Fifteen years ago, training was a dirty word for downhill mountain bike pros. But now, the latest generation of top DH riders are as at home in the gym or doing intervals on a turbo trainer as any road pro. We lift the lid on the Atherton dynasty’s training programme.
It's a Thursday morning in January, and Rachel Atherton is inside a lab at the University of Birmingham, a small room lit by fluorescent strip lights and complete with a model skeleton and a whiteboard covered in half-erased equations. It’s an incongruous setting for one of the best downhill mountain bike riders in the world, yet she’s here, legs pumping hard on the pedals of a static bike, breaths coming in loud, rhythmic bursts. Her hair is tied back, her cheeks are flushed, the long-sleeved top she arrived in now removed despite the cold. Rachel’s fitness trainer and two physiologists are quietly observing as the 26-year-old’s efforts are translated into dramatic scribbles on a monitor to her left, a red line showing her increasing heart rate, a blue line her cadence and a green line the power she’s generating.
Every three minutes, the resistance increases, shown on the monitor as another step up on a graphic staircase. One of the physiologists leans in at regular intervals to take a blood sample from Rachel’s right index finger, from which the amount of lactic acid she’s producing is measured, and notes down the reading on a chart. This is what mountain bike training looks like in 2014.
Watching the numbers
They’re breaking down every aspect of their physical ability on a bike into graphs, charts and stats with constant testing, using power meters and heart monitors both on their bikes and in the lab. Rachel and her brothers, enduro-riding Dan (33) and Gee (29), 2010 downhill champion, have travelled here from their home in North Wales several times in the last 18 months, since they started working with a new fitness coach, Alan Milway.
Milway is a 33-year-old sports scientist, former British motocross team coach and ex-downhill rider, and a firm believer in figures over feelings. He’s able to look at a sheet of numbers and see an athlete: where they’re strong, where they’re lacking.
Rachel's training regime is arduous - but the results are worth it
“I probably look at an athlete in a different way to most people,” he says. “But for me, numbers are the starting point. A lot of the coaches I see don’t do evidence-based stuff. A lot of them believe if you thrash an athlete so hard they crawl out of the gym then you’re doing a good job. But I take a more academic approach.”
Milway is one of the first trainers to devise an evidence-based, bespoke training programme for professional riders in enduro, mountain biking’s long distance event on trails with climbs and drops, which can last several hours, and downhill, in which riders tackle steep courses littered with obstacles ranging from tree roots to rocks, at speeds of up to 80kph. “Downhill is rider-led,” Milway says. “They go on the feeling of it, but often what they feel isn’t completely right. The power data we record at races means I know how long Gee or Rach is pedalling for in one go, how hard they’re pedalling, what their leg speed is, and if you’re going downhill, there is an optimum leg speed, you can plot it on a graph.
“Once you know what they’re doing on the bike, you can adjust the gears based on the evidence. Not a lot of people have looked at that.”
Training on the volcano
Today, in the lab, is a chance to see how Rachel is performing ahead of the start of the 2014 World Cup (which kicked off on 13 April), using test data recorded three weeks after she won the World Championship in 2013 as a benchmark. She’s just completed her third and last test of the day – 10 brutal, maximum-power sprints.
She leans over on the bike, exhausted, but the news is good. She has averaged the equivalent of 218 revolutions per minute, only two off her post-world-champs level of 220. “Oh, lovely,” says Milway.
Three days later, Milway, the three Atherton siblings and Atherton Racing teammates Marc Beaumont, a DH and enduro racer, and 16-year-old endure wünderkind Martin Maes, arrive at the Canary Island of Fuerteventura. Despite the winter sunshine, this is no holiday. The Playitas resort is akin to a sports reformatory. Almost every resident is a professional athlete, here for punishing runs in the black volcanic hills, and sessions in the Olympic-sized pool and huge gym complex. Rather than arguments about towels on sun loungers, today there’s a situation brewing over the Swedish Olympic judo team having commandeered all the free weights.
Old school vs new school
The Athertons are here for two-weeks of pre-season strength and endurance work, their first training camp of 2014. But 15 years ago, this kind of commitment was scarce. Training was a dirty word. “Back then it wasn’t enough to be someone who raced downhill,” says Gee. “Everyone was trying to be a rock star, not training, partying the night before the race. The training side of it was relatively unknown. If people were training it was super-basic, and they were keeping it very quiet because it wasn’t cool.”
Atherton's focus on racing exteneds to her training too
Gee and Dan’s initial attempts at training weren’t up to much. “As juniors, training meant watching Rocky movies to get fired up, then painting motivational words on the garage walls,” laughs Dan. But their senior careers have revolved around gym work, road bike rides, and rehab sessions with specialists, as over the last decade the entire professional downhill community embraced the training revolution.
“Me and my brothers have used a professional trainer since I was 16,” says Rachel. “It’s become more and more about the training, rather than being gnarly and shredding”
Ironically, the Athertons’ new scientific approach has taken training off the list of conversational topics, but for the opposite reason of being uncool: now it’s too valuable to discuss.
“There is secrecy involved,” says Gee. “There are elements we won’t talk about: it’s a competition at the end of the day. As soon as one person sees something, it’s out there. At the World Champs, the French team are known for it – they’re there in the starting hut studying what’s on your bike, what you’re wearing. But then everyone knows we’re using the SRM power cranks and that’s fine. Unless you have someone like Alan Milway who gets that data and knows what to do with it, then it’s not going to work for you.”
Like any coach, Milway is acutely aware that his value lies in being able to keep his athletes ahead of the pack. “I’m constantly assessing what we’re happy to talk about and what we’re not,” he says. “Some of the things we’re doing, no one else has even considered, much of what we consider normal, other athletes won’t even be thinking about. And we’re quite happy to keep it that way. I want to make myself as valuable to my athletes as possible, and the only way I’m going to do that is by doing things other people aren’t.”
“[My] strength is the main difference I’ve noticed with Alan,” says Rachel. “That’s been a massive gain for me. With the testing it became clear that my pedalling was a weak point; now I’m the strongest pedaller out there. Without testing, you can sort of kid yourself that you’re where you need to be, but when you test you can’t hide, the stats don’t lie.
“Mentally, going out there knowing you’re where you need to be physically is huge. It made a big difference to my last season.”
“It’s simple really: if athletes are fitter and stronger, it means they can race faster and go for longer,” says Gee. “In the past two years, I’ve had more crashes than I’ve had in my life, the biggest crashes of my career, and I’ve got up and walked away from them. I’m pretty sure that’s down to having someone like Alan with us. We need to be more scientific about things, there’s no point having an awesome bike if you can’t race it to its maximum level. Man and machine have to match each other, and now we know how to get there.”
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All Rachel's hard work is paying dividends when she hits the course
Want to measure your training progress against the Rach, Gee and Dan? Head over to Red Bull Personal Best