After her impressive win at Lenzerheide and ahead of the racing in Leogang, the multiple downhill World Champion and World Cup winner chats with MBR about her return to racing, getting back to riding after the birth of her child, and her goals for the year ahead.
Rachel Atherton needs no introduction. She’s been a fixture on downhill race podiums since her elite career began in the early 2000s, and along the way her impressive style, incredible speed and insightful racecraft have won her five elite World Championship titles.
After a partial break from racing due to injury and the birth of her child Arna, Atherton was back with a bang at the first round of the 2023 UCI MTB Downhill World Cup Series in Lenzerheide, and what a return it was. Despite going in with the aim of just enjoying the experience, Atherton put in a classic performance to win by around half a second and take the top spot on the podium, placing her as the current series leader.
We caught up with Atherton to talk about her return to racing, and her goals for the year ahead of the upcoming second round in Leogang and the World Championships in Fort William in Scotland.
First up, HUGE congratulations on the win and it is so good to see you racing World Cups! How does it feel to have taken such a decisive victory at Lenzerheide?
I don’t think it has even sunk in yet! It’s so surreal and so far removed from my normal daily life; t feels totally crazy, I honestly had no idea whether I’d even qualify. I was watching the other women in practice and they all looked so good and so fast while I was still feeling so uncomfortable and nervous!
Did you feel good going into the race, and what was your training and preparation like in the run up to the season?
Going into the race was horrible! All through practice, I really struggled, and there were definitely points that I almost didn’t race, as I just had no idea if I was riding well or not.
I have been riding a lot at home at Dyfi Bike Park, but World Cups are an entirely different beast. I have had a lot more bike time than I would have had when I was training full time before Arna came along, since back then I was often too tired from the gym to ride a full day. I feel like riding with friends in a more relaxed way and pretty much every Friday and Saturday has made my bike handling skills better which obviously counts for something!
I knew I wasn’t done with World Cups but I also didn’t want to get hurt
What was your postpartum return to riding like? Do you feel like it’s changed you physically or mentally?
I feel like I’ve talked a lot about how much I struggled not so much to get back on the bike, but definitely to get back into training and into the race mentality. I did my first chilled downhill lap with Affy five weeks after Arna was born so I could try out my new GoPro, and I built up from there. Right from the start, an hour on the trailbike was an absolute lifesaver.
But I certainly struggled to get back to training and racing: I knew I wasn’t done with World Cups but I also didn’t want to get hurt, as I have a baby, and I have a lot of injuries. I know how important it is to train for crashes but I didn’t have the energy to train hard because Arna didn’t sleep through for ages!
About six weeks ago we cracked that and everything was different. So I started training whilst she napped, and it’s helped my mental health so much, though physically I’m still not half as strong as I was – but now I can see the way forward.
There are thankfully more, but still only a few, women who have felt able to take time out of racing to have a child, and make a full return – for example Lizzie Deignan in road cycling. Do you feel that your example helps lead the way for other women who might be considering it, but concerned about how it might affect their racing, riding or career? Any advice for them based on your experience?
It’s been so awesome and so humbling reading everyone’s comments! If even one person is inspired to go for a ride then how cool is that?
I 100% came into Lenzerheide with zero expectations. I just wanted to find out if racing was still fun for me and look what happened! So yeah, definitely give it a go.
In terms of my career I’m super grateful that all my sponsors stuck with me and have been amazingly supportive all through the last few years
What does Arna make of the World Cup circuit?
She loves it! I’m so grateful for my mum and for Olly for making it possible for me. It was so cool to be able to cuddle her in the finish arena and she was totally happy and caught up in the atmosphere, she was clapping and saying “Mummy big jumps”
She was clapping and saying “Mummy big jumps”
You’ve mentioned that in some ways you wish you hadn’t won, as it places an additional weight of expectation on you. How do you balance or manage your love of racing with the inherent pressure of the situation?
I have to try not to think about it. I’ve always tried to block out the expectations because it just adds to the pressure.
This season I’ve been super clear that I’m racing for fun, because I enjoy it, because I love my Atherton bike and want to show the world how great it is, and because I’m loving hanging out with the team and being back in the pits.
I honestly have NO intentions of racing a whole season or chasing the Overall, I’m being clear about that from the start!
How does having an incredible facility like Dyfi Bike Park on hand help with training? Do you ride mostly there or head to other locations to train?
It’s totally indispensable and I’m so so grateful for Affy and his crew building it and to everyone who makes it such an awesome place to be. It’s literally been my lifeline.
I ride there every weekend and so many fast racers come here to train that there is always someone for me to chase down the hill! Brendan Fairclough and Bernard Kerr are here a lot and its such fun. I never go anywhere else!
How do you feel the women’s downhill scene has evolved over the last few years?
I’m super proud of where we’ve got to; the depth of competition, the speed and technical skill… it’s amazing to see girls taking on massive jumps and being so confident in the air.
I’d love to see more girls racing at grassroots level and to work with a female junior teammate again… I’m also planning to take on some coaching at Dyfi Bike Park so watch this space.
What are your plans and goals for the rest of the year, and did it shift after your Lenzerheide win?
Just to be able to ride at Fort William World Champs in front of the home crowd – that’s it the ultimate goal.
I actually raced here in World Champs in 2007 – waay back at the beginning of my career! I was second to Sabrina Jonnier it was such a good weekend; Gee came 3rd and Affy had a top ten too. There is absolutely nothing on earth like having that Fort Bill crowd behind you.
Interested in watching the downhill in Fort William or the cross-country racing in the Tweed Valley? Our essential guide to the 2023 World Championships in Glasgow (and Scotland) tells you everything you need to know, including where to watch and how to get tickets.