“Wait a minute…what’s this? Stevie…what?” It’s been nearly a week since I sat with Josh Carlson and Yoann Barelli, my Sea-To-Sky travel buddies, and received the news of Canadian World Cup Downhill Legend Stevie Smith’s passing via the modern day bad (and good) news breaker that is social media. We were delayed for a day in Toronto en route to Dublin and our mood abruptly changed from silly and impatient to quiet and in disbelief. I reached out to my network of friends at home who were close with Stevie right away. Between bouts of tears and conversations about details, I spent the first hour of the process hoping that it was some kind of messed up trick or joke. Surely, it couldn’t be possible. Stevie is one of us.
I suspect every mountain bike fan in the world will remember where they stood and what they were doing when they heard the news of Stevie’s passing. 2016 has already been a really, really hard year for our sport, but something about the death of someone as prolific as “The Chainsaw” has been particularly hard to believe for so many of us. Regardless of my personal connection to Stevie (our six degrees of separation brought us together at weddings, dinners between friends and more mountain bike parties than I can count), the level of loss I feel for his passing lies heavily in the pride I felt to be associated with him as a resident of the West Coast, as a Canadian and as a mountain biker. Stevie’s incredible skill, talent, work ethic and straightforward attitude put the idea in the heads of Canadian kids with hopes and dreams as mountain bikers that being the best in the world was possible.
Arriving at the pits in Ireland was an emotional rollercoaster for so many of the riders competing in Wicklow this past week. Grief has a funny way of creeping its way back into your face just when you think you’ve pulled yourself together; encountering someone who was feeling the same loss brought it all back without a need for exchanging words. Eventually we all had to just get on with the process of practicing and racing and try to be present in the moments we were graced with.
During practice, I battled with the same fear I dealt with back in Argentina. It was hard not to get wrapped up in the intimidation of learning really technical sections of trail in front of crowds of 30-50 people. I had actually done a lot of work at home in Whistler over the past few weeks to overcome my lingering fear of speed on the bike. My friend Adam fed me a quote that he heard from Stevie firsthand after his 2nd place result at the 2016 Lourdes World Cup: “I’m not scared anymore,” (Stevie battled for the past couple of years with injuries and bad luck at races). Even before Stevie’s accident last week, I thought of that quote every single time I touched my bike as I prepared for Ireland. It seemed a terrible, cosmic joke that I would be channeling the same inspiration at an event under these circumstances.
Race day arrived and I found a way to turn the melancholy I felt for the loss of someone we all admired into an energy that inspired me to “fight”. I am tired of feeling pushed around on the bike – I’m done fucking around with average performances and I have chosen to no longer be at the mercy of what the people around me are doing and saying. It was like a switch went off in my mind. The raw energy of the crowds of Irishmen, women and kids filled me with a freshness and focus that I haven’t felt since I was first injured last year. I felt like I was coming back to life and I knew I was about to start riding like I knew I could.
As we stood atop the first rock garden of the race on Stage two, a helicopter circled and I looked down at the massive crowd lining the trail. My friend Mike Hopkins came to visit and support his girlfriend on her race day and he stood next to me. I took everything in: the sound of the heli, the cheers of likeminded mountain bike fans, the sight of people with massive cut out mustaches and #longlivechainsaw signs, and I wept. We were all processing, celebrating, fighting and grieving together up there.
While my first stage started strong and in the headspace I’ve been hungering for, the rest of the day on “the Hill” in Glenealy was a mixed bag of overzealousness, bad luck and frantic efforts to make my liaison times as Kelli and I dealt with repairing flat tires (we were not alone - flats were the story of this race for so many of the riders in the field – regardless of tire choice). I was shocked to have made my start time for the final stage of the day and my aggression, especially in light of a maddening couple of stages of riding my tire on the rim of my back wheel, got the best of me. A major mental error near the end of stage 7 had me flipping over my bike into a crowd of fans and it took me quite a bit of time to get my act together to get back on and finish.
Kelli picked me up at the end of that final stage and we spun together to the finish. We were asked to wait to enter the finish corral in the interest of building suspense for the crowd below. As we stood there, I put my goggles back on and let myself cry into the foam against my cheeks. Sometimes, in being amongst our “clan” in the depths of loss and despair, we find meaning in the choices we’ve made to be able to we do what we do. “It’s just racing, right? Just ride fast and everything should work out…”
I’d like to pass along my deepest sympathies to Stevie’s family and to his closest friends who knew Stevie and loved him like a brother: I am so, so sorry for your loss. The impact that Stevie has left on this sport and the inspiration he gave so many of us will never be forgotten. Long Live Chainsaw.