Dan, Gee and Rachel Atherton

Meet the Athertons

Having one world champion in the family is great, but having three is amazing. Talented British mountain bike stars the Athertons are that family.

In a picturesque stone cottage deep in the Welsh countryside, a small room is stacked floor-to-ceiling with muddy coats, shoes, body armour, knee pads, elbow pads, goggles and rows of helmets. Near the door that leads deeper into the house sits something that seems slightly out of place: a pair of stylish high-heeled shoes. They belong to Rachel, the long-haired blonde who lives in the cottage along with her two elder brothers, Dan and Gee. A third of the body armour, protection pads and helmets are hers, too, and five of the 15 bikes in the cottage workshop.

If you aren’t into downhill mountain biking, you won’t know who this family are. But you should. These three are the greatest sporting siblings in Britain today. Two are reigning world champions; all three have won World Cups. But their sport is not on the Olympics’ favoured list or the back pages of national newspapers. If they had been part of the Olympics, chances are that all three would have added to Britain’s golds haul, and you, along with every housewife, schoolkid and van driver in the land, would know their names. But they weren’t and you don’t. So, for everyone who doesn’t know them, let us introduce the Athertons.

Dan is the eldest at 26, intelligent and serious, yet with a sharp sardonic sense of humour and a naughty boyish grin. Rachel is 21, fearless but feminine, svelte, funny and fiercely independent. The man in the middle is Gee, three years younger than Dan. He is a tall action hero with a hidden sensitivity and perception that belies his playboy façade.

Dan’s speciality, four-cross (also called 4X), is an event where four body-armour-clad mountain bikers race each other down a prepared track of steeply-banked turns and huge ramp jumps. The fitness, speed, skills, nerve, tactics and strength required are significant. So are crashes. Dan finished third in the 2008 world rankings.

World Cup downhill is a race against the clock down steep rutted tracks that would be difficult to walk, let alone scream along at breakneck speed on a bicycle. Sometimes the trails are slick with mud; at other times they are dusty, dry and loose. Whatever the conditions, they are littered with boulders, rocky staircases and exposed gnarled roots that can snatch at wheels and hurl riders from their mounts. At this, Rachel and Gee excel. Rachel is women’s world champion, the first British woman to claim the crown. Gee is the reigning men’s world champion.

Three siblings at the top of the same sport at the same time: and it’s all down to Dan. “We lived in a tiny village. It was 30 miles to the big town and there was nothing to do except ride BMX. [At first] Gee wasn’t interested. I thought, ‘Sod it,’ and bought him his first BMX. Then he got into it and loved it.” Then it was mountain bikes: Dan started and Gee followed. Rachel refused to be left out, so she joined in.

A significant chapter opened when Dan was 16 and Gee was 13, and they entered their first race. “We went flat-out, crashed, got up… We had no idea about race strategy. But even after that first race, we knew we could be competitive because people were saying we did certain sections faster than anyone else.”

Gee concurs. “Yeah, we knew. We were watching everyone else go down and we knew we could do it. We just lacked the knowledge and experience.”

Rachel grins. “Everyone I knew was into bikes, my brothers and all their friends. At lunchtimes in school I would go out to the trails with all the boys and hang out there and ride. I was never into hanging out with the girls at all, going shopping.” And soon, she was racing, too.

“Rachel is the best racer,” says Dan. “She is a good rider, but sometimes she will be struggling with something on the course during practice and she will be really worried about it, but then in the race she will nail it.” Gee nods in agreement; Rachel looks humbled but pleased. “I think I have learned that from watching these two race. I have two of the best coaches.”

Dan smiles and continues. “Gee is a lot more level-headed, focused on what has to be done, and he doesn’t care about what he has to do to achieve it. That is what he is going to do and everyone else just has to deal with it. I think that’s how you have to be if you want to be a professional athlete.”

Gee takes his turn as the family analyst. “Dan is a very dedicated person.” Rachel butts in using that sharp disappointed tone that can only be made by the youngest. “I was going to say dedicated!”

They’re supportive yet challenging, humorous but honest: three distinct characters that interact seamlessly, like some synchronised sibling team. But Rachel is keen to stress their personal merits. “We are quite focused on keeping our individuality. Whatever we do, at races or when we are with the media, we like to make it known that we are different people.”

However, their collective crusade is to make mountain biking more widely appreciated. “There’s the technology, the training, the emotion, and the excitement of watching a rider rattling down through the woods at high speed between rocks and trees, jumping huge gaps,” says Gee. “It’s amazing to watch. It’s just getting it shown to the right people in the right way.”

“There are events like Red Bull Rampage,” adds Dan. “That grabs their attention. Someone might not have seen a mountain bike before, but you show them pictures of someone jumping a 60ft gap through the blue sky on a bike – it captures them.”

So, are they bitter that they aren’t adored like so many stars of more mundane sports that just happen to have Olympic endorsement or back-page coverage? Rachel is philosophical: “We didn’t get into it to be household names around the world; we got into it because we loved it. You can’t be bitter about it… You just have to do what you can to help the sport along, to build that exposure and in the meantime just enjoy it. Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

It’s getting dark now and the lights from the cottage kitchen are falling on the BMX track outside, casting strange shadows. The Athertons’ warmth and friendliness continue to shine through. As goodbyes are said, Rachel extends her hand holding a can. “Red Bull for the road?”

The Red Bulletin magazine, April 2009 [read it here]

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