The camera racked in for a shot of his eyes through the side of a dusty full face helmet; and was met instead by butterfly strips, medical tape, bleeding scabs and a blackened eye socket. Sitting in the start gate looking down the barrel of his Rampage line with a steely and somewhat dazed determination was a beaten and bruised Conor Macfarlane.
To the disbelief of all but those who know him well, C-Mac had taken himself back to the top of that windswept ridge in the Utah desert and was going to give it one more try. As he eased his goggles onto his stitched brow and scabbed nose, stood on the pedals and quietly dropped in, a mountainside of sunburnt fans and an army of glowing faces watching online collectively held their breath and winced.
“I just wanted to get a clean run to the bottom! In hindsight it was a silly decision, as my body was too tired and beaten to function properly, but you live and you learn! Right up until I got my wrist strapped the morning of the event I wasn't sure if I would be able to ride. But once she was strapped I was pretty sure I would be able to hold on! It was definitely a tough one, as I was already pretty bruised and battered, but I'm too stubborn to give up!”
Though he didn’t make it far into that second run before the Utah dirt claimed him one last time, it was more than far enough. He’d shown the world exactly what being Kiwi tough really meant, and along the way unwittingly embodied the spirit of the late great Kelly McGarry by balancing a humble and kind-natured sportsmanship with an insatiable appetite for absolutely sending it.
Conor had made an impression on everyone who’d witnessed his gladiatorial battle with the mountain over the course of the 2016 Red Bull Rampage, and when the dust settled after that crash on his final run, he was the obvious choice for the inaugural Kelly McGarry Spirit award. Voted upon by fellow athletes and presented by Kelly’s brother Matt, the award was introduced to honour the rider who truly embodied McGazza’s spirit of loving everyone, always being positive, and never giving up. Taken aback to have been chosen, Conor touched on the beauty of the award being returned to Kelly’s Queenstown home.
“It was definitely unexpected but I'm extremely proud to have got it and be able to bring it back to NZ! Having your peers vote for you is always a good feeling. I'm sure McGazza would have been stoked to see the direction that Rampage has gone this year!”
After narrowly missing out on the finals last year, Conor returned to Rampage 2016 with a surprise wildcard and a determination to prove his worth. He quickly chose one of the gnarliest and most technical lines on the entire venue. Success required a series of massive features to be linked together with sniper-like precision in rapid succession. There was no room for error.
“I didn't really expect to get an invite back again after last year’s performance, but was stoked to be on the list amongst all the top dogs! It is a massive help knowing what to expect. I can’t say I did much different apart from going into the event knowing what sort of line I wanted to find and build. The biggest thing I took away from the event last year is what sort of line scores well, although the judges were different this year, all previous riders, which made it a lot better!”
Coming off a Northern Hemisphere season that saw him land an 80-foot dirt to dirt backflip at LooseFest in Belgium, the quietly spoken Queenstown local downplayed his preparation for the biggest event in freeride mountain biking.
“Personally I don't do any training specifically for Rampage, for me it is the sort of event that you just have to be a good enough rider to compete at. Due to the nature of the event you can’t really send too many big gnarly lines and jumps before as training, as it may lead to not even making it to the event! The best thing you can do is to just spend time on the DH bike and also be 'dig fit'!”
Conor’s dreams of redemption and top 5 finishes were crushed on the first day of training when he stepped up to test one the biggest drops in his line and crashed out hard, ending the day in the medical tent with a severely sprained wrist and stitches to his face.
Unable to ride for the remaining days of training, he rested his wrist and hung out on site, supporting fellow riders and sharing the stoke.
“The vibes at this year’s event are so much better than last year! Everyone here is working together to build lines and it has led to an awesome vibe, I'm stoked!”
When quizzed about whether the injuries and risk are worth it, and what it is that keeps him coming back, Macfarlane focuses on the personal reward that comes from executing what he’s set out to achieve.
“I guess just the feeling of doing the run I want to do or nailing a line or trick that I have envisioned.”
And how does the part-time labourer, part-time international mountain bike star plan to rest and recover now that the biggest event of the year is done and proverbially dusted?
“Get back to NZ and chill for a bit! I don't think I'll be able to get back to work for a week or two but I am looking forward to picking up the tools again and getting into the swing of Queenstown life again!”
Interview - Tori Beattie / Mons Royale