In most sports when your career goes downhill it’s distinctly bad news. But in the case of downhill bike racer, Rachel Atherton, arguably Britain’s most successful female athlete of the year so far, the news is all stupendously good. The 27 year old multiple champion has been virtually unbeatable following a soul-destroying struggle with illness and disappointment last year.
So she may already have annexed the World Cup Overall Downhill mountain-bike title, but there was no way she was going to take her foot off the pedal in the dead-rubber finale to the season. Atherton regained her World Cup Overall crown at Windham, in the United States, two weeks ago after being forced to re-evaluate her life following a debilitating bout of glandular fever that cost her the 2014 championship.
Her ride at Val di Sole in Italy at the weekend turned into a glorified celebratory procession even though the notoriously brutal course lived up to its reputation. It was the 26th World Cup win of her career, her Fourth Overall title ( having won in 2008, 2012, 2013).
Atherton admitted: “There were some pretty horrible moments. You kinda don’t think about the race anymore. I almost forgot about the race, I just didn’t want to crash. I felt pretty sketchy. I just wanted to win here, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
“I was like, ‘I’ve got the overall, but I don’t want it to affect my motivation’. It kinda did, but it’s a really hard track.”
This was her sixth victory in a row in the seven-race series and put her 581 points ahead of second-placed Manon Carpenter, the reigning World Cup Champion, and a further 93 points up on Tahnee Seagrave as the British riders took the first three positions in the overall competition.
It was a far cry from a year ago when her World Cup hopes were interrupted by an illness so overwhelming that she completely broke down physically and emotionally, Atherton remembers: “I think I spent a whole month crying, flipping out and getting angry.”
It did not help that riding a bike had become all-consuming in her life. Her brothers, fellow elite mountain-bikers Gee and Dan, offered some sound advice to help her find the right balance.
Atherton says: “Dan was very keen for me to be in touch emotionally, to give myself more time to be female, to live a more balanced life.
“Gee gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever had. ‘You know what, Rach. Maybe your body just needs to have fun and enjoy itself’.
“Racing is very much mental as well as physical and the support of the team, my family and my friends made me believe, against the odds, that I could still ride my bike better than any of the other girls,” Atherton says.
Back in the saddle for the final three races of last season, Atherton twice finished runner-up before winning the final race at Meribel in France
Second overall in the World Series could be seen as a massive achievement for anyone, let alone somebody who had been so ill but Rachel was far from content. 2015 would be very different.
Everyone who knew Rachel held their breath as she was beaten into second place in the first race of this season at Lourdes. Could she get it back together? But at Round 2, Fort William in front of an ecstatic home crowd she took the first win of a consecutive six. From that moment on she was unbeatable.
Co-incidentally, her conqueror at Lourdes back in April, the French rider Emmeline Ragot, will not be around to torment her again. Ragot announced her retirement at the weekend after sustaining an injury mid-season (at Mont St Anne) that has ended a 13-year career. It highlighted the hell-bent dangers and challenges inherent in the sport and, typically, Atherton marked her rival’s departure by carrying her on to the podium during the post-race celebrations.
Rachel said “ The sport will not be the same without Ragot’s crazy speed, her daring and her skills on a bike. We’ve had some crazy battles over the last 11 years and the sport won’t be the same without lion’s heart and massive smile. We’ll miss you girl.”
Article by Jasmine Jones
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