How do you recover from a near-fatal crash atop a Welsh mountain? If you’re Gee Atherton you ride Hardline the very next year
In 2021, Gee Atherton suffered a huge crash while filming The Knife Edge. The track involved riding an incredible rocky, steep technical track, something Atherton is no stranger to. The Knife Edge was the third in his Big Mountain series, preceded by Rideline and The Slate Line, and he’s competed in Red Bull Hardline and Red Bull Rampage. And while crashes are part-and-parcel of mountain biking, this one was really, really, really bad.
But after months of healing and rehabilitation, Atherton wasn’t just on the road to recovery, he was back riding down some of the most technical tracks out there. We caught up with the man himself to get the inside story on the crash, recovery, and what’s next.
I only just survived it really, it was a close call. I lost a lot of blood, my ribs were all broken up and my lungs were punctured. I fractured my eye socket and blew my face apart here. I broke my leg and I broke my nose
MBR We’ve got to start with your crash from the Knife Edge, what do you remember from that day?
Gee I was knocked out for a long time! But the problem was I was on the mountain for even longer. So I was drifting in and out of consciousness, I’d look around at the faces of the people, pass out again and then come round again and I’d be in a slightly different position.
MBR Sounds like a real life nightmare.
Gee Yeah. We had that whole film done and it was fine. And then I was like, I’m not quite happy with it, I really want to ride out of the shot. I just remember having this massive sigh of relief because I’d done the hard parts and I was near the bottom where I felt kind of safe. Off the mountain almost. And then I crashed. It was just a slight error, I don’t beat myself up over it, you know?
Gee But the really weird thing was, up till that point I’d been the man in charge, the leader, looking out for the team. And then suddenly it was a complete role reversal, but I was still trying to direct things. So I could see the break in my wrist and the bone coming through the skin and all the soft tissue was black and swollen up. And I was still like, ‘Guys, I’m gonna lose the hand, we need to get my armour off, we need to restore the circulation.’ Then I’d pass out again!
I could see the break in my wrist and the bone coming through the skin and all the soft tissue was black and swollen up. And I was still like, ‘Guys, I’m gonna lose the hand.’
MBR It kind of sounds funny the way you’re saying it now but obviously it was like shit scary, right? Even for you?
Gee I’m painting it in this light now just because it’s my way of dealing with it. But at the time… yeah it’s bad. It was worse than I probably realised at the time. I only just survived it really, it was a close call. I lost a lot of blood, my ribs were all broken up and my lungs were punctured. I fractured my eye socket and blew my face apart here. I broke my leg and I broke my nose as well, and I was lucky it’s still straight enough now. And I had the head injury.
Gee But you go into these projects, and you know, the risks. And it wasn’t like it was a shock to me, the risks I mean. There’s so much exposure, there’s so much risk when you’re balanced on these edges. There isn’t any room for error and if it does go wrong, it goes wrong seriously, you know? You don’t break your collarbone or scuff or knee, it’s pretty serious.
MBR Have you watched the footage back? Was it in any way cathartic?
Gee I watched it quite early on, because we wanted to put that edit out [The Knife Edge]. We had this big debate beforehand about whether to post it, most people were torn, a lot of people said it was too bad to show. A lot of people said no, it’s real, it’s what happened. So I watched it then just to see, and realised how unpleasant it was. And that’s the only time.
I wanted to post on social media a while back, so I got my mechanic to do it! I gave him my phone, he put the whole thing together, posted it and that was that, I didn’t have to watch it again.
MBR Were the dig and film crews traumatised by it all too?
Gee I feel bad for those guys. There was a really good team of guys that we’ve done a lot of work with. And suddenly they were kind of thrown into this situation where they weren’t really sure what they just watched. When they got to me they didn’t really know what they were going to find, and then getting me off the mountain was pretty horrific for them.
It was a horrible situation because there wasn’t an easy way out of [the mountain]. It was a really awkward part of the hill and there was a lot of bleeding going on. And that constrained getting me off the mountain quickly. There was no phone signal, then the air ambulance arrived and they couldn’t land, so they had to get the Coast Guard to winch me off.
MBR We were blown away to see you race Hardline the following year, anyone else would have taken years to recover from that crash but you were back after, what, 18 months? How did you do that?
Gee I was shocked how quickly they dragged me out of the hospital and got me moving around and walking. I remember really vividly being at home and just lying on the sofa and an absolute heap. You know, I was such a mess, my leg is shattered, my wrist was all blown apart. I couldn’t even work the crutches properly because my wrist is in a cast.
I raced with a broken femur, but having the drive to complete the film project [Ridgeline II) and Hardline really mentally it gave me a massive boost. And, you know, I loved it, man. I was just absolutely buzzing!
Red Bull has sent me over some physios pretty much straight after the crash, but to be honest it was more just for them to keep an eye on me! And to keep my spirits up and keep me feeling like I was doing something, even though it was limping around the gym or trying to move a Theraband about.
MBR Did you need to race Hardline? Did you fear you’d never make it back if you didn’t?
Gee I wanted to have a reason to push things along, a reason to really force the recovery. I just didn’t like the idea of being in this period where I could drift along, I hated that thought of just meandering through this endless phase of return to sport. So I wanted to go, I wanted an intense time period of having to really push the physio and the recovery. A reason to get up in the morning and be like right, let’s go.
I had a chat with the surgeons and the doctors and physios and they said look, you know it might be possible but we don’t recommend it. Of course that was all I needed to hear and I kind of ran with it.
MBR It sounds like the physio team and coaches were pushing things early on, then you took over and drove it later. Is that right?
Gee Yeah. I didn’t have the energy and the strength to motivate myself early on. Everything hurt. I was exhausted, I couldn’t do anything. I was in physio twice a week up in Manchester, but I couldn’t even drive so Red Bull was sending cars to come pick me up from the house and drag me up there.
Then as I moved out of that stage I gradually returned to some form of mobility and my old self. Suddenly I picked up the momentum and took their positivity, they’d all been keeping me buoyed all this time and it was infectious. It spurred me on. I thought I’d never be able to walk again, let alone ride a bike, but as I saw myself improving the mental boost that gives you is incredible. You can do a squat or stand on one leg, it’s massive in your mind and it gives you such a boost.
MBR You saw it as, you’ve only got one option, you’ve got to go forwards.
Gee Yeah. You’ve only got one choice, fight it and just throw yourself onto the recovery and immerse yourself into a return to sport. And that’s what I did. In hindsight, physically perhaps it [Hardline] wasn’t the best thing to do, my body wasn’t as strong as it should have been, I raced with a broken femur, but having the drive to complete the film project [Ridgeline II) and Hardline really mentally it gave me a massive boost. And, you know, I loved it, man. I was just absolutely buzzing!
MBR The physical injuries were horrendous, but were the mental injuries worse?
Gee The mental side is a lot harder and impacts the physical side as well. It’s a slippery slope, if you get a bit down in the dumps and fed up, it slows the healing down, and you go down a spiral of physical and mental health. I quickly realised the key to kind of getting through it all was to try and keep myself in a good frame of mind. And I was lucky to have a really good team around me. And over the years I’ve learned a blueprint for injury recovery.
MBR We’ve all been injured, perhaps not as badly as you Gee, but can you share any tips for recovery?
Gee Your mind is a powerful thing, isn’t it? The more you tell it a story it’s going to start happening. I learned that years ago when my brother broke his neck. I was off to World Cups on my own for a long time after that and obviously people would ask: ‘How’s he doing? It must be really bad.’ And I would say yeah, it was really bad, he’s gonna be out of action for a long time and told the whole kind of slightly sad, depressing story.
I remember talking to a sports psychologist and he said, well change the story, change what you’re telling me. It became, he’s doing well, he’s fine, he’s gonna be okay. And overnight I found myself more positive and I stopped dreading being at races. I realised how important that kind of narrative is.
Obviously, you can’t just ignore an injury because if something’s broken, it is broken and needs time. But the smaller everyday things, change them – the way you talk about it or the way you carry it, constantly telling people how bad your injuries are and how long it’s going to take and how painful it is just reinforces it in your head.
MBR Despite the risk though, I know you’re planning more adventures.
Gee I love those big mountain projects, I’m hungry to get back to it. I can’t wait to plan some more. I can’t wait to take that kind of similar idea to different places… that exposure, building lines where you don’t really think there is one.
It’s so different to racing. The racing is amazing and I love it and it’s happened all my life and it’s probably some of the best riding in the world. But you’ve got quite tight parameters to work within and that cycle of training, building up, racing, repeating is quite repetitive.
Every morning you wake up and that step down or that drop is the first thing you think about. You think about it all the way up until the moment you land it for the first time, and then that surge of being able to overcome it and conquer it… there isn’t another feeling like it.
So when you’ve got these big mountain projects the freedom… You turn up with your crew of lads who are going to help build it and film it and you look at this mountain and you can go anywhere, you can do anything. We’ve looked at some locations but it’s not finalised yet.
MBR How does the dig process work?
Gee The first time you see the hill you think there’s no line here, there isn’t a way down this. Then you go again, and again and again and gradually this line emerges out of the mountain. Trying to execute that is an incredible feeling. Every single day you wake up you think, ‘god I’ve still not done that line, I’ve still got to hit that step down.’
You know, the building of it is as much fun as the riding. Building the Ridgeline, we’d all get up at five o’clock in the morning, meet at this farm at the bottom and jump on these two quads. We’d make our way up the mountain and climb to the edge of this sketchy section, we’d have to rope the quads on and all the tools were strapped on the rear. It was an adventure and you really felt at the end of the day like you’d achieve something just getting up and down.
MBR Did you get the same thrill smashing out lines for Rampage years ago that you do hammering into Welsh slate?
Gee It’s very similar in the sense that you’re going somewhere that’s just really inhospitable, everything’s against you, it’s hot, dusty, and dangerous. And it’s you trying to conquer these difficulties. You’ve got a really small, tight crew of people that are working so hard, long days, hard hours. You’re out there for weeks before Rampage, and every morning you wake up and that step down or that drop is the first thing you think about. You think about it all the way up until the moment you land it for the first time, and then that surge of being able to overcome it and conquer it… there isn’t another feeling like it.
MBR It sounds like he couldn’t walk away from something like that.
Gee It shows how good it is when I’ve been injured doing it. I spent the last two years in physio recovering, waiting for the next project to put the crew together and get up on the mountain and build the next line. And that’s just what’s driving me along at the moment.
MBR How was it mentally, riding again, or dropping into Hardline? Can you just switch off from those past injuries?
Gee I don’t switch off and there’s no disengaging from it. Once you have those kinds of traumas happen to you and they’re in your mind there is no just cutting them off, your brain’s wired that way to keep you alive. But you are trying to override that and force yourself to do that exact thing again. It’s very important to process it and take it on board and understand it and make sure you’ve kind of got your head around it. Of course the nervousness, the fear, the scared kind of feelings you get are always going to be there. But you understand them and you know why they’re there.
MBR Are you ever gonna go back to the Knife Edge?
Gee I don’t even drive that way home anymore. Everybody said at the time, nobody enjoyed that project. Nobody enjoyed the build and we had a strange feeling about it the entire way through. Normally there’s loads of people that want to come along and build, you have a good craic but not this time.
MBR Are you racing World Cups this year? Crankworx?
Gee I’ve been waiting for the final healing to happen, but the recent scans look really good. So we’re getting very close and you know, how I come back kind of depends on how fit and strong I can manage to get in the amount of time I have.
I want to do these film projects, as many as I can, they’re the main goal and then the racing is just slotted into place around that. We’ll have to see how it works.
MBR I’m sure I know the answer to this already, but if you could go back in time and not ride that last day on the mountain, would you?
Gee I’d absolutely skip that day.
You have to learn from these things though. I’ve always tried to do that throughout my whole career. Don’t take something from it. A positive, even if that’s just a warning so you don’t do it again. Maybe that’s the reason my career has been as long as it has.