The girl who took on the hardest, fastest course in Downhill Mountain Biking
Rachel Atherton is either a little bit crazy, or she has a lot of faith in herself. On Saturday, she'll haul her teal and orange Trek bike to the top of Mont-Sainte-Anne—a 2,600-foot peak just 25 miles outside of Quebec City—and race downhill at 40-plus miles per hour on a two- to four-foot wide path through heavily wooded forest filled with treacherous rock formations and gnarled roots in order to keep her title as the female downhill mountain biker with the most World Cup wins of all time. Actually, earning a title like that—niche as it may sound—takes a little bit of crazy and a lot of faith.
If Atherton wins, she'll be just three wins away from becoming the winningest World Cup mountain biker of all time—of men and women (South African rider Greg Minnaar currently holds that record). And that carries even more weight than earning the female title because, at the end of the day, downhill mountain biking is still a male-dominated sport. The UCI Mountain Bike World Cup represents the Grand Slam of downhill mountain biking—there are six to eight races per year, where the most skilled riders battle for the top spot. At Mont-Sainte-Anne, the fifth race in this year's World Cup season, Atherton will be one of just 15 women compared to the 80 men competing. "The men are always faster," Atherton tells me. "It's so physical. It's impossible really, to get close to them."
Frankly, it seems impossible to do what any mountain biker does. I spent a morning riding up Mont-Sainte-Anne just to barrel down it, Atherton-style. The mountain is beautiful, all purple wildflowers and deciduous trees, but you can hardly enjoy it because you're so focused on not pitching yourself over the handlebars. Hit a rock at the wrong angle, catch your wheel on a rogue tree root, and the next second you're sprawled in the dirt. And I was biking over a bunny slope compared to what Atherton and her competitors will ride.
Mont-Sainte-Anne is an infamously technical course; Atherton has won this particular race four times already. Since she started competing in 2007, she has racked up 33 individual World Cup wins and has won all the World Cup races in a season five separate times. She has dominated the sport recently, remaining undefeated for 15 consecutive races until May, when a crash during a practice run in Scotland dislocated her shoulder and left her unable to compete (watch the gnarly footage from her GoPro below).
She did compete in the next two World Cup races, ranking fourth in Andorra and second in Switzerland, but her perspective since her accident has changed. "Suddenly, you're not there to win anymore—your focus shifts from winning to just getting down the mountain," she says. "[In Switzerland,] I could have won. During the race, I was like, I've got to take it easy, I can't be stupid and risk a crash. I just got to get down safe. And then the next second I'd be like, c'mon, let's go, let's do it, I can win!"
For someone with so many bragging rights, Atherton keeps her confidence remarkably in check. "I get the best out of myself when I've got a problem," she says. "When something goes wrong, it's almost like a bit of relief because now I've got that to focus on and overcome. When you're too confident, you don't dig quite as hard. I'm never confident. It backfires. I don't believe in a positive mentality. When you're going in and you've been sick or you've lost your bike or you've had a crash or it's raining, whatever, everything goes into it, all your focus, all your experience. And you come out way faster."
Atherton is already fast. Last year, she clocked 45 miles per hour down Mont-Sainte-Anne. This year, she's hoping her regimen of strength training, yoga, interval work, and technical training on the bike—plus her past experience on the course—will give her an edge over the growing field of female riders. "Downhill mountain biking is coming into its own as a sport, and the level [of female competition] has definitely stepped up," she says. "Even last year, only the top five or six were really good. This year, competition is really fierce. The whole field has really raised its game."
Atherton is one of the first women in downhill mountain biking, part of the reason the sport is growing so fast among young female riders. But with experience comes something else: fear. "Sometimes I look at a track and I think, I don't know how I can ride down this," she says. Mont-Sainte-Anne offers unique challenges. She calls it one of the roughest, hardest courses—and definitely the fastest track. It will take her about five and a half minutes to cover approximately two miles. "Last year, we added it up, it was about 34 minutes of actual racing [during the entire World Cup tour]. It's crazy," she says.
This will be Atherton's third race back since her injury, and the first she's trying to win since she fell. And, yes, that worries her. "The more injuries you have, the more it affects you," she says. "When you have a big injury, there's definitely a point where you don't think it's worth it."
But it's the thrill of those five and a half minutes that keep her coming back. "You go from sick with nerves, puking in the bin at the start gate, and you're like, why the hell am I here? This is so dangerous," she says. "Then you do your race and your heart race shoots straight to 190, 195 beats per minute and just stays there. You finish and feel so strong, so pumped. And I can't get that high anywhere else, no matter what I do."