Rachel Atherton ‘the fastest mother in the world’ has won her 40th World Cup at Lenzerheide, World Cup 2023 Round 1, her second race in 4 years … then headed back to the pits to breast feed her baby daughter Arna, 21 months.
Six times World Champion, six times World Cup overall champion and the first downhill racer to every deliver a ‘perfect season’ Rachel has done it all.
The 35-year-old has effectively been away from racing ever since she snapped her Achilles during practice at Les Gets back in 2019.
Recovery from injury was followed by the pandemic and effective cancellation of the 2020 season and the birth of Arna in August 2021, for more than three years it looked like Rachel was done with racing.
But in July 2022, a last minute decision saw Rachel return to the track for one race only, that race was also at Lenzerheide, one of Rachel’s preferred tracks.
She said at the time: “I’m far from full fitness but I wanted to benchmark myself and to show that you can have a baby and still do sport.
“I wanted to see if it was even enjoyable anymore and if it was possible with a baby.”
Sixth place that day saw Rachel just one spot off the podium.
Rachel said: “For me, not getting hurt is even more important than it was before, as I’ve got a lot more responsibility.
“I’ve been very open about the fact that being a mum hasn’t been easy for me, I’ve really struggled, despite great support from my mum and my partner Olly.
“The lack of sleep was so hard for me, for the longest time I couldn’t even contemplate training again and that had knock on effects – the lack of focus and routine wasn’t good for me either – especially as I never committed to a decision of either retiring or carrying on.
“It was a bit of a limbo time. Arana sleeping through the night (a recent milestone) has meant that I’m in a better mental state I feel like it’s allowed me to make good decisions.
“I’m loving the routine of training again and it’s really helped my mental health regularly training, exercising again, and it helps with sleep too.
“I’ve always wanted to try and put Arna first by breastfeeding on demand and that’s been so amazing but also limiting, but I’m glad I’ve taken my time returning to sport and I’m glad I gave myself nearly two years to just be with Arna 24/7 and to just be a mum and be there for her, but she’s still going to travel with me because I feel more relaxed when I get to hang out with her in between the stresses of competition.
“I think leaving her behind would be worse as I’d miss her so much, so my mum’s coming as nanny and that’s awesome.
“I’m basically racing for fun, and because the Atherton Bike that I helped design with my brothers and that we manufacture in our home town of Machynlleth is just so good.
“I’m excited to just compete and see what happens.”
In the run up to the race Rachel struggled to build confidence, saying “it’s a whole different game riding a World Cup compared with riding at home at Dyfi Bike Park where I know the lines inside out.”
But second place in Qualifications was a huge boost with only Camille Balanche (last year’s overall World Cup champion and the home favourite at Lenzerheide) bettering Rachel’s time.
It was the same story in semi finals with Rachel just 1.6 seconds off Balanche in second place.
But Rachel is a racer through and through – the team knew that despite her protestations Rachel would be a danger today, and so it proved.
With Nina Hoffman on the hotseat Rachel delivered a super composed yet super fast ride to take the lead.
Only Balanche was left on track and the team held their breath as the experienced racer powered down the track.
Two seconds off Rachel’s pace at split two Cam gradually reeled back the difference, but it wasn’t enough – she crossed the line 0.5 seconds back on Rachel and the fairytale return had the ending that it deserved.
Rachel said: “I actually can’t believe it, coming into the race I genuinely had no idea if I would even qualify, the new format is so hard, I’m exhausted!”