Rachel Atherton Is the World's Best Downhill Mountain Biker
Atherton has racked up 14 consecutive World Cup wins, something no one has ever done before. Yet people still relegate her to the shadow of her pro biker brothers—and she's tired of it.
Downhill mountain bikes weren’t designed to go up. They’re heavy as hell and have the wrong gear ratio, and the best that you can hope for is a ride on a chairlift or in the back of a truck. Failing that, you’re pushing. Which, for most of us, is no fun.
Than again, most of us aren’t Rachel Atherton. It’s early October, and she’s on the side of a grassy slope in northern England, rolling her powder-blue Trek alongside her as though it’s filled with helium. Her full-face helmet hangs from her handlebars, and her frizzy blonde hair is twisted into a bun. Atherton, 29, has a smile on her face, the kind of contented smile that comes when you’re the world’s top female downhiller and have just wrapped up a perfect season.
And today, she just gets to ride. It’s the warm-up for the Red Bull Foxhunt, a mass-start race where 220 women will set off down a track as Atherton tries to overtake them from behind. “I’m amazed by how the women all feed off each other,” Atherton says. “The main thing I want to get across is how confident it makes you feel to tackle a whole mountain on a bike.”
At the base of the hill, many of the competitors have boyfriends or husbands in tow, schlepping baby carriages and fetching energy bars from the base. Amelia Taylor, a 36-year-old mother and amateur racer, points to her 15-month-old daughter, Phoebe. “She’s been coming to bike events since she was five weeks old.”
Signing up for the Foxhunt is like getting a backstage pass to Atherton. Everywhere she goes, competitors pull her aside for selfies, to which she unfailing responds with a “Yes, please!” At a slippery off-camber section of the course, where the racers are sliding into one another in three-bike pileups, Atherton pauses to hold court. “Drop your outside foot, and then this foot is in the air or dabbing along and you can lean in loads,” she says. A few seconds later, a rider comes flying down. “Nice! Nice, nice! Holy mother! Yeah, woo!” she hollers.
Atherton has been winning bike races since her teens, but she really grabbed the mainstream’s attention last year with her perfect 2016 UCI World Cup season, amassing 13 consecutive World Cup wins, something no one—female or male—had ever done before. In September, she topped it off with a victory at the world championships. The next month, Atherton appeared on the cover of Sport, the UK’s largest sports magazine, while the Telegraph called her “the greatest champion you’ve never heard of.”
Not only did Atherton win all of her races, she also navigated certain hairy sections more quickly than many men. When she was clocked flying through the speed trap at Quebec’s Mont-Sainte Anne World Cup event at more than 45 miles per hour, Atherton was going faster than all but three of the 78 male riders, including Danny Hart, the Brit who took home the championship title. Helmet-cam footage from her run shows her plowing a laser-straight line over chattering rock gardens and five-foot drop-offs as spectators clang cowbells. She’s a guided missile in body armor.
All of which is evidence of Atherton’s indisputable talent. Yet as the little sister to Gee and Dan Atherton—mountain bike celebrities who helped catalyze a knobby-tire boom in Britain over the past decade—Atherton has had to fight for recognition. When a race commentator suggested that she’s so fast because she rides with her brothers, she posted an angry retort on Instagram. “Why not say the truth?? Because I work DAMN hard!!” she wrote. “I am, along with all the other women, athletes in our own right, bike riders because WE have the SKILLS, not because we blindly follow the boys with our eyes closed.”
Atherton grew up watching Gee and Dan ride their BMX bikes near their home in England’s West Country, yet she found her own path to the sport, beginning with a fierce love for competition. Her father, Simon, a school headmaster, would take three kids to BMX races on the weekends. Although Atherton’s training consisted of riding her bike to school, racing clicked inside her eight-year-old brain. “I was all about the racing,” she says. “I was happy going to a race and then coming home and not riding my bike.” There were so few girls in the BMX events that officials wouldn’t separate the field by ages. Atherton was often the tallest by a foot or more, winning by a wide margin. By the time she was 11, she and her brothers had moved on to mountain biking.
Rachel’s parents split up in the late 1990s, and her mother, Andrea, moved with the children to a farmhouse in North Wales, close to the mountains and their trails. Around this time, Dan started to attract the attention of magazines and filmmakers through his stylish freeriding, while Gee began to dominate the competitive circuit. Both left school at 16. Rachel remembers Dan telling her that she, too, had the potential to be a world-class downhiller. “You’ve got to learn to wear goggles in your helmet,” he told her. “And you’re going to have to ride more.” When Rachel was 14, she showed up at the British National Championships as an unknown and stole the race from the top youth riders. She repeated her performance for the next two years.
When the school headmaster told her she couldn’t skip a day of school for a race, Atherton walked out. “Rachel was my last hope of having a child go to university,” Andrea says. “But she told me, ‘Mom, you can’t treat me any differently because I’m a girl.’”
Mountain biking—and downhill in particular—remains overrun by bros. The International Mountain Bike Association reports that just 13 percent of its members are women. Men outnumber women three to one on the pro downhill circuit. “They give us shit all the time,” says Australian pro rider Tracey Hannah. “I don’t think guys in the industry have been very supportive, but that’s changed a lot in the last five years.”
Atherton has done more than any rider in recent history to inspire women, especially Brits, to don a full-face helmet. Counting her, three of the top five female riders hail from the United Kingdom, notable considering there are only two lift-served mountain bike parks in the whole country. Through the Atherton Academy, Rachel has helped support Mille Johnset, a 16-year-old Norwegian rider, and she has gotten sponsors from Trek to Oakley to donate gear to women who podium at the British Downhill Series. “She’s an inspiration to all women in mountain biking,” Hannah says. “We are all motivated to beat her.”
Considering all the recent attention that has been shed on Atherton (she was named Pinkbike’s athlete of the year in 2016), it’s easy to forget that she was considered little more than a footnote when she won her first world championship nine years ago. “All the magazines wanted to talk about was Gee,” says Gill Harris, PR representative for Team Atherton. And while Dan has appeared on the cover of Dirt magazine multiple times, Rachel’s first and only solo appearance came in 2014.
“If she were a dude, she would be getting enormous amounts of press,” says Amanda Batty, a Salt Lake City–based downhiller and former columnist for Pinkbike who has spoken out against sexism in the industry. Batty has noticed that commenters belittle Atherton’s achievements by pointing out how many fewer competitors she faces than men, conveniently ignoring the fact that the second- and third-place finishers are just seconds behind her and have sometimes bested her in qualification runs. “There’s a level of resentment that exists toward Rachel specifically and toward women who excel in downhill in general,” says Batty.
Yet as the number of women in the sport is increasing, bike manufacturers are showing new interest in attracting female riders. This in turn has suddenly made Rachel the most marketable star in the Atherton family. “Her name is in the limelight,” Dan says.
It’s a position that Atherton is just starting to get comfortable with. Women athletes face different pressures than men, she says. While Gee’s bat ears have earned him the affectionate nickname “the Vulcan,” it just seems nastier when she reads internet comments about what she calls her “wonky teeth.” During one photo shoot, she found herself torn between wanting to smile and wanting to hide her teeth. “It used to really bother me, but you learn to get thick skin,” she says.
And while Gee had no qualms about taking off his clothes for Cosmopolitan magazine, the request to pose nude felt more loaded to her. “No matter what you do, there are people who say good things and bad things,” she says. In the end, the deciding factor was that Atherton wasn’t confident enough with her own body. “If I was way more muscley, I would do it,” she says. “I am proud of what my body has achieved.”
Atherton says the greatest sexism she has faced has come from the media, but the birth of social media has helped leveled the playing field. “You don’t have to wait for a filmmaker to put you in a film,” she says. “The girls have just as big of a following as the guys.”
Actually, hers is bigger. Rachel currently has 166,000 followers on Instagram, compared to Gee’s 144,000 and Dan’s 77,000. It’s not a zero-sum game, of course: each of the siblings’ ships rises as the Atherton stardom grows. Their decision to brand themselves as a family contributed to each becoming bankable celebrities.
But before they got there, they first had to figure out how to get along as professionals and as siblings. In 2006, the Atherton clan was still living with their mother, who cooked and cleaned for them. Between their race schedules, filming projects, and a string of bike-related injuries, the situation was chaos. “We had tarpaulins strung up under the trees like gypsies,” Rachel recalls. Andrea finally reached her breaking point after a scare during a night filming project when she mistakenly thought Dan had crashed again. “I screamed blue murder,” she says, “I could no longer stand this crazy mountain bike life.”
By the time Andrea moved out, in 2008, the Athertons realized they had to start professionalizing their brand. They hired Dan Brown, an old friend, to be the team director. Brown saw an opportunity to market the trio as a family and began filming the goings-on at their headquarters, posting the clips on YouTube under the title “the Atherton Project”, like the Real World on two wheels. In one harrowing episode, Dan breaks his neck on camera after bailing from his bike in midair. For the next six months, he had a to wear a halo traction device that Gee and Rachel would hang their laundry from when he wasn’t looking.
Today, the Athertons have enough name recognition to support their own line of bike components, and Brown says the team budget hovers around $1.3 million. Since 2015, Trek has been their title sponsor, while Jeep supplies them with the latest SUVs. Red Bull supports marquee family events, such as the Foxhunt and Hardline, a downhill competition that Dan runs.
Yet despite the outward appearance of fully making it, their mother’s departure and the constant spotlight let loose deep tensions among the siblings, particularly those between Rachel and Gee. When they’d travel together, they fought over hotel rooms. When they were at home, they fought over household chores. Gee could be anal. He thrived on precision and order. Rachel, by contrast, would show up at a race with stinky shorts. She’d lose track of her shoes or her helmet. Once, at the last minute, Rachel discovered that her dog had chewed up her goggles. “Three top athletes under the same roof was always a recipe for disaster,” Atherton says. “We had a lot of arguments, and the arguments lasted a long time.”
In 2015, Atherton moved out, a choice to which she credits, at least in part, her record-breaking winning streak over the past two years. Atherton and her boyfriend, Olly Davey, who builds trails and racecourses, bought a home in the Dyfi (pronounced “dovey”) Forest in northwest Wales. “That was sort of a turning point,” she says.
With their exhausting travel schedule, the couple still haven’t had time to fix up the house and still spend much of their time at Dan’s place, an off-the-grid farmhouse down the road. Sometimes Gee comes over. The three siblings still ride and train together, but the bickering doesn’t seem to have died down. It probably never will. “It’s always been up and down,” Rachel says.
Atherton’s lowest point came in January 2009. The three siblings were riding road bikes on a narrow, little-used road in Santa Cruz a few days into their annual pilgrimage to California to train. Rachel was on her Cervélo and, as she flew around a corner, a pickup truck appeared. Rachel and the driver both swerved the same way, and she slammed into the truck head-on, crashing into the windshield. When Gee saw her on the road, motionless and covered in blood, he was certain she was dead. She had dislocated her right shoulder and was in so much pain that she couldn’t move. Atherton would eventually undergo multiple operations, including a nerve graft, which would leave the shoulder chronically weak.
The experience transformed her. During her recovery, Atherton began to wonder whether racing was even worth it. “When I was younger, I was willing to win at any cost,” she says. She resolved to train harder and to worry less about the competition. The downtime also allowed Atherton to realize, for the first time, that she loved riding for riding’s sake. “I’ll always ride a bike, because it makes me feel like I’m a better person,” she says.
Atherton and her brothers began working with Alan Milway, a mountain bike and motorcross fitness coach, who would travel to their headquarters and lead training camps. Rachel rode with an aggression and fluidity that he had never seen before in a female downhiller. But she was still suffering physically from the accident and tended to run out of juice by the end of a race. “I liken her to a V8 engine,” Milway says. “The power is there, but it drains quickly.”
Milway worked with Atherton to build her upper body, especially the injured shoulder. “I changed the way I trained and got physically strong,” she says. While Milway created separate workout programs for Rachel and Gee, he kept them in the same room. “You’d get the best results by having them on the same exercises as they both wanted to impress the other,” he says.
Atherton would bounce back a totally changed rider, with much more maturity and nuance. In 2012, 2013, and 2015, she took home the overall World Cup title and one world championship. “Ironically, you start winning more because you are more relaxed,” she says. For Atherton, relaxed is relative. Before every race, she still tends to doubt herself, to focus her energy on the negative, convinced her luck has run out. She’ll question her diet, her training, her health, her injuries. Atherton has dreams about her nemesis, the 21-year-old British rider Tahnée Seagrave.
Last year, after winning the first six World Cup races, Atherton tweaked her back during a practice run in Andorra and texted Brown, the team director, that she was considering skipping it to better prepare for the world championships.
“I don’t know what to do browny!” she wrote. “Shall I ride or not? What if I make it worse and it’s not better for next week? It’s so painful sometimes.”
Brown wanted her to race. She’d still have enough points to win the World Cup title if she skipped it, but not the bragging rights and the psychological advantage of finishing a perfect season. “U need to try, I know it’s hard but so is handing it to the other girls,” he wrote back. “U rode real good this morning give it another pop.”
“But if I fuck it up for next week it’ll be even worse handing that to them,” she replied.
Atherton’s insecurities evaporated by the time she was standing at the start gate and greeting the start man. It’s always the same start man, smoking like a chimney, easing her stress with his friendly banter. Three minutes, he said. One minute. Thirty seconds. Goggles on. Deep breath. Her mind went blank. She ended up winning—a full eight seconds ahead of the next-place finisher.