Rachel Atherton Talks Racing Gloveless in Andorra
Gloveless riders are a minority. No, worse… they’re an extreme minority. Black sheep among the group with odd ways ; how dare he or she be different? Personal preferences and experience differ between each of us but for some reason, riding gloveless results in flack from fellow riders. It probably gets more notice than riding flats. The shock and horror surrounding a gloveless rider can sometimes be over the top.
While gloves provide a sense of protection, in my experience it’s pretty much null and void. Cuts and scrapes happen anyway and no-one in their right mind can argue that the mix of thin mesh and leather is going to prevent worse. Grip in hot sweaty conditions is the biggest gloved benefit, but for a select few, that's not enough incentive to slide a layer between digits and handlebar.
Commentary from Rachel's race run:
Claudio Caluori - Is she riding without gloves?
Rob Warner - She is yeah.
Claudio - That must not be on purpose. Maybe she forgot them up at the...
Rob - No. She did in qualifying as well.
Claudio - Really?
Rob - Perhaps... Uh... It does give you a nicer feel on the handlebar. But the... Uh... The sweat on a long course like this. I dunno... I'd have sweaty palms before a race like this when I was racing, let alone halfway down the track.
It’s no secret that Blenki* has been riding without gloves for years. Before him, Nathan Rennie would go sans glove at times and there are others too. But when two of the current fastest riders in the world ditched their mitt protectors it raised a couple of eyebrows and brought up some questions.
The two riders in question are Laurie Greenland and Rachel Atherton. During the 2018 Andorra World Cup race, both were spotted on course with bare knuckles. Warner and Claudio caught it but little mention was made elsewhere. Not only did they ditch gloves, they did it during a hot race, on one of the toughest and most physically demanding tracks of the year. If there was ever a track where injury and grip were issues, Andorra was it. And both riders were battling at the sharp end of the rankings, making it even more interesting.
So why? Do they ride without gloves off the track? Did they forget their gloves, or accidentally pack two lefts? Have they discovered some insane new grip that allows them to hold-on confidently without the added leather layer? I wanted to know, and thankfully, Rachel was happy to answer.
Rachel had just won her sixth World Cup Overall when she responded to me. Getting back to the top after battling with Tahnée (Seagrave) and Pompon (Myriam Nicole) all year made it a special one for Atherton. It didn’t come easy though, and Rachel admits to putting absolutely everything she had into her final run in La Bresse. Considering her previous dominance, it speaks to the level of competition among the best female bike handlers in the world. Women’s downhill racing is in a very good place.
When I crossed the line at La Bresse, I was totally exhausted—I don’t think I had another pedal stroke in me! –Rachel commenting on her series win.
As for those gloveless race runs in Andorra, Rachel said qualis were tackled bare-handed and she won by nearly 13 seconds. She says it came down to comfort. Issues with hand fatigue on the rough track had her try something new, and she enjoyed it enough to stay gloveless on race day. Along with a different set of grips the combo was the ticket. Will she do it again? Rachel says "For me, it depends on the nature of the track, the weather… small changes in set up can make a huge difference.”
Maybe that's the difference between Rachel and her competitors? She knows the importance of small changes and she's willing to give them a chance. It highlights an important characteristic; Rachel’s not afraid to try something different, however large or small and seemingly insignificant. If it's possible to increase comfort and boost her chances, it's worth a shot.
After a wild moment during her finals run you could say things didn’t pan out this time, but that’s racing. Despite the brief detour off track, Rachel cracked on to finish second, salvaging valuable points toward the overall. In the end, that dedication worked in her favour. Will we see her bare-knuckled at races in the future? It depends, but if the weather and track call for it, you can bet she won't be afraid to try.