Commencal's Rachel Atherton, one of the top women on the international downhill circuit, will return to World Cup-level racing this weekend, May 15-16, at the opening round in Maribor, Slovenia. The British rider injured her shoulder in a collision with a vehicle in January 2009 and spent the rest of the season recovering. She began racing again this spring.
"I'm excited to get the first World Cup underway," said a beaming Atherton to Cyclingnews. "I haven't done many races, so I'm not sure what it's like to be back. But it's good to be back on a bike. It was tough missing a year. It's great to be back racing and amongst all the rest of the team." Atherton is teammates with her two brothers, fellow World Cup racers, Dan and Gee.
Although Atherton was downhill World Champion in 2008, she's not putting any pressure on herself as she works her way back to the elite level. "I want to figure out where I'm at and then just have fun," said the 22-year-old. "It was tough missing a year and it's tough coming back into the season."
"I'm not going to expect too much. I'll take it easy on myself though, of course, I want to win. I'm in races to win them, but it's not the be all and end all, so I'm going to chill."
In addition to the World Cups, Atherton is racing the British National Series, whenever possible; the British National Championships; and other select races, such as the Red Bull Rampage and various UCI-categorized events.
"I'll try to do the full British National Series. There's nothing like riding in your own country. There are some wicked tracks, many quite close to home, and I love racing back home."
She's off to a good start, with wins in the first two British downhill series rounds at Rheola and Fort William. She also took second at the Sea Otter Classic.
Thinking of her injury and long path to recovery, she said, "You have to make the best of any situation. I think the year off will have been a good break," said Atherton. "It's nice to come into the season with a fresh head. Last year, I got to ride my bike and not race. It gave me a new sort of passion for riding and racing. It's been good for me to discover it again."
In the crash late last winter, Atherton dislocated her shoulder and sustained nerve damage.
"A dislocated shoulder was nothing new to me. I've had a quite a few on both sides, but what was different was that when it dislocated this time, it snapped the nerve that feeds the deltoid (muscle) and surrounding areas, so the nerve was in a way paralyzed."
Doctors advised her to take the wait and see approach initially. "Sometimes nerves heal themselves, so I had a few months of waiting to see if it would in my case, but it didn't, so I went underwent surgery. They replaced the nerve, cutting out a bad section that was snapped and putting in a new nerve from my leg. They put it in the front and back of my shoulder."
The first operation was in May. Then it was time for more waiting.
Operation number two came in September. "When that nerve graft had taken and fixed itself, then I had some reconstructive surgery on the joint itself - pinning this and that back to where needed."
"It was weird because it was two surgeries that were quite a few months apart, so I'd recovered and then be almost riding my bike and then I had to have another."
"Coming back was hard work. It was a challenge."
The surgeries were worth it though as both helped restore Atherton to closer to full health. "My shoulder feels good now. It's not 100 percent, but it's a long road with these sorts of injuries. I've been riding it hard, and the more I ride, the better it feels."
Atherton went to a few World Cups with her brothers last summer, but mostly stayed at home in North Wales to focus on her rehab. "It was hard to go away. I didn't want to miss my physio and doctors' appointments, so I often stayed home and watched the races on the internet."
"It was hard to be at the races and not race, and I didn't want to deal with that."
Racing the best
Atherton got her season off to a good early start with a win at the Maxxis Cup in Portugal in April. "It was the first race of the year. There wasn't that much stiff competition there, but I guess it was good because it eased me into it. Since then, I"ve done a few British races. It's been so much fun."
She expects her World Cup competition to be most of the same contenders as previous years, including Tracy Moseley, Emmeline Ragot, Floriane Pugin and Sabrina Jonnier.
"Everyone's been training hard. With the women, it's always the same few. We'll all be fighting it out. My plan is to do the full World Cup circuit - to go straight in and see if the body holds up."
Atherton excels at non-pedally courses, so she is looking forward to Val di Sole, Italy (where she won her world title); Champery, Switzerland; and Mont Sainte Anne, Canada, for the worlds. "I like it to be technical and straight down if at all possible."
"I think worlds in Mont Sainte Anne will be wicked," she said. "I can't believe how long it's been there and how rad it's been. It's quite a technical course, but it's also super fast. You slacken the bike's head angle and just point it down and hold on. It's a brilliant course, I can't wait for it."