Mountain Biking

From Two Wheels to Four | Why Brandon Semenuk and Gee Atherton Drive Rally Cars to Relax

Why so many top mountain bikers turn to rallying...

We’ve partnered with Microsoft Studios ahead of the release of Forza Horizon 3 to look at what happens when the worlds of action sports and motorsport collide, and how the “leave your limits” attitude crosses over between the two. Many of the world’s best mountain bikers love their vehicles, but few drive them as well as freerider Brandon Semenuk or former downhill World Champion Gee Atherton, both of whom race rally cars in their spare time. We spoke to them about why going fast on four wheels is the perfect way to blow off steam after riding professionally on two.

Brandon Semenuk is synonymous with the world of freeride mountain biking. The Whistler-born rider has revolutionised the sport in the past five years, innovating like none other and raising the bar to a place where few have been able to follow.

Semenuk was on a bike not long after he learned how to walk; racing by nine and making a name for himself on the elite-level slopestyle circuit by 2008, when he was just 16 years old. By 2012 Brandon had won back-to-back freeride world tours and these days the 25 year old is expected to medal or win whenever he turns up at the start gate; which is why he likes to relieve stress by trading two wheels for four whenever he gets time off the bike.

Photo: Screenshot: Life Behind Bars – Rampage and Rally Racing / Red Bull Media House

“I grew up in Whistler and have always done a lot of riding and running up the logging roads near Whistler and Squamish,” he says. “I’d see the rally cars out there and think, ‘That looks so rad.’”

Brandon has been passionate for rallying since long before he was considered one of the best on a bike. He bought up a Subaru and hit the roads as soon as he was old enough to drive.

Through his sponsorship with Red Bull, Brandon was soon given an upgrade and began regularly racing for fun to help relax between competitions. Having come full circle, the Canadian is now sponsored by Subaru Canada as well and has even featured in adverts behind the wheel.

Brandon has found rallying a completely new challenge and buzz, but insists that there has been a notable transfer of skills from handlebars to steering wheel that has helped him find his feet.

“I’ve been trying to absorb all that expertise and information with my own testing and the things that carry over from mountain bikes to rally cars,” he says.

Semenuk gears up before a run down the Crankworx Joyride course in his Whistler hometown Photo: Bartek Wolinksi / Red Bull Media House

“It’s a totally different thing, obviously, but a lot of things I can at least relate to. I understand grip pretty good, for one, and that’s the main thing. Weighting the car is kind of similar: on a bike you move your body, and in a car you use the steering wheel and the brakes to weight it, but ultimately the principles of finding speed and finding lines are pretty similar.”

The end result is somewhat of a natural talent for the sport, which paired with the motivation of the world champion and his growing experience in the car, have lead to some impressive results.

He continued: “I did a couple winter rallies first and had some good stage times, and then I was really hooked.

“At each of those first rallies I would be running strong, in the top three cars in my class, and then get to the last two or three stages and have an off right at the very end that would eat into my time and I’d end up losing a couple spots. It was so disappointing. But it only motivated me more. I’ve now done the Pacific Forest Rally twice, and ended up fifth nationally and won the regional rally at the last race I did. It felt awesome.”

Photo: Bartek Wolinksi / Red Bull Media House

Of course, Semenuk isn’t the only top mountain biker to find solace and excitement in the driver’s seat. Cycling legend Nico Vouilloz, a ten-time world champion between 1992 and 2002, became a regular rider in the World Rally Championships after retiring from the bike circuit, and two-time downhill world champ Gee Atherton has also taken to rallying more recently.

“When I got into a rally car, I was as far out of my depth as I possibly could be,” admits Gee. “But when I started to drive and got used to listening to a co-driver, I was amazed at how I could read the roads and how, before a rally, I could watch the DVD of the stages through, read the pace notes and how much I could remember.

“I’ve spent years teaching my mind to see things and store them and remember the speed I need to hit a jump at, or the danger points, or the areas I need to watch out for. And it does cross over quite well, which I was quite surprised about.”

Like Brandon, Gee rides to blow off steam between events. He’s also been at the forefront of his sport since he was a teenager.

Photo: Screenshot – ‘Gee Atherton and Elfyn Evans’ / Red Bull Media House

He concludes: “It’s not going to be a detriment to the mountain biking because there’s a lot I can take from it and it’s still keeping me so alert and so focused. The two definitely play off each other well.

“It’s good to have something where you can forget about the bikes for a bit – lose yourself in the rallying and go wild.”

Semenuk and Atherton are both adamant that their skills and experience on two wheels have been able to help them on four, and there’s a good chance that their driving has made them even sharper on two wheels too.

When you compete at such high intensity and speed for a living, at the very top of one of the most physically demanding sports in the world, it seems the best way to blow off steam is to go even faster.

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