Downhill mountain bikes weren’t designed to go up. They’re heavy as hell and have the wrong gear ratio, and the best that you can hope for is a ride on a chairlift or in the back of a truck. Failing that, you’re pushing. Which, for most of us, is no fun.
Than again, most of us aren’t Rachel Atherton. It’s early October, and she’s on the side of a grassy slope in northern England, rolling her powder-blue Trek alongside her as though it’s filled with helium. Her full-face helmet hangs from her handlebars, and her frizzy blonde hair is twisted into a bun. Atherton, 29, has a smile on her face, the kind of contented smile that comes when you’re the world’s top female downhiller and have just wrapped up a perfect season.
And today, she just gets to ride. It’s the warm-up for the Red Bull Foxhunt, a mass-start race where 220 women will set off down a track as Atherton tries to overtake them from behind. “I’m amazed by how the women all feed off each other,” Atherton says. “The main thing I want to get across is how confident it makes you feel to tackle a whole mountain on a bike.”
At the base of the hill, many of the competitors have boyfriends or husbands in tow, schlepping baby carriages and fetching energy bars from the base. Amelia Taylor, a 36-year-old mother and amateur racer, points to her 15-month-old daughter, Phoebe. “She’s been coming to bike events since she was five weeks old.”
Signing up for the Foxhunt is like getting a backstage pass to Atherton. Everywhere she goes, competitors pull her aside for selfies, to which she unfailing responds with a “Yes, please!” At a slippery off-camber section of the course, where the racers are sliding into one another in three-bike pileups, Atherton pauses to hold court. “Drop your outside foot, and then this foot is in the air or dabbing along and you can lean in loads,” she says. A few seconds later, a rider comes flying down. “Nice! Nice, nice! Holy mother! Yeah, woo!” she hollers.