Rachel Atherton’s first major race back from a broken collarbone ended in triumph as the hotly-anticipated HSBC UK | National Downhill Series got underway at a rain-sodden Cwmcarn.
Atherton had not enjoyed a big outing since the blow at last year’s World Championships but didn’t let that phase her as she completed a spectacular comeback in the season curtain-raiser in Wales.
Understandably nervous, there were signs of trepidation early on but as she got into her flow it was as if the four-time downhill world champion had never been away, winning by more than two seconds in the elite race.
The men’s equivalent saw Matt Walker take top spot, backing up his position as top rank from the seedings to open up the National Downhill Series with a win to his name.
Perfect comeback for Atherton
More than six months had passed since Atherton last tasted race action, denied her chance at the 2017 World Championships having broken her collarbone.
Since then the 30-year-old has faced a winter of recovery, with training only giving an indication of how she was faring on the sidelines.
But, having placed seventh in the seeding run in Wales, Atherton kept the family tradition alive of winning a round at Cwmcarn, more than a decade since brother Gee prevailed the last time the event was held there.
Laying down a big run was enough for Rachel to win the elite women’s race by more than two seconds, stopping the clock in 2:47.917 – two seconds ahead of closest rival Tahnee Seagrave.
Katy Curd, back competing in downhill after a small break, recorded the fastest run in seeding before finishing the race in third.
Maya Atkinson took a commanding win the junior women’s race, stamping out a near six-second lead over second placed rider Ellen Flewitt.
Atherton back to her old self
“In the first race of the season, having spent the winter training, you’re never really sure where you’re going to be so you’re never really confident regardless of results in the past,” said Atherton, downhill world champion in 2008, 2013, 2015 and 2016.
“It’s the first one so you’re trying to get to grips with the track and ride your own race without worrying about the competition, which is impossible when the level is the same as the World Cup.
Aaaaaiiiiiii so buzzing to Win the British National today - back with the team… https://t.co/1bwQF9eCiU— rachel atherton (@rachelatherton) April 8, 2018
“The last race I did was last year’s World Championships where I broke my collarbone so for qualifying I was really nervous, just trying to get back to that race mindset and the pace without hurting yourself.
“It takes a lot of time and it’s about little steps, we had a red flag in qualifying but until then I felt like my old self again, the crowd were really good which helps to take your mind off it.
“That feeling when you’ve won, I was so relieved and that was the biggest feeling because I realised I am still good on my bike, I can still do it and after a winter training where you don’t really know where you are anymore, it’s a big relief.
“I felt like it was World Cup or a World Championships, I was as stoked to win this as much as anything else.”
Confidence high for victorious Walker
The 1.9km track with a vertical drop of 250m ensured the course remained old school despite the comprehensive overhaul, with technical challenges up top combined with hip jumps and berm action in the bottom half.
Those were the tasks provided to a tough field with Gee Atherton, Danny Hart and Charlie Hatton among those battling it out, though none of them could prevent Walker from taking top spot.
Living up to his No.1 seeding run, the junior downhill world champion stole a march on them all, sweeping to victory in 2:29.959, boasting an advantage greater than one second over teammate Hart.
Mike Jones took third a further second back while Gee took his place in sixth this time round.
Walker said: “It couldn’t have gone any better really, I went first in seeding and there was quite a bit of pressure to improve my time.
“Everyone is so close on that type of track so it’s quite difficult to make a lot of time up
“But to win by a second is a decent enough gap on a track like that, it’s good mental confidence and confidence on the bike too so I’m happy."
The junior men’s event was headed up by Kade Edwards, taking the fastest splits throughout seeding and the final run to stamp his authority on the race with a clear two-second advantage over rival Morgan Tyrrell.
While Jamie Edmondson took third, narrowly squeezing Henry Kerr into fourth by a few hundredths of a second.
1. Matt Walker
2. Danny Hart
3. Michael Jones
4. Laurie Greenland
5. Adam Brayton
1. Rachel Atherton
2. Tahnee Seagrave
3. Katy Curd
4. Lucy Drees
5. Abbie Sloan
1. Kade Edwards
2. Morgan Tyrrell
3. Jamie Edmondson
1. Maya Atkinson
2. Ellen Flewitt
3. Tea Jensen