It is not what you want to hear, the night before a World Championship final. Your older brother has dislocated his shoulder in a crash and needs advice on how to wrestle it back in. That was the scenario Rachel Atherton found herself faced with on the eve of the finale to the downhill mountain biking season.
“Obviously I’ve dislocated my shoulder quite a lot so they were asking me how to put Dan’s back,” she remembered. “This is like 10 o’clock at night. I struggled in the morning to forget about it and put it out my mind and just get on with the job in hand.”
She went and won it anyway, conquering the Andorra track 3.238 seconds ahead of defending champion Manon Carpenter. Atherton’s victory set the seal on her best season: the 27 year old dominated the World Cup series on her way to lifting a fourth title a couple of weeks earlier.
“Celebrations got killed straight away,” recalled Atherton. “Everyone was drinking Champagne afterwards and I was on the phone to Mum, obviously really happy, but I was really upset about Dan, so I was crying. I was like, ‘I’m not crying because I’m happy, I’m crying because I’m sad!’”
Atherton followed older brothers Dan and Gee, a double world champion, into downhill racing as a child and never looked back. When she was having doubts about her career at the beginning of the season after a difficult 2014, it was Dan who put things in perspective. “I remember saying to him, even in the winter when we were training, ‘I think this is it, I don’t think I can do it anymore. What’s the point in racing? I’m not going to win, I’m nowhere near ready for it’.
“He just said, ‘If you’re not feeling it, don’t do it. You’ve got to be feeling it or else you’re going to get hurt. It’s not something you can do half-heartedly’. I guess then I was like, ‘Actually, I’m being a bit dramatic here. Maybe I just need to see what happens’. I got on with it and it was my best season ever.”
Atherton, who has lost count of the number of times she has dislocated her own shoulder, though suspects it is around 10, admits injuries are “part and parcel of it, unfortunately”, especially when your livelihood involves throwing yourself down mountains on a bike at speeds of 40-50mph.
Living at such a breakneck pace takes its toll, evident from Atherton’s lack of voice after Andorra. A painful sore throat meant celebrations were muted literally as well as figuratively. “Everyone gets the last race out of the way and people get ill,” she croaked. “I think that’s the same for a lot of athletes. You hold on for the season and as soon as the last event is over you just succumb. Your body shuts down.”
That has not stopped her enjoyment after reclaiming the title she won in 2008, and again in 2013. “I was just lying at home on the sofa the other day thinking, ‘This is amazing, I don’t have to do anything now! I don’t have to race for ages, I don’t have to train or anything, I can just chill out’. It was a pretty good feeling, ending the season on such a high.”
Much easier, she admits, than the climax of last season. Having clawed back the World Cup series title, despite battling a debilitating bout of glandular fever throughout the year, she missed the World Championship title by an agonising 0.088 of a second to Welsh rival Carpenter. It still inspires the odd moment of rage, but a year on she’s able to look at it philosophically. “I’m glad it happened, in a way. I still wake up at night, I get really angry. But that’s what you pull on when you’re in the gym or when you’re training on your road bike. That’s what you rely on to give you that extra kick.” That, acupuncture (“without it I would still be ruined!”) and a tight-knit support system, including her family and boyfriend Olly Davey, who is also Dan’s mechanic.
Atherton has also discovered that in a life, where so much time is spent hurtling through mid-air, it helps to have something to hang on to. For her it takes the form of the home she shares with Davey in North Wales. “I think having that home life where it’s really stable and you can rely on it, that makes a huge difference. I know whatever happens at the race, I can come home and forget about it.”
While Atherton insists she’s “just getting started”, questions about her future are inevitable given she’s the oldest female rider on the tour. Emmeline Ragot, her only senior at 29, called time on her career last month following a string of injuries with the frank admission: “I can’t keep breaking myself like this.”
On a women’s tour where Atherton admits relationships between riders can be “vicious”, it was a poignant moment at the World Cup in Val di Sole to see her carry the injured Ragot, her rival of 11 years, to the podium where the French rider announced her retirement. “That was a real sad day,” said Atherton. “We’ve been racing each other for our whole careers and suddenly the girl who always pushes me to the limit isn’t there anymore.”
But securing consecutive world titles for the first time is superseding any thoughts of putting her own bike out to pasture. “Obviously I’m not going to be doing it forever. Three, four more years of racing and that’s it. But you want the last few years to be the best few years. I’ve never won the World Championship back-to-back, so that’s a massive goal for me.
“It’s definitely the cliché saying: the only way to go when you’re at the top is back down again. It’s easy to get to the top, but to stay there year after year, that’s what’s hard. I think that’s what separates the good athletes from the incredible ones.”
Rachel Atherton is one of the August contenders for the BT Sport Action Woman of the year. Follow @BTSportAW
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Article by Rachel Griffiths
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