Forged in Dirt | Mountain Biker Dan Atherton Talks a Life of Trail Digging in Pursuit of Progression
“I used to wrap my hands in dish cloths to stop the blisters from packing jumps so much”
“It’s all about progression. From the first day I picked up a shovel I was hooked on that link between building and riding."
The man behind the voice is Dan Atherton, the eldest member of the most famous family in mountain biking and a man whose name is synonymous with not only the sport, but with the trail building it so heavily relies on.
The 34-year old did his time on the downhill World Cup circuit, has been a national 4X champion and still competes regularly on the Enduro World Series, though his progress has often been marred by injury and misfortune.
Dan has been called one of the best bike-handlers on the planet and one of the most stylish riders around. But his true passion lies off the bike, in the forest with a shovel in his hand and a blank canvas lying before him.
Without the shovel, there are no trails. Without the trails, there is no mountain biking. Or not a whole lot of it anyway. Just as the bike has to be built and the tyres inflated before they can be spun, the landscape too requires construction.
It’s in the shovel and the dirt beneath it that the origins and core of the sport can be found, and it’s there that you’ll find the foundations of Dan’s fixations with the sport as well.
“I used to wrap my hands in dish cloths to try and stop the blisters from packing the jumps so much."
“We used to live in a little village in Devon called Kerswell," the Salisbury-born shredder tells Mpora. “There was a big piece of common land running down beside this lane. Back then there was no social media and we were too young to buy magazines, so we had no idea what we should be building.
“I think I was about 10 when I first picked up a shovel and just built what was fun, and it ended up being a cross between a downhill track and dirt jumps. We would push up the road then ride flat-out down this mellow downhill track with jumps and berms on our old BMX bikes.
“We used to hate relying on our parents to take us places, so if we wanted to ride bigger jumps we would have to build them. That’s where I learnt that the harder you work for something the more you get out."
It’s a lesson that Dan learned well. The man doesn’t work in half-measures, putting in more graft with his shovel than most put into anything. He’s built up an almost notorious reputation for the ferocity of his trails as a consequence.
“I start on my hands and knees, crawling through the dense trees or undergrowth trying to find natural features hidden from view"
Of course, growing up with two siblings, Gee and Rachel, who would go on to become world downhill champions won’t have encouraged him to ease up on the intensity of his digging. “We got used to pushing the limits from a young age and never really stopped," Dan says.
But the rider insists that rather than trying to sculpt specifically to fit his siblings’ riding style, it’s always the terrain that inspires first and foremost. And his methods when he does get going may seem more than a little rigorous to some.
He continued: “I start on my hands and knees, crawling through the dense trees or undergrowth trying to find the natural features that are hidden from view. I try to make the terrain work for me instead of trying to fight it, so that tends to be the starting point; what nature has decreed.
“Then I’ll mark a rough line down the mountain. Thankfully GPS works on your iPhone without signal so that makes life a shitload easier! Then I just clear key sections that I definitely want to include in the track and link these features together.
“I try to make the terrain work for me instead of trying to fight it. It’s important to remember that the track has to flow. There’s no point jeopardising the flow of the track just to include one or two cool obstacles.
“The hardest part is actually drainage. It’s amazing how much surface water runs off a big set up like that, and it takes so much dirt with it. Every few months the jumps would need a re-surface. I used to wrap my hands in dish cloths to try and stop the blisters from packing the jumps so much."
Safe to say that Dan puts a bit more into his trail building than most, then. Even more certain though, is that his theory that you get out what you put in is ever-present in his end results.
The eldest Atherton put coffee stains on work shirts everywhere when the footage dropped from his course for Red Bull Hardline in 2015, a track that would be dubbed “the most difficult downhill course in the world" by many.
The course boasted features big enough to scare the best of bikers. Literally. It’s not hard to see why the road gap, pictured below, became famous, but there were also some features that were so gnarly they went completely untouched.
‘The Renegade’ was a near-vertical step up so big that none of the riders would attempt it, but even with the feature given the snub, Dan would still break his shoulder in frightening style in practice and rule himself out of his own event. Numerous other injuries would follow for his colleagues.
“Dan built a jump so big no man can ride it," remarked Gee Atherton at the time. An appropriate insight into the way he builds. Bigger and badder than what came before; working on a trial and error process that often ends up with a hospital trip.
“Last year at Hardline I was really nervous," he admits. “We were really short on time after coming back from racing and the rain just wasn't stopping. We eventually got a dry spell just before the event and everyone was stoked to get stuff ridden before the event – the only problem being we had spent so long working on all the big stuff up there we had kind of got used to the size of it!
“Looking back I definitely didn't give the jumps the respect they deserved before jumping them, and I ended up paying the price. Some of it we never jumped and some of it was made smaller, but either way I learned a good lesson; chill out!"
It’s clear that Dan’s mind is one of the most creative in the world of mountain biking; intrigued so much by the origins of the process that he’s grown to even prefer the build to the ride.
“The satisfaction of the finish is short lived," he says. “I really do prefer the process of the build and testing stuff out. I like progression. Once it’s all done and been ridden for a few weeks the novelty wears off."
His love for bringing people and communities together, for innovation, and for putting in the time to build properly has been an inspiration to many and will continue to inspire in the future.
He’s an advocate of the “no dig, no ride" policy – “as long as the person saying it is legit and has bled over it themselves" – and he gets pissed off when he comes across badly built trails.
Put simply, he’s damn good at riding mountain bikes and building the stuff they ride on, and he likes to see the process done right. He hits out at those looking to cash in on the mountain bike boom with a passion strong enough to warm the heart of any rider.
“I know how long it takes to build a section of trail or to put together a race track, so I know how much effort the race organiser or event holder has put in – and it’s not always on a par with expectations. It pisses me off!
“If it’s a private trail then it can be built any old how, but if people are charging money for others to ride it, then it better be legit. Linking the quality of the track build to the amount of money you make from a race or event is bullshit. You signed up to take people’s money off them; you need to put the hours in, regardless of whether or not it makes financial sense.
“My ideal thing would be a project so big that it was never finished, only added to and made better over the years. The project we’re working on at the moment in Dyfi Forest, Machynlleth [in Wales near where Dan lives] is definitely up there.
“It’s a huge project, and it grows bigger every week. I don’t think it will ever be finished."
The passion is clear in the voice of the rider. The results are clear in the progression, which that passion has brought about in the scene in the past few years and beyond.
It all starts with the shovel in mountain biking, and for Dan Atherton, it doesn’t ever end. It changes, morphs and evolves. It becomes the next dream, the next innovation, or the next gnarly kicker that’ll make you spill your drink. But one thing’s for sure; it never ends.