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 blonde 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.
Rachel and her downhill mountain biking brother Gee are at the forefront of their sport, and are pushing the boundaries of training in search of the perfect run. 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. They, along with their enduro-riding eldest brother Dan, (he is 33; Gee, the 2010 downhill champion, is 29) 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 is a 33-year-old sports scientist, former British motocross team coach and ex-downhill rider, and a firm believer in figures over feelings.
Like some Midlands version of Mouse from The Matrix, he’s able to look at a sheet of numbers and see an athlete: where they’re strong, where they’re lacking. “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, an extreme discipline 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.”
Having read about Milway’s successes with, among others, former world downhill champion Danny Hart, Gee approached him about working with the team at the end of 2012. Milway was quick to accept. “When I first saw the Athertons’ testing notes I said to their manager, ‘Just give me a winter!’” he says. “I was so excited as, even though their results were good, they weren’t anywhere near their peak, so I knew we could really go places.” It seems he was right. Last year, despite carrying minor injuries, Gee led the World Cup series right up until the last event, when he was beaten into second place, and Rachel had her best-ever season, winning the national championship, the World Championship and the World Cup series. She won the first race of the latter by 10 seconds, a huge margin in a sport that can come down to 10ths of seconds.
Today, in the lab, is a chance to see how Rachel is performing ahead of the start of the 2014 World Cup in April, using test data recorded three weeks after she won the world championship in 2013 as a sort of gold standard against which to measure. 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 enduro wunderkind 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 the 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.
The Athertons are here for two-weeks of pre-season strength and endurance work, their first training camp of 2014. When they were starting out, these sorts of intense training camps were unheard of. Just 15 years ago the Jack Daniels-drinking, punk rock-singing US downhill mountain biker Shaun Palmer stood on a UCI World Cup podium wearing a gold sequined suit and crown, before heading to his tour bus to celebrate with a bottle or two of Crown Royal whisky. 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. Of course it wasn’t cheating, but it was looked at in that way.”
But, even as Palmer won athlete of the year awards and graced the front covers of magazines in the 2000s, a new clean-living generation that included the Athertons was coming to dethrone him. 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. Tenths of seconds can separate first and third place, so you’re always looking for new ways to make those gains.”
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 [the static bike used in the lab] and that’s fine. Unless you have someone like Alan 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.”The first afternoon sessions in Fuerteventura will be biking, but this morning, it’s a gym session for the whole team. The gym has become a second home to the Athertons after Milway put them on a strength-gain programme. “I knew that’s where they’d see the results,” he says. “I’ve had them doing heavy lifting. Their gains went right up on the graphs after just a few months.”
Rachel seems to have gained as much psychologically from Milway’s approach as she has in muscle. “Strength is the main difference I’ve noticed with Alan,” she says. “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.”