Still in a sling following her crash at the World Championships, Rachel Atherton wasn’t the fox for this year’s Redbull Foxhunt, but was on hand to give advice to riders, tweak sections of the course, and get GoPro footage of everyone sliding down the hillside. In between practice runs and bike washes at this year’s super muddy event, I sat down for a quick chat..
Hannah: I’ve been trying to think of questions that other people haven’t asked you.
[Rachel has a copy of Singletrack on her knee and she’s flicking through it while I think of questions]
Rachel: It’s amazing, I love it, because instead of just a journalist or someone, the women all ride and take part as well as writing the articles. I really love it.
[on my riding]
You were flying!
You get interviewed so much…
I haven’t actually been interviewed since I broke my collar bone. I’ve done ones on email, people want to do phone ones and I don’t like doing them on the phone, so I refuse. So it’s weird coming here and people are asking me questions, but when you get injured at the last race you just go home and shut off and you don’t sort of think about it, but then everyone’s asking stuff and you kind of have to think about how you feel then, you can’t just ignore it.
I suppose it might be quite nice though to have a break from press stuff?
Apart from not being able to ride!
Yeah, I’m just sat there.
What else do you do then, what’s the off bike activity?
Well that’s it, I’m really bad; mentally I struggle a lot
Knitting? Plan B?
On one hand there’s not much I can do! It’s a lot better now after the operation, it took me like a week to get over the pain and start being able to move at all.
[It’s her right arm that’s OK]
I can write and draw and stuff, but really when you get injured, it takes me a few weeks to start feeling like… I’m quite happy feeling sorry for myself for a while. I don’t need any motivation, I just want sympathy!
I suppose you still have to do all the fitness turbo stuff?
No, I haven’t been doing anything! Cause it’s the end of the season, after the last race, normally you just have a break and you just want to have a rest and stuff. You normally do whatever you want, what you enjoy, you know, riding with friends, paddleboarding, climbing
All things that need two arms!
Yeah, it’s be hard coming home and not being able to do that stuff – I’ve been sort of waiting all season to have your life back and then you get home and everyone else is carrying on and I’m just like injured again.
But you, you know, whatever, it’s part of it.
You need another hobby, a one armed, gentle thing!
All I want to do is move and be active and stuff. I’ve been walking a lot now it’s stopped hurting. The dog likes that!
Lots of people have asked me about the dog! What sort of dog is it?
A German Pointer, a gun dog with a lot of energy. He’s sat in the car right now, poor doggy.
[she points to her yellow jeep]
You’re on the British Cycling Gravity Commission now?
Yes, although I’ve missed the first two meetings so far!
So have you been to any of them?
No! They’ve clashed with racing! So it’s all been on email.
You’d think that might be a basic part of organising a committee that involves racers?
We still chat about things on email. It’s been kind of hard this year because obviously the guy who’s running the National Series has stopped doing it. It’s an interesting time for it to sort of see where it’s going to go. I think it’s going to be good for it, what’s going to happen next.
It’s just the last National with him (Si Paton) organising it. I mean racing in general is funny because the youngsters coming into racing, that’s not gone anywhere, those categories aren’t struggling the participation is the same. the kids coming in wanting to be professionals wanting to get to World Cups, that is still the core, and that’s the biggest category. It’s the sort of 25+ age group where it’s dying off a bit. You know, it’s so expensive now and people know that instead of paying £100 to race, they’d rather pay £30 to go to a bike park and do as many runs as they want over the weekend. I think it’s the bike parks that are killing off the racing, ironically!
So not the bikes themselves? I was wondering it’s because you can buy an enduro bike and ride everything?
Yeah, but you always have been able to do that. I don’t think enduro has affected downhill that much because the enduro races are struggling as well. The UK Gravity series this year has been really struggling and cancelled a few races. Not many people are racing in them. I think racing in general, everyone’s kind of tightening up a bit, it’s getting more expensive, you don’t get much for your money these days, which is a shame, but the kids that are aiming to be professionals, they’re still racing. It’s the people that are doing it for fun that are [dropping off]
It’s not all about the winning. A lot of the people at the races, I’m like ‘I can’t believe you’re still racing!’, they’ve been racing since I was 13 and they’re still racing because they love it. Andrew Titley, he’s winning and he’s competitive, but people like the fact that racing it does bring out the best in you, it brings out the better rider – I know it does for me. If I’m in a race I step it up and that’s when I have the most fun, in a race run.
Well I’d never seen it or understood it before today!
Yeah you sort of commit a bit extra and you want to push yourself a bit more because you’re in a race. I really think that it’s worth the money, it’s worth that experience. I think with the National Series, as long as the venues keep being exciting for people, they keep having good tracks, hard tracks, instead of just going to the same track we were racing maybe ten years ago. I think that’s really important, to keep progressing it with new venues and new tracks.
Although it looks like getting marshals might be a tricky one as well next year (because of the ongoing legal case)?
But that’s always been hard.
You don’t think that Downhilll as it is will die, the more difficult stuff will move towards free ride, the easier stuff will be part of enduro, XC will be the trail stuff and gravel will be the new XC?!
No, I think everything will stay how it is, there’s always going to be people that want to go down hills as fast as they can against other people. There’s always going to be those people. There’s going to be people that want to do an enduro stage race or whatever, and there’s going to be people that want to do all these different disciplines.
I think it’s another thing trying to answer the question how do we get more women into downhill racing because bizarrely I think enduro is way harder but the women seem to prefer that. I don’t know whether it’s more social or whatever, but doing a six hour stage race is way harder than doing a five minute downhill!
Maybe you feel like you get more activity for your money? Or maybe it’s because generally enduro isn’t as crazy with big drops and stuff?
That’s why I think it’s important to get kids riding hard stuff quite young. I was riding stuff that was just ridiculous when I was 11 or 12 years old. Tracks that I still would find hard now, and you just grow up riding that stuff and I think that’s why the sort of bike park that my brother’s doing is important. It’s a step above the tracks that are around already, the tracks are hard, it’s technical, it’s very gravity based, it’s a real downhiller’s bike park. I think that’s important because the bike parks and trail centres are amazing, absolutely amazing for getting people on bikes, getting more people into it, more people access it. It’s fantastic, it really is. But, at the same time, it definitely creates a certain kind of rider, the trails are very groomed, there’s nothing unexpected, you know everything’s rollable or to a certain extent, and it creates a kind of rider that isn’t out of their comfort zone very much. That isn’t used to getting a bit wild and a bit loose.
[We compare natural riding to bike parks]
It’s interesting, to see if it has a knock on effect. The Brits have been at the top of downhill racing forever, and I wonder if it’s going to have a knock on effect over the next ten years, the kids coming through, are they going to be as capable on those World Cup tracks as before?
I wonder if that’s partly a product of, you know, you don’t just let your kids go and mess around in the woods?
Exactly, yeah, everything’s a lot more safety conscious.
We were noticing that there are so many good riders from Shropshire, and we were thinking it’s probably just because it’s rural, all the kids are just out on each other’s friend’s farms and stuff.
I use Tahnee (Seagrave) as an example. They lived in Morzine, which is like one of the best places in the world to ride a bike, all those chairlifts and bike tracks and stuff. But they moved to where we moved to in Shropshire, where like Revolution Bike Park is, literally five minutes down the road from where we used to live. They ride all the old tracks that me and my brothers built and rode, and her and her brother have shot up the last two years since they’ve lived there. Matt Walker, just won the Junior World Champs, he lives in Oswestry five minutes up the road. It’s not a coincidence, after all these bike parks, all these trail centres, Whistler, Morzine, all these places, the racers come from the places where it’s wet, natural, where it’s hard to ride because it creates good riders.
With Katy Winton standing in as the fox for this year’s Redbull Foxhunt, and Ella Connelly having just won her first EWS race, we got chatting about different pathways into racing.
It’s interesting talking to Katy, she’s been in that British cycling programme. It seems like more and more riders are just saying you know what, I’m just going to go it on my own. Bethany Shriver, she just won the Junior World Champs (BMX) but before that she was cut from BC, the funding was cut from the women’s BMX program, and now she’s ended up winning the World Champs and she’s going it on her own. I actually said to her it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get funded. We weren’t funded as such as young riders, it means you’re a lot more open to going your own route, doing it how you want to do it, getting sponsorship, working it out for yourself, how it’s going to work best for you.
And so it was time to leave the comfort of the Trek and Atherton Racing tent, and head back out to do battle with the mud. Hopefully next year she’ll be back and ready to ride the Machynlleth track for Redbull Foxhunt. After all the practice we had at this year’s mudfest, surely next year will be easy and she’ll stand no chance of catching us all? We can dream!