Ready Story: A Touching Tale of A Mid-Pack Racer at NZ MTB Rally

Apr 10, 2024
by Ali Jamieson  
Cassandra Depizzol is a average rider, not known for any podiums or insane records, she just loves to ride her bike and discover new places, like we all do here. She took part to the very first edition of the NZ MTB RALLY, a 6 days enduro adventure in the north of New Zealand's south Island in march. Here is her story.

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Words by Cassandra

My name is Cassandra. Six months ago I was on a weekend trip riding in Humboldt County, when my friend messaged my group chat a wild idea: he wanted to put our names in for a chance to attend a fantastic event, travel to NZ to ride helicopters and boats with our bikes. Surely we would never be selected but my friends put our names in anyway. We went “all in” for the lottery - either we would all go, or no one would.
Two days later we received the expected email that we were not selected. Feeling relieved that we narrowly avoided sending ourselves halfway around the world to risk our lives on double black diamond trails, we carried on with our lives. The relief didn’t last long, because the next day the group chat received a message: “Check your emails, we got in!!!”. Woah. We were going to New Zealand!

The elation of being chosen quickly faded to apprehension as we realized that we would have to actually train for this. What will happen, how will we survive? Have we ever ridden for 6 big days straight? I combed through the itinerary and saw roots, rocks, tight switchbacks, big days on the bike - this was going to be a challenge of a lifetime. I would have to get the knee surgery I had been putting off and seriously train for the next six months.

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Fast forward a few weeks - my knee was fixed and our training was underway. We came up with training plans which included long days on the bikes, indoor training, strength training, and no more post ride beers (there *may* have been some wiggle room on that one). We didn’t just want to survive those six days, but have a great time and leave with a heart full of stoke.

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Everything was going to plan, until about a month prior to the race… disaster. I was riding a new trail - nothing technical - when I blew a blind corner, hit the ground and landed on my shoulder, HARD. When I landed I knew exactly what I had done. A trip to the ER confirmed that the new bump on my shoulder was part of a grade V AC separation, and I also earned some broken ribs as a bonus. I sat down with my orthopedic surgeon to discuss my options. He told me that it’s a grade 5 AC joint separation that needs surgery to fix, but it sounded suspiciously like “you can still race, you’ll be fine”. I was in a lot of pain, but nothing was going to stop me from taking the trip of a lifetime.

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When I realized I was going down.

The Trip

We arrived in Nelson a few days before the race to make sure our bikes and bodies were good to go. I was immediately surprised by how “at home” we felt in Nelson. From the friendly people to the amazing food, being in Nelson was incredibly laidback and easy. An excellent first taste of New Zealand.

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I didn’t get the memo of the outfit - also shout out to the RCMBA (Redwood Coast Mountain Bike Association)!!!

When we headed to the airport to meet with the Rally group, it was immediately apparent we were going to have a good time when we saw all the racers taking over the Nelson Airport. We quickly made friends right off the bat (shout out to Rich!). Everyone was incredibly friendly. Mountain biking has a way of making the most introverted individual an excited extrovert, and that effect is amplified when surrounded by hundreds of bikes and stoked racers. I immediately noticed that many people were racing solo, and how welcoming everyone was. We all started to learn each other's names, bikes, why we were there and how we all felt about it.

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I had the opportunity to pedal gearbox equipped bikes around. Zerode if you’re reading this - I am 5’2’ (157cm) tall and they have my address on file if you want to ship anything Wink





Day 1 was finally here! We were all a bundle of nerves but our bikes were built, gopros charged, race plates on, timing sensor ready and we were already in the shuttle bus. There was no turning back now. The vibe in the bus was full of stoke, excitement and anxiety as most of us would be truly doing this blind. As we made our way through water crossings and up the mountain in the 4x4 bus, the feeling started to sink in: we did it - we made it to the start line halfway around the world!

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The race started with a green trail that might have been marked as a black trail back at home. Rocks, roots and drops. Each stage seemed to get steeper, longer and more technical as the day went on. We did 7 stages over the course of day 1, culminating in a 20 minute, 3000’ descent to end the race. It took most people at least an hour of descending to complete the whole day.. arm pump and lobster claws were everywhere.

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After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast it was time for a change of pace. We headed for a real back country ride in the thick forests of Abel Tasman National park. The terrain was a bit different than the first day and much more like a rainforest. We were so busy navigating the wet rocks, roots, and creek crossings that we forgot to snap any pictures. The day ended in Kaiteriteri bike park with a fun grade 5 (same as my shoulder!) trail down to the beach front.

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Party trains were a theme


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Laura, Deanne and myself are about to drop in. I met incredible ladies to race with!


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Finishing right at Kaiteriteri beach was amazing and a delicious dinner helped us refuel for the next day.

The next day we awoke at the crack of dawn in order to catch the ferry across the bay and reach our riding destination for Day 3: Cable Bay adventure park. After a scenic pedal to the park, we boarded shuttles and headed up the hill for the day’s racing. Trails were steep and tight here, reminding us of home.

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Socks and shoes were off as we all walked through the knee deep water onto the boat transfer. A beautiful sunrise made the water feel a bit warmer.


Day 4 brought our first helicopter shuttle, up to the summit of the Coppermine trail. As riders gathered at the lower helipad, the excitement in the air was palpable. Not many had been on a helicopter before, let alone with their bikes in tow.

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Stoke level high getting off the helicopter


All in all, starting our 5th day off with another helicopter ride was a pretty great morning. While we flew up in posh luxury helicopters, Matthew Fairbrother spent over 6 hours hiking to the top for Stage 1 with his bike, making us all feel incredibly lazy… but no matter. What was in store for us, we could not have anticipated (maybe if we read the race book a bit better). This was certainly the most physically and technically demanding day of the entire rally.

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Texted my mom that I was about to be dropped off in the backcountry by helicopter with only one way out and she just said “ok have fun, you’ll be fine”


The day’s racing started with a pedally, flowy trail with some rocky sections and was a precursor of the terrain we were yet to experience for the day. The transfer to stage 2 was the single hardest effort for my whole trip. Hiking up 1000’ up in less than a mile, shouldering my bike seemed like insanity. This was a hike-a-bike up a steep (22% average!), rooty path that must have been rated a double black diamond hiking trail.

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All smiles on that hour-long hike a bike with my shoulder on fire.

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Steve would have ridden up the waterfall but Ilya was in the way. Definitely.

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We’re supposed to go up there, somewhere…
The other stages on day 5 were hardly traveled backcountry paths, not designed for bicycles. This meant very tight switchbacks, awkward rootballs, and steep chutes. It was a gnarly backcountry adventure, and the finish lines smelled of burnt brake pads.




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Brian, Steve, Ilya hanging out after Stage 2 give the lobster claw hands a rest


Although we were exhausted by day 5, day 6 seemed to come too soon. We were excited to have the end of the race in sight, but also a bit sad that it would be over. After a week of eat-sleep-ride-repeat, it was hard to imagine going back to our normal lives.

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I might have hiked-a-bike some sections of the stages, so what?! I did it with the smile Big Grin


My final stats according to Garmin:
● 6 days Short Course (not really that short)
● 110 Miles
● 20 Hours Moving Time
● 24 Stages
● 31,157ft (9,496m) of descent
● 12,857ft (3,918m) of ascent


I knew this race was going to hurt and be uncomfortable, especially with my injured shoulder. I was expecting to feel so bad I would give up in the beginning. I made it through because I was surrounded by so many amazing, fun and supportive people from all around the world. The stoke level was so high & contagious that any thought of “I can’t do this” never stuck around. I am grateful for everyone who we met along the way that contributed to everyone finishing.

[PI=26444502]Steve’s reaction to finishing the last stage was to try to throw his Slash into the trash
[/PI]


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A sense of relief and excitement at the afterparty



Final Thoughts / THE LUCKY NUMBER

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This trip gave me something I'll cherish forever - being able to race with my dad again. My dad’s race plate was #59 and as luck would have it, I was assigned the same number here. I grew up racing ATV motocross, my dad was one of my biggest supporters as was my grandfather who sadly passed away a few weeks prior to this race. My dad chose his own ending to his life in October 2019 and it’s been a challenge to cope with. It was the Ibis Ripmo, the bike that I got in May 2020 (and when I started really riding mountain bikes) that got me through those dark and emotional days.


To get the same race number as my dad was a blessing and a big part of what kept me going through this trip. New Zealand seemed to take mental health seriously, with frequent messaging about mental health and why it matters. Help lines and other free resources were readily available and easy to find. I wish he was here to share this story with but I believe he would be proud of me for accomplishing this and sharing my experience with anyone who reads this article.


The website to look for the number in your country is https://findahelpline.com/ or http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html

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Thanks for everything NZ MTB RALLY, we'll be back !


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