© Dan Griffiths
If there's a place where Gee Atherton can't ride, we haven't heard of it
The latest project from downhill rider Gee Atherton pitted him against an old quarry in Wales, and the resulting video will leave your heart in your mouth.
Gee Atherton is rightly regarded as one of the best downhill mountain bikers of all time. An overall UCI World Cup winner, two-time world champion and multi-World Cup event winner, there’s not a lot he hasn’t achieved during his near-two-decade professional career.
But Gee doesn’t preserve himself solely for race weekends and their sometimes manicured, bike park-built courses. The 36-year-old Brit has tackled some of downhill’s rawest and gnarliest lines over the years – most notably securing second place at Red Bull Rampage in 2004 and 2010 – and the iconic event he helps organise and won in 2018 isn’t called Red Bull Hardline for nothing.
Filmed in Wales just up the road from Dyfi Bike Park (designed by Gee's brother, Dan) it sees Gee descending a mountain of slate in the disused Wincilate quarry. As the surface shifts beneath his wheels, and obstacles take him via huge vertical drop-offs, cliff edges and mine shafts, there really is no room for error on his white-knuckle descent to the valley.
Watch the film and check out our interview with Gee below to find out more about The Slate Line.
Hey Gee. That looked like one of the gnarliest things you’ve ever done. What was the inspiration behind the project?
The inspiration was like most of these big mountain projects – looking for a bit of an adventure. That’s how the best projects start. You’re not looking for anything other than something to push your limits, and this was just that.
I’d known about this quarry for a long time – we’ve always driven past it but we dismissed it because it looks so intimidating, so steep and aggressive that I’ve never toyed with the idea that there would be something up there. It wasn’t until we wandered up there and started exploring it that I slowly started to think that maybe there is something here.
Once I got drawn into that quarry and had started looking into it, there was no turning back.
Were there difficulties plotting a linked-up route down the mountain?
That was one of the hardest parts to it. You hike up and your first thoughts are this place is absolutely insane. But as you acclimatise to just how exposed and gnarly it is up there, the line kind of shows itself out of the mountain and you start piecing it together. You start to scratch the surface here, dig around there and it gradually, slowly comes out of the mountain. But there were some sections that, up until the very moment I rode them, I wasn’t sure that they’d be possible.
How long did the build take?
We were probably up there for six weeks in total. A lot of that was because there wasn’t a plan to it – there was a process of trial and error to it, and it was a case of building things and seeing if they worked.
Lines would change from run to run, which was insane
Also, it’s a unique site to build on because there’s no dirt up there. Everything you built, you built from huge slabs of slate. That whole mountain is piled up there and as soon as you touch it, walk on it or try and move something, the whole thing just starts sliding. We would build something, go away and come back and it wouldn’t be there, or it would have moved, or an avalanche of rocks would have crushed it. It was quite a fluid project because you’d be riding things and testing things and they’d be changing as you ride them – lines would change from run to run, which was insane.
What was going through your mind the first time you dropped in?
I was bloody scared. You can see to the valley floor and when you drop in, you’re going to pick up all this speed and get faster and faster and out of control until you get to the bottom. I didn’t know if I’d be able to control the speed or manage to stop, or be able to ride it. It was a complete unknown and the only way to find out was literally to drop in. It was terrifying.
Did you have to approach riding the scree in a particular way?
I just had to make sure I was absolutely on form. It wasn’t a case of dropping in, warming up a bit and doing a few chiller laps and getting into it – you had to make sure every time you’re on the bike that you’re absolutely sharp and ready for it. I had to really concentrate and focus, and make sure physically and mentally that I was ready for something quite aggressive.
When you ride something like that and you’re riding a bit cautiously and defensively, you’re not really in control. You’re at the mercy of where the mountain takes you, and up there that’s so dangerous because if you wander off line there are cliffs and mines and all sorts.
The video shows that you took a tumble. Was that the worst crash you had during filming?
There were a few little slips, and tumbles and small offs but nothing major. There was no room for error, though. The rocks are sharp, so if you were to fall on them, it was going to be quite high consequence.
Also, there were open mines running down the centre, which were 600ft deep – a fall into those and it would be game over. It was difficult to try and navigate a way through the whole process without putting a foot wrong.
What went through your mind when you did crash?
It was just fear because of how steep it was. A lot of the problem was stopping – it was so steep and some of it was so fast, you’d pick up a huge amount of momentum and it would be really difficult to control that stop. When it’s dirt or loam, you can get away with crashes where you try something – it all goes wrong and you just ragdoll. But when it’s slate – I knew it would be a trip to the hospital. I got flung backwards and because I knew how steep it was and that there were drops behind me, it wasn’t until I managed to stop that I knew I was safe. As soon as I felt like I was high siding backwards, I thought this could be bad.
Does it compare to anything you’ve ridden before?
There was definitely elements of other things I’ve ridden. For example, the big gap at the bottom was 81ft, so that was similar to stuff I’ve hit at Rampage or Hardline before.
If it’s on my mind when I’m at home and trying to relax, that’s my kind of gauge of when I know I’ve built something pretty big. It’s horrific
Some sections were reminiscent of what you might ride in a downhill track. But the majority was very unique and that’s what brought such an unknown to it.
Did you have any doubts about attempting that gap at the end?
Many doubts. We built that quite early on, and the problem is, when you build something like that and you know you’ve got to hit it, it’s on your mind. It’s not just on your mind when you’re up there thinking about it – it’s with you from the moment you build it to the moment you test it. You wake up in the morning thinking about it. It’s on your mind as a genuine concern. If it’s on my mind when I’m at home and trying to relax, that’s my kind of gauge of when I know I’ve built something pretty big. It’s horrific.
It was a super-steep run in and then a blind take-off and then a long, steep landing that was littered either side with enormous, razor-sharp boulders. I did a few runs into it to gauge the speed, but again even on the run it was loose rock and moving underneath you, so it was different every time.
What were your emotions on reaching the bottom?
Massively relieved. It’s an amazing feeling to go through that process of going somewhere, deciding you’re going to try and ride it, building it, and then overcoming it, conquering it and getting to the bottom in one piece. That rollercoaster of emotions is crazy. I had that sense of accomplishment when I got to the bottom and thought right, I’ve done it, I’ve beaten the mountain.
The Slate Line follows on from your previous release, The Ridgeline. Is this the start of a series of mountain projects?
I really enjoy them and I think there’s so much potential for doing more of these big mountain projects – not just in the UK and at home, but some other places around the world that we’ve been looking at. In fact, we’ve already started the build on the next line, which is already starting to give me a bit of the fear.