Rachel Atherton performs at UCI DH World Cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland on July 8, 2022
© Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool
MTB

"It was a bit of an eye-opener": Rachel Atherton on returning to racing

The six-time UCI DH MTB World Champion made a surprise appearance at Lenzerheide 2022. From new priorities to next steps, here are her thoughts on her first competitive race in more than three years.
Written by Charlie Allenby
7 min readPublished on
Rachel Atherton has nothing left to prove on a mountain bike. The 34-year-old has won every title going in downhill, and multiple times at that.
[Racing] wasn't really on the cards and then for a few different reasons I suddenly thought, ‘why not?’. It was quite a last-minute decision.
But the sport has missed her presence since she snapped her Achilles tendon during practice at Les Gets back in 2019. The injury ruled the reigning World Champion out of the remaining races and focusing on making a swift recovery for the 2020 season opener. Little did she know at the time that her next visit to the start hut would be in a matter of years rather than months.
The intervening period has seen delays for positive (the birth of her daughter in August 2021) and negative reasons (the pandemic effectively wiping out the 2020 season), but she was determined to return to World Cup racing, even if it was just to prove that it's possible to juggle parenthood with pinning descents.
"I feel a bit of a responsibility to race and to show that you can have a baby and still do sport," she said after competing for the first time in more than three years at Lenzerheide.
She did more than that, finishing one spot off the podium and a place behind reigning World Cup overall winner Vali Höll.
Watch Rachel's first race run in more than three years below:

3 min

Rachel Atherton's Lenzerheide run

Watch Rachel Atherton's return to the UCI DH World Cup in Lenzerheide.

English

Here, she reveals her inspiration for returning to racing, how she felt after her first race run of the decade, and her plans for the rest of the season...
When did you decide that you’d return to racing in Lenzerheide?
I've been trying to decide when I'd race again for the last three years. It wasn't really on the cards and then for a few different reasons I suddenly thought, ‘why not?’. It was quite a last-minute decision. I wanted to do one before the end of this year to have a benchmark and see where I was in terms of training. I also just wanted to see if it was even enjoyable anymore and if it was possible with a baby.
You completed practice at Fort William before pulling out of qualifying. What was your thinking here?
Rachel Atherton performs at UCI DH World Cup in Fort William, United Kingdom on May 20, 2022
She took part in practice at Fort William before pulling out
It was tempting to do Fort William, a home race, but you've got to train properly for this sport – there's a reason why we train full time. I'm not fit enough, I'm not strong enough, I've not done enough training, I didn't want to get hurt – my main priority is staying healthy – so I thought I'd do a shorter one. In actual reality, Lenzerheide was equally as hard as Fort William.
A World Cup is never easy. It had its challenges but it was good to see where I was at and whether I still enjoyed it. I can go into next season knowing a bit more about where I'm at and if I still want to race – that's ultimately the question.
How did it feel being back competing at a World Cup after more than three years?
Myriam Nicole and Rachel Atherton seen at UCI DH World Cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland on July 8, 2022
There were familiar faces on her return to racing
It felt like I'd never been away. It's nice to go into autopilot. I've been racing for so long that I know exactly what I'm doing, whereas motherhood and raising a baby are totally unknown. It was nice to do something where I knew what I was doing for a change rather than just winging it and seeing what happens.
It was amazing being back and feeling that adrenaline, puzzling the track and all the things that go into that one World Cup race run. I can see why you just want more and more of it because it keeps you coming back.
It's the first time I've ever been to a race and not tried to win
What was your goal going into the race?
It's the first time I've ever been to a race and not tried to win. I had no idea if I'd be anywhere near the pace or if I might even qualify – I hoped I'd be around where I was really. It was hard not to be annoyed not to get on the podium – that's just the racer in me. But it would have been too easy if that had happened. I'm glad in a way. You shouldn't be able to rock up to a World Cup and get straight back on the podium with no preparation.
What was going through your head as you waited in the start hut before your race run?
Rachel Atherton performs at UCI DH World Cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland on July 8, 2022
She had to fight her racing instincts to stay safe during her finals run
I remember taking a deep breath and looking out across the mountains and thinking, 'This doesn't matter. I don't have anything to prove to myself. I don't need to get a result. I just want to ride and see if I can even get down the mountain.'
When you're a racer and you're in that start gate, as soon as you leave it, your body automatically wants to try and win. My body was pushing me and my mind was saying, ‘Let's do this’, and I was having to really fight and say, 'Stay safe, just ride, and don't take any risks’. That was a really strange, internal battle that was going on.
Was the intensity of racing a shock to the system?
I was pleasantly surprised – I didn't feel too stiff or sore, even though I haven't really done much training – but also it was a bit of an eye-opener, how much training and how far I've got to go to be back on the top if that's what I want. The girls are going so fast and it's definitely going to be hard work.
You need to be strong enough that your body's not going to fall apart as soon as you take hits
Riding your bike is not easy by any means, but it just takes a lot of skill. Being strong enough to crash is the important bit – you need to be strong enough that your body's not going to fall apart as soon as you take hits, because it's inevitable you'll hit the ground and trees. For me, not getting hurt is even more important than it was before, as I've got a lot more responsibility.
Do you think becoming a mum has changed your approach to racing?
Rachel Atherton performs at UCI DH World Cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland on July 9, 2022
Despite 'taking it easy', Rachel still finished 6th in her first race back
You don't want to get hurt before, but it's purely for yourself and your career and your sponsors. But now, it genuinely matters – there's someone depending on you. If you get hurt, you can't just kick back at home until you're fixed, do your rehab and rest. I'd have to carry on being a mum and feeding her and all the stuff that it entails. It's definitely in the back of your mind when you're riding. I think you just need to be more calculated and a bit more clever; rather than going fast, you've got to find different ways to be fast.
Do you have any more plans to race this season?
I wish I'd done the next one in Andorra but I just thought it's pushing it, I'm just not ready. I know that it would have been too easy to start trying to get better and better and then get an injury. I'm trying to be clever about it.
My daughter's not going to be a little baby for much longer but racing will always be there
I wish I was better at sticking to a plan though. My daughter’s nearly a year old but she's not sleeping through the night still and I'm still pretty exhausted. [Racing] is definitely possible, but with sleep deprivation and breastfeeding, it's a lot to ask of my body and I don't want to rush it. I want to respect what my body's done. It's given me 20 years of racing and winning and now it's had a baby and I want to give myself time to be strong and not rush it.
I'm trying to be sensible and not go for the good story or what people would get excited about. It's more important just to be safe and not crash.
How does it feel juggling parenthood with being a downhill racer?
Rachel Atherton performs at UCI DH World Cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland on July 9, 2022
"I feel a responsibility to show you can have a baby and still do sport"
It's bloody hard and you need a lot of support and a lot of sacrifices.
I don't want to miss out on her being a little baby. It doesn't last forever. She's not going to be a baby for much longer and racing will always be there.