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The Family That Plays Together: An Interview with The Athertons

You’d be hard pressed to find a family with more combined mountain bike talent than the Athertons. In 2013, Rachel had her most dominant season yet, which saw her take home both the World Champion stripes and the World Cup overall. After a stunning start to the season, Gee was narrowly edged out of the World Cup’s top spot, which resulted in the closest, and arguably most exciting points race of all time. And while older brother Dan has since retired from Downhill racing, he continues to be a threat on the Enduro World Series, as well as being the driving force behind some of the most progressive trail building known to man. Thanks to our friends at One Industries, we were able to catch up with Downhill’s First Family, and get some insight into their drive, their preparation, and building trails with their Mum. 

Now that the season’s over, how long do you have to recover before jumping into training for the 2014 season? What are your favorite post-season activities?

Rach: After the Last World cup, there’s always about a month of stuff to do: Testing in the Lab, so I know where I finished the season in terms of physical fitness, A LOT of media stuff, interviews, filming, photo-shoots, interviews, but that’s good because it means you’ve had a successful year, and I love promoting the sport! Bike shows and events are on the cards, too—meeting the fans and people who have supported you all year is amazing.

The thing I like to do, though, is get the MOTOs out. We ride a lot of enduro on the KTMs in the woods and hills, and I get to the Track on my 250f Honda as much as I can. I LOVE MOTO. During the season it’s kinda’ dangerous to ride, and I miss it so much. My boyfriend lives in Ireland and the Sand tracks over there are AMAZING!

Dan: This season, time out with my shoulder made things a bit different. Coming back from injury, the focus was finally something to train hard for. Now, that’s not possible, so the focus shifts to more fun stuff like riding BMX and motocross. So, it feels like a break from the strict routine of “normal” training.

I don’t really have a favourite activity, but I like to keep it exciting and fresh by doing different types of stuff at different times.

Growing up in the UK, you’ve been a part of arguably the world’s strongest downhill scene. Who were your biggest influences early on in each of your careers?

Rach: Apart from my brothers Dan and Gee, Steve Peat for sure. I mean, he was THE face of racing downhill. Once I found the sport when I was about 11, growing up with Steve winning World Cups was amazing. I remember the first World Cup I was at that he won, Mt. St Anne, Quebec, and I went to watch him on the podium. He caught my eye and winked as he stood up there, and I thought, “what an absolute hero, I want to be like him.” That was it for me.

Dan: The Foster Brothers. Brian and Alan were the top BMX racers when me and Gee started out—they didn’t just race, they rode dirt jumps and other stuff, really super skilled guys. I guess we wanted to follow that example.

Do you prefer to race the BDS (British Downhill Series) rounds, or World Cups?

Rach: I love racing British Nationals because of the people… it brings me back to when I first started racing, the chat, the atmosphere, everyone is so friendly and so British. I love it.
But you can’t beat a World Cup, the tracks are awesome, the physical and emotional battle, the whole shebang, I love it, too.

Since the days of the Earthed series, it’s always appeared that building trails has been an essential part of your riding. When did building become such a large focus, and how has it impacted your riding?

Dan: It’s always been that way, since we were kids building jumps for after school. I’ve always wanted to build stuff that pushed our limits, that nobody had ridden before. Seeing how the landscape can influence your riding, instead of watching how the riding starts to influence the track, is rad. More recently, with the quarry line, I’ve been picturing how I want the riding to look, and building a track to suit that – shaping the terrain towards a certain shot.

Gee and Rach: We grew up in the middle of nowhere, a tiny village with nothing to do but ride our bikes. There was a scrubland and wood that, as early as I can remember, Dan was riding his bike on and building stuff to ride. It’s natural when you love to ride your bike; you have to have something to ride it on!

We moved to North Wales because of the opportunity to build tracks and ride, and it has become a mecca for downhill, whereas before, there was nothing. Dan enjoys and loves building tracks, and we follow! One track we’ve up here, “the Bank,” is steep, tight, and gnarly. And we built that with mum!

We like to ride things that are “ours,” that we’ve created, because then you feel a certain affinity to the place, you can build stuff and change with it. At the start of this season, Dan took us to a new track he had built and it was UNREAL! Fresh, steep, technical, super fun, amazing. Gee and I were like, “When the hell did you find time to build this?” We had no idea. Dan replied, “When it snowed.”

In the past few seasons, Atherton Racing has expanded significantly. How has bringing on other racers changed the team dynamic, and what role do you hope to play in continuing to develop some of the sport’s top junior talent?

Rach: It has been so cool to expand with extra riders the last 2 years. When Marc “Slugger” Beaumont came on board, we were so excited to train and race with someone new, and the same with when Junior Taylor Vernon signed. It’s just exciting for us to be involved with new teammates, the atmosphere is so rad at races, we get on so well and that is important when looking for teammates. During winter training, it’s been so rad to have new faces, Taylor and I feed off each other, he is a strong little 17 year old! When Tay broke his back this summer, it was hard. Gee and I missed him at the races and we realised just how much a part of racing that he is, that all the team members are, everyone gives and adds their own something, which makes the team, on a whole, a winner.

I want to find and work with the next young female downhill racer—I just haven’t found her yet! It’s important for us all, we have worked so hard to create Atherton Racing and have it recognized as a brand. We want to continue that, and continue to see the sport grow with talented, determined, and approachable racers—ideally racing for us!

Dan: I guess that drive to train is built in to me, after years of teaching Gee and Rach! It’s genuinely something that I’m interested in. Working with new, talented young riders, who’re going to shape the future of the sport, is very exciting.

What role do you have in product development with One Industries? If you had to pick, what’s your favorite product from One Industries? Anything exciting in the lineup that we should look out for next year?

Rach: When we started with One, it was exciting for us to be involved with a brand that was focusing on bike wear that obviously wanted to use us as racers to develop product. There is no better testing place than a race! As racers, we’ve been through it all, and the protection we wear has gone from wearing everything available—full armor suits—to not much at all—just kneepads. And now, it’s gone back to us wearing more protection, because the products are just better, comfier, safer, and they actually work—that is refreshing!

I love the EXO elbow pads—they rule!

Dan: One’s bike range was fairly new when we got together last year. Everything had to be broken down and tested to the max, whether that was when we were riding in California in the heat and the dust, or once we got home to the freezing rain and the deep mud. Between us all, we sacked off a lot of the initial ideas and concepts, so that we were left with an absolute top class core of products. Everything is quality.

If I had to pick my favourite it would be the Zero gloves, but I’m looking forward to the Enduro helmet.

You’ve just completed the first season on the new Fury, which you had a significant role in developing. The roomier cockpits on the new bikes have noticeably affected the entire team’s riding for the better, and we’re seeing the trend towards longer bikes taking hold on the World Cup stage. Was lengthening the cockpit the most important change, or are there other significant factors that have improved the handling of your race bikes this year as compared to previous seasons?

Rach: Yeah, for sure. I think the length of the bikes has made a huge difference. If you look at photos or videos from a few years ago, you can just see the rider hunched over and not free to move on the bike as much as they should. It gives me a lot of confidence being able to just hit stuff and know that I’ve got the space to do whatever I need to do. But, on the whole, the bike is awesome, and the suspension platform is incredible. At the First two World Cups, before I had really gotten used to racing the new bike, I noticed how fast it was on every morning’s first run. It made me smile. When you’re still half asleep at 8.30am, and the bike is just doing its thing, it’s easy.

Rachel, you’ve just won the World Cup overall and World Championships, making it the second time you’ve pulled off the elusive double, and your second consecutive overall. Any secret to your dominant season, or is it simply down to riding as fast as possible?

Rach: The secret is hard work! I was excited to train all winter, working with our new coach, seeing how strong I could get before the season started. It was really fun, I love training, learning about my body, and making gains. I trained a lot differently this winter, but also, it was my first full winter of training without coming off the back of injury, and that makes a huge difference, obviously!
I worked super hard on my weak areas, but I worked even harder on my strong areas, mentally that is good to do, and it paid off. I felt like a machine at the start of the year, and I was so focused on World Champs in South Africa that I just kept doing what I had to do—that was what I wanted!

Dan, you racked up two top five finishes in the first three EWS stops before a shoulder injury prematurely ended your season. What lessons did you learn in your first season that will better prepare you for the upcoming year’s racing?

Dan: I did learn a lot on my short season! In 2013, the new sport of enduro took a giant leap up to the next level. Maybe I’d been training to the 2012 standard somehow. It always surprises me just how fit these seasoned enduro guys are, but not just fit, they are super fast. At this level of competition, you’ve got to be on it 100% all ’round, with the speed and skills of a World Cup Downhill racer, and the fitness of an XC guy.

Finally, which member of the Atherton clan is the most dangerous behind a steering wheel?

Rach: Polish Pete… Gee’s mechanic… watch out!
Dan: Pete Michaliszyn!
Gee: Polish Pete!!