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
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’