26/6/2020

Bryn Dickerson. Downhill Mountain biker.

Wellington downhill mountain biker Bryn Dickerson is fast and fearless on the hill. But taking those skills to the world stage has come at a high price. Bill Hickman talks ups and downs with a truly tough competitor.

“Do you wanna see the jumps?”

It’s 4pm and the sun is slipping behind the hill that Bryn Dickerson’s family property backs onto near the Pauatahanui inlet in Porirua. Behind the house are a couple of small paddocks, a handful of sheep and Fred and Wilma, two ducks that seem to have the run of the place.

Zig-zagging down the slope beyond them is a collection of turns and small jumps that Dickerson has built to make the hill climbing elements of his mountain bike training a little more entertaining. Anyone who has checked out his Instagram during lockdown will have seen Dickerson flowing through and flying high above these lines but it’s three large piles of dirt over the fence that immediately have his attention.

A landing pad about three metres high rolls into a sharp bermed corner that terminates at its peak to kick the rider across a gap spanning the access road onto a smaller landing. The lead in is a steeper section of the hill that features a pair of rickety looking wooden drops. The second one guides the rider’s line over a fence and a pile of broken old ramps.

It’s difficult to see how he’s going to clear that first fence before he even gets to the first kicker ramp. Dickerson has a little bit of the thousand-yard stare going now. He can see the line; he can see the shallow parabola needed to clear the gap.

“I guess you’ll have to be doing about 35 kph when you leave that lip. But yeah, it should be good,” he grins widely and goes back to raking and packing the slope. I’m going to have to trust his judgment.

At 178 centimetres tall Dickerson is on the cusp between a medium and large sized mountain bike. In contrast to the waifs of the cross country set Dickerson’s build is more broad shouldered and powerful. He looks at home wielding the shovel and driving the digger while he works on his jumps and a broad grin accompanies almost every aspect of his conversation.

I first met Dickerson when I was selling bikes for Burkes Cycles, the Wellington store that has sponsored him for over 10 years. Every May, as the downhill mountain bike season draws near, he starts turning up at the shop with boxes of parts and kit in preparation.

Dickerson has described downhill as the Formula One of biking. The Union Cycliste Internationale is the governing body of its pinnacle championship. Dickerson’s best result in a UCI World Cup was a 20th in Val di Sole in 2017 but his national and international career boasts 21 podiums and 51 top 20 finishes since 2010. He is also the first New Zealander in seven years to win an IXS European Cup event.

At 28 Dickerson has been entering UCI World Cups for nine years. The professional riders travel to events in team buses with their coaches, mechanics and support crew in tow. Currently a privateer, he has to independently pull together sponsorship for bikes, parts and transport to follow the 10-race schedule across Europe, the UK and finally the USA. He is always pushing for that top 10 result that could help him onto a team and make purely riding the prime concern of his season.

Last year Dickerson’s usually cheerful greetings started to get a little more serious. Components were mostly lined up, but he was still waiting on frames. He’d finally got free of a pair of moon boots after eight months of surgeries and recovery. Crashes in separate incidents had damaged each of his ankles and his training for the series had been seriously interrupted.

“It was asking for trouble. We’d only got the bike built the night before I left. It was insane. I did four runs at Mt Vic and then I boxed it up and got on the plane to Europe the next day.”

Three events into the season, Dickerson travelled to Sestola in Italy to ride as a sweeper, clearing the way for racers practising on the Italian national championship track. It was an opportunity to continue acclimatising to his new bike without the pressure of pursuing a result.

“I came off this drop fully sideways. It would’ve been a sick photo. I landed, full compression and bounced over the top of the bike and off the next drop. I remember thinking ‘I might die’ and then feeling like I’d been hit by a bus. When I woke up, I couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t winded, I was actually suffocating because I’d broken nine ribs and punctured a lung.”

He had also broken his wrist into six pieces and broken his back in three places. A year on and Dickerson is still not 100 percent. In July he will undergo tests to determine whether further surgery is needed on his diaphragm which is yet to return to its natural position.

It’s hard to not laugh along with Dickerson as he describes his struggles communicating to Italian doctors. The fingers they were holding onto as they reset his wrist had been dislocated a week before.

“I’m like ‘dislocato!’, I mean it was worth a crack right? I could feel the thing going in and out.”

The accident resulted in four and a half weeks in hospital and his mum, Lynette Williams’ second trip overseas to pick up the pieces after another big hit.

Dickerson’s parents Lynette Williams and Wilfred Dickerson clearly enjoy recounting stories of his discovery of bikes at a young age. From jumping over his next-door neighbour with a plank and a couple of bricks to his first races at six years old, he was never just riding along. Straight away he wanted to win. Wilfred recalled the starting line of a Bike-wise kids’ race.

“This woman gets up and she says, ‘now this is all about participation’ and I look at Bryn and he’s looking at his main competition and I’m thinking, ‘This is not about participation, this is about winning’.”

The conversation slows when the injuries come up. Williams works as a radiographer and with her medical background she has been tasked with traveling to support her son when things go wrong.

“I got on a plane, thinking I might have to give them permission to cut off his leg. In the end they slit it open and stitched him up like a baseball,” she says, recalling a broken femur in Lillehammer 2013. The injury had developed into compartment syndrome where the muscle swells so much it prevents blood flow to the limb. For all the trauma, however, they remain philosophical about the setbacks and their son’s personality.

“He’s not a reckless person. He’s actually quite methodical and he thinks about what he’s doing,” says Wilfred Dickerson. “Now!” Williams interjects, “he was pretty out there when he was young. There’s probably a bunch of stuff we don’t know about.”

Dickerson is fast and stylish on a bike. His riding exudes confidence and precision. It looks great on camera but the results, film clips and crashes are really only a part of the picture.

To help support his racing he has built a mountain bike skills coaching business Fluid Lines and I’ve had a day’s instruction with him on the trails in Mt Victoria. As a teacher, Dickerson takes time to observe and dissect his client’s technique. His suggestions are far more constructive than someone merely displaying that they can ride. He can express how he rides, and his sessions have the repeat customers to prove it.

When he’s not teaching, he’s formulating a suspension setup guide for bike stores, working on a new glove design, filming promotional clips or constructing a proposal to Wellington City Council to streamline the funding of trail building in the region. This many irons in the fire can be at odds with the priorities of his coach of 10 years, Adrian Armstrong.

“I think it would’ve been great for him not to take on so much and to be more single minded because some doors may have opened more easily for him,” says Armstrong.

Both are aware of the need to balance results versus future opportunities. Armstrong hopes that a World Cup top 10 will bring him the attention that will help him continue doing what he loves but Dickerson, instead of relenting to the downtime of recovery, has to keep busy.

“When you get to the top 20 everybody has that drive to succeed. I think it’s really important to develop using that focus and motivation outside of the racing environment. I haven’t always had that. I made a conscious choice.”

With COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of the UCI 2020 World Cup series, Dickerson might actually have the time to heal, train and pull all the elements together for another big push to bring his talents into the limelight.

When I ask him what differentiates the winners from the also rans; he taps his head. I ask him why he says he can’t sleep; he taps his head. Against his drive and motivation, the physical challenges are almost an afterthought.

Finally, I ask him if he ever gets a break from the riding, work and constant activity. The answer is his journey back home to Pauatahanui.

“I love driving after a good day, thinking about what I’ve done and what I’ve got to do. Heading away from the bustle of Wellington, tunes are on, life’s good.”