He manama tītī
Maori culture is full of rich history and proverbs, and He manama tītī, though simplistic, is perfectly suited for this story of endeavour, survival and a uncompromising will to remain unbroken. Translated, it means a person of great endurance.
The rider we are talking about has always been teak-tough, driven by hope and hard as nails. It’s just, in his 35 odd years, he’s had more than a few bumps along the road to overcome.
When Jamie Nicoll joined the Polygon UR team in 2014, he had just come off the back of a breakthrough year on the EWS circuit. Little known outside of his native New Zealand, Jamie certainly turned heads with his kamikaze style. Many of those heads turned backwards; they wanted to see just who this johnny-come-lately was breathing down their necks.
Jamie's skill set was forged in cross country racing - then broadened by years away from bikes and in the Himalayas, working in remote areas of New Zealand and eventually finding himself in Patagonia, just as he started to reconnect with bikes.
What comes next is a hard story to tell - not for Jamie, he’s too grounded for that - but for those of us, and there's been a few, who attempt to scribe it.
It would be all too easy to cast a stereotype on Jamie, of the underdog, of a hope against all odds Hollywood script; but that just wouldn’t sit well with the man. Yet, when someone, a mere 5 years ago this October, gets burnt so badly he is given a 10% chance of survival it's a hard circumstance to ignore.
Working for an NZ trail management company, Jamie was using a gas powered hammer drill high up above a Chilean ravine. A man who was brought up around engines, mechanics and a “ fix it yourself “ mentality, Jamie stopped to check the already leaky fuel cap without any hint of fluster.
In the equally terrifying and transformative moments that followed, we find a story of self-preservation, instinct, pragmatism and some dark Kiwi humour thrown in to boot. We let Jamie carry on the story, in a way only he can, from here.
"As you've said, I was working building a trail on a ravine in a remote part of Patagonia. Part of my job was using a jackhammer to widen a ledge and a problem with the machine caused pressure to build up in the tank. I knew this could be a slight issue, but nothing too major previously. Unfortunately, as I checked it, the whole thing exploded.
Of course, I was wearing a safety harness and ropes to work on the edge and was left hanging from the ropes after the explosion. I was basically now a ball of fire, a human flame if you like.
At this point self preservation kicks in automatically. I was able to swing back to the ledge, and I ran to the nearest creek to try and cool my body down. I guess I was actually melting. I then ran three kilometres to a nearby lake to wait for help, before I was picked up by a military helicopter and flown to the town of Coyhaique.
I spent two months in hospital, had 18 operations, then got flown back to NZ
."At that time you were just starting to get back into riding after a long layoff, yet you had a pedigree of racing behind you?
I first raced at 12 years old, on a 19 inched steel framed Giant Iguana. I raced more and more XC and DH too, which of course was on the same bike. Racing became a bigger and bigger part of my life - until I went to the World Championships at the Blackforest in Germany. I competed in XC and DH, unheard of now, in Junior men. I was reasonably successful I suppose; two times second in a National XC series and it ensured a true strength in racing for me, but it lacked something, it lacked adventure. Obviously this was a bad accident but your recovery, though long, was remarkably fast given the circumstances. Can you reason why this was?
Because of who I am. Because I have high expectations and I have those same expectations of my body and myself. And I think when you truly tell yourself that there is no option but to heal and heal fast, it does. Ones mind is very powerful and has a big effect. It can make things happen and bring about many changes in your life. You started racing the EWS in 2012. There weren’t many Kiwi’s on the circuit at that point. You’ve always been fairly independent, was that spirit something you were born with?
Yes I believe I was born with possibly a stronger, deeper drive to make things happen but I was also born in New Zealand with a Kiwi mentality - To work with what you've got and bring things to fruition. It is still a remarkably strong aspect of our nation. For many years New Zealand wasn’t really on the mountain biking map and was pretty isolated , hard to get out of to race due the cost too. There’s a common theme that the All Blacks are so good, not just because of their ethics, but because they are the flag bearer of New Zealand if you will and it pushes them on. Has this background made Kiwis as a rule pretty driven to succeed?
Yes, it is definitely a common theme amongst Kiwis. I think one aspect I link to this is that we don’t live in Europe or America where you can just drive down the road and go to a World Championships, a World Series or an event on the world stage. It takes preparation, mentally, pre-meditation that you are leaving New Zealand. You are spending hard earned money to get there. You are making a step, a commitment and you are leaving the security of home. And so, I think, just maybe, this is a case of “God damn, I am going to make this work”.Between ’95 and 2006 you didn’t really do much racing or mountain biking - What were you up to?
Travelling the world. Mountaineering. Rock climbing. And generally spending time in the outdoors. I worked in the film industry making anything they needed. I worked for the Department of Conservation in the remote southwest land backcountry of New Zealand repairing huts, chainsawing and clearing windfall trees. I worked in England doing the maintenance for a large college.Do you think having a life outside of bikes has helped you be as grounded as you are?
Yes, I think it always helps to not be mono-focused to understand and to experience just a few of all these amazing things one can do. We haven’t spoken about your Bus. It’s well known amongst the NZ crew and is a thing of beauty. You must have put some man hours into creating that thing?
Yes my 1960 Bedford J4 school bus absorbed huge man-hours to create what it is today. But this was an amazing project, and even though I did little work during these two years it was worth my investment of time and I learnt a huge amount. Going back to racing - Enduro is an entirely different sport to XC and a lot of XC riders have struggled to convert into top racers, yet you managed it. Do you think the sport suits a gravity background more, or does it not matter?
Yes, I think it suits the gravity background for sure. Was I really an XC racer? Well in those days, I think, I was just a mountain bike racer. Is it a situation you were looking for - to become a pro or did it come about just through your desire to win? A lot of riders have a big social media presence these days but you just do your thing and still get noticed.
Do I not have a social media presence…? I thought I was doing really good. (Laughs). No I was not trying to become a pro and I was riding out of my own drive, my own passion - not even to win, but just a inner drive . Becoming a pro was a bonus really as it should be for any racer - the drive to succeed should come first. We’ve seen you do really well in the longer, arguably physically tougher events like Mountain of Hell, Trans Savoie and the Trans Provence. Is it true that on your first mountain of hell, your skin grafts were still so tight that your hands were cracking open?
I had an operation just one month ago to address the ongoing issue of my grafts being so tight and so inflexible that my skin does crack and does tear off my nails and is too tight and is too weak.Now, Those skin grafts. As someone who has what would normally be a large one, I am amazed at how you ride so well with what IS actually a lot of surgery. The fascia can get very tight and it's easy to get muscle imbalances. Are these issues, that many people probably don’t realise occur, things you deal with by cracking on, or do you have a program to manage them as best you can?
I use a moisturizing oil. My body has done extremely well at recovering. Yes there are weaknesses and imbalances but many of these have been worked through with time and that ever incessant expectation.We’ve seen you’ve recently had a small op to help give you more skin movement - can you see this being a long-term, ongoing process?
I have lost count of how may operations I have had. But I can definitely say that the time between these operations is getting longer. With all that said, what does the future hold for Jamie Nicoll?
Adventure - as life is a wonderful journey.
The full 26 minute, 4K documentary will be available to watch here on Pinkbike for 48hrs from 30th December.
/ @ride100percent / @Odigrips