Black clouds loom in the distance but for the time being the carpark at Coed Llandegla Forest in north Wales is bathed in warm spring sunshine. The 2010 Animal Commencal team launch is winding down – the obligatory Q&A and press rides are out of the way – and as bike journos pore over the pristine cyan Commencal race bikes, Dan Atherton polishes off a plate of chilli and leans back in his chair.
2009 was a difficult year for the whole Atherton outfit. Sister Rachel’s season effectively ended before it began with a crash in training involving a pick-up truck, Dan himself battled a recurring shoulder injury, and younger brother Gee lost his world champion status and looked ruffled by the disruption to the family race programme.
“To say Gee had a bad year last year is just rubbish,” Dan says defiantly. “Gee has extremely high standards which he sets himself and if you look at it, last year was one of his most consistent ever. You don’t get fourth overall in the World Cup by having a ‘bad year’.” He’s got a point.
After a less than smooth time of it last year, Dan is currently training for the upcoming World Cup four-cross season by indulging in a spot of BMX racing. With construction of a multi-million-pound BMX stadium in Manchester under way and ever-increasing hype around British riders such as Shanaze Reade, the rumour mill has been alight with word of the oldest Atherton racing at the 2012 London Olympics.
Dan isn’t new to 20-inchers, however. “We raced BMX for three years,” he says, “We were doing some nationals and stuff. That just came from riding BMXs on dirt jumps since we were little, and mountain bikes came out of that.
“Every winter I’d get back on the BMX and I always felt like I never really completed what I’d started on it. I love riding my BMX; I’ve always ridden skatepark, I’ve always ridden dirt jumps. I wanted to give it a go properly now before I’m too old!”
‘Giving it a go properly’ has so far consisted of one American ABA race out in California along with total immersion at the Madrid SX. “Madrid was a real eye-opener,” says Dan. “I really didn’t have any idea of what it would be like. Other than the ABA race, I’d no idea how I’d get on.
Dan has been around bike races long enough, however, to understand the benefit of a healthy dose of realism. “It’s hard to go from being around the top of four-cross and downhill and then drop yourself into a situation where you want to be at the top but know that you’re going to really struggle to hang with the top guys,” he says.
Madrid was kinder on him than he had expected, though: “I thought that I might have been one of the worst riders there but I ended up mid-pack.” His 89th qualification ranking at the end of the weekend was highly respectable and landed him ahead of some of BMX racing’s big names.
“The Madrid track was really fun,” he says. “It was huge. When we were practising and just riding it by ourselves it was really cool but once the racing started it was nuts! Into the first jump there just wasn’t enough room and there were some pretty nasty crashes.”
That first straight is where Dan sees the big benefits of BMX for his four-cross racing. “The first straight is where it’s helping me most; it’s directly transferable from BMX,” he says. Training has taken a while to adjust to but he’s got the right names in his corner: “I started working with the British Olympic coach Grant White in October, so I’ve only been on it for a few months.”
That hasn’t stopped him mixing with some of the sports fastest stars, however. “I’ve been riding with Marcus Bloomfield and Liam Phillips along with Shanaze Reed in the UK,” Dan says. “When I was out in California I stayed with Sam [Willoughby] for a few weeks and rode with him a lot. We saw Mikey Day a lot too and rode with him. He’s such a refreshing guy to ride with, he’s pretty relaxed with the training and just focuses on riding and having fun.”
The 20in stars seem to have taken kindly to the four-cross World Cup winner too. “I was pretty surprised to be honest,” he says. “When I first arrived and started going to gate practice they knew me and were really cool. They all follow four-cross thanks to Gravesy [Jared Graves] I guess, so there was no tension with me being a mountain biker at all.”
Away from the track, Dan has been adapting to the different physical training regime. “The sessions are short and intense,” he says. “Sometimes you go in the gym and it doesn’t really feel like you’ve done anything, it’s just all about explosive power. One of the biggest shocks for me was how much more I have to rest.
“Normally I relax by driving a digger or building dirt jumps but with the BMX training I can’t even do that. That’s the hardest part of it for me, the resting. Anyone can go in the gym and destroy themselves or climb on a BMX and sprint like mad but the really hard part is resting and just stopping everything.”
The big question is whether Dan will follow Graves’ lead and race BMX at Olympic level. “It’s a weird situation,” he says. “London 2012 isn’t far away at all but I’m just chilling out. I’m enjoying BMX as much as I can; I’m using it to my advantage with four-cross as much as possible. I’m 100 percent focused on mountain bikes – they’re what I really love and if BMX can help with that all the better. We’ll have to wait and see on London.”
So with London 2012 a softly spoken definitely maybe, how does it feel stepping outside of the Team Atherton package? The three siblings and their surrounding family of mechanics, coaches and sponsors come as an extremely tight, extremely well branded package. Racing outside of that must have been difficult.
“I went with Clay [Porter, the Athertons’ resident videographer] to the ABA race and didn’t really know anyone. It was kind of cool just to be able to do my own thing and have no major pressure,” Dan says. “But at the same time I love our team and setup.
Even when we’re at the World Champs, it never really feels like a race. It’s a good vibe and I definitely missed that. It was a bit scary to be out of that. If Rach and Gee raced BMX I know I’d be even more into it!”
That package needs to be tighter than ever, as 2010 is lining up to be a busy year: “This year I’m racing World Cup downhill, four-cross and BMX, with nationals in each when I can but a lot of the dates clash. I don’t think I’ve got any more weekends off from now on!”
With that, younger brother Gee arrives with two massive wedges of carrot cake and with all the cheek that only younger brothers can manage, teases Dan into clipping him round the ear.
Anyone who is worried that ‘Affie’ is off to BMX needn’t lose any sleep – this is an Atherton team that’s leaner and keener than ever. They’d never admit to it but the fragmented and injury-blighted 2009 hurt. 2010 is intended to be a triumphant return to form – whatever size the wheels are.