Rachel Atherton: British mountain biker on the dangers involved in trying to win back the downhill world title

The 27-year-old was beaten in last year's World Championship by just 0.088 of a second. But she is ready to go again, spurred on by the sleepless nights brought on by that near miss

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Click your fingers and that is the margin by which Rachel Atherton lost a world title – 0.088 of a second. She says she spent a winter thinking about it. Well you would, wouldn’t you?

Atherton is Britain’s foremost downhill mountain biker, a sport that involves hurtling through rocks, trees and jumps at speeds of up to 40mph. She went into last year’s World Championship in Norway as the title holder. Manon Carpenter, a brilliant young rider from Caerphilly who had come of age that  season, went down in 3min 49.407sec. Rachel followed her in 3min 49.495sec.

“It still wakes me up at night,” she laughed at their training base at Llangynog, where the soft folds of the Tanat valley meet the austere hills of Snowdonia. “When I crossed the line, I didn’t think I had won. It had been messy. I made three mistakes on that run. I could have made two and still been world champion. I spent all winter thinking about it.”

It would be a bittersweet afternoon for Atherton. A couple of hours later, on the same slopes, her brother, Gee, won back the men’s world title after a six-year gap.

“When it turned out he had won, I couldn’t stop crying,” said Rachel. “On the one hand, I was devastated I had let the family down by such a small margin. On the other, I was beyond happy for Gee.”

On Sunday, this time in Andorra, the Athertons will go again. This season, perhaps spurred on by those sleepless winter nights, Rachel has been dominant, winning six of the seven races that make up the World Cup series. Gee has suffered from the opposite problem. When you are world champion, where do you go?

In his first World Cup race, which has no bearing on the World Championship, he broke his wrist. He had to at least finish, otherwise he would not be allowed into the elite training session for the second race at Fort William. They strapped his wrists to the handlebars and sent Gee downhill. He finished 48th but at least he finished.

“It is a surreal moment when you become world champion because you spend so long thinking about what it’s going to be like,” he said. “When you wake up the next day, you open your eyes and it hits you in that split second.

“And then, when you start the new season, you wonder: ‘What’s driving me on? Sometimes, when you achieve your goal, it can be the worst thing that can happen because your motivation goes.” You think of James Hunt, whose desire to race Formula One cars disintegrated the moment he became champion of the world.

“I can relate to that completely,” said Gee. “The one thing I have in my favour was that I had been world champion before [in 2008 when he and Rachel won it in the same year]. I knew the pitfalls that went with it. For me, it is not about the pressure because I have learnt to deal with that. It is about keeping  the drive.

“This is an aggressive sport and going down the side of a mountain without really wanting to be there is a dangerous thing. You are hurtling down, dodging trees and rocks, and you have to be on the very edge of your control – you have to really want it.”

His sister would agree with that. “I’ve been doing this a long time – 10 years – and I have felt the nerves more than any other year,” said Rachel. “When you are at the top before the race that is the main thing you have to deal with. You try to clear your head and take in the scenery. It might be a bit to do with getting older. I’m 27 and there’s only one girl who’s that age.” That is the French rider Emmeline Ragot, who has just retired at 29. “When you are younger, you don’t have that experience of serious accidents or losing a race by milliseconds. You just go for it.”

Their mother, Andrea, no longer attends the races. “She won’t even watch the World Cup series on the internet any more,” said Rachel. “She just tries to distract herself on race day and then I phone her to say how it’s gone.”

She will presumably not be attending the Red Bull Hardline event a week on Saturday, which is devised by her elder son, Dan, for those who consider downhill mountain biking a little soft. Twenty of the world’s best will gather in Snowdonia to face 50ft-60ft jumps. You wonder how many will leave intact.

Rachel did not sleep much the night after the last World Championship and there will not be much sleep in Andorra before this one, as Gee Atherton acknowledged. “You lay everything on the line for this one race, where everything boils down to three or four minutes of your life,” he said.

“It is an enormous amount of pressure. You feel it everywhere. You don’t sleep the night before. Then you spend hours warming up and getting ready, blocking out the pressures and the crowds so you end up in this bubble. Then you have to bring yourself out of it because otherwise you’re going to get the most tremendous shock when you hit the track. The waiting is the worst thing, just looking round this mountain that you have to conquer.”

Then we both set off down the mountain track at Llangynog. Gee on a bike, me in a Jeep Discovery. The Jeep loses by more than 0.088 of a second.