Trail blazer

For­ever push­ing the bound­aries of his sport, moun­tain biker Dan Ather­ton is now us­ing his cre­ative vi­sion to build in­no­va­tive tracks that are wow­ing the world’s best rid­ers

Cyclist - - Promotion -

Deep among the tree-cov­ered slopes and rocky val­leys of the Dyfi For­est in Wales, Bri­tish moun­tain bike pi­o­neer Dan Ather­ton is hard at work in his mo­torised dig­ger. The 35-yearold rider is one of the fa­mous trio of Ather­ton sib­lings, along­side Gee, 32, a two-time Down­hill World Cham­pion, and Rachel, 29, a four-time Down­hill World Cham­pion. Dan him­self has been suc­cess­ful in al­most every dis­ci­pline of moun­tain bik­ing, from four-cross and down­hill to en­duro – with no­table vic­to­ries in the 2008 Four Cross Na­tional Cham­pi­onships and the bone-shak­ing 2012 Maxi Avalanche. Yet the se­nior Ather­ton has al­ways been most pas­sion­ate about the cre­ative side of the sport, for­ever push­ing bound­aries and search­ing for some­thing new.

‘I have al­ways loved the feel­ing of cre­at­ing orig­i­nal trails and then rid­ing them and test­ing them,’ ex­plains Ather­ton, who lives in Machyn­l­leth, close to the Dyfi For­est where he has built a net­work of ex­hil­a­rat­ing new trails. ‘When I was rac­ing reg­u­larly it was dif­fer­ent be­cause you are pit­ting your­self against the track and the other guys but I al­ways pre­ferred the cre­ative process of build­ing some­thing new. The rac­ing was al­most a by-prod­uct that en­abled me to live this cre­ative life.’

Ather­ton pre­vi­ously lived with his brother and sis­ter in nearby Llan­rhaeadr, where he used to build smaller trails on a patch of land leased from a lo­cal farmer. But since mov­ing to the area – a revered lo­cal moun­tain bik­ing hub – he has found the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment on which to un­leash his more am­bi­tious trail­blaz­ing ideas.

‘I wanted to find some­where re­mote and quiet so I had a to­tally blank can­vas to work on,’ he says. ‘Now I am push­ing hard every day, get­ting up at 6am and some­times work­ing un­til 8pm to make progress. I have a great team of five or six guys who are a huge

help, but your life goes to pot and you don’t have time for any­thing else – you need a lot of pas­sion to be out build­ing trails in the rain. I still ride a hell of a lot, test­ing ev­ery­thing we build and push­ing it to its lim­its. There is huge po­ten­tial for us to open up this area to a big­ger au­di­ence. It’s a never-end­ing job. Even when we fin­ish a trail we can al­ways add to it.’

His uniquely chal­leng­ing trails in the Dyfi Val­ley be­came an in­stant global hit with the launch of the Red Bull Hard­line event there in 2014. An in­vi­ta­tion-only an­nual chal­lenge for the world’s fastest rid­ers, the course – built by Ather­ton – has been dubbed the tough­est down­hill trail on the planet, with gap jumps, gi­ant slab rolls and tight wooded sec­tions. An on-board video of his 2016 descent has amassed al­most 4 mil­lion views on Youtube.

‘Hard­line was cre­ated to push the pro­gres­sion of our sport,’ Ather­ton says. ‘It is crazy how one video gets so many hits and an­other one might not, but I think peo­ple are re­ally savvy to so­cial me­dia; they know what is le­git and what is fake and hav­ing the whole per­sonal story be­hind Hard­line, with so much hard work put into it, adds to its au­then­tic­ity. When you see this track that you have rid­den day in, day out, get all glammed up and shown to the world, it gives you a mas­sive sense of achieve­ment.’

Ather­ton’s wealth of race ex­pe­ri­ence has shaped his vi­sion for the course. ‘I have spent so many years look­ing at moun­tains and imag­in­ing tracks down them. When you first turn up at a

site or a race venue you are nat­u­rally drawn to the best lines. You know what to look for, like the rock for­ma­tions hid­den un­der the ground, or a nat­u­ral ridge, or the way the wa­ter flows. It all comes into ef­fect when you’re look­ing to de­sign a track.’

While Gee and Rachel have been heav­ily fo­cused on down­hill rac­ing, Dan com­peted in a broad range of dis­ci­plines and is now reap­ing the re­wards. ‘I think ev­ery­one’s rid­ing char­ac­ter stems from their per­sonal char­ac­ter. I tend to move around a lot and I like to find the next chal­lenge all the time. With a back­ground in BMX, rid­ing dirt jumps, go­ing to skate parks and rid­ing mo­tocross and en­duro, I can pull from all of those dis­ci­plines so I prob­a­bly see things in a dif­fer­ent way to most other rid­ers.’

This cre­ative en­ergy is why he also en­joys col­lab­o­rat­ing on video projects. ‘I have some film projects lined up this year so I am get­ting stuff built for those too,’ he says. ‘See­ing things grow from a blank can­vas is what mo­ti­vates me. I like the process of mak­ing films be­cause I en­joy mak­ing some­thing pol­ished and high-qual­ity.’

He traces his cre­ative spirit back to his child­hood in Som­er­set where he would build cour­ses with his sib­lings. ‘Our bikes gave us free­dom and made us in­de­pen­dent from our par­ents. We could jump on a BMX and head into the woods and build jumps. We lived in a small vil­lage and made our own fun. That has had a huge in­flu­ence right the way through my ca­reer. I al­ways look to find the next level in ev­ery­thing I do.’

A sense of pre­ci­sion and an at­ten­tion to de­tail were both sig­na­ture qual­i­ties of Ather­ton’s pro­fes­sional ca­reer. ‘From years of rac­ing World Cups you just get used to that life where ev­ery­thing has to be per­fect,’ he says. ‘The bike has to be per­fect. The kit has to be per­fect too. That’s what I love about the Oak­ley Prizm™ Trail lenses. When you’re rid­ing trails at speed, in the heat or the cold, in the mud and the chaos, you need to be able to make out every de­tail. When I can see clearly, I can re­act quickly. It means I can push bound­aries, take risks, do some­thing dif­fer­ent.’

School of hard knocks

Dur­ing his eclec­tic ca­reer Ather­ton has suf­fered mul­ti­ple in­juries, the most se­ri­ous of which came from a life-threat­en­ing dirt jump crash in 2010 that left him with bro­ken ver­te­brae.

‘It sounds strange but it was such a bad in­jury it was ac­tu­ally easier to deal with than a smaller in­jury,’ he says. ‘Be­cause I was lucky to be alive, in my head I wasn’t think­ing about com­ing back to rac­ing, so I could just fo­cus on tak­ing small steps in­stead. So I learned to walk to the toi­let. Then I walked out­side. Then I walked to the end of the drive. In the long run it makes you tougher

be­cause you can deal with those huge time spans.’

It’s a les­son that he has drawn on dur­ing his long months of trail-build­ing in the for­est.

‘It’s not easy when you are there with a spade or in the dig­ger in the rain, cov­ered in oil and grease, with the dig­ger’s tracks fall­ing off. The fi­nesse you have in rac­ing is not there in that world. It can be re­ally hard when the moun­tain is cov­ered in trees and moss and you can’t see what is there but you just keep that big­ger pic­ture in your mind. Maybe not ev­ery­one else can see it but you know what you’re work­ing to­wards.’

Liv­ing a life of ob­ses­sion can be ex­haust­ing but Ather­ton wouldn’t want it any other way: ‘I live in a for­est in the mid­dle of nowhere, and I don’t have a TV so I just switch off to the world. We have built a sauna here so I like to chill out in there, or maybe lis­ten to some mu­sic. But I think this is the only way I could ever be. Rach and Gee con­stantly tell me to have a more var­ied life but I am so fo­cused on what I am do­ing. I al­ways say you should throw your­selves into things 100%. To achieve some­thing great, you need to put your heart and soul into it oth­er­wise some­one else will do it bet­ter.’

Ather­ton con­cedes his is an all-con­sum­ing pas­sion: ‘Your life goes to pot and you don’t have time for any­thing else’

The course Ather­ton de­signed for the Red Bull Hard­line event in 2014 has been de­scribed as the tough­est down­hill trail on the planet

For Ather­ton, Dyfi For­est in Wales rep­re­sents ‘a to­tally blank can­vas to work on’, and he reg­u­larly works 14-hour days to make progress

Ather­ton has achieved plenty of suc­cess on the bike, but his real pas­sion is cre­at­ing orig­i­nal trails and test­ing them

‘To achieve some­thing great, you need to put your heart and soul into it’

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