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The Athertons' pursuit of marginal gain

Fifteen years ago, training was a dirty word for downhill mountain bike pros.  But now, the latest generation of top DH riders are as at home in the gym or doing intervals on a turbo trainer as any road pro. We lift the lid on the Atherton dynasty’s training programme.

It's 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 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.

 Watching the numbers

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. Rachel and her brothers, enduro-riding Dan (33) and Gee (29), 2010 downhill champion, 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.

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. He’s able to look at a sheet of numbers and see an athlete: where they’re strong, where they’re lacking.

Hard work and practice have paid dividends for rachel :

Rachel's training regime is arduous - but the results are worth it

“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, 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.”

 Training on the volcano

Today, in the lab, is a chance to see how Rachel is performing ahead of the start of the 2014 World Cup (which kicked off on 13 April), using test data recorded three weeks after she won the World Championship in 2013 as a benchmark. 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 endure wünderkind 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 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.

Old school vs new school

The Athertons are here for two-weeks of pre-season strength and endurance work, their first training camp of 2014. But 15 years ago, this kind of commitment was scarce. 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.”

Rachel atherton performing at trento, italy in 2013:

Atherton's focus on racing exteneds to her training too

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”

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 and that’s fine. Unless you have someone like Alan Milway 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.”

“[My] strength is the main difference I’ve noticed with Alan,” says Rachel. “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.”

Rachel atherton's focus on racing and training is sharp:

All Rachel's hard work is paying dividends when she hits the course

 Want to measure your training progress against the Rach, Gee and Dan? Head over to Red Bull Personal Best

4/19/2014 11:00:00 AM
Kona Process 134 DL review

Kona’s always been popular with hardcore bikers who ride their bikes like they stole them. Looking at the back end of the Process frame, it’s clear this is a machine that can take massive amounts of punishment.

Frame and equipment: when the going gets tough…

Massive curved seatstays arc over to join a carbon-bridged linkage, and the pivots at the far end are similarly huge – it’s no surprise this frame is shared with the 6in-travel Process 153 family.

We rode the arse out of the Process for a couple of months in the UK before heading to Italy, and wherever we were or whatever we launched it off, it sucked it up and asked for more. Despite ‘only’ being a single-pivot design, in reality the RockShox Monarch RT-damped rear flows through staccato rocks and self-pumps through boulder lines with the wheel glued to the ground. 

The impeccably tuned rockshox monarch hoovers up whatever you can throw at it:

The impeccably tuned RockShox Monarch hoovers up whatever you can throw at it

At only 16.6in long, the chainstays are super short too, which keeps reaction time to a minimum; the Process loves flicking and flaring sideways at every opportunity.

Ride and handling: clever cockpit

Kick hard through the twin-ring SLX cranks and it connects and drives immediately and with little bob or bounce, even when you’re giving it full gas. With the suspension rigged to run high for cornering clarity there’s a lot of room under the bottom bracket, so you can keep the power on through rougher sections more than most bikes here.

Fast-rolling Maxxis Ardent tyres keep the Kona competitive on climbs despite its overall weight being high for the money. The relatively easy speed also helps the Process 134 justify its presence in the range between the bigger 153 bikes and the shorter-travel 110 29er, but yet again there’s one frustrating aspect we haven’t talked about.

The 134's 68-degree head angle can spring unpleasant surprises on the unwary:

The 134's 68-degree head angle can spring unpleasant surprises on the unwary

It’s not the cockpit. A long top tube and tiny 40mm stem holding the 750mm bars give the Kona almost Mondraker-fast reactions and feel. It’s got an insatiable hard-cornering itch that only trying to drag its bar ends through corners will scratch.

It’s not the consistently controlled stroke of the RockShox Revelation fork either. The problem is that, while the rest of the bike demands you hit everything full on, the 68-degree head angle can’t match its control and stability.

Around slow switchbacks – or if you like BMX-fast reactions in general – it’s great, but on loose or random rocks it can snap round underneath you and fire you down the trail, instead of drifting it out the way a slacker angle could.

The 153 gets a friendlier 66.5-degree head angle that’ll sort this out for slack fans who manage to find one, and that leaves the 134 as a gonzo-capable, shorter-travel riot bike for sharp riders who want a faster and looser feel.

This article was originally published as part of What Mountain Bike magazine's Trail Bike of the year awards. What Mountain Bike is available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

4/19/2014 10:00:00 AM
Early morning MTB rides in Jerusalem
Early morning MTB rides in Jerusalem
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HI ,everyone!
HI ,everyone!
2/20/2014 7:21:52 AM
2/20/2014 7:21:12 AM
2/17/2014 6:50:25 AM
Cycle mechanic not listed!
Cycle mechanic not listed!
2/12/2014 5:42:31 AM
BYOT A Great Idea For After Ride Clean Up
4/19/2014 1:58:13 PM
Photo of the Day: Fontana Follies
4/19/2014 11:00:00 AM
Win a Leatt 5.5 Brace!
4/18/2014 10:19:07 PM
Video: Smith Optics “Great Days” – Questioning Your Limits
Video: Smith Optics “Great Days” – Questioning Your Limits

Watch episode two of Smith Optic's new ''Great Days'' series as their team riders battle the Andes Pacifico in Chile.<br /><br /><span class="bold">*Warning* - Gory injury footage. If you have a weak stomach, this episode may not be for you. Viewer discretion is advised</span>
( Photos: 1, Comments: 24 )
4/19/2014 12:00:00 AM
The First Day of School - Enduro World Series, Round 1
The First Day of School - Enduro World Series, Round 1

Practice was in full swing and everyone is looking strong going into this first EWS event in Chile.
( Photos: 53, Comments: 83 )
4/19/2014 12:00:00 AM


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