VVVV ALLSTAR V VVV Mountain biking world champion Brit swaps two wheels for four. By Jack Benyon S
ebastien Ogier isn’t the only Red Bull-backed World champion heading into Wales Rally GB. This year – in terms of success at least – there’s a rival. And he’s a Brit. Meet downhill mountain biking supremo Gee Atherton.
The 31-year-old is one of the world’s best when it comes to the discipline of downhill mountain bike racing. But this week, just a year on from making his rallying debut on an asphalt airfield, he’ll make his World Rally Championship debut on Rally GB.
If you were going to choose a path to rallying not involving a car, downhill mountain biking is probably it.
Not dissimilar to rallying, events are run on dirt through mountains and forests and feature jumps, trees and troublesome scenery.
‘Geeman’ is a multiple World Cup Series champion and a name that strikes fear into his opponents. Not unlike Ogier in rallying.
Atherton’s roots lie in Mid Wales, growing up near Builth Wells. Despite his destiny to ride bikes becoming clear early on, cars were also a part of his childhood.
“Living in Wales, going to Rally GB is something we’ve always been into and we’ve always gone and watched the WRC round each year,” says Atherton. “Even when we were younger we had old cars we’d race around the lanes. We used to have a lap time board on the wall in the barn for the lanes and tracks to our house.”
However, he found it difficult to find a point of entry into the sport and cycling beckoned.
Two World Cup Series titles and eight World Cups only tell a small part of the story. Atherton’s aggressive and flamboyant style on a bike has set him apart ever since he made his debut at 15, and won his first World Cup at 19. Just like rally drivers, mountain bikers have to choose a line into a corner balancing entry and exit speed, and Atherton’s are usually the most spectacular and belief defying. This also leads to crashes.
You could say much the same in rallying, and Atherton has found the transition from bike to car easier than you might expect.
“Coming from mountain biking I was at a huge advantage,” reckons Atherton. “I can judge speed well, look for different lines, judge traction. Changing conditions and, to a certain extent, car set-up have come relatively easy to me from bike to car.” And Atherton has impressed. After his debut on the Enville Stages in 2015 he threw himself straight into the deep end with a national rally on forest stages, the Cambrian Rally. It featured stages that have been used in Wales Rally GB in the past. On his second ever event.
But that sums Geeman up perfectly. If it’s bikes or cars, throwing himself in at the deep end sharpens his mind and creates the best results. Or so his multiple championships suggest.
“It was a drop in the deep end to do the Cambrian Rally,” he says. “I think from where I started to where I am now, it’s always been about throwing myself in at the deep end, and signing up for the British Rally Championship after only doing two events was another one. But I need that pressure and that drive to apply myself to survive in that situation.
“My competitive drive is huge but that in itself isn’t enough to have any sort of success in rallying.”
Atherton made the step into the new-for-2016 BRC in a Ford Fiesta R2. Down to a technicality, Gee doesn’t have any wins to his name in the BRC 4 championship category, as he didn’t register for the class. But he would have won the category in the four events he finished in the championship this year. Only a gearbox detonation on the Scottish Rally stopped a clean sweep.
“I have been pleased, I think rallying is something you get a lot better at with experience, I was a bit out of my depth in the BRC,” adds Atherton. “I was really happy with how we were going and the pace was good. A few events we didn’t finish because of mechanical issues with the car, which may be down to my inexperience and the fact that I couldn’t see them coming. Every time I’m in the car it’s a massive learning curve and I improve during every event I do.”
Another endearing element to the story is that there are no big team or big sponsors for the world champ. He and a few mechanics have run the car themselves. He’s also brought in a young co-driver in Keaton Williams, who has shone in helping Gee acclimatise to full-on rallying.
Williams was suggested by Shaun Gardener, a BTRDA Gold Star champion, who has helped Atherton in his adaptation to the sport.
“I was lucky with knowing Shaun,” says Atherton. “He was there from when I started with so much advice and tips. It was all down to him that I knew where to go and what to do, who to talk to and how to get into events. He hooked me up with his co-driver Ben Innes but of course he was doing events with Shaun, so they managed to find me Keaton. We got on really well, we have good craic together and Keaton is an amazing co-driver.”
And Williams has stepped up to the mark. The 21-year-old has shown maturity beyond his years in taking the reins in the car, getting the duo to the end of events with the maximum amount of experience gained. The performances helped get him onto the Motor Sports Association’s co-driving academy run by Colin Mcrae’s former co-pilot Nicky Grist.
“We said to Keaton; ‘look, you’re younger and don’t have a huge amount of experience but in a lot of these circumstances you’re going to have to be the boss’. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t scared to tell me to lift off and stop being an idiot,” adds Atherton. “He did do that and he saved us [from accidents] a couple of times. And the other way around too, if I was being a bit soft, he’s not scared to say ‘you can crack on here’.”
Williams’ input can’t be underestimated. As he explains, while Gee can relate to elements of rallying from his biking experience, listening to a co-driver is completely new.
“To have someone telling him what to do and where to go is probably the most difficult thing for him,” says Williams.
“When he’s on his bike he’s not got anyone sat on the back telling him what to do or where to go. But his car control and lines and things like that have been great and his cycling has obviously helped that.”
Gardener isn’t Atherton’s only mentor and inspiration. British champion Elfyn Evans has been a friend since before Atherton drove for the first time as they met through Red Bull. There aren’t many better teachers than Evans, plus he’s a fan of downhill mountain biking and often spectates at Gee’s events.
“I’ve known Elfyn a few years,” says Atherton. “He’s helped me out a lot. I spent a day with him at M-sport and that was a huge jump forward for me.
“He’s the kind of guy who’s such an amazing driver and an amazing athlete but also so humble. It’s been amazing to have him there. I like to think if Elfyn fancies himself on a downhill bike that we can reverse the roles one day. I’ve suggested it to him but he didn’t seem that keen!”
So with a car, navigator, driver and mentorship all hooked up perfectly after a brilliant learning year, that brings us to Wales Rally GB. Atherton is chomping at the bit to get going.
“I’ve raced at World Cup level for years so in an event itself it doesn’t feel any different really as I’m used to competing in these sorts of events,” he says. “The only difference is I’m in a completely different vehicle. In some respects I’m relaxed about it and looking forward to it and other times I’m thinking this is a big step up after only driving a car for the first time last year.
“It’s something I’m really excited about and if I could have I would have rallied every weekend this year. The more events I can do the better. Being able to be part of Wales Rally GB is enormous for me.”
Gee will enter the national element of the rally, which means he’ll have one pass through the stages rather than the two the WRC drivers have. But it’s still run over three days, which will also be new to him.
He still has a long way to go to get to where he wants to be. But the year he’s had will go some way to preparing him for the challenge, and competing on national events has given him the knowledge of the weather. But the Dayinsure Wales Rally GB is a test no one can really prepare for.
His outfit will be a little different to his fellow champion Sebastien Ogier, with a few friends running his car, not 300 experts from Hanover.
But if he can finish and score a good result, it will be the equivalent to Ogier winning the event outright.
The switch from bikes to cars and the rate of progression, may even make the result sweeter. n