Rachel Atherton and Valentina 'Vali' Höll are at opposite ends of their downhill racing careers. Atherton is now 33-years-old and currently on hiatus, because she's pregnant with her first child, but her career has been one of unprecedented achievement to date. Höll is just 19 and yet to race an elite World Cup, but has a huge future of racing ahead of her.
On the eve of the opening 2021 Mercedes-Benz UCI Downhill Mountain Bike World Cup round in Leogang, in Höll's home nation of Austria, Red Bull's Beyond the Ordinary podcast got these two phenomenal mountain bike athletes together to compare their different experiences and discuss the commonalities of being elite racers.
Here are the four top talking points from the enlightening and engaging chat between Höll and Atherton on the podcast.
1. Injury – "You'd better get used to it"
Injury has been a big part of Atherton's career and perhaps the only thing more impressive than her 39 World Cup wins and six World Championship titles is the way she's been able to comeback from major injury and surgeries time and again.
"You are kind of waiting for injury. It's weird, but I'm kind of happy that it finally happened. The rehab process, it was all new and kind of fun actually. I learned so much," Höll admits of the injury that kept her from making her elite debut in 2020.
"You'd better get used to it!" is Atherton's reply. Injury comes with the territory of being a downhill athlete, but there are ways to manage the risk versus reward balance. For Atherton, it was a case of needing to lessen the risks, but keep the reward. She trained harder than ever to ensure she could win even when racing well within her means. Her advice to Höll is to train hard and be strong in order to lessen injuries and lengthen her career.
"I had so many injures in those early years, because my body couldn't keep up with the speed I was going. My desire to win was so high, I just wanted to win at all costs – I would smash myself to pieces. I thought, 'something needs to change. I either need to be so much faster and stronger that I can ride within my limits and still win, or I have to be okay with not winning'."
2. Psychology – "It's lonely at the top"
Being okay with not winning is not something that either Atherton or Höll can easily relate to. The mental game is a tough one when it comes to downhill racing. They both agree that the motivation to train and the commitment to all-in, flat-out racing is more a part of their sport than skill or bravery. Their competitiveness is also something that links them and something that Höll is learning about herself.
"Those two times I got second in Juniors I was pissed and I worked way harder for the next race," says Höll. "I love to be the fastest, but at the same time I feel like if I'm already faster than those who have worked so hard for more years than I did, then I feel like I don't want to piss them off, because I want to be friends with everyone."
Höll and Atherton admit that downhill racing does not have the element of camaraderie as seen in other mountain bike racing. It's too intense, too focused to allow the space for conviviality. The moments before the start are thick with nervous energy. Höll describes feeling her heartbeat heavy in her belly and Atherton says there's almost like a bubble around her where only her heightened senses operate. There's no room for anything or anyone else.
"I always think that If you’re going to be successful and win, then you have to be comfortable with being alone, because there's only one place at the top. You have to work hard to be comfortable in that position," Atherton concludes.
3. Social media – "It's important to keep something for yourself"
Being alone at the top also means switching off your phone, shutting out the hype of social media and the potential pitfalls of reading articles about yourself. The noise of people's opinions can, for some, be way too much to handle during a racing weekend.
Both Höll and Atherton feel the pressures of social media as well as wanting to share their experiences with fans and add value for their sponsors.
Höll admits to too much screen time, especially since her recent graduation from school. There are now less books and more bikes, but that still leaves a lot of time for scrolling. She's thinking of studying again; giving herself a focus and a sense of self-worth away from bikes. It's important, says Atherton, to keep something for yourself, both in life and online.
4. Role models – "It's weird, because I still feel like a kid"
Atherton remembers a young Höll coming to the Leogang World Cup – just down the road from where she lives – to watch the racing and ask for autographs. Now, the Austrian is the one on track and kids are looking up to her. It's a position that she feels honoured, but somewhat confused, by!
"It's weird, because I still feel like a kid. Suddenly kids come to me – you feel how nervous they are talking to you. It's so cool that you have some influence on them. If someday a girl starts winning races because of me, that's so sick!"
Höll feels fortunate to have grown up with strong women around her and have successful female role models in the sport that she adopted from such a young age. She could see it, therefore she could be it.
For Atherton, the change has been more pronounced, but being a role model herself and seeing Höll come into the sport and progress with such support is testament to the positive direction that downhill has taken in terms of gender equality. Equal prize money is the norm for her generation, Höll says. Equal pay is the next step.
Questions for the future
As ever, the opening round of the World Cup comes with a lot of anticipation and many questions – not least, how will Höll fare on her return to the track that sidelined her in 2020 and can she finally show what she's capable of in the Elite ranks? Watch Vali Höll make her elite debut at the Mercedes-Benz UCI Downhill Mountain Bike World Cup in Leogang this Saturday, June 12, live on Red Bull TV.
For Rachel Atherton, the question is very different this year. Will it be a girl or a boy?