to facebook.com/athertonracing for more details or visit athertonracing.co.uk

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