Interview: Rachel, Gee & Dan Atherton Chat Business, Bikes & the Upcoming Season
The biggest shock of the off-season was the announcement that the Athertons would be leaving Trek to start their own bike company. Not only would they be riding their own bikes but they would be using innovative technology to create something completely unique. We met up with the most famous family in mountain biking at the London Bike Show and chatted to them about business, bikes and the upcoming season.
How has it been starting your own bike company?
Gee: It's a big undertaking. It was something me and Dan have discussed for a long time. But we have always come back to the same problems, it would be hard to do. Last year was the first time we suddenly saw a way for it to happen. We saw the process and it started to look like it could become a reality. It's been a super busy winter getting all of the pieces together, there are a lot of moving parts. Add to that the pressure of the race season creeping closer - that was a real hard set deadline that we have been aware of and that has been the hardest thing to prepare for.
Rach: It's been pretty crazy, we have been having meetings in London figuring out the logo and the brand every week for six weeks, it was mad. Towards the end of it, I was like 'just get me back on my bike. I don't want to be a business person anymore.' But you know the business term is very loose in the mountain bike industry, at the end of the day the important thing is the bike and how it rides. So our business is riding the bike, testing it and giving our feedback to Rob, Ben and Ed. It has been cool and nice trying to break stuff. Dan got a puncture on the prototype trail bike and stupidly we didn't have any spares so he just rode with a flat tyre for the whole day and it was fine. Gee has had some massive crashes putting the bike through his paces, but the bigger the crash the happier Gee is.
Dan: Overwhelming, I mean we knew it was going to be a gnarly amount of work. The biggest thing for me that I never really anticipated was the level of interest. You know it's going to be a lot of work from a logistical point of view, but you have got to deal with an increased level of interest from social media, walking around town or when you're at a show. Suddenly it's not just you as an athlete, it's you as a brand, and people care way more about that brand than they care about you as an athlete. It's dealing with that level of interest which is hard, because you have to keep up your game face. As an athelete you only care about your world and being in the best condition possible for the race, you are almost the product and everyone around you on the team is there to make that product better. Suddenly you are not the product, the bike is the product, so all that attention is focused on the bike, rather than you. It's hard, but it's alright for me because I have stepped down but for Rach and Gee it must pretty intense.
|Our business is riding the bike, testing it and giving our feedback.—Rach|
What's it like designing your own bikes?
Rach: It's good but you have to be careful not to get to go a bit mad. There is still a cost every time you print a new set of lugs. We are a startup, this is a very new company, and we haven’t got a lot of money to throw around. We have to be very clever about it. I started riding on P2, which our junior rider Millie got when I moved onto P6 which has slightly different geometry and is slightly longer. It's not like we are chucking them in a corner and not doing anything with them, we are being clever with how we are getting the bikes out to the team. Everyone is riding slightly different bikes at the moment. Gee has a slightly different progression curve on his rocker.
Gee: It's difficult to be honest. You know it's very easy to jump on a bike and say 'I need to change this and this' but it's very hard to create a bike from scratch. Because if you jump on a bike that has the wrong head angle I can tell within a few turns and know what to do to address that. But if you jump on a bike that's completely new from scratch and you get a funny feeling when hitting a turn is that from the suspension blowing through too much? Is the bike too short? Or is it the head angle that's wrong? With all these little things, it takes a long time to get a feel for each one and tell what each thing your feeling is. I'd say the first few days of riding the new bikes I had no idea. I said to my mechanic Pete when he was asking all these questions after the first run ‘I don't know, I can't tell you’. I had days where I was just riding the bike again and again just to get a feel for what was happening with it. Gradually we started to creep towards this setup where I started to feel that we needed to stiffen the suspension up here and make this a bit longer. It has taken a huge amount of testing to get to the point where I am happy with the bike, and it is impressive but we are still developing it.
How are the bikes?
Gee: The bikes are bloody good you know. The first thing we noticed when we had the first ride was how good the early prototypes were. We have developed a lot of bikes for companies to get them up to race speed and then they take them and that's their bike to retail, but to completely build a bike from scratch is a very different process. It's a testament to how good the crew is that we have got together. Dave Weagle on the kinematics and suspension, Ben and Ed on the engineering side, then with our input from the World Cup side it has all come together to create some pretty impressive bikes.
Rach: We have done a lot of testing. We normally ride a lot of downhill stuff over the winter but you definitely try and have a break. This winter we haven’t really had that time off the DH bike. It has been straight on it and we have done quite a lot of intensive days with our mechanic Polish Pete. The brakes have probably taken just as much time to get used to as the new bike. The Trickstuff brakes are just so powerful, they are so good it's ridiculous. I jumped on it for the first time and crashed straight away over the bars. The brakes are so strong you really have to change your riding style and be a lot more delicate with your braking. You can brake so much later, it's amazing. The whole setup feels incredible, it's a very fast bike, its definitely a race machine. We have got it quite long, slack - it just feels incredible. But you don’t really know how the bike is until you get to the race track. For us, the race track is the best test, that's where it counts. At the moment you ride and feel good and it can feel either comfortable or fast. For most people the feeling is enough, for us, it has to be the time as the main test. Often the most comfortable bike isn't the fastest. A fast bike is often horrible to ride the majority of the time. It's really stiff, it's rough, it's kind of painful unless you are going race speed. The first half of this season is definitely going ot be a work in progress. It's going to take a little while to get used it and get the race setup there.
|To completely build a bike from scratch is a very different process.—Gee|
How much have the bikes changed since the first prototype?
Gee: There have been a few changes, I am currently riding P6. It has been an ongoing process, geometry has changed quite a bit and we changed the makeup of the carbon tubing on the rear end to get it to a point where we are happy with the stiffness and that's a very specific thing to us. The kinematics of the suspension have changed marginally, just getting it to a point where we are happy with it. It's still an ongoing process. We say' look this is good but I would like to change this' and that and two weeks later the guys have the bike made up for me. It's unheard of to get a prototype a couple of weeks after testing on another bike, it's incredible.
Rach: We have been away a couple of times to Europe testing and there has been a lot to change. We have changed tires, brakes and the bike itself. The totally different suspension platform takes a while to get used to.
With the additive manufacturing process allowing rapid prototyping, could you adjust bikes to certain tracks?
Gee: It's certainly possible, the turnaround for a bike is around a week so I could change it between races if we needed to. And that's something that we will do to a certain extent but I won't go as far as adjusting bikes for tracks. Once you adjust your suspension and your setup on the bike if your changing geometry between races it's hard to get prepared for that race, it's hard to adjust and adapt. I can jump on a bike with new geometry and get to 90% speed fairly quickly, but that final few percent to take you to race pace is hard to do. You have to know the bike inside and out. You really have to be dialed on that bike. So you know its possible and would be doable but the goal is to get a bike with geometry that I am comfortable with and try and keep with that throughout the season.
Gee, you raced the bike for the first time in Portugal a couple of weeks ago, how was it?
Gee: The first race is always quite a nerve-racking time. The first time you jump on the bike and take it to a race at a competitive international level it's pretty tense. Quite quickly we saw Charlie Hatton qualified third, a really good time. I was third in the final so we started to see that the bike is good and quick. It's still early days to be racing a bike that is so new and it's tricky as your pushing and you still don't know where that limit is. There is still work to be done but it's nice to get a solid race in and have that as an indicator. This is where we are, this is how the bike is. It's nice to get a feeling that we are not miles off. If I had come down and been 40 seconds off the pace then you know we would have a lot of work to do but it's nice to know we are on the right track.
|If I had come down and been 40 seconds off the pace then you know we would have a lot of work to do.—Gee|
Were any changes made to the bike from this race?
Gee: Yeah, P7 is a slight tweak on geometry just to kind of set it up a bit better for me. As we get close to race season each refinement becomes a little bit smaller and each one we do is a little bit more subtle. We are getting to the point where we are happy with the bike now and it's competitive.
Will Atherton Bikes be trying mixed wheel sizes this year?
Gee: At the moment no, everyone has been on the 29 and everyone seems comfortable. Millie Johnset was an option because she hasn't ridden the 29 much but she has been flying on it and Rach seems comfortable and she's tall, she's strong so the 29er suits her. I think if you can't ride a 29er it's good to go to the 27.5 on the rear, but if you can then personally I don't see why you would drop down a wheel size.
|I think if you can't ride a 29er it is good to go to 27.5 on the rear.—Gee|
Were you shocked that your announcement stayed a secret?
Rach: We were like shit, we are never going to be able to keep it secret. Testing the bikes and trying not to let anyone see, it was pretty exciting really and I can’t believe we kept it secret for so long. It was mad, f*ck knows how. Sven (Martin) didnt even know and he was livid. He has been a part of our careers for the whole time so I felt pretty bad not telling him, but he has a big mouth too. It's been nice to see the public reaction. When we launched online it was better received than anticipated - the comments and everyone was really into it. Now it's the good part of people getting to see the bike in the flesh. As soon as someones see it in person it's great seeing their reaction. When you see the lugs and how they are put together and see the machine its kind of mind-blowing. A lug totally separated and then four days later you are riding it. It's amazing to be bringing that technology to the industry. This is not just your standard bike, it's totally different.
Dan: I don't know how either. We were sure it was out of the bag but people were all still surprised. Which shocked us really.
How are you feeling for the upcoming season?
Rach: I'm shitting myself really. I don't really ever feel ready and I definitely took a long time off this winter, I didn't train super hard until February. That's quite late for me but I needed that break. I needed the time mentally, so we'll see. Its been good fun over the winter period, a lot of new challenges going into all these meetings. Now I'm more worried about if I should wear a shirt or have some sort of suit on.
Gee: I'm buzzing for it, I think when you finish a season strong you go into the offseason wanting a bit more. I have been training hard, the bikes have been good and I have a new drive this year with the new bike to showcase. It's made me hungry for it. It's kind of a fresh start in a way.
Is there extra pressure this year with your own bikes?
Gee: Its not so much extra pressure but extra motivation. It's an extra reason to push on. The guys all involved with Atherton bikes are a real tight crew and we are all good friends. We have known them all for a long time, I want to be there at the race showing what the bike can do. It's not like I feel like I have to prove the bike it's more showcasing just how good it is. Everyone that rides the bike is impressed with it and guys jump on it and do a run and they love it. I know that the suspension works well and that the bike's strong and fast and I just want to show people that.
Gee, what was your view on not making the World Champs team last year?
Gee: It was fine, it's something that I just had to accept. It's a process and those guys have to choose off of results that are in front of them. Do I agree with it? Probably not. I was fine you know, the riders in the UK are all so fast you got a lot of guys to be competitive with and I know I was quick a the end of last season. It's savage to come off a World Cup podium one week and then be told you can't race the next week. At the same time, those guys have got to make a decision and they had a job to do I guess. I had to suck it up, I am going to be gunning for it this year. I had raced every World Champs since I was second-year youth so to miss one it wasn't the end of the world.
|It's savage to come off a World Cup podium one week and then be told you can't week the next week.—Gee|
Dan, what are your plans for the next year?
Dan: So with opening Dyfi Bike Park we have bought the forest and with it a sawmill so there are three businesses there that are all pretty linked really. So I am kinda busy doing all that and then the bike company is obviously everyone's baby, it swallows a hell of a lot of time. It's definitely trying to manage time really, where best to put your time. The bike park is all ready to go, it will be a similar business model to Rev's, focus on higher end riders to start with because that is where we have come from and basing it off that racing heritage. We are just trying to provide a facility for riders to come and ride longer tracks really, up to six-minute tracks. It's good to go and hopefully in the next month or so it will be ready.
What can we expect from Hardline this year?
Dan: The guys from Redbull are here now and they are really keen on pushing that on for another few years. It's surprising with an event like that, the first year I thought that was cool but how much longer can this keep going? It seems to build momentum each year, I'm always surprised how much coverage it gets. We are trying to make it more fun for the riders this year. The first few years it was just raw and gnarly because it could be, it was like its own thing and hadn't found itself. There wasn't a lot of corporate involvement, but now its almost become a product in itself so it has to perform. So you need to reduce the risk a little bit to try and make it a bit more acceptable for riders to come and race. Because an event like Hardline is a big risk at the end of the season when guys are tired and the last thing you want to do is force riders to come. They have to want to come and ride, it has to be fun. But the majority of times the injuries have come from new stuff being built for that year. The older stuff is pretty predictable - the guys have hit it before and can see someone else do it. It is interesting, you have some of the best riders in the world there and some of them are struggling and I'm not sure it really comes across just how hard it is until you ride it. It's kind of like Rampage - people think it's gnarly and it does look crazy but until you ride it and feel the wind and how exposed you are then you don't really appreciate how amazing it is.MENTION: @athertonracing