By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Rachel Atherton once had “a bit of a dream” of taking up track cycling but, with five mountain bike downhill world championship golds and six World Cup titles won, she would do nothing different now.
The 30-year-old Briton on Sunday became her sport’s most decorated downhill world champion, adding a fifth rainbow jersey to the collection she keeps in a birdcage at home.
“I think mountain biking is enough for me,” the Red Bull athlete told Reuters after her latest triumph in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
“With the injuries and the toll it takes from your body, I don’t think I’d be able to really change to a new sport now and go for that.
“I’m a mountain biker through and through and that’s what my body knows how to do. I think it would be too hard to change. And I’m pretty satisfied even though that’s the case.”
Downhill mountain biking is not an Olympic discipline and even if Atherton ranks alongside her country’s golden cycling heroes in terms of success, she receives far less mainstream media attention.
If that is a disappointment, it is something she can live with.
“As downhill racers, we didn’t get into the sport to have an Olympic dream, we got into the sport for the pure love of riding bikes,” she said.
“Mountain biking is a huge sport, it’s got an incredible following and it’s a great big industry. That’s regardless of the Olympics and I’m quite proud of that and the fact that it stands on its own two feet.
“I don’t feel like I’m short-changed from not having an Olympic medal in mountain biking. The world championships and World Cup series, that takes up all the time and effort. It’s our Olympics and I think that’s just the way it is.”
The stresses and strains have taken a toll, with as many injuries as championships over the past decade including a broken collarbone last year.
Atherton regularly throws up before a race — something she attributes to nerves and pressure and that has only got worse in recent years.
“It’s like going to war almost, it’s really kind of fight or flight,” she said. “Your body is just getting ready for a full battle for those minutes on the racetrack and being sick is probably just a part of getting prepared for that.”
On Sunday, with the adrenalin in full flow, she finished some 10 seconds faster than compatriot and runner-up Tahnee Seagrave.
“I remember thinking at the top of the hill ‘I don’t care if I break my collarbone now. I don’t care if I hurt myself because I want that win’,” she recalled.
“I was willing to risk it and push myself right to the limit and ride on the edge and that showed in the result.”
Atherton’s next challenge is a ‘Red Bull Foxhunt’ event at the end of September in which she will chase hundreds of female downhill mountain bikers, aiming to pass them all over the two km distance.
“It’s quite a tall order but just a lovely way to end the year and really meet the people that make our sport,” she said.
The Briton keeps all her rainbow jerseys close to hand, taking them out occasionally to relive the memories.
The latest will join the birdcage collection, albeit slightly worse for wear.
“We had a curry last night for our dinner after the race and we were sat there at the table and I took the white jersey off because I didn’t want to get it dirty,” said Atherton.
“My boyfriend accidentally flicked some on to my trousers so he just grabbed the nearest thing to hand and started wiping the curry off my trousers — and it was the white jersey so it was covered in curry stain.
“I think I’ll leave it. It’s kind of all part of the memories when you take these jerseys out, that’s why I keep them to hand.
“They’ve all got a story behind them and you want to feel and touch them and remember that race, that day and how it felt.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond)