ATHER­TON

VVVV ALL­STAR V VVV Moun­tain bik­ing world cham­pion Brit swaps two wheels for four. By Jack Benyon S

Motor Sport News - - Rally Gb Preview: Atherton -

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

Ather­ton is a Red Bull ath­lete in moun­tain bik­ing

The 31-year-old is used to in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion

A com­pet­i­tive edge and de­sire to win drives Gee

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