Gill Harris’s job description at Atherton Racing is officially Head of Communications. It covers a multitude of sins. During her five years with the team, she has watched closely the rise of the world’s most dominant female downhill mountain-biker racer of the age, Rachel Atherton. In the first of a series of regular articles for The Mixed Zone, Gill Harris offers an insight into how Atherton has not only reached the summit but stayed there
There’s no progression without pain. It wasn’t Rachel who said that, it was her big brother Dan, also a pro mountain-biker. But it’s sobering to consider the extent to which Rachel’s impressive list of victories is interleaved with injuries, surgery and painful rehab. After her first World Championship win in 2008 she spent significant tracts of the next four years recovering from race crashes, training crashes and twelve sets of surgery.
Rachel is not only a five-times world champion, five-times World Cup overall champion, holder of 33 World Cups (more than any other Brit in the history of the sport), and currently on a record-breaking run of 13 consecutive World Cups, she should also be world champion at channelling negative energy and making it work for mind-blowingly positive results.
Given her recent domination of the world downhill scene, some people think that Rachel has it easy. That couldn’t be further from the truth. First have a look at the race facts: out of seven qualification races Rachel only placed first in three of them, yet somehow in the finals she found that mythical “bit extra”. That’s part of the point with her. The women’s field is strong, getting stronger all the time. Fellow Brit Tahnee Seagrave got to within 0.7 seconds of Rachel’s finals winning time at Lenzerheide; next race at Mont St Anne in Canada, Rach blasted through the speed trap at an incredible 73kmph to take the win by more than 11 seconds.
Rachel has been racing since she was eight years old – that’s coming up for 18 years – and she is still sick with nerves before finals. She has even vomited in the start-gate (ask mechanic Joe how many times he’s had to clear up. Or speak to the media crew who threw their egg sandwiches out of the gondola window).
Others say: “It’s because she rides with her brothers.” That makes her furious on behalf of sportswomen everywhere. What about the thousands of hours in the gym? The painful rehabs? The mental anguish? The hours and hours of practice in sun, wind and sleet? The monastically strict diet?
I can think of a thousand articles, or social media posts, where Rach acknowledges the debt she owes to Dan and middle brother Gee (himself a double world champion). It’s true that the family are massively close (until two years ago they lived, worked and trained under the same roof; imagine the fireworks!). But having big brothers who are good at something, too, well, it can only take you so far.
So many times I’ve been asked: “What is her secret?” “How does she ride like she does?” “What can I do to be more like her?” As if there is a magic formula that will instantly create a world champion. Well, here it is from five years of close-up observation: “Dedicate yourself 100 per cent to your sport.”
A lot of athletes I know need everything to be perfect in the run-up to their race. Rachel not so much. She’ll throw schedules into disarray by sneaking off for a nap, or squabble with Gee, or come off her bike on a practice run. And then she’ll go out and win.
This determination to overcome is notable on a more macro scale, too. In 2014 Rachel struggled hugely. She suffered from a glandular fever-type illness at round one of the World Cup in South Africa, and it lingered throughout the season. Her famous strength was waning. It was heartbreaking to watch her struggle to train, to keep weight on, just to get through the day. The laughing friend who’d been a constant visitor to my chaotic kitchen, wrestling with the kids or chasing the dog up hills and off sofas, stayed home alone, too tired to play. She was under strict medical instructions to be super-wary of germs. She finished second overall for the season, and second by a cruel 0.08 seconds in the World Championships. It would have been a fantastic result for almost any other international athlete. She was distraught.
So Rach went into 2015 unsure whether she was fully recovered (she still gets tired and has re-ordered her life to get more rest) and suffering from worse nerves than she had experienced in her whole career. But with the mental strength that characterises the whole family, she turned the doubts to her advantage and harnessed every last scrap of that negative energy to deliver her most dominant season.
It is particularly significant that the pivotal moment of Rach’s comeback should be at round two of the 2015 World Cup at Fort William. Fort William had been Rachel’s ongoing nemesis with six second places over seven years. There was no World Cup there win until an emotional double victory with Gee in 2013. But in 2014 Fort William delivered another kick in the guts: Rachel was disqualified after a spectator ran on to the course to help her with a puncture.
In 2015 we turned the trip to Fort William into a girls’ road trip. There was Rachel, physio Laura and myself. We had fun, because we always do, stopping for selfies by lochs, chatting with the other mountain-bikers we saw on the way. Rach was her funny, warm and sparky self. But underneath she was nervous and unhappy, fantasising about leaving racing behind and settling for a quieter life growing organic vegetables. The tension persisted throughout practice, qualification and warm-up. But before the start-gate in the final, mechanic Joe reported that Rachel’s whole body changed as she suddenly tapped into her vast reserves of mental power. She was going to win this!
When Rachel rides she says that it feels like a meditation, a dance. She becomes a better, stronger person, at one with the mountain and her bike. She believes the feeling of tackling a mountain, becoming invincible, alive to every muscle in her body, to the earth, the elements, the contours of the mountain, the freedom of giving herself up to gravity … that’s the most empowering thing on earth and it’s why she’s so passionate about getting others involved in the sport.
Rachel took the victory by almost eight seconds that day and she hasn’t lost a single race since. Thirteen
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gill Harris struggles to describe her role at Atherton Racing. Her business card says Head of Communications, “but that’s only because right-hand girl, chief of chat, head of nagging and occasional lifesaver didn’t fit”. She is like a surrogate big sister to Rachel and her two brothers Dan and Gee, running them to the hospital, helping answer fan mail and generally organising their lives. She also supports team director Dan Brown with logistics, liaising with team sponsors and managing photoshoots and the press. Gill’s background is in marketing, so the combination of this experience with being a mum of three made her the perfect candidate for the job. Her original plan was to join the team for two days a week on a three-month trial basis, but she quickly became hooked and upped the hours to “crazy”. She has just completed her fifth year.Gill’s latest articles.