Kelly McGarry’s absence will be felt deeply as Queenstown’s mountain bike season comes into summer. Paul Taylor talks to those struggling with being left behind

How do you begin to move on from the death of someone larger than life?

That’s the question every day facing Sam Hitchcock – partner of the late and great Kelly McGarry – and his friends in the mountain bike community.

The rider, who died from a heart arrhythmia Fernhill trails in February, had a personality every bit as big as his 6ft 5in frame.

Hitchcock, 32, has had a dark and difficult nine months.

“It’s been a living hell to be brutally honest,” she says.

“When everything’s perfect and it just gets taken away, out of the blue, it’s really tough.”

But a recent trip to the United States, where she originally hooked up with McGarry, has given her a fresh perspective.

“I spent the six-month mark out there – meeting people he’d told me heaps about, riding trails he wanted to show me.

“We were going to go to Colorado this year, so I wanted to get out there.

“It was a turning point. I made the decision to move forward.”

Hitchcock says she realised how gutted McGarry would be if she didn’t live life.

“You hear horror stories of people who lose people and they essentially die themselves, they don’t do anything and wallow in it.

“But I can’t be like that, Kelly would be so gutted if his death caused that.

“He’d be so pissed that he’s died, so f…ed

“He was full of life. He would say every day that he’s going to punch life in the face today. He’d be up at 4.30am, making coffee, running around the house.

“So if him dying brought me down as well, he’d be more upset.”

Happy travels: Kelly McGarry and Sam Hitchcock in Canada in 2014
Happy travels: Kelly McGarry and Sam Hitchcock in Canada in 2014

Hitchcock says she regularly has big meltdowns and cries all the time.

“But I get his voice in my head saying ‘come on, Sam, get out on your bike, get outside’. I’ve had that since early on and I just listen to that.”

McGarry was one of the world’s top freeriders – regularly pulling off insane tricks.

His most famous was a backflip over a massive 22-metre canyon at the 2013 Red Bull Rampage in the US.

It’s been viewed more than 30 million times on YouTube.

He competed seven times at Rampage and this year the organisers created the Kelly McGarry Spirit Award – won by fellow Queenstown-based rider Conor Macfarlane.

McGarry helped build trails and slopestyle courses around the world, including for Crankworx Whistler and Rotorua, and Queenstown.

Friend Fraser Gordon says it’s strange to not have him turn up in town after Rampage.

“You’d have BBQs and beers with him, some pretty funny stories about his winter overseas.

“When he got back to Queenstown he wasn’t the big famous McGazza – he was one of the boys, you’d go do some laps on the gondola, go down to Atlas for some beers and steak.”

Gordon is chairman of the Kelly McGarry Memorial Trust – one of his main legacies.

It’s raised about $30,000 so far but has plans for future fundraising.

“It’s a charitable foundation to nurture New Zealand mountain biking – anything from trail building to grants for riders coming through.”

The ultimate aim is to build a backcountry hut near Queenstown, with a trail leading from it, which would raise funds.

“It was something Kelly wanted.

“That epic backcountry mission is one of the last pieces of the puzzle for Queenstown.”

But first will be McGazza Fest – a two-day riding festival on the last weekend in January, with jump jams and the official launch of the foundation.

Moving forward: Sam Hitchcock
Moving forward: Sam Hitchcock

Hitchcock says McGarry would love the foundation as he was all about other people.

“Even competing, he just wanted to do the best for his sponsors and people who supported him, shred with his mates and travel the world.

“He had a unique ability to make you feel special.”

A post mortem revealed McGarry’s right coronary artery on his heart was in the wrong place, making him susceptible to a full arrhythmia at his maximum heart rate.

“But he’d got his heart up to maximum so many times – we’ll never know what caused it that day.”

Hitchcock says he’d never mentioned getting palpitations, even when she told him about her own heart flutters.

“It was the last thing I’d expected. He made us all believe he was invincible.”

The news shocked the mountain bike world and local community.

Hitchcock says he’ll always be with her, even as she comes to terms with her grief.

“It’s really hard, every day is hard.

“There’s things you don’t think about – the house is exactly how it was.

“It’s so hard to let go of stuff. His toothbrush was in the bathroom until a couple of weeks ago.”