How the Athertons are Using Red Bull Hardline to Sculpt a Whole New Style of Mountain Biking
We speak to Gee Atherton, Adam Brayton and Ruaridh Cunningham about the progression of Red Bull Hardline...
One look at Gee Atherton flowing through the Red Bull Hardline course in the Dyfi valley in Wales and it’s clear to see why they call it one of the toughest tracks ever created. Run of the mill is not the Atherton's style.
“A lot of the course is much bigger this year," Gee tells us. “We’ve taken some of the best riders around and stuck them on one of the hardest courses in the world. It’s quite the combination."
The world watches on as the two-time World Champion drops off a boulder into murky woodlands where light barely breaks through the trees, zips round a couple of rugged corners and navigates a stretch of rocks and roots perilous enough to cause the best of riders problems.
And yet because of what comes next, nobody takes much notice of the finesse with which Gee has just sailed through that section. See, waiting a few hundred metres down the trail is something rather more unique. As Gee’s brother Dan Atherton, the brains behind the build, puts it; what’s waiting is basically a “great big metal ramp".
Set up on one of the most exposed parts of the Dyfi hillside is the Renegade Step-Up, a huge jump with a steep lip that flings riders up to hang high over the 40ft gap before meeting the landing pad on the other side, and only after they’ve been spat out of the woods before at around 40mph.
For Gee, it’s the most nerve-wracking part of the run: “You’re coming through these woods absolutely tapped and you have to hit the step up as fast as you can. It’s a really harsh landing. It’s a lot of fun as well, but it’s a really terrifying jump."
Inevitably, Gee is the man on speed dial whenever Dan and his dig crew dream up a new feature, however sketchy. While Gee admits that the test dummy role is more often than not unnerving, he’s got full faith in his big brother’s eye for the trail.
“A while ago we got the call that it was time to guinea pig some of the stuff here at Hardline and you might know that call is coming but it’s always pretty nerve wracking when you get it," he laughs.
“I came up here and saw the stuff they’d been building and thought “Christ! This is maybe too big". But once we tackled it we saw that it worked.
“I put a lot of trust in what Athy [Dan Atherton] does. If he says that the speed is good for something then I trust that it is. I don’t mind testing stuff when he’s had a hand building it."
The Renegade Step-Up is the kind of thing more commonly seen in a freestyle motocross arena than on a mountain biking course. But that’s Dan’s style – get creative and go big.
It was a feature that was at Hardline in dirt-form the year before, but that no one dared hit because of the wind and wild weather – and it’s only the latest addition to a track which already featured ferocious downhills and endless gaps, including a humungous road gap spanning 50ft.
If that doesn’t sound intense enough, it’s also a track that Gee would be riding with a shoulder injury picked up in the final round of the downhill World Cup in Andorra that kept him out of the World Champs in Val di Sole the week later.
“Yeah, it’s alright," Gee says of the shoulder, sounding nonchalantly upbeat about his recovery, before going on to add, “Well... It’s manageable. It’s rideable. It’s sore and we’ve strapped it up and done what we can, but it’s doable at the moment." We’re unconvinced.
“I managed to get a week’s rest after the injury at the World Cup and this is a rough track but it’s the big hits that are bad here and I can just about hold on and get by," he continues. “It’s not like I’m going to be performing so to speak but it’s doable."
He still rides into fourth place at the end of the day, with Bernard Kerr taking the win, Ruaridh Cunningham coming in second and Adam Brayton finishing third; though for the fans at least, Hardline is not so much about the result as the spectacle and progression on show.
Gee continues: “On the one hand the race season is so long and brutal that a part of me would like nothing more than to be feet up with a cocktail in the Caribbean right now but at the same time it’s amazing to get this opportunity to showcase what these guys can do on mountain bikes."
Indeed, it’s a day of riding through pain, flying over road gaps, punishing suspension and confronting innovations wild enough to give you nightmares. This is the well and truly the off-season, Atherton-style, and it looks far from relaxing. So what do the rest of the field make of it?
Adam Brayton is coming off the season of his life on the UCI World Cup circuit, with a fourth place finish in Fort William contributing to his top 10 place in the overall.
He’s more than candid about how the course is capable of pushing even the best riders when we chat to him on the Friday of practice: “I’ve been here two days and I’m still alive! We lost two guys yesterday, and we lost another two today.
“The jumps are massive. I’ve taken a massive step back and actually been one of the last guys to hit them. I’m trying to learn from watching and not get hurt. I was not looking forward to the new Renegade step up but it’s actually a really cool jump so I’ve been building confidence on that.
“I’m trying to be smart. I say it’s good fun but sometimes it isn’t! When it does go right though, it is really awesome."
We catch up with Scottish rider Cunningham, who won the event in 2015 in wild conditions. He tells a similar story of caution, while also touching on the rewards that tackling the track head on can ultimately bring:
“Last year was quite unique in that there was such bad weather and it was so windy and wet. I went for it and it paid off," he says.
“This year the weather was a lot better and the track has had another year to bed in. It’s rolling a lot faster, but even the guys who are the most confident in the air here are pushing their comfort zone on some things.
“There have been a couple of hospital trips this week. Everyone here is pushing things and unfortunately it’s part of the sport. The Renegade Step-Up... it’s a really high, exposed part of the hill, and the thing just spits you up in the air and you’re just left floating. I was quite happy that I got to see Dan and Gee do it first!"
It’s a challenging, almost punishing end to the season for a field of guys who make a living touring the world and riding some of the toughest downhill tracks in the world. So how does it compare to a World Cup track?
“The steep rocky stuff is just as tough anything we’d race on the World Cup all year," continues Ruaridh. “But it’s not glorified the same as the features.
“World Cups are probably rougher; there are more runs and the track is more beaten up, but there’s only ever one or two features in a World Cup race track that you really have to think about committing for. Most of the lines you’ve done so many times and they’re not so difficult that you have to go through it in your head the whole time.
“The most mentally draining part of a World Cup for me is how fast you have to ride. On this track, it’s more of a matter of how you link everything together. The features of the track are more intimidating than the speed you have to ride it."
Adam chips in on a similar vein: “World Cups are about all-out speed. Here the sections in between are on par with the World Cup tracks but it’s almost like you overlook those sections because the jumps are such a big deal and you’re more focused on riding them clean and safe."
The guys have touched upon a point which Gee thinks sets Hardline apart from the rest of the schedule; the mixture of features, the progression, and the different approach which is needed in order to not only navigate the course safely, but do it with speed.
“For Hardline you have to take a section at a time, split it down into smaller sections and then really do it one thing at a time," Gee concludes.
“When you’re riding at the start of the day you have the big obstacles in your mind. Everyone sees the road gap and the Renegade jump and they’re the things that stick in your mind but there’s a lot to the track that you don’t notice until you ride it; technical downhill sections, steep rocky shoots and big drops into muddy steep sections. Those sections are hard, and they just connect you to the bigger obstacles. You’re hitting one obstacle and then the next one is ready for you.
“I don’t think anyone will be getting used to this set up anytime soon. The course is constantly evolving and growing and it’s not that we don’t want riders to get comfortable with it, but we want them to keep pushing, and every year you see people pushing the boundaries that little bit further."
With Dan and Gee at the heart of that push, we don’t think there’s any fear of the course evolution slowing down anytime soon. Run of the mill just isn’t the Atherton style.