When I was younger, I always heard these “horror” stories about mountain bikers returning to Wellington after living in Canada. When they arrived home, they’d attack the local trail network, hitting all the steepest lines and constantly looking for gaps. Whilst we have great trails, Wellington simply doesn’t have the larger trail features found in BC. After a few weeks, the hype would fade. There’s great trails to ride but not the addictive challenges faced on a daily basis. It’s easy to lose motivation. I was determined for that not to be the case for me.

As a 16-year-old, I arrived back from three years in Canada as a hero, hit some sick shit, took some mad photos, got a couple covers, got lots of features… and then it all came crashing down (kinda). In a nightmare cocktail of Covid lockdowns, transitioning out of school into a full-time job, some general laziness, a sprinkle of depression and an extreme lack of motivation, I felt myself fall. Whether I actually did “fall” or not is up for debate. In my head, I feel like I’ve just plateaued since arriving back, with little to no progression for the last four-ish years and, being my worst critic, I probably exaggerated everything in my own head. I tend to do alright on the New Zealand race scene (when I get a relatively clean day). Still, I have always wondered how I would compare to all these guys back in my old hometown of Squamish — an actual test to find out find out whether or not I did fall from grace or if it was just a figment of my imagination.

Dirt Merchant, Whistler Bike Park, BC

Since boarding the plane back to New Zealand at the end of 2017, I had been planning my return to Canada; getting a job, making money, and booking flights. But a few apparent roadblocks arose. Number one — and possibly the worst one — was Covid. Who could have known something like that was going to shut down the world for as long as it did? Number two, my lack of ability to save/love of spending money on unnecessary shit, like $6 blocks of chocolate. Finally, number three, doubts that it would actually happen. I don’t think I was ever that confident or sure until I held the plane tickets in my hand, four years later. Even then, I was still doubtful, thinking the flight would just get cancelled, or ol’ mate Covid would come around again and I’d be stuck with flight credit for years. But, even after all that, I still found myself sitting at Wellington airport, knowing my flight up to Auckland would arrive two hours after my connecting flight to Vancouver was supposed to leave. After landing, we sprinted along a marked course from domestic to international to board the flight to Vancouver that had miraculously been held for us! Amazingly, against all odds, all my bags still made it!

Then, just like that, I was back in Canada. Damn, did it feel weird. First, it was way too hot – it was 5 o’clock in the evening, and I was sweating just sitting in the shade. Secondly, I was in Canada. And thirdly, I’D MADE IT TO CANADA!

Diamond in the Gruff, Squamish, BC

I’m struggling to put into words how it felt to be back. A mix of all emotions: intense nerves about my survival, fear that my relationships with my friends might not be the same, and excitement to ride my bike. I was also worried that I would be subpar compared to all my friends and riding buddies who were able to grow up and keep progressing in the Sea-to-Sky corridor. This rang true a percentage of the time but, ultimately, I’d attribute that to my Covid- induced laziness rather than Wellington itself.

This trip was great for a multitude of reasons. After four years, I reconnected with some of my best friends, and all my fears were lifted. Even though everything had changed — some of us had moved away, we had become adults, and we had jobs — it still felt the same as when we first hung out six/seven odd years ago. It was awesome.

I finally got to explore parts of BC that I’d never been to before, with a little crew of great humans. We followed the BC Cup downhills throughout the Interior, through places like Vernon, Revelstoke, Fernie, Invermere and Golden. I was fortunate to experience fantastic riding in all these locations, making some great friends along the way. The vibe at all these races was quite unique. This massive group of racers, parents, mechanics, friends and fans created a really cool energy at every race, just a big group of friends on a road trip together. I’d never experienced anything quite like it.

At the races, I could also answer another one of my fears about myself. The question of whether or not Wellington had halted my abilities. Thankfully, I surprised myself. In my first proper go at DH racing, atop my trusty Kona Process X, with a lot of messy runs, a lot of sketchy moments and a few big crashes, I managed to convince myself that I am not entirely shit at bikes. So, mission accomplished (almost). My results may have convinced me that I could still ride bikes, and helped me to achieve peak sandbagger status, but they weren’t enough to convince me that I should try to make it as a racer. No, that would take a specific race result.

Cypress Mountain, West Vancouver, BC
Airplane Mode, Squamish, BC

After a well-deserved (short) stint of relaxation, I was back into it, smashing Whistler Park laps with all the locals and draining beers with all the kiwis. We were rolling into an EWS weekend, followed by Crankworx week, so everyone was in town. This made for a wild experience. My two northern and southern hemisphere lives finally clashed together, and unsurprisingly, it all gelled quite nicely. I mean, we only ride mountain bikes. Not that hard for everyone to get along.

Finally, we reached the big race. I may have only raced the EWS100 (same course as the EWS, just no Pro stage) but it would make for quite an influential factor regarding the next steps of my career. The EWS experience was crazy fun, just an incredible amount of people out all day, riding and racing bikes. So, I ended up sharing the day with some old and new friends and thoroughly enjoyed (almost) every minute of it. All except for the minutes I spent in the dirt and with a broken bike. After a rollercoaster of a race, three stage wins, and two significant stage losses, I found myself five seconds off the race winner (who is also now a great friend of mine) in second place. That was it. That was the result I needed. Just some numbers that could tell me I wasn’t galaxies away from competing with the big dogs — but actually only a few planets away. That one result was enough to convince me that I may actually be able to race full-time. Just gotta get my ass off this couch first!

Above (all pictures): EWS Whistler, BC

Words: Elliot Smith
Photography: Caleb Smith