Dan Atherton

Making tracks

Words: Faye Brozek   
Photography: Richie Hopson

Mountain bike legend Dan Atherton has gone off the grid to live and build trails in a Welsh forest. We sought him out to see if his new way of life really is living the dream

Even people who know Dan Atherton struggle to find his house. Winding down twisty Welsh roads, a kaleidoscope of autumnal colours cloak the hillsides. Remote grey- slated cottages appear on a disorientating web of single-track lanes that delve deeper into Dyfi Forest. Suddenly, a sharp bend turns into a lane shrouded by a canopy of pine trees that leads up to a farm gate. Welcome to Atherton’s homestead.

Atherton is the eldest of the Atherton siblings, gifted mountain bike racers who have made a name for themselves with their ability to dominate the racetracks. Atherton, brother Gee and sister Rachel are big off-track, too: a three-year-long, reality-TV-style web series, The Atherton Project; a branded bicycle component range; a fanbase in the hundreds of thousands. It’s hard to live a life out of the limelight when you’re part of this famous trio. But that is what Atherton is carving out for himself.

“We did about 300 or 400 miles driving around the forest looking for houses,” explains Atherton, when asked how he’d managed to stumble on such a remote hideaway. He spent days exploring the area posting notes in potential properties’ letterboxes.The secluded cluster of whitewashed, slate-rendered buildings sits on a rise at the end of a long, rutted farm track. There’s a main house with adjoining gym, plus two outbuildings containing living spaces and a workshop, all organised around a courtyard with a forest backdrop scattered with home-built trails. The compound has uninterrupted views across pine-covered hillsides, there’s no other dwelling in sight. His closest neighbours are a flock of sheep lazily grazing on the opposite valley and birds of prey silently circling above.

“I moved to this place solely so I can jump on my bike and train”
Dan Atherton
Dan Atherton

The good life: Atherton’s compoundis self-sufficient. “You need tobe independent, not relying on other people,” he says  

Carved into a slate plaque by the front door is a string of consonants that you’d only find in the Welsh language. When asked how to pronounce the name of his homestead he replies with uncanny ability, his softly spoken English accent providing no obvious clue to his South West roots. 

“I moved to this place solely so I can jump on my bike and train,” he says. As he matures into his career, the 32-year-old has come to realise that his chances to race competitively are dwindling. “Coming into the this winter, I’m the most focused I’ve ever been. Gone are the thoughts of riding vert ramps and riding the BMX every day. I’m definitely more focused on racing than I ever have been.”

The compound is self-sufficient. The off-the-grid set-up is fully powered by solar and wind, backed up by an oil generator; its rhythmical chugging fills the air. “We’re going to build a sauna this winter,” he says, “which will help with the training. It all comes back to being independent about what you do, not relying on other people. That’s something I’ve stuck by my whole life.”

A man of few words, Atherton doesn’t like the focus on him. The success of his cycling career and the attention it has delivered are in conflict with his reserved nature. “I’m always guarded, I learnt that during The Atherton Project, keep that guard up at all times.” Despite his reluctance to be the centre of attention, Atherton is a gracious host. As soon as we step into the main house’s kitchen with its exposed wooden beams, he’s straight to the big hob with the kettle. A bowl of freshly gathered hazelnuts sits on the wooden butcher’s block and herbs are growing on the windowsill. Aromas of wood smoke and pine fill the air, and the glow of sunlight warmly illuminates the bare lime-washed walls. He loves it here, and no wonder he couldn’t wait to move in.

Watch Dan Atherton’s brand new film Escape.Create. here

A man of few words, Atherton doesn’t like the focus on him. The success of his cycling career and the attention it has delivered are in conflict with his reserved nature. “I’m always guarded, I learnt that during The Atherton Project, keep that guard up at all times.” Despite his reluctance to be the centre of attention, Atherton is a gracious host. As soon as we step into the main house’s kitchen with its exposed wooden beams, he’s straight to the big hob with the kettle. A bowl of freshly gathered hazelnuts sits on the wooden butcher’s block and herbs are growing on the windowsill. Aromas of wood smoke and pine fill the air, and the glow of sunlight warmly illuminates the bare lime-washed walls. He loves it here, and no wonder he couldn’t wait to move in.

“I didn’t actually own it on the first night – well, the guy who owned it will probably read this – I broke in and stayed here anyway, but he’s cool, he won’t mind. I couldn’t wait!” He laughs and his face breaks into a grin, dark eyes glinting. Nursing a cup of green tea, he leans against the Belfast sink, wearing well-fitting black Levi’s jeans, a plain black T-shirt and pair of sturdy cream work boots. On first appearance, he doesn’t look like a world-class mountain biker. There are no bikes or muddy kit in sight. In fact, there’s not much of anything cluttering the house. 

“I thought the novelty of living in the forest would have worn off, but it’s just awesome”

“The moment I saw it,” he says, “I knew it was exactly what I wanted, really simple, really stripped back, really peaceful on the mind.” Explore the house, though, and clues to his cycling career become evident. Two large glass trophies sit in corners of the open-plan dining room. Bike magazine covers adorn the bathroom wall and a dramatic canvas print shows him racing down a mountainous landscape. 

Atherton has excelled in several cycling disciplines, from BMX and four-cross to downhill and enduro. “Riding bikes was always about being the best bike rider in the world,’ he says. “It wasn’t about being the fastest racer, it was about being the best on a bike all-round.” His career achievements reflect this and include a British title and several top-10 finishes in World Cup races, including a 2008 four-cross win in Spain. This year, his brother Gee was crowned world champion in downhill racing. “Gee’s here a lot,” he says, indicating the bedroom in the main house that’s been put aside for his brother. Since their childhood and building their very first dirt jumps together, the brothers have driven each other to progress in the sport. “There was always this burning passion to be independent and do your own thing. It was all about building your own stuff and pushing your limits.” 

This summer, Atherton took onthe most ambitious building challenge of his life: Red Bull Hardline. With a small group of friends, he set about sculpting a Welsh hillside (a short drive from his new home) into one of the most technically demanding downhill courses in the world, then he invited the world’s best riders to come and take it on. “I thought it was impossible really,” he admits, “there’s was literally nothing there, we were getting up at 5am and working until 9pm every day for six weeks solid. We were all knackered by the end. I’m still knackered now, really. It was so tiring, but it was really cool.”

He also gets his hands dirty closer to home. In a stone outbuilding topped with Welsh slate opposite his new house is his workshop. “It’s not finished yet,” he says. But it’s hard to see what he means; tyres and spare parts are organised neatly into boxes, work stands and tools are meticulously lined up and a fleet of clean bikes hang gleaming on the wall. “It needs polishing,” he laughs, indicating a patch of dirt on the floor. In the corner of the workshop, his first BMX frame is propped against a stove, a dulling reminder of how far his career has come. The front of the frame has been sheared off, the result of crash damage. “I was doing a jump with my dad watching,” he says. 

To say that Atherton has suffered for his sport would be an understatement, from breaking his pelvis in his first international race to a broken leg last year. In 2010, while filming at dirt jumps for a web series, he broke his neck. With admirable grit and determination he recovered from this potentially career-ending, life-threatening injury and was back on his bike six months later. “I reckon all the injuries were almost inevitable, when I think back to how hard I was pushing. I’d be out building all day, or digging all day, and I’d be getting on my bike and trying to ride the gnarliest stuff possible and just constantly pushing as hard as I could. It’s easy to look back and say I should have backed off a bit and chilled out, but when you’re in the moment, you kind of get caught up in it.” 

Backing off and chilling out is readily available in deepest, darkest Wales. “To start off I lived here by myself. It was so peaceful and I almost forgot what life’s about,” he says. He does have regular house guests, though, including sister Rachel and his friend Olly Davey. “Having Rach and Olly here is cool, I’ll sit here and not talk and those two are flat out,” he laughs, doing the international hand signal for two conversing chatterboxes. 

Later, after a long afternoon of digging at a nearby Atherton-built track, he is doing more work with his hands: massaging his left thumb, which he’d torn a ligament when riding a few days earlier. It is clearly causing him some discomfort, yet he never complained. Living off the grid in your ideal set-up must be good for the soul, especially if you’re Dan Atherton. “I thought that the novelty would have worn off by now – living in the forest – you know you can just ride from the house to amazing trails, it’s just awesome. Just being so peaceful every morning, so relaxing, it’s unreal.”

Watch Dan Atherton take on the Hardline

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01 2015 The Red Bulletin

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