Meet The Athlete Who Came Back From A Broken Neck To Create The World’s Toughest MTB Race

Red Bull Hardline is regularly credited as the hardest mountain bike course in the world. With a 40ft high, 70ft long road gap, eye-of-the-needle runs through the pine trees, pinning it through off-camber sections, and the Renegade Step-Up jump over a 4x4, this is next-level stuff. So how did Dan Atherton come back from injury to build and race an event only the world’s best riders can even get down in one piece?‘Breaking my neck was tough but at the same time it made me the rider I am now’

‘Breaking my neck was tough but at the same time it made me the rider I am now’

RISING Obviously breaking your neck took a lot of rehab to come back from, but how did it affect your mindset?

DAN ATHERTON ‘The accident influenced everything in my life. Breaking my neck was a tough time but at the same time it made me the rider I am now – it made me think about the direction I want to go and it made me realise I’m not invincible. You are on limited time when you can actually do this – it definitely made me focus more and think about stuff a lot more.’

RISING You created Red Bull Hardline with your brother, 2010 & 2014 MTB DH Champ, Gee, who came second at the inaugural Red Bull Rampage, and local Olly Davey – why did you want to make Hardline a race, rather than a freeride event?

DA ‘In a race that time is that time, and there’s literally no excuses. The time doesn’t lie. You have to be flat out, you have to be on the edge and you can’t make mistakes. So every race you do has to be so raw – it’s all about the speed. Every race you do is a full-on challenge. You can ride gnarly stuff and ride as fast as you can, but in a race, when the gate drops the bullshit stops. The way this event came about, we had so many ideas for it, but at the end of the day it has to be a race. I think it’s become a bit of a beast really. Red Bull came to me and Gee and said: “What would be your dream event? What event can we do together?”

RISING This event is special because it’s in your backyard, in the Dyfi Valley in Wales, and you’ve designed and built it yourself with a team of local riders – how did your accident affect this process?

DA ‘Before I broke my neck I would only look at the jump, but now when I build stuff I look at what’s after the jump and if you crash how it’s going to affect you. So to put a course like this together that’s quite important. You want the top riders in the world to ride it and they’re not going to if it’s shady, and there are spikes sticking out towards them on every landing.’

‘No matter how many times I hit those jumps, I’m still so scared of them – they’re bloody massive’

RISING We were at the last Hardline in October 2016, and the riders were saying you have to stay focussed, because this course can bite you – what’s it like to ride?

DA ‘Well, I had spent six months building it, seen it every week and ridden it more than anyone, but during the event week I couldn’t sleep at night. I was so nervous. No matter how many times I hit those jumps, I’m still so scared of them. They’re bloody massive. All you’ve got to do is stand next to them and you just hear the noise of the bikes coming past, and you realise how violent it is. Like the guys say, you have to respect it, otherwise it will kick your arse.’

RISING Hang on a minute, we saw you attacking as hard as any rider there – how can you feel scared and still ride so hard?

DA ‘Even though the obstacles are are so hard and the track is so gnarly, I still want to go as fast as I can, and that’s just because it’s bred into you from so many years of racing. You are always looking to go faster and sometimes on this track you have to hold yourself back and say: “Woah, just chill out and ride it.”’

RISING The Red Bull Hardline invitational is in its fourth year now – are riders coming to you to ask to compete?

DA ‘No, I don’t think so. I think it’s the opposite! They’re just like: “Please, don’t invite me.” There’s not many riders who’ve been back for two years in a row. It’s pretty full on. I think we started it and we knew we had to make it hardcore and make it legit but I think we went too far. The last two years we’ve brought it back from that edge a little bit and tried to chill it out. I’m not sure we've found it's benchmark yet. It still needs to be calmer.’

RISING Why is Hardline so tough, with such a high attrition rate, of injuries and drop outs?

DA ‘The jumps are so big and you’re in the air so long that the wind really does affect you massively. You’re on that edge already. If you take out all the equations of weather and things that are out of a rider’s control, you’re already on that edge. Then, if you add in those equations it becomes unpredictable. There’s a reason why there’s nothing this big in the world. It’s because there is a limit and it is bloody dangerous.’

RISING Alexandre Fayolle crashed hard on the Renegade Step-Up, got knocked cold and had to be airlifted off the mountain – the tailwind seemed to be a factor there?

DA ‘He was riding amazing. Probably better than anyone really. He was pretty confident and sending everything, looked really comfortable and happy, but just made a small error and got slightly too fast – probably just didn’t drag his brakes for a second long enough. That’s all it takes. It’s pretty gnarly.’

RISING So, the race deserves its fierce reputation then?

DA ‘There’re still way too many riders getting hurt – which certain parts of the media seem to love – but the riders do not love it. The riders need to be happy for it to have a future really. The riders love it, everyone’s buzzing all weekend until they get hurt, so I think it’s nearly there. It just needs small changes to stop the riders getting hurt. The trick is to find the incredibly fine balance between next level and flat out dangerous.’

RISING The technical sections between the big jumps are tough too, but the riders were saying they flow well?

DA ‘Yes, the technical sections are fine and no one’s hurting themselves on those because the guys race them all year, so it’s what they’re used to really. If the guys hit ramps like this all year, they’d be fine, but they don’t. No one does really. Then mixing them in the with the technical bits. It’s pretty extreme. It’s next level.’

RISING As the course designer, effectively, do you feel like it’s your baby, so you have some responsibility?

DA ‘Yes, I think everyone who crashes I feel responsible for a little bit, but at the same time up until that point they were all loving it, and they were all enjoying it, so that’s cool.’

RISING The Renegade Step-Up might have the fiercest rep among the riders, but the most visually impressive feature has to be the Road Gap – what’s it like to hit it?

DA ‘Me and Olly were building the Red Bull Hardline for weeks and weeks, and the first thing that Olly built was the road gap. We’d had four weeks of every day driving past and looking at it. After a while you get so used to seeing it, but it’s still massive and when you actually come to riding it you just think, “God!” Seeing Gee hit that for the first time was pretty nuts. He hit it first. To see how Olly calculated it and how it had been built perfectly – when you build a dirt kicker you can move it around and shape it but with that there was really only one way to build it. This is how it is – we could have made it longer or shorter but this is how it is and there’s no changing it.’

RISING You’ve been building jumps and riding with Gee, and your multiple World Champion sister, Rachel, your whole lives – Gee has told us before that there’s a dynamic where you’re stood at the top of some monster line where one of you isn’t sure it’s possible but the other is, and egging you on?

DA ‘Me and Gee have had so many years of us being in that position, stood at the top of some massive jump that we’ve been thinking about for a long time – there’s almost a role play now where it just seems to happen. But that first time when you jump something that no one has done before, there are so many unknown factors. The first time you see someone do it, even though you haven’t done it yourself, it’s just so much easier for the second person.’

RISING Your own competition career includes a World Cup 4X win, and fifth place in qualifying at Red Bull Rampage – what’s it like having such successful siblings?

DA ‘What’s it like having World Champions as brother and sister? Intimidating – you’ve got to step up! When you wake up in the morning you do have to play your role, because it’s been a team for so many years. Everyone is part of that team and you can’t back down. They’re out there training and racing and winning, and you can’t sit back at any moment – you’ve got to work hard and earn your keep, almost. And it’s the same with everyone who works for us as well – quite high demand, workload and quality. Just because it’s fair – there’s so much on the line and everyone is putting so much effort in. You want everyone to be pulling towards the same goal.’

WHAT NEXT? Catch up with the latest in the Atherton’s racing season with their vlog diaries…