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Wales Online
Wales Online
John Jones

The fearless mountain biker back racing just a year after breaking nearly everything in horror Snowdonia crash

As a world champion biker, Gee Atherton is used to hurtling down some of the biggest and most dangerous mountains in the world. But last summer, he found himself at the bottom of one, both literally and figuratively, after a horrific crash left him with life-threatening injuries that also threatened to bring an end to a career of more than 20 years.

Gee, who specialises in downhill racing, was filming for a new project near Dinas Mawddwy in Snowdonia in June 2021 when disaster struck. As part of a new series, he was set to take on a steep, rocky mountain ridgeline complete with huge jumps, sheer drops and zero room for error.

Unfortunately for the now-37-year-old, an error, albeit small, is exactly what he made. A moment's miscalculation saw him come off his bike and tumble hundreds of feet down the mountain ridge, bouncing off sharp rocks like a rag doll before finally coming to a stop, unconscious, at the bottom of a slate outcrop.

Read more: ‘The most dangerous junction in Wales’ and the people who have to navigate it every day

"I remember bits of it," said Gee. "It was an enormous crash, certainly the biggest of my career. I just remember getting kicked hundreds of feet down this cliff edge and basically just rag-dolling as I struck these massive rocks on the way down.

"When you’re riding that kind of terrain, you know the risk and you know the danger, and when you have experience like I have, you know what can go wrong. It was a bit of bad luck really, I made a small mistake and ended up getting thrown quite a long way."

After his team were able to get mountain rescue crews to the remote hillside, Gee was airlifted to hospital and rushed into intensive care at the Royal Stoke University Hospital. The horrific crash had left him with what he calls a "pretty heavy" catalogue of injuries, including multiple serious fractures and a severe concussion.

"My injuries were pretty extensive," he said. "To start, I had a high-impact fracture on my femur which is where it gets blown into six or seven pieces through the muscle and the side of the leg. I had an open fracture on my radius where the bone came through the skin and was in pieces. I broke several ribs, punctured a lung, broke my eye socket, broke my nose and knocked myself out."

Gee suffered horrendous injuries in the crash, breaking multiple bones and being knocked unconscious (Gee Atherton)
Gee has battled against the odds to race again just over a year after his accident (Dan Griffiths | Moonhead Media)

Footage of the crash went viral, racking up hundreds of thousands of views on the biker's YouTube channel. However, for Gee, it was just the start of what was to be the most physically and mentally draining year of his career, which began when he took up riding as a teenager along with his older brother Dan and younger sister Rachel, who have both also won national and international titles.

"Dan was the ringleader really," he said as he reflected on how he fell in love with the sport. "He kind of shoehorned us into the whole life on two wheels. We started with BMXs and then moved on to mountain bikes, not with a view to race and become professional but purely just because we loved it.

"It just gradually escalated from there, and riding around local tracks turned into going along to races and suddenly we started to make a bit of a name for ourselves. I won my first World Cup as a junior back in 2004, and I became world champion along with my younger sister Rachel in 2008 on the same day, which was pretty special.

"At the time of the crash, I'd been racing the same amount in World Cups and things like that, but I'd also started doing some quite big mountain filming projects alongside all that," he added. "They are projects I really enjoy doing, and it's a real contrast to the racing, which is quite regimented. You suddenly have that freedom and the ability to build the line yourself, what you can imagine is the only limit to it."

The Red Bull athlete said rehabilitation felt like an "insurmountable task" at times (Dan Griffiths | Moonhead Media)

But while his love for the sport was stronger than ever, whether Gee would ever be able to return to the saddle still remained in doubt. With such an extensive array of injuries, he admits that rehabilitation seemed at times like an "insurmountable task".

"It was really difficult," he said. "And that's mainly because of the amount of injuries I had. When you're healing from one bad injury, you can apply all your focus to that and the rest of your body kind of helps it along. But with so many injuries, it was very difficult moving around and beginning the rehab was really hard as it seemed like an insurmountable task.

"I had a pretty big old hill to climb with those injuries and the thought of getting back to a point where I was fit and strong and able to throw myself down mountains again seemed so far away. When you have that type of task in front of you, the hardest thing is the mental side, keeping your chin up and maintaining that positive mentality that you need to heal. If you're down in the dumps and not feeling it, it’s hard for your body to recover."

Gee was supported through his recovery by his sister Rachel and brother Dan (Courtesy of HSBC)

With the support of his family, race team and medical staff, however, Gee soon began to make significant process and, after a while, returning to racing looked more and more possible. Get the latest news from WalesOnline sent straight to your inbox for free by signing up to our newsletters.

"Your first thought is you don't want to ride the bike again," he said. "It’s a way of protecting yourself. But then you start to ease up a little bit and think more about the possibility of returning. As I moved through my rehab, I started to think more and more about riding again.

"Unfortunately at the start of the year I had to have another operation on my left femur where they took the old metalwork out and had to redo the whole thing, which set me back a bit - but I was really thinking about racing again. It was difficult at one point to imagine riding this year, but as I started to improve more and more and pushed harder on the physio, I realised riding, racing and filming again was a genuine possibility."

Having looked at the racing calendar, Gee knew there was only one event where he wanted to make his phenomenal return to racing. Held on a course designed by his brother Dan, Red Bull Hardline is one of the world's toughest downhill races and is labelled as a "severe test of skill and nerve", with some of the sport's best taking part and flying over 90-foot jumps.

The competition has been held in Machynlleth - or the Athertons' back yard - for the last eight years. This year's competition saw biking fans and adrenaline junkies return to trackside, and would also mark Red Bull athlete Gee's phenomenal comeback.

Gee made his comeback at Red Bull Hardline earlier this month (Red Bull)

Despite only going into the event just with hopes of finishing the course, the 37-year-old surpassed his own expectations, finishing fifth overall. You can see all of the dramatic photos from this year's competition here and watch a recap of the action here.

"It's not an easy event at all," he said. "There's no easing into it really. Myself and my brother have put it together with Red Bull and it's probably one of the hardest tracks ever built. The idea of it being my first race back was a little bit terrifying, because you need to be strong enough for all of those hits, but also it really motivated me.

"There was no event I’d like to be at more, so it was a huge driving force in me pushing the rehab along to try and get back for it. Once I’d made that decision and set my sights on it, I really committed to it and pushed as hard as I could. We got to the event and as soon as I started riding, I realised, I can do this. My goal was just to get down the track, so to finish fifth was incredible."

He surpassed his own expectations, finishing fifth overall (Getty Images for Red Bull)

After getting some more racing experience under his belt following his injury, Gee has his confidence back and he's looking to the future with excitement. While his comeback is a testament to his passion and strength of character, however, he knows he has a lot of people to thank for helping him to get back in the saddle.

"I received enormous amounts of support during my rehab, My family were great, everyone around me, the whole race team were helping me along. I had a really good team of doctors, physios, people coming to my house the week after the crash to start that rehab process. I couldn't walk and the guys would get things moving, trying to get me up and keep my spirits up too. Having that team of people around me at that point was so vital to my recovery, I owe them a lot.

"Being back at Hardline, it definitely lit that flame of racing and riding again. We’ve been filming a ridgeline edit that's coming out in a couple of weeks time, which is one of the best ones I've done so far, and it’s been a busy month working on all these different projects. It’s really exciting to be back and I’ve definitely got my sights on more filming projects and racing more next year."


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