During her long and prolific career, pro downhill racer Rachel Atherton has come back from injuries of all types, but this summer, when she tore her Achilles tendon, she had a lot more to do than simply recover and rehab. Rachel and brothers, Gee and Dan, were deep in the midst of working flat out to make their fledgling new Atherton Bikes brand a success. They were also just getting their Dyfi Bike Park officially open and running. In Part 1 of our interview with Rachel, we look at the incredible challenges she's taken on during this stressful time and how the people around her--from business partners and crew to the fans out there--make it all worthwhile.

Photos by Sven Martin

Stan’s NoTubes: Many bike riders dream of racing at a pro level, and some also dream of opening their open business. What’s it like to do both at the same time? 

Rachel Atherton: It’s stressful and difficult, but I like to jump into things head-first, full gas, and with full commitment. That’s how we Athertons have always done it! 

Those first few World Cups were insanely emotional. I underestimated how I would feel racing my first World Cup on an Atherton Bike. I had thought that I was good at dealing with pressure, but then there was a whole other, new level of pressure. Racing on our own bikes was something that we had been dreaming about our whole lives, but then suddenly in Maribor at the World Cup opener, it was reality, and I still had to race.

SNT: You always seem to handle stress well, and in this case, you made it look like it wasn’t that stressful. 

RA: Having the bike company was both a distraction and a pressure. It was a proud moment to be racing our bikes. I felt like everyone was waiting to see how the bikes would perform although whether they really were, I don’t know. Some of that pressure was self-made.

There’s always pressure no matter what company you’re riding for, but I think there’s more pressure when it’s your own company. The more pressure you have, the more nervous you are, and the more you have to focus. 

Up until I won the Fort William World Cup, I felt like it was almost too much trying to do what I was doing. The Thursday just prior, I had gotten a brand new rear end with help from Dave Weagle and thanks to several others. I felt like I couldn’t not win with everyone having helped so much. I had to go out there and win. When I did win, it was beyond expectations.

SNT: So how did Atherton Bikes as a company come to be?

RA: It all happened pretty quickly although we had always tried to build the name “Atherton,” and weren’t totally sure why, but I think it was inevitable that we’d end up where we are now. The opportunity to put the bike company together came during a very short period of time. Before that, there was nothing that “Atherton” really was. (Read our interview with Dan Atherton re: launching Atherton bikes.)

SNT: So you were ahead of your time in realizing that the Atherton name was a brand?

RA: Well, we’ve always tried to do things differently. It started with the Animal Commencal podcast, which then turned into the Atherton diaries. Everyone was doing videos and blogs, and we wondered what was next. We thought, “How could we put together a bike in six months during the off-season that would be ready to race?”

SNT: How did deciding to create Atherton Bikes influence your racing?

RA: We have been riding, racing, and in the industry for a long time. We needed to keep things fresh. I have to keep pushing myself. Every year becomes the same: I train, I race. Having the bike company has been a motivator for me. After a great season in 2018, when I won the World Championships, I thought that maybe it was a good time to retire. So in a way, doing the bike company was, for me, a motivator to keep going with the racing.

SNT: How has racing influenced you with regard to Atherton Bikes? What have you learned from racing that you’ve been able to apply to the business world?

RA: The guys who work with us on Atherton Bikes have kept us on the straight and narrow. Monday mornings are our business meeting day - we do it by Skype no matter where in the world I am. There was more stress in it than I’d realized there would be. 

One of the reasons I had wanted to do a bike company is because as a racer, you meet people, especially young kids, who get into it and grow up racing. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to apply the knowledge that we’ve learned over the years to help others. I wanted to input that knowledge into our products and give people a good experience on the bike. So far, the feedback we’ve gotten is that our bikes give people more confidence riding.

SNT: That has to be fantastic to hear. So things were going well, and then you got injured when you ruptured your Achilles tendon mid-season. How has recovery been going?

RA: So far, it’s been a straightforward injury. It’s been easier and less painful than any of my shoulder injuries. In fact, it’s been the least painful of any injury I’ve had.

SNT: Really?

RA: Yeah, it's been really bizarre. I'm not sure about the next stage of rehab, building that muscle back up, but it's been quite progressive, the rehab now. They get you moving quite early and get you weight bearing. I’m ahead of schedule in the progression of my rehab. It's going to be a long hard winter, but I'm excited to get back on the bike.

SNT: On top of everything else you had going on, you launched the new Dyfi bike park, too.

With also having the bike park, it’s been nice to focus on something other than the injury. Normally, the injury is all I can focus on while injured. But working on the bike park has made it more bearable, and the time has flown by. The first eight weeks, for example, went surprisingly fast. It’s really given me a job and kept me busy and focused. Like I've been doing sign ons in the mornings, and people turn up, and I'm there in the office, helping people fix their bikes. It's quite a family entity at the moment.

SNT: The park launch looked like it went great, and your whole family was involved."

RA: It’s been amazing! Although we’ve only officially been open for a few months, it’s been in the pipeline for years. Dan's been working away there.

SNT: It's really Dan's baby.

RA: He’s had this vision for his whole career of a place or center where people can come ride and train for riding and eventually for other sports, too. 

It's been incredible to see over these last couple of months. It’s been great to see people’s reactions to riding on the tracks that Dan has created. We’ve been expanding it and putting in some easier options. We've got big dreams for the place. People have called it a mini-Whistler, which makes us happy. We want there to be something for everyone. We want there to be camps for kids and riders of all levels.

SNT: Of course, we also have to ask, because I think you were the first team to ride them, what do you think about our Flow EX3 wheels now that you’ve ridden and raced them?

RA: How you feel on a bike is the most important thing. Every part of your bike makes a difference, and each one gives me an edge. Wheels are in contact with the ground, and you can’t ride and race at the highest level if your wheels don’t feel exactly how you want them to feel. Good wheels make a rider feel comfortable and confident. Let’s just say that the Achilles tendon is the biggest tendons in our bodies, and it takes a lot of force to snap it, and even when I cased that particular jump too hard and did that, my wheels and bike were perfectly OK! In fact, I didn’t have any mechanicals all year. 

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview...