BT’s newly-crowned Action Woman of the Year discovered she had won the award fresh off a bike after three hours of fitness training – ‘fresh’ not being the operative word. She was sweat-soaked, grungy and knackered. It took a moment or two just to stop gasping.
“It’s incredible,” Rachel Atherton was able to say eventually, as her heart rate subsided from a high of 190. “It’s great that BT Sport have taken the time to recognise this sport. It’s not some crazy sport. It makes you feel bloody strong and fearless. You’re proud to do something that hard. Once people see it, they love it. That’s what it’s all about for me.”
Well, up to a point. There’s loving it from the safety of a sofa, watching riders in helmets plummet, swerve and roar their way down a mountainside on two mud-spraying wheels, with flimsy tapes for crash barriers and roots, rocks, loose dirt and sheer drops alternating as life-threatening obstacles. And then there’s loving it from within.
When a run is perfect, it’s such an incredible feeling."
“The thing I love about it is that I can’t think about anything else when I’m racing. You’re 100 per cent in the moment. It’s what you live for.
“When a run is perfect, it’s such an incredible feeling. You hit the ground faster than ever before, you turn lower than you’ve ever turned, all linked together so fluidly and effortlessly. Everyone who races mountain bikes knows that feeling. It gives you a sense of...” a long pause while she gathers exactly the right word... “Invincibility!”
Atherton won the World Championships and World Cup series in 2013
Atherton, 26, is a double-double World Champion. In 2013 she emulated the feat she achieved in 2008, winning the World Championships and cleaning up in the World Cup series. Seven world level races, five wins, one second, one spectacular crash (but she still finished 12th) and a run-in with an ant. She is the dominant force in women’s downhill racing, furiously competitive, forensically sharp - but completely unhinged at the intrusive behaviour of a very small insect. That is consoling somehow.
“It was before the second World Cup in Italy last year. I was laying on the ground, you know, earthing myself the night before the race and I got an ant in my ear. I ran screaming and shouting to my brother: ‘get this ant out of my ear.’ Then it started hurting and I could hear it, feel it creeping about. I was freaking out. I thought it would be in there forever.
"Eventually someone poured hot oil in my ear and we got it out with a tissue. It was really tiny. Anyway, it completely took my mind off the race, so I won.”
Rachel Atherton: The statistics
- 26 years old
- 19 - World Cup wins, making her the most awarded British mountain biker in the history of the sport
- 2 - The number of occasions where she has been World Champion and World Cup series winner
- 4 minutes, 28 seconds - The time in which she won the World Championships
- 7 - The number of surgeries undergone on her shoulders alone - including nerve reconstruction and bone grafts
- 8 - The age when she did her first BMX competition
The mention of “brother” is important. In fact, there are two elder brothers, Dan and Gee. Dan is the enduro rider, the track builder, the senior Atherton sibling, while Gee is a world downhill champion himself. They have all lived together in North Wales for years in what appears to be a huge bike shed in a forest, full of people wielding tyres and spanners and liberally scattered with motorbikes, lycra and old trainers. This is Atherton Racing HQ.
It is the environment in which she learned to ride, following in the mud-strewn tyre tracks of her daredevil brothers, assimilating the technique, skill, raw courage and pin-sharp mentality the sport required.
“They worried about me when I was young. I used to be a bit headstrong, wanting to win at all costs. I had a lot of injuries. You’re coming down a mountain after all. Not only is the win at stake, so is your well-being. If it’s not being too over-the-top, your life can be at stake too. I know friends who’ve been paralysed. It’s an extreme sport, it’s a dangerous sport but at the same time, it’s good fun.” She laughs with a touch of knowing irony.
I had five years of operations on my shoulder through having dislocations, the last one in 2011. That was a huge learning curve."
What, fun like flying over the handlebars while travelling at speeds up to 60kmh? Here are the stats. Atherton has 19 World Cup wins to her name, more than any other British mountain biker of either gender in the history of the sport. She has also had seven surgeries on her shoulder alone, including nerve reconstruction and bone grafts.
“Mine was the same injury reoccurring. It’s like I never learnt. I had five years of operations on my shoulder through having dislocations, the last one in 2011. That was a huge learning curve.
Atherton and her brothers - also bikers - are based in North Wales
"There was the crash in Austria - I just let my concentration slip and I knew immediately what I’d done. I’d dislocated my shoulder again. It needed to be put back in straight away. It gets worse when you leave it. I was panicking, shouting to the crowd: ‘Someone help me! Grab my arm! Put it back in!’ No-one would. Eventually this girl, one of the other bikers, agreed. She said: ‘What shall I do?’ I shouted: ‘Just yank it’.
You can be as sophisticated as you like as a professional athlete, but when the nearest hospital is miles away and the agony extreme, DIY is the only way to go. “I’ve done it to Gee. The boys have done it to me. It makes me think sometimes that this might be a career for me when I’ve finished riding.” She means with proper medical/physio training rather than just grabbing disjointed limbs in random forests. Which is good news.
She doesn’t even mention the collision with a truck that occurred in 2009, writing off an entire season and boring her witless. Toughness is an inextricable part of her life. So much so, that her boyfriend, Ben Reid, a fellow biker who runs his own team, has to sometimes nudge her towards gentler behaviour.
“He’s sometimes like: ‘You’ve been too fierce, too blunt with me.’ I’m not impolite and stuff. But I live in such a male environment; I think male characteristics are strong in me. I’ve got to be careful that I give my feminine side a little run out. Sometimes I need to be a girl for a bit.
"When I’ve taken myself away to be girlie, it seems to restore balance and helps me get stronger as an athlete again. You can’t always be running on adrenalin and testosterone. If you’e always in fight mode, it’s knackering.
“But if I don’t ride for a while, I notice my mood changes. Then I get on a bike and think: ‘Ah, that’s what was wrong.’ Even the dirt in the forest, I love it. I’ll always ride. I’ll be a grey-haired old lady with a ponytail flying...”
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