At the start gate in Leogang, Austria, the number plate on Rachel Atherton’s bike displayed a prominent “1.” For Rachel, a first place seed was not unusual. But on this day, there was special significance to it. She’d won the previous nine World Cup downhill events, and now had the chance to make an indelible mark in the history of women’s mountain biking by winning a 10th consecutive World Cup, surpassing the long-standing record of Anne Caroline Chausson. Today, it was more than a number plate—it was a reminder of all the race meant, and everything she’d done to get here. From far below on the course, the commotion of cowbells and cheers rolled upward toward the start gate, and the pressure of the moment seemed to swell. She breathed deeply, perhaps steadying her nerves with a verse from Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady”—a personal favorite of Rachel’s—while visualizing every turn and drop of the course below. The countdown began, and an instant later she was pedaling furiously out of the gate and railing into the first hard bank. The wall of noise only grew louder as Rachel approached the finish, with the distinct roar of wailing fans uniting in a chorus of excitement as the seemingly inevitable historical moment grew closer.
Rachel won the race, earning the honor of most consecutive World Cup victories of any rider. On top of her 30 total World Cup victories and four Overall Series titles, Rachel went on to an 11th consecutive victory in Lenzerheide, Switzerland a few weeks later, further solidifying her reputation as an unstoppable force in the world of downhill racing. Some may say she was destined for greatness. Hailing from a family that lives and breathes competitive downhill, Rachel grew up at the races. Her trajectory to the top began in the crammed backseat of her father’s car on the way to watch her brothers race. Not one to sit on the sidelines, it didn’t take long for Rachel to begin entering races of her own. At age eight, when most children think jumping off a swing set makes them some kind of Evel Knievil protégé, Rachel was already racing BMX. She picked up mountain biking at 11, and had a World Cup Series Overall before the age of 20, becoming the first British woman ever to win a World Championship in Downhill.
Today, the Athertons are affectionately—and accurately—referred to as the First Family of Downhill. Rachel joins her brothers Dan and Gee on Trek Factory Racing’s DH squad, and as stalwart fixtures in the sport for more than a decade, their impact on the scene has been vast. Rachel’s rise to the top has always been a family affair, and her brothers have been her training and business partners throughout the highs and lows of her storied career. Indeed, the tale of uninterrupted success and structured training regimens one imagines from a glimpse at Rachel’s palmarès misses some critical parts of her story. Following her first World Cup Overall Series title in 2008, on a balmy January day in California, Rachel and the clan set out for a road ride that nearly changed everything. Enjoying the winding coastal roads on her first full-carbon road machine, AC/DC blasting in her ears as she moved through the corners, Rachel was shocked when a pickup truck appeared directly in front of her. Unable to avoid the collision, the truck hit her head-on, sending her crashing into the windshield. Gee recalls believing Rachel had died when he first approached the accident to find her laying on the ground in front of a massive vehicle, the windshield shattered. Rachel was lucky. She was conscious and breathing immediately after the impact, and Dan and Gee acted quickly to get help to the scene. While she was fortunate to not have sustained more serious injuries, her shoulder was badly dislocated—a problematic injury for a downhill athlete who had already undergone surgery there. For a time, fans and competitors questioned whether the unstoppable Brit could make a full recovery and return to the top of the podium in such a physically tolling discipline. Rachel underwent seven surgeries on her shoulder, missing the entirety of the 2009 season. While many young athletes would have become discouraged following such a seemingly dramatic fall from grace, even at 21, long years of preparation had produced a focused and disciplined rider in Rachel. Though it took time for her to regain her strength, Rachel always knew how to win and train for the highest levels of competition. From intense physical training in the gym, to focused rides honing her technical abilities, her drive and preparation pointed her right back to the top step of the podium.
Back in the pits for the 2010 World Cup, Rachel came out swinging with a victory in round one on the slopes of Maribor. She continued to claw her way back to the top, eventually winning the Overall Series in 2012 and 2013. Her impressive double victory with Gee at Fort William, Scotland in 2013 would have been a spectacular cap to this epic comeback, but she was far from finished. 2014 was another strong year for Rachel, despite a feverish illness that dogged her throughout the season. While many riders would have been thrilled with what she accomplished that year—the UK National Championship, two World Cup wins, and close 2nd in the World Championship race—Rachel was determined to get back to the top in 2015. She did so in dramatic fashion, beginning a string of World Cup victories that have continued through today. The question now is simple—when will anyone beat Rachel again? What could stop her seemingly inexhaustible momentum? As inspiring as she is to watch on the course, her demeanor off the track is what sets Rachel apart as an example for young women and competitors everywhere. Known for constant smiles, gregarious conversation, and overall positivity, Rachel’s open and friendly nature is a major part of why fans love to cheer her on, and why competitors love to race with her week after week.
Even Rachel’s pre-race ritual speaks to her easygoing personality and sense of humor. She always naps on race day, and hard boiled eggs are her unusual fuel of choice. This unorthodox nutrition choice may have something to do with another of her traditions, as Rachel boots it before each and every race. (Editor’s note: Maybe there’s one thing we shouldn’t follow her example on…) Simply put, there’s no one like her, and very few have made such a significant contribution to mountain biking. Her story speaks to the importance of perseverance, the power of family, and the beauty of having fun and not taking life too seriously. Though it’s possible no one will ever reach Rachel’s level in sport, we can all aspire to adopt more of her positive outlook. The line between fierce competitor and awesome human being need not be sharply drawn. If you need proof, just keep watching Rachel and the Athertons. The First Family of Downhill doesn’t seem to be stepping down any time soon.