Rachel, Dan and Gee Atherton – perhaps the most famous siblings ever in the world of mountain bike racing – have always pushed themselves. Whether that’s been through coaching methods and data analysis for their race team, corporate deals with non-MTB companies such as Jeep, or heading up their own events, and now a full-scale bike park.
With that in mind, it was safe to assume they were never going to start a bike company by buying rebadged catalogue frames.
Atherton bikes has taken on cutting-edge production techniques and space-age materials, combined with a complex suspension system, to create the bikes that bear the family name.
The question is, does all this technical wizardry and race-honed expertise translate into better bikes?
There’s only one way to know for sure. That’s why we found ourselves at Dyfi Eco Park in Machynlleth, faced with the enviable task of uncovering how the Athertons make their race-worthy machines, and then hitting the trails of Dyfi Bike Park on Gee Atherton’s own bike to find out whether it lives up to the hype.
Who are the Athertons?
- Dan: Eldest brother Dan is a four-times World Cup winner and downhill racer who went on to build the infamously gnarly Red Bull Hardline track and now heads up Dyfi Bike Park.
- Gee: Middle child George has won multiple DH World Cup and World Championship titles, mixed it with the top freeriders at Red Bull Rampage and drops jaws with his wild riding vids.
- Rachel: Rachel may be the youngest, but her achievements outshine even those of her siblings – she’s a six-time world champ with 39 World Cup wins.
Running the show
Atherton HQ has moved from the quiet wilds of rural Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, Powys (where the race team was based) to a new, more commercial facility. Upstairs is an open-plan space housing a showroom, dining area and office.
This is where the Atherton Bikes team work and play, and where CEO Dan Brown proudly talks me through the birth of the brand and where it is now.
After deals with Muddyfox, Giant, GT, Commencal and Trek, the Atherton Racing team had a pretty good measure of what was needed to make a bike work well on the toughest stages imaginable – the Downhill World Cup circuit and Enduro World Series.
So, it was perhaps a natural (if perilous) step to begin making and selling its own bikes.
Robot Bikes, a fledgling company from Monmouthshire, had begun making full-suspension frames in an innovative new way, taking lengths of carbon fibre tubing and mating them with 3D-printed (or to give the process its proper name, additive-manufactured, or AM) titanium lugs.
Liking the customisation options this afforded – unlike regular carbon frame manufacturing, where any change to the geometry requires an expensive new mould – the Athertons worked with Robot staff (many of whom still work on the project) and collaborated with UK AM specialists Renishaw to build the first 50 Atherton bikes.
Now, the company has its own premises, a team of full-time staff, entrepreneurial funding from Dragon’s Den’s Piers Linney and almost £1.4m raised from crowdfunding, via 2,218 investors.
The brand is finally going into full-scale production, and will be offering both frame kits and custom builds direct to customers via its website.
Eager to find out how they’re designed, engineered and produced, we’re directed towards the engineering department. Here, a handful of fervent young staff pore over computer models and data tables.
As they explain exactly how they do what they do, the palpable excitement makes it clear that this is more to each of them than just a nine-to-five job.
“We’re doing some things that no one has done before. There’s no manual, we just have to work it out!” I’m told with enthusiasm.
The office vibe is easy to sum up – it’s like a big family. High levels of banter and autonomy go hand in hand, as staff are free to experiment and explore, always with the goal of continuous improvement, reducing production time and waste, making the race team faster, and increasing the effectiveness of marketing communication.
Building the bikes
Cutting the carbon tubes to length and bonding them into the lugs can be done in-house with a jig and epoxy glue, but additive manufacturing is a different matter.
At the heart of this technology is a ‘printer’ – almost a derogatory term for something that laser-welds titanium to a billet baseplate in a managed inert environment.
Gloucestershire-based Renishaw is a world expert in AM and owns a number of these machines, so production of the lugs for Robot’s frames and early Atherton bikes was farmed out to the company.
However, after a successful round of crowdfunding gave thousands of riders and investors around the world a stake in the company, Atherton Bikes was able to buy its own AM machine.
Renishaw built it and is now handing increasing levels of control over to the Atherton team after selling the ‘printer’ to the company and coming up with base designs.
Its been able to do this thanks to the crack team of experts that Atherton Bikes now employs.
Hailing from across the UK, the keen young engineering team are bubbling with enthusiasm as they explain how they optimise each individual part to be printed, to streamline every stage of the production process and keep waste to a minimum.
Unsurprisingly, a huge amount of computer and human brainpower goes into the design of each part – the AM machine is only as clever as the instructions it’s given.
Each part must be designed, and optimised for printing, using computer software to model how the shape will coalesce from the titanium powder.
Supports have to be added so that the titanium has a solid surface to weld to. If they’re too big, it’ll be hard to separate the lug from the supports, too small and the part could distort or even fall apart.
Most of the lugs are size-specific. With so many frames sizes available (22 for the 150mm bike, 12 for the DH rig), that’s a lot of designing.
Atherton Bikes range overview
- Enduro: 150mm travel, 29in wheels
- DH: 203mm travel, 29in or ‘mullet’ (29in f, 650b r)
- Park (coming soon): 170mm travel, ‘mullet’
- Downcountry (coming soon): 130mm travel, 29in
Prices start at £3,995 for the enduro frame, with full builds available from around £6,500. International pricing TBC.
We head down to the ground floor – where the magic happens. Passing a room where the bikes are built and a bonding room resplendent with a billet aluminium jig, we move into the heart of the building.
The Renishaw AM machine sits imposingly in the centre of a temperature- and humidity-controlled room where even the composition of the air is monitored. Inside, no fewer than four lasers sit above a titanium plate smothered in a cloak of inert gas.
Designs are fed into the machine and, after running safety checks, it signals that it’s ready. We’re given the honour of pressing ‘go’.
How Atherton bikes are made
Titanium powder is drawn in from a hopper and graded over the titanium baseplate to a thickness of 30 microns (half the width of a human hair), then the lasers begin firing, four-abreast, into the powder, melting it into a solid dot matrix.
Instantly, another graded layer of titanium powder is added and the process repeats. Each print takes 15 to 18 hours and the staff have a 24/7 livestream they can access in the middle of the night from home, if need be.
Completed parts are purged of powder, with as much as possible being recycled for the next print. Waste titanium must be submerged in water to prevent oxidation.
Parts, still attached to the baseplate, are sent out for heat treatment. Annealing, as this is called, is essential in AM products because a lot of residual stress remains in the part after welding.
Next, grinders and air hammers are used to break the super-strong titanium parts away from their baseplate. “It’s really important to optimise the supports,” says lead manufacturing engineer Will.
“If they’re too thick, the powder can’t escape from the holes, and we have a hell of a job separating the part from the base.” Parts are then sent out for final machining, to ensure the mating surfaces are in precise tolerance for the frame’s bearings and threads.
The finished lugs enter the bonding room. Carbon fibre tubes (manufactured in New Zealand by a company that makes masts for America’s Cup yachts) are cut to length and the frame is dry-assembled in a jig.
Atherton Bikes offers multiple sizes – 22 on the 150mm bike, with reach increasing in 10mm increments as you go up the range, but the angles remaining the same. An epoxy resin is mixed and inserted into the lugs, then the carbon tubes are squeezed in.
Once the frame has dried, bearings are pressed in and a shock fitted, and it can be taken to the final assembly room. Here, a mechanic will assemble the bike with the exact mix of components specified by the buyer.
In this digital age, prospective purchasers can specify a custom build from start to finish via the company’s website.
On the trails
After lunch, the team inform us that we’ll be given Gee Atherton’s personal play bike to ride – a 150mm-travel 29er. Our instructions are to chase MTB legend (and creator of Red Bull Hardline) Dan Atherton down the trails he created. Gulp!
Dyfi Bike Park is approximately nine minutes’ drive from Atherton Bikes HQ, so testing new parts, liaising with the public or just popping out for a ride couldn’t be much easier.
A connecting vein of true passion for bicycles and the growth of the brand runs through everything it does.
On this 650-acre plot of Welsh hillside, conifers grow and are harvested for an active sawmill alongside the grey snakes of freshly-dug trails.
Athy [Dan] and the Dyfi dig team have bags of motivation; they’re the masterminds and muscles behind the tracks, creating trails graded from red up to triple-black.
We bump into Dyfi’s resident coaches, including World Cup downhiller Al Bond and freerider Alf Raynor, who seem to live on their bikes, and (when they aren’t coaching) spend their weekends riding with the Shred Mansion crew on the new, and phenomenally good, triple-black Oakley Icon Way.
It’s always a pleasure to see Athy. Beneath his signature half-smile and dry wit is a calmness and genuine warmth. He’s the ideal person to follow down new and tricky terrain, because he always offers excellent advice and honest feedback.
The Icon Way is an absolute riot, too. Despite windy conditions and a wet surface, the trail has a great rhythm. Dan and the team have really put in the hours to perfect this new jewel in Dyfi’s crown.
Flowing down a triple-black-diamond trail over huge jumps and G-out-inducing berms, the bike feels reassuringly chunky, stable and predictable.
This is a machine that’s at its best when pushed hard – not surprising when you consider that the development riders are World Cup pros. Right when you’re at the edge of control is where that otherwise inert-feeling chassis feeds back to you, with no unpredictability or handling quirks. It’s rare that a bike feels instantly familiar, but this is one such steed.
Gee’s bike’s 480mm reach (compact, considering his 6ft stature) feels comfortable, and the short back end means it’s chuckable, but with an inherent stability.
The frame uses a six-bar DW6 linkage suspension system , designed by renowned suspension guru Dave Weagle and similar to that used on the prototype Commencal DH bikes raced in the 2021 World Cup series.
This gives a firmly supportive feel, but also enables the rear wheel to track the ground closely, offering great feedback and amazing traction, while also providing a good pedalling platform and ensuring that it takes minimal effort to hop the bike.
The back end is very stiff and responsive, but in corners it feels like torsional flex is loading up, causing the bike to bite back harshly when traction is lost – something not helped by the stiff sidewalls of the Continental Der Kaiser tyres.
Dan Brown explains that this bike is a pre-production model and the final version will have thinner carbon tubes in the rear, allowing for extra compliance and traction when the bike is loaded up in the turns.
This is the advantage of having access to some of the fastest riders on the planet. Atherton Racing rider Charlie Hatton has spent considerable time testing how much the new-and-improved rear triangle needs to flex to deliver maximum grip and feedback.
This level of detail, in tandem with the rapid prototyping possible with the brand’s unique production method, really sets it apart from bigger-volume bike manufacturers.
It’s great to see a homegrown British business using innovative materials and methods to create exciting new bikes.
The Atherton brand has gone from three siblings who ride to a globally dominant racing team and now a full-blown bike manufacturer. We can’t wait to see what comes next – and to take the final production bike for a spin.