Rachel Atherton is determined to get more girls out on bikes and having a blast. We caught up with the Downhill World Cup and World Champs star to discuss women in mountain biking, the impact of social media and the future of the sport.
MBUK: What changes have you seen in mountain biking over the years?
RACHEL: The participation of women in mountain biking in general has blown up in the past five years and it amazes me how many women I see out on the tracks and at the trail centres. It's cool! Social media and the moving image have played a huge part. People don’t have to be 'into' mountain biking to be able to follow us and be inspired to try the sport, they just have to have Instagram. I’m not saying that social media is the be all and end all by any means, but it’s a stepping stone. It proves to sponsors that people do follow women racers and want to watch us race.
What do you think has prompted this increase in women riders?
The world has become more health conscious in the past five years and the availability of more gender-specific products has helped too, but in the UK a lot of credit has to go to trail centres. They've made it so easy for women to try riding – just hire a bike and off you go! DH uplift venues like Antur Stiniog and Revolution Bike Park have helped massively too – it's just so easy to get out and ride now! I went to Coed-y-Brenin the other day and was blown away by the number of women on the trails. It was awesome! Women are just becoming stronger, braver and more badass!
How can we encourage these girls who are just getting into the sport to give racing a go?
I don’t know. Female-specific events are really popular and the first female Foxhunt from Red Bull was awesome – I was humbled to see so many women just shredding and having a great time – but I don’t want women to lose the edge that riding with men gives. It's good to encourage youngsters to ride with BMX tracks and pump tracks, but ultimately racing is important to me, which is why I’ve focused on the BDS...
You're sponsoring the Junior Women’s category of the British Downhill Series (BDS) this year. What was the impetus behind this decision?
Well, I just thought, "f**k it!" I wanted to do something that would have a direct impact on up-and-coming riders. There are a lot of girls who race and until last year I wasn't really aware of them. This surprised me, so I decided I wanted to be more involved with the women’s side of racing.
I was really lucky having my big brothers at the races – learning from them was a massive help for me. I thought that if I could offer help or advice it might encourage more girls and women to start racing, especially if the prospect of turning up to a race and being out of their depth (and on their own) was putting them off. They might improve and get faster, which would be a good thing for the whole women’s field.
Do you see a difference in the way male and female racers approach a race weekend?
Generally speaking, the guys are a bit more into their set-up, the mechanical side of things, but that’s changing. One of the most surprising things I’ve noticed is how fast some women are riding with seriously wacky set-ups!
I think a lot of women feel rushed because of the other racers. At World Cups I sometimes can’t take the time I want to learn a track because I know I’m in the way. I’m excited about the track walks I'll be doing with the ladies at the BDS – it’s such an important skillset. I'm going to invite all the women racers to walk the track with me, not just the Juniors.
I think a lot of females feel 'the eyes'. They're too worried about what people think of them and it gets in the way of the racing. When I walk the track at nationals I see girls looking for lines, but they’re stood behind 20 dudes so they can't even see the track! Don’t let that happen – walk it on your own. If you’re serious about racing, a proper track walk is your chance to take all the time you need to be confident. Jess Stone always impresses me because she walks tracks on her own at nationals, looking for lines. She knows her ability and is a good racer because of it.
What are your plans with regards to BDS sponsorship past 2015?
Some of the races for 2015 were already full when we launched the sponsorship, so hopefully girls will start seeing things happen this year and say, "I want to race next year because I might win a GoPro or some Oakley goggles." I’d love to keep it running until a British woman wins the Junior World Champs again!
How can we get more women racing at a top level?
Sometimes I think, "s**t, if only she had a proper deal and good support she'd kick our asses!” Making it more attractive for teams to sign female riders would push the sport to the next level, but it needs to happen naturally. I don’t think forcing teams to sign women riders is the way to go. For a downhill team to win the Overall Fastest prize it already needs to have a woman racer – that’s a good thing the UCI have already done.
I think things are changing. Sorry to bang on, but it's social media again! I follow two really talented young girls, Vali Holl and Mille Johnset, who both have good media skills already and they're, like, 13! Both have been picked up by bike brands already because they're making themselves available to sponsors and showing them what they do.
Do you think some of your peers could do more to market themselves?
I do think some women racers need to take charge of marketing themselves more. I mean, it’s so easy! I see it as part of my job as a professional. A girl can hardly complain that she isn’t as well paid as the men or can’t find a sponsorship deal when there's literally nothing to see or read about her. There's no excuse these days. We live in the modern world and if you don’t accept the need to promote yourself, someone will take your place. If you go AWOL between races and disappear off the radar, no one cares about you. People want to know things, they want to feel connected and they want to be inspired, or they’ll find someone else who does that.
These days women racers don’t need to wait for their team manager to get a budget and the OK to do a film about them. Social media means sponsors now see female athlete as easily marketable representatives. A few years ago they’d have had no idea what a girl could do because it was the magazines’ choice whether she was seen or not. Now it's up to her.
If you watch Earthed from 2008 when I won the World Champs, Gee [Atherton] won and Josh [Bryceland] won, there's a short interview with me among all the men’s footage. Compare that to this year where Manon, Tahnee and I are all posting images and videos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If the filmers don’t give us the space and time in the edits we deserve, who cares? We have control! I hate technology – it fries my brain – but social media is an important element to take advantage of.
What’s your take on suggestions that some brands are signing riders based on their looks and social media following rather than their results and abilities on the trail/race track?
Well, do you find your wife visually attractive? Did you choose your shirt because it looked good? I thought so! It’s human nature to want to look at nice things. It doesn’t matter if you’re a male or female athlete, if you’re representing a sponsor’s company they expect you to look good, but they also expect you to deliver the results, or the video hits, or the photos that they need. It's not enough just to race fast, win and then disappear.
Being nice to look at isn't the goal. Being real is the goal, being inspirational is the goal, being able to sell women GT Fury downhill bikes because they'll let them shred fast is my goal. But I also want to look nice doing it, because that’s in my nature as a human.
You won’t see Miss Brazil with a deal from Commencal because she's hot! Sponsors are attracted by a whole package. But there is a fine line that we as female athletes need to acknowledge. We need the message to be, "you can be strong, capable and take part in this life-affirming sport and still embrace your femininity while doing so". (By the way, makeup makes me look way better!)
Where do you see mountain biking going in the next few years?
I see it growing and growing. Mainstream media outlets like BT Sport and The Red Bulletin (Red Bull’s own print magazine) are loving mountain biking right now – it’s fresh and amazing to watch, and fun and easy to do! I see more and more trail centres popping up, and I see more young girls racing. More companies are launching gender-specific products, and the number of dads who send in photos of their three-year-old daughters riding… Wow! In 10 years these girls will be up there! These are exciting times. I’d like to see an Olympic bid [to include downhill racing] for sure, and more race teams signing women, plus Casey Brown winning the Whip Off World Champs!