Shouldering the load
THE RED BULLETIN: So, how’s the shoulder feeling?
DAN ATHERTON: My shoulder’s pretty good. I saw a doctor yesterday and did an X-ray and he says it’s all fine and in place. It’s just rehab for a few more week now.
But it must have been gutting to miss Hardline after all the work you put in, designing and building all the jumps and features. What happened?
The weather was really bad leading up to the event, then cleared up literally a week before so we were flat out, getting all the takeoffs ready to test. I normally have a rule that I won’t ride on the same day as competing as it’s too much, too stressful, but time was so tight I threw that motto in the bin - and I probably shouldn’t have! I was riding down from the top, everything was going well, it felt good and I was jumping everything, but I guess I got a bit too confident and tried the jump I was probably most worried about on the track, and just misjudged it. I carved a little bit too hard and rolled my tire, that sent me funny off the lip and I was going too fast and too high to walk away from it.
When you’re flying through the air like that, are you thinking, ‘This is going to hurt’?
It’s surprising how tough you think you are. You get a confidence boost from riding well and think you can roll out of it. It’s massive jump but you’ve got your helmet and pads on, you don’t feel invincible but you feel a lot tougher than you should. That’s probably the only reason you can try these jumps in the first place. I just thought I could run and roll out of it, but the second I hit the ground I realised how hard it is and how fast and high up I was. It seemed to last forever that crash. Because I was going so fast, I was just rolling and rolling. When I stopped I sat up and I was like, ‘Oh god’ [Laughs].
Like you say, you need real confidence to even attempt these sorts of jumps. Does a crash like this affect that?
The more hits you take, the more it becomes calculated – you measure risk in your mind more. But as time goes on it’s amazing how you forget. After I my broke my neck a few years ago I swore I’d never put myself back in that position - but you just do. When you’re injured and laying in bed, you’re thinking, ‘This isn’t going to be the last time’, and at that point all you want to do is give up riding and play safe. But your body just forgets and before you know it you’re grinning, heading down the hill again.
So why do you go back?
It’s all I know. It’s so hard to walk away from. I’m not doing it for anyone else, I’m doing it for myself, it’s my identity. It kind of feels like it separates me from the other guys, being able to push that hard and push the boundaries of what I love. It’s how I define myself. It’s hard to imagine defining myself in any other way. My mum always says, ‘Just walk away from it, you’ve taken too many hits’. But it’s so hard to imagine something else that would give me such a good feeling. When you are injured a real low, but it’s not ever painful enough, or awful enough to cancel out the good times.
As the designer and build of the Hardline jumps, are you scared of them?
There’s a calculated line you have to walk. We want the event to push the boundaries of mountain biking but in order to do that the riders have to be relaxed and having fun too, so it can’t be ridiculous. That’s where me riding helps – I just picture what me and [his downhill champion brother] Gee are willing to try and push towards that boundary. This year, the weather had a big effect. But with it being wet up to the event, it doesn’t take much for that boundary to be pushed too far and the jumps to become too big. So yeah, I always retain a healthy fear.
Would you ever a build a jump you were too scared to try?
If I’m building the course and it’s too big for me, then it’s too big full stop. A huge part of an event is being able to turn up and quickly adapt to what you have in front of you, so you have to get it right.
What was it like having to sit back and watch other riders take on your creation?
It wasn’t as hard as I thought. Of course I wanted to be riding it - that’s why I dig and build, to push myself further. I was sad I couldn’t do that. But I was on a fair bit of morphine, which helped. And it’s great having the riders come up to you after saying it was awesome and, ‘This is what we should be doing’. It’s not the same feeling as having ridden it yourself, but it’s pretty close.
Did anything surprise you on the day?
I was really surprised at how big the crowds were and how passionate they were about watching it. It’s pretty far out into rural Wales and it’s only the second year of the event. I was stoked on that. More than anything else actually.