Justin Leov is back where he began
Words by Michael Hayward
Images by Sven Martin & Digby Shaw
After a life of travelling the globe, Justin Leov found a place to call home just down the road from where he grew up—on the farm where he first fell in love with racing.
Taylor Pass Road runs down a valley cradling a mix of hilly farmland where cabbage trees dot the paddocks, pine forestry blocks, and neat lines of grapes supplying the nearby vineyards Marlborough is famous for.
Tucked away down the valley, about a 15 minute drive south of Blenheim, is Jentree. It’s a steep 36 hectare block of land where a network of fresh trails is quietly growing. Arriving there, it feels like you’re much further from civilization than the short drive from town suggests.
The property has a rich history as a Marlborough mountain biking destination. It used to be owned by John and Jenny Meeks. A founding member of the Marlborough Mountain Bike Club, John hosted regional and national races on the farm in the early 2000s.
But when Justin, along with wife Tori and children Luca (5) and Annabella (3) moved onto the farm in 2017, the pine trees that once blanketed the steep slopes had been milled, taking the historic trails with them but leaving a blank canvas to plan a new network.
Fast-forward to today and there are plenty of new tracks in place, ranging from gentle flow to steep, rocky downhill-spec runs. Though the initial plan was to try to build one new trail a year, they’re well ahead of schedule, with enough variety already there for a satisfying day of riding.
The trails are free for anyone to use, though Justin asks people to call or email ahead and make sure someone will be at home. To really take advantage of the setup, it’s best to book a shuttle session, as the steep access road is much easier for the Landcruiser than your legs.
From the top of the property there are wide open views in all directions, though that will be obscured in a few years as the block has been replanted in pine. Once they get over head height it will make the trails even better, holding in more moisture, protecting the tracks from wind, and reducing maintenance.
Justin also runs a coaching service focused on providing a high end experience that takes advantage of his years of elite racing. He says his background means he can help anyone from beginners right through to the very top end of racing.
A day at Jentree is about the overall experience—getting away from the bustle of town, swimming in the creek in summer, eating some nice food, and soaking in the atmosphere of rural New Zealand. It’s a place to chill out and recharge.
There’s currently a tiny house, known as Taylor Pass Hut, available for people to stay in, sitting in a private corner of the farm. There are plans for another four-bed option in the near future.
Justin and Tori are doing it for the love of the sport and aren’t looking to make it their business at this stage. They also hope it becomes a community asset; they hold regular burger and shuttle nights and volunteer dig days to get everyone together and build that sense of scene.
It’s been running long enough for Justin to see local riders start to get some benefit, with more of the local kids starting to ride at a higher level already.
Justin grew up down the road from Jentree and got his taste for riding and top-level racing on Jentree’s previous tracks, winning his first junior and elite national titles there.
He went on to be one of New Zealand’s most successful mountain bikers on the international stage, having hauled in podium results in both Downhill World Cup and Enduro World Series events before retiring from racing in 2017.
Jentree wasn’t the first property the Leovs had in their sights after Justin hung up his race plate and the family decided to move to a bigger piece of land. They had put an offer in on a farm that included some grapevines in the Awatere Valley, south of Blenheim, but the deal fell over after the property was damaged in the 2016 earthquake.
Soon after, Justin heard through a friend that the Meeks were looking to sell Jentree. He told his wife Tori they had to pay them a visit right away. “At that cup of tea we had I’d already made them an offer, shook hands on it, and it was all going to happen. He said it now feels like fate that they missed out on the Awatere Valley section so they could end up at Jentree instead. “I wasn’t really looking for the property, the property sort of found us,” Justin said. “In some ways I was coming full circle back to a place that helped me start my career.” Justin said he knew every inch of the farm before he bought it, from his early days training, digging and racing there.
“Growing up, this property was where I did all my training, my racing, won my first titles in both junior and elite, and in some ways, this is probably what turned me professional.”
Justin’s first sport of choice was motocross, but he moved on from it after he had “a few fairly good injuries at a young age” and found he didn’t like the scene.
His mountain biking journey started in his high school days when he was encouraged to give it a go by Geoff Hughes, a science teacher at Marlborough Boys College. Mr Hughes would take a group of keen lads out for a lap every Wednesday night, exploring the region’s trails, which included trips to Jentree.
A core group of half a dozen developed, heading off to a few secondary school events and doing well, including a team win at Nationals. They realised they had a good thing going on and started to push each other on their training rides.
He was about 14 when he headed over to the West Coast to have a go at his first Nationals.
“I remember the first one I went to, I was really hooked. The Hokitika downhill track was built by PD workers and they obviously weren’t riders, it was gnarly. It had cliff faces and cut-off stumps, it was just so full on but I absolutely loved it. “I was way over my head in the riding, but that’s really what hooked me in, and all I wanted to do after that was every Nationals I could.”
His skills improved and he started getting better results, working his way up to Oceania Champs in New Caledonia, where the cross country race took on one big loop. “Some of the villages we were going through, they’d never seen white people before. It was amazing, unreal riding, getting lost in the jungle.”
In 2002, Justin made the leap to World Champs in Kaprun, Austria. “We flew in and the idea was to go straight into World Champs, and then on to World Cup finals.” Battling jet lag, he threw down a blazing qualifying time good enough for 10th overall in a stacked junior field featuring future big names like Sam Hill and Gee Atherton. He ended up 20th in his race run.
The next week at France’s Les Gets, he qualified well in Open Men’s (World Cup rounds hadn’t introduced a junior class yet). “I remember I qualified 20th and then I’ve got guys like Nathan Rennie, who was the man back then, behind me in qualifying … I just couldn’t believe I was up there.” He said he was a “nervous mess” for his finals run but still managed to place about 40th. “After that, all I wanted to do was get back overseas next year. There was nothing else in my world that I considered doing, I just had to be back racing at World Cups.”
The next year, aged 17, Justin headed back to Europe with a friend from Dunedin; “we had a rental car for four months and no real plan”.
A highlight from that season was at Alpe d’Huez, a fast and wide open track in the French mountains. Justin made friends with Jason Marsh, a Kiwi living in Morzine who was always looking for ways to do things better (he would go on to work as Greg Minnaar’s mechanic and create MarshGuard fenders). Marshy convinced Justin to slither into a skinsuit—a good call, as Justin managed to finish ninth overall.
“I remember putting it on and feeling like a rocketship down the track,” Justin said. He was blown away to finish in the top 10 at his third ever World Cup, and it made him determined to work his way onto a team.
At another event, Marshy started messing with Justin, pushing him over and filling his goggles with grass. Justin said it was all the stuff you don’t want at the top of a World Cup race run after you’ve flown halfway around the world. But Marshy had a reason. He was trying to piss Justin off, to get him in the right state for racing, and it worked—Justin had a good run. From this, he learned he needed to work himself up before dropping in, so he would ride with more aggression and block out some of the distractions he had no control over.
Justin said those early years were “like doing your apprenticeship”—living in vans, showering in the bike wash, and living a gypsy life. This was before the vanlife trend had taken off; the other competitors who were staying in hotels found it funny.
A hot shower was a luxury. The lads were at a Swiss Cup race in upmarket Crans-Montana when Marshy said there were some available. He led Justin through a bunch of alleys until they arrived at a hotel where they waited for the receptionist to turn her back. Sneaking past, they went upstairs to a strange setup where one of the bathrooms was in the hallway, outside of the hotel room—perfect for a couple of smelly mountain bikers to sneak a wash.
Word spread around the pits and later Kiwi Glenn Haden was sneaking in to take a turn when the receptionist turned and caught him. They both froze, looking at each other, before the receptionist waggled her finger and said, “you have no soap”, before throwing him a block.
By 2005, Justin was riding for a small Swiss team called the Suspension Center team, owned by Gery Peyer. Gery couldn’t offer a salary but did put up a tricked out Turner, a place to stay for the season, and transport to the races. Justin said this was his breakout year, when he got onto the podium at races and finished in the top 15 overall.
He attracted interest from a few teams, and signed on with Martin Whiteley as a manager, who helped Justin onto a deal with Yeti for 2006. Justin felt like he’d cracked it, but struggled in his first fully professional year after injuring his shoulder during a 4X gate start in Spain. He couldn’t understand what the medical staff were telling him at the hospital, and ended up battling with his shoulder for the whole season before getting surgery on it when back home.
The next two years were better, culminating with a top 10 overall finish in 2008. Martin invited Justin onto a new team he was starting, Trek World Racing, for 2009. Justin said it was a polished and well organised programme, leading to some of his best years of racing, riding with teammates like Tracy Moseley and Aaron Gwin.
But after a few years, Justin found his head wasn’t in downhill anymore due to the intense competition and repetitive venues. He said every year he had to train harder to place as well as the year before, while race runs had to be ridden on a “knife edge”. “I found the stress, year after year, it does get to you. Every single weekend riding at a level that is so high and the chances of an injury are very much there.” Feeling burnt out, he announced his retirement from downhill in 2012 and returned home to start a building apprenticeship, but was soon lured back to racing by a new discipline: enduro.
It was Martin who convinced Justin to give it a crack. He finished fourth at his first race and was hooked straight away, so he signed back up with Trek on a deal where he did some enduro races and spent some time trackside at downhill rounds helping out with skills coaching. He found it was too much to train properly for enduro while coaching as well so focused solely on racing after one season, swapping from Trek World Racing to Trek Factory.
He said it was the best move he made: he was back racing with Tracy Moseley, and working on developing the Remedy 29er before big hoops had become popular. He started racing well on that bike, placing third overall in 2014. He won his first EWS round in Scotland the year after and was leading the series when he crashed badly in Whistler, dislocating his shoulder.
After so many years with Trek, Justin was ready for a change and jumped onto the Canyon team, a move that made financial sense at the time. He said he still felt like he had a lot of fight left in him when he made the switch, but struggled with a series of health problems including glandular fever and pneumonia over the next two seasons. Going from competing for wins to struggling to put together a top run was tough to take, so it was an easy decision for Justin to retire from racing in 2017 to focus on his building apprenticeship. “I was at that point so burnt out on racing with my health and the years doing it that I had said to a few people ‘I don’t think I’ll touch a bike again’.”
But when Jentree came up, Justin’s passion for bikes returned; “It made the fire of riding come back for me”. He’s quite happy letting the trails develop at their own pace, and isn’t doing it to make money, though he does have other goals for the farm: he’d like to be able to hold a Nationals there again one day.
But mostly he hopes it might help talent in the next generation towards replicating his professional racing success. “Part of me thinks there might be that chance we’ll see another rider or two that could potentially follow the same path that I’ve found, and if this is something that might help them, that’s where the end goal is.”
For more information, go to jentreemtb.com or @jentreemtb on Instagram.