In less time than it takes to read this article, a World Cup downhill racer will have sprinted from a mountain-top starting gate, burned through every watt of energy a body could hold, negotiated a sinister fall-line trail of earth, wood, water and stone, burst under the finish-line timing display, and looked over his or her shoulder - hoping for green. Most will see red.
Pinkbike's award-winning athlete, Rachel Atherton, finished in the green for all seven rounds of the 2016 World Cup Downhill, and then capped off the season with a gold medal at the World Championships at Val di Sole, Italy. If that were not enough, she began her perfect season with seven consecutive wins from the year before - six World Cups and the 2015 World Championships. That's a record 13 World Cups and two World Championships in a row, in a sport where even the smallest slip-up can send a competitor tumbling off the podium.
All three of our nominees put in lifetime-best performances against arch rivals during a year when racing threw every imaginable terrain and weather at them: Nino Schurter capped off a stellar World Cup season with an XC World Championship victory, followed by the coveted Olympic gold medal at Rio de Janiero; Richie Rude crushed the Enduro World Series for the overall title; and Rachel Atherton aced the DH World Cup series and the DH World Championships. Ultimately, Pinkbike had to choose between great and phenomenal. Congratulations to Rachel Atherton: 2016 Athlete of the Year.
Race downhill and you will discover how much can go wrong in four minutes. I would wager that, until you approach the top 20 percentile of the professional ranks, gravity racing is damage control, pure and simple: don't crash, don't blow a corner, don't run out of gas, and don't break anything. At its highest level, however, downhill racing is about preparation, planning, execution, and risk management - and evidently, that's a formula that Rachel Atherton understands quite well.
Rachel didn't breeze through fifteen consecutive victories. Her rivals out-paced her a number of times in timed training and qualification rounds. Tahnee Seagrave, Myriam Nicole, Tracey Hannah, and Manon Carpenter all took some heat out of Rachel in quali's this season, with Seagrave only 0.7 seconds shy of the win in Lenzerheide. She had her own daemons to fight as well - back and shoulder injuries would plague her all season - but in every case, Atherton managed to assemble and execute a victorious final round.
The pressure of carrying the number-one plate and the media's expectation of victory would be burden enough to crush most athletes, or at the least, cloud their judgement and dilute their focus enough to blunt their competitive edge.
Rachel shouldered those burdens, maintained her fitness at the razor's edge, arrived at start gate with the correct bike setup, the track memorized, and armed with the time to beat, laid down a race-run fast enough to win, with just enough restraint to avoid a puncture or a mechanical failure - for an entire season.
I still can't really believe it! I totally thought it would never happen. The women's field is strong and the British riders have pushed me all season. Then, at the last round of the World Cup, Tracey and Pompon both went faster in quali's. They were riding so well in the dust...
I'm stoked, but it's kind of unreal. Especially now that I'm back home and stuck into the kitchen extension! The perfect season is proof of the hard work that goes in from the whole team, they are awesome! - Rachel Atherton
No World Cup downhill racer could hope to accomplish a fraction of what Rachel has without an equally capable team. After seven straight races without a single mechanical, Joe Krejbich, her mechanic, was no doubt sweating bullets when Rachel got on the chair lift for her race run at the World Championships. Odds alone for a freak breakdown that day were the inverse of a needy person winning the lottery.
In the end, however, there is nothing her support group can help her with. When the start gate sounds, Rachel sprints onto the track alone against the clock, compressing her entire career into a controlled, four-minute explosion. It may be a long time before another pro downhill racer goes green fifteen in a row. We are fortunate to have watched the performance. Brava!
Photos: Saskia Dugon / Dave Trumpmore