You'd Have to Be Crazy to Take on the Hardest, Fastest Course in Downhill Mountain Biking
... but Rachel Atherton, the best female downhill mountain biker in the world, is going to try.
Rachel Atherton is either a little bit crazy, or she has a lot of faith in herself. On Saturday, she'll haul her teal and orange Trek bike to the top of Mont-Sainte-Anne—a 2,600-foot peak just 25 miles outside of Quebec City—and race downhill at 40-plus miles per hour on a two- to four-foot wide path through heavily wooded forest filled with treacherous rock formations and gnarled roots in order to keep her title as the female downhill mountain biker with the most World Cup wins of all time. Actually, earning a title like that—niche as it may sound—takes a little bit of crazy and a lot of faith.
If Atherton wins, she'll be just three wins away from becoming the winningest World Cup mountain biker of all time—of men and women (South African rider Greg Minnaar currently holds that record). And that carries even more weight than earning the female title because, at the end of the day, downhill mountain biking is still a male-dominated sport. The UCI Mountain Bike World Cup represents the Grand Slam of downhill mountain biking—there are six to eight races per year, where the most skilled riders battle for the top spot. At Mont-Sainte-Anne, the fifth race in this year's World Cup season, Atherton will be one of just 15 women compared to the 80 men competing. "The men are always faster," Atherton tells me. "It's so physical. It's impossible really, to get close to them."
Frankly, it seems impossible to do what any mountain biker does. I spent a morning riding up Mont-Sainte-Anne just to barrel down it, Atherton-style. The mountain is beautiful, all purple wildflowers and deciduous trees, but you can hardly enjoy it because you're so focused on not pitching yourself over the handlebars. Hit a rock at the wrong angle, catch your wheel on a rogue tree root, and the next second you're sprawled in the dirt. And I was biking over a bunny slope compared to what Atherton and her competitors will ride.
Mont-Sainte-Anne is an infamously technical course; Atherton has won this particular race four times already. Since she started competing in 2007, she has racked up 33 individual World Cup wins and has won all the World Cup races in a season five separate times. She has dominated the sport recently, remaining undefeated for 15 consecutive races until May, when a crash during a practice run in Scotland dislocated her shoulder and left her unable to compete (watch the gnarly footage from her GoPro below).