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Rachel Atherton isn’t what you’d expect of the greatest—female or male—downhill mountain biker of all time. She comes off as gracious, humble, and even a bit soft-spoken. Yet she’s also powered down more inconceivably steep mountains and cinched the gold medal more times than anyone else in history.
Atherton holds absolutely nothing back when it comes to training and racing downhill mountain bikes—and that’s exactly why her accomplishments rack up to a really impressive strongbox of scrapes, breaks, bruises, and wins. Though she’s 30 years old, and there are undoubtedly younger and just-as-hungry female racers trying to dim the lights on her narrative, Atherton is not done. So we wanted to take a look back at the whole mesmerizing, muddy, raucous, high-speed history of her wins and dive into the heart of a champion.
Back before she was a darling Red Bull athlete, Atherton was just a little girl in Wells, United Kingdom, who was more interested in animals than she was in her brothers’ newest obsession: BMX biking, an off-road obstacle race on a specialized bike that’s been popular since the late ’60s. From a high mountain trail, bike racers attempt to be the fastest one down to the finish line. Throughout, you’re riding over rock drop-offs, taking steep turns, and shaving seconds of your time, all while going about 50 mph.
“As a kid I was into school sports. But my brothers were already into BMX, while I was into animals and horses. When my parents split up, though, my brother Dan started going BMX racing with Dad. And I was jealous because I wanted time with him, too. So that’s how I started, really. Not through any love of biking but just to spend time with my dad.”
In that light, her entire career was happenstance. Yet her brother Dan always had that vision for them, Atherton says. He was always encouraging Rachel and her other brother, Gee, to bike, train, and race together. So while her dad raced BMX in the 40-plus cruisers category, the kids were quickly becoming known as “the Athertons.” “I started racing BMX in the 8 to 12 age category. Then I started racing mountain bikes when I was about 12. That’s when I started enjoying it—I just wanted to win and to beat the other girls I was racing against.”
The transition from BMX racing to downhill mountain biking happened in the blink of an eye for her, and wins came quickly thereafter. “It was just about time on the bike and about having fun.” But because you’re traversing natural rock obstacles while hurtling downhill and through trees at speeds topping 50 miles per hour, undoubtedly there are a lot of skills to train—from big cliff drop-offs and hairpin berm turns to control over roots and slippery rock. “Mountain biking is quite interesting because there are so many elements you have to master. It’s skills-based if you’ve got the fitness and physical strength,” she says.
“We had a gym at the house and had quotes painted on the walls [like ‘If you’re not first, you’re last!’]. When I was 18 we started working with our coach, Dan Robert; Red Bull set us up with him. That was an eye-opener,” she says. “We started focusing on quality over quantity and training very specifically to our sport. It was so exciting to be in the gym, and all that time training really makes you believe in yourself. That was the pinnacle,” she says.
“We’d hit the weights and do five-minute interval sessions on the bike. Then we had an absolutely horrible training session called 1,000 apologies. You could choose 10 reps of 100 exercises or vice versa,” she recalls. Grueling workouts were more than necessary, she admits, and actually kind of fun. “As a kid you get bored easily, so you want to mix it up. My favorite was a 2,000-meter row and then doing something weights-based like squats, then row 1,000 meters, do a weighted move, then 800 meters, and so on.”
In short, they were tortured into success by her brother Dan. His discipline toward the sport likely came from his time in the Parachute Regiment, an elite airborne infantry regiment of the British Army, and he also did triathlons. “We learned so much from him, and it was all good fun. Maybe it wasn’t the most scientific way to do things, but you have to have fun to stick with it mentally. As I’ve gotten older, everything takes on more meaning and pressure, but I just remember my brother waking us up with ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and doughnuts,” she says.
We asked Atherton what it’s like to stare down the launch site of a course you know will take less than five minutes to get down but could change your life. In those moments, she says, of course you’re thinking about what can go wrong. Yet, when you kick off, all you can do is trust the thousands of hours of work you’ve put in.
Among her career highlights is the only perfect season of any male or female athlete—ever. (This means winning all seven of the World Cup rounds in venues across the world.) In total, she’s won 32 times overall, including five MTB downhill UCI World Cup titles, four World Championships, and nine British National Championships, among others.
Atherton has had her fair share of setbacks, too. Coming off her perfect season in 2016, she won the season’s first 2017 World Cup race, but a dislocated shoulder in Round 2 ended her record-setting winning streak. “I rehabbed as much as I could and then came back. It was bloody terrifying to get back on that pace. It was a foreign feeling to not be at the top of the podium.”
In late 2017 during practice, she broke her collarbone and ligament. “I was absolutely devastated, two days before the last race of the season. It’s really bizarre because you always have downtime, but having an injury means I can’t exactly just relax, bike, and have fun the same way I would after a full season. I can still get in the gym until I’m blue in the face, but sometimes an injury is a blessing in disguise.”
But her sights are set ahead. “The first World Cup is in April; 2018 is going to be a full season hopefully, and I’ll get back on the podium, beating the girls who’ve grown up in the past couple of years—women’s racing is really exciting now because of the number of girls training just as hard.”
She and her brothers, in the meantime, are setting up the premier downhill mountain biking park, called Dyfi Bike Park, in the U.K., to raise the next generation of local mind-blowing talent. “It’ll be a gravity park aimed at elite racers and young kids to develop their skills. It has big jumps and a lot of technical downhill riding. We’ll have something for everybody.” The park is scheduled to open in 2018.
Catch Atherton’s storied race back to the top during the 2018 season by tuning in to Red Bull TV (redbull.tv) for free adrenaline-spiked videos on demand.