Unbreakable

Mike Ferrentino

jamie nicoll

JAMIE NICOLL TURNED PRO TWO YEARS AFTER HE WAS GIVEN A 10-PERCENT CHANCE OF SURVIVAL

PHOTOGRAPHY BY CAMILLA RUTHERFORD
Jamie Nicoll’s emergence at the sharp end of the 2013 Enduro World Series has all the makings of an underdog story for the ages. Nobody expected Jamie to recover so fully from the crippling injuries he sustained three short years ago. Nobody expected his riding to progress and mature to the level where it is now. Nobody, that is, except Jamie.

It would be all too east to paint this as an analogy for a phoenix. Little known athlete nearly dies in a horrific accident that leaves 35 percent of his body covered in third-degree burns. Little-known athlete is back on his bike three months later–riding himself to and from physical therapy. Little-known athlete decides, in his mid-30s, that his skillset is suited to the enduro circuit. He funds his own way as a privateer, leaving his New Zealand home to race in Europe, a little more than a year after getting out of the hospital. Little-known athlete becomes known for his strength, his determination and for some truly epic crashes, resulting in repeated visits to foreign emergency rooms and stitches to his already massively grafted skin. Little-known athlete finds himself a season later clutching a bouquet of flowers in his scarred hands–hands that are so scarred, their skin so tight, that it is difficult for them to grip around handlebars. The skin on those hands cracks open and bleeds often, as the healing continues. But there he was, standing on the top step of the Mountain of Hell race podium in Les Deux Alpes, France, in 2013, having gone up against the best in the world and beaten them all.

It would be very easy to say that injuries as severe as those which Jamie Nicoll survived, injuries that left him so completely and irreversibly marked, would be the kinds of things that could shape a person’s will. One could easily extrapolate that Jamie Nicoll has a steely resolve because he has been tested in The Flame and has come through the other side, that this fiery brush with death has hardened his resolve, and that from this he draws his power and his motivation.

But that would be bullshit. The simple truth is that Jamie Nicoll has always been hard as nails. Still, the analogy is a tough one to shake.

jamie nicoll First off, Jamie didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. He has been riding since his early teens, and was a successful junior XC racer. He had the misfortune to be racing in New Zealand at the same time as the emerging Kashi Leuchs, so far (barring the current looming shadow of Anton Cooper on the horizon) that country’s most successful international XC racer. He came in second two years in a row at the New Zealand National Junior Championships, and found himself representing New Zealand at Worlds in 1995. “You have no idea at all what you’re doing, really, at that age … so you have chains snapping at national races and things like that because you’ve run everything completely into the ground,” he recalls. The following year, 1996, in an abrupt change of heart, he quit racing and headed into the bush. “I didn’t go to the Cairns World Champs that year, and wanted to go climb mountains instead. So I went to the west coast and did an outdoor-recreation certificate … there was a big period there where it was all mountaineering, rock climbing, things like that. Back then, I got put off bike riding quite a bit.

“It was at the time that they were trying to make things more interesting for the spectators, so races went from being one- and two-lap courses into like five laps. I was a good rebellious teenager, and to me everything should have just been hard, hard as it could be, you know? And to make something that was so soft, it was just terrible, and why would you do that? Going around in circles… .” For the next several years, Jamie did not follow anything resembling the path of a world-class bike racer. He restored an old bus into a camper and lived in it with his girlfriend Bridie, sculpted copper artwork and sold it at fairs, trekked in Nepal, drove an old Volkswagen beetle around Europe, learned to hunt, took a job repairing backcountry cabins and trails for the Department of Conservation in the deep forest up from the rugged west coast of the SouthIsland, and didn’t get back into riding bikes until around 2006.
In 2008, tiring of living in the bush, he took a job building trails for a New Zealand outfit that had been contracted to build singletrack at several locations around the world. Possessed of a keen and analytical mind, as well as a strong work ethic, he found himself leading a trailbuilding crew in Mexico, then Chile. Lured back into bikes during his tenure in Mexico, the siren songs of gravity and full-suspension singing in his ears, Jamie entered the Crankworx Whistler Enduro race while on vacation in Canada in 2010. He came in ninth. A couple of months later, he was back in Chile, helping to extend the network of trails that his crew had started the year before.
jamie nicoll

Which is how he came to be operating a gas-powered hammer drill on a rock ledge, somewhere in Patagonia, on the morning of October 7, 2010. He was roped in, since the ledge was narrow and some distance above a ravine next to a creek. The fuel cap of the hammer drill was leaking. Thinking that maybe the cap was cross-threaded, or that perhaps some grit was caught in the cap gasket, he stopped, killed the motor and unscrewed the cap to see what was happening. Pressure buildup in the tank had been the cause of the leak, Jamie found out, as he became enveloped in a plume of atomized fuel. His co-workers said that it was a huge cloud of gas, maybe 30 feet high. Then it ignited.   He retells this with a methodical calm. It is a story he has told many times, so there is familiarity with the details. But it is also an indication of his own thought process, how he solves problems, how he learns, how he handles crisis. He is deliberate and detail-oriented, and not given to easy panic.

 

“This massive cloud of white atomized fuel just went up … all over my T-shirt, my chest, my eyes were stinging, it was in my mouth. I was just about to open my mouth to say ‘get me some water,’ and then it ignited somehow. I just leapt away from it, to get away from the machine and the fuel and everything, but as I leapt away I realized I was mostly that fire as well. As I jumped off the ledge, I just remember being this big fireball, all the noise of the fire. In that moment I was thinking ‘Whoa, this could be a time that you die’ sort of thing, ‘Wonder how this is gonna turn out?’ I swung down, and then was calling to one of my mates for help. I was just pounding my face with my hands, trying to keep the flames away from my face. Then just thinking I needed to do something… .”jamie nicoll

“Something,” in this case, meant trying to get out of his harness, get out of his helmet, and remove his burning, fuel-soaked T-shirt with his hands, his hands which were on fire, while he hung in mid-air.

“So I hung down, went in and undid the buckle of my helmet. And by the time I did that, the flames just suddenly went out. We’re probably talking 30, maybe somewhere around 35 seconds that I was burning, you know? I swung across to a slightly more gentle face where there was a bit of dirt so I could take the weight off my harness. My T-shirt was gone, the top of my shorts were melted back, and my skin was just sort of a grey color–no hair, bits of it slightly rolled up. I was thinking, ‘This isn’t good.’

He undid his harness and jumped into the creek flowing with snowmelt. “I’ve done plenty of first aid, and that was the best thing I could think of to do. It would take an hour at least to get a stretcher to me, I was thinking. So I climbed back up and the boys put some shoes on me.”

And then he ran 3 kilometers down the trail with his co-workers trying to keep up while pouring water on him. He remembers saying to one of the shocked trail crew sent to meet him: ‘Oh yeah, got a bit sunburned, ay?’ “I thought that sounded funny at the time.”

He was put in an induced coma for two weeks, then spent the next two months in a hospital in Santiago. “I suppose people have been burned worse and survived,” he said, laconically downplaying the severity of his injuries. The medics tending him at the time of the accident, taking into account how badly burned he was, the remote location, the time taken to get to help, put his odds of survival initially at about 10 percent.

 

Being cut from tougher cloth than most, Jamie survived. Losing track of the number of skin-graft surgeries, he tracked his recovery by noticing when finally there were gaps between operations, or when the skin on his hands got thick enough to open doors without cracking, or the point when he was finally able to hold a knife in his hand and butter a slice of bread. He talks of the fatigue generated by such an expanse of skin growing back, of having to constantly stretch because the scarring on his healing torso was pulling his shoulders inward, of being so emaciated that his calves “looked like boiled eggs flopping around on the back of my legs.”

Back in New Zealand, three months after the accident, he began riding his bike to his daily visits to the hospital. “I still had this feeling that I wanted to race. It was something I had wanted to go back into before the accident, and after the accident it was still there. When I came out of the coma I had this dream, but couldn’t really remember. When I woke up, one of the big memories was of being on top of this high mountain, and I had just won this race, and I had blue clothing on.”

The following summer, a year later, he started racing downhill, and won the national masters series. “Ridiculously huge learning curve there. Going from never having considered attempting a double and then having to pull it together and learn to jump these–whatever they are–30-foot gaps and stepdowns and things. It was all new!”

jamie nicoll

Realizing that his newly honed gravity skills would pair nicely with his XC background, he set his sights on Europe and began training like a madman. With help from the New Zealand Santa Cruz distributor and some friends at Cactus Equipment and Ground Effect clothing, he set himself up with a Santa Cruz Nomad and spent the summer of 2012 racing enduro. It was, to put it mildly, a rough year, probably best illustrated by the 25 stitches he received at the Mountain of Hell, when a massive wreck on a huge double put a brake-lever bolt through his shin. The tough lesson would continue a week later at Megavalanche, when another crash tore 20 of those stitches out of his still-fragile skin. He came home from that season and “did quite a bit of sleeping over the next couple weeks. Looking back, I was still recovering from the burns. They were still sucking energy out of me.”
Last year, after a lifetime in the making, things began to coalesce for Jamie. Still riding as a privateer on a shoestring budget, racing out of the back of a van and borrowing pits when and where he could, he began netting results that made people pay attention: third at the Whistler round of the Enduro World Series, fifth at Val d’Isere, tenth at Finale Ligure and tenth overall for the season, and sixth overall at the Trans-Provence. And at the 2013 Mountain of Hell, returning to the scene of the previous year’s wreckage, he shook off the demons of the past and stood atop the podium above Martin Maes and Dan Atherton. He was wearing blue.
The blue jersey has since been retired. Instead, Jamie is wearing the black and red colors of the Polygon UR team. He has a full factory ride: bikes, clothes, salary, travel arrangements made, meals provided and a team bus. He followed up last year’s success with another win at Mountain of Hell this year, a win at Trans-Savoie, a second at the Ischgl Overmountain Challenge (finishing behind top enduro racer Jerome Clementz), and a third place at Trans-Provence.
The journey he has traveled to reach this point has been far longer, and contained hurdles much more daunting, than most people will ever face. One could look at this as a reward for finally overcoming such massive adversity. That’s how we like to end our fairy tales, with the good guy finally winning. But that would be romanticizing what is really happening. Jamie Nicoll is an elite athlete. He is one of those fraction of a percenters that you find at the upper level of any sport, gifted with fast reflexes, big lungs, a freakish ability to flush lactic acid and a pain threshold that most of us would have trouble comprehending. And that is where the whole phoenix analogy breaks down. The accident was a bump in the road, just another thing that happened along the way. There are inconvenient effects as a result of it, but they aren’t getting in the way of what Jamie Nicoll wants to do right now. And what Jamie Nicoll wants to do right now, after having stepped away for a decade or so, is race bikes. So that’s what he does. Up here with the best in the world just happens to be his level.
This story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of BIKE.jamie nicoll