The mountain bike community is reeling after freerider Kelly McGarry passed away on Monday. Though it was initially erroneously reported that McGarry was killed in a crash, the Kiwi mountain biker actually died from cardiac arrest stemming from an arrhythmia while riding outside of Queenstown, New Zealand.
The 33-year-old from Nelson, New Zealand, suffered a heart attack while pedaling uphill on the Fernhill Loop Track, high above Queenstown’s Skyline Gondola. According to McGarry’s longtime friend and past teammate, Eric Porter, the ascent is not difficult and the Kiwi was taking his time with plenty of stops. “It’s not like he was racing or pushing too hard,” Porter says. “Close to the top, he just collapsed.”
The medical examiner’s report is yet to be filed, but friends and colleagues say that McGarry had no indication that he had any sort of heart problems.
McGarry’s partners at the time, two Germans who were out riding with him to capture video footage for his bike sponsor, YT Industries, performed CPR after he lost consciousness. They were unable to revive him, and paramedics, who were helicoptered to the scene, pronounced McGarry dead at 4:20 p.m. local time.
McGarry, known to friends and fans alike as McGazza, was an enduring icon in the slopestyle mountain bike world. He grew up BMXing and burst onto the mountain bike scene in 2006 when he entered Crankworx, which was then still open invitation, and placed 18th. At 6’5” and over 200 pounds with a long mane of curly bleached locks and an easygoing, manner, McGarry was hard to overlook, and he quickly parlayed that success into sponsorships. “I really had no idea that I’d ever end up doing it for a job back then,” he told DirtTV last year. “But I just kept at it. And I eventually started getting a couple of good results and people started noticing.”
That’s characteristic low-key talk from the man who was currently ranked in the world’s top 20 for slopestyle and who came to many people’s attention with a 50-foot backflip he performed in 2009 in Queenstown. McGarry had also participated in nine consecutive Red Bull Rampages, a record for the event. He was perhaps best known for his 2013 appearance at that event, when he backflipped the 72-foot Canyon Gap, the first rider to ever attempt the feat. The GoPro footage of the stunt has garnered nearly 29 million views.
But Porter says McGazza wasn’t just a daredevil. “Everyone knew him for backflipping 70 feet at Rampage, and he liked to go fast and big and charge hard,” says Porter. “But he wasn’t a reckless hucker. He was extremely calculated and only did things that he was confident he could succeed at.”
McGarry’s close friend, Jon Kennedy, agrees. “Backflips were second nature to him. He’d been working on that for years,” he says. “Mostly he liked to go fast, charge hard, and have fun.” Kennedy got to know McGazza after he hired the Kiwi onto the Diamond Back mountain bike team, where he rode for four years prior to joining YT Industries in 2015. “He didn’t have the bag of tricks of some of the younger riders. But that didn’t matter,” Kennedy remembers. “I wanted him because he was a great rider but also because he was a great ambassador. He was approachable, authentic, and the nicest guy. He cared about the sport and made every single person he met feel like they were important.”
Some of the most enduring images are of McGazza signing autographs and chatting with children and admirers. He was famously approachable and last year returned to his hometown of Nelson to mentor young riders. “If I can give something back to the kids, I’m gonna [do it],” he said at the time. His trail company, Elevate, was also helping to cultivate the slopestyle scene in New Zealand and beyond. The crew had just completed the course for the second-installment of the Crankworx World Tour event at Rotorua Gravity Park next month.
It might seem ironic that a man who was pushing the envelope of riding so hard would die in such a mundane manner, but Kennedy doesn’t see it that way. “Kelly would have been pissed if he died doing a backflip. We had talked about the risks he was taking at Rampage, and he had no plans of dying there. I think the real irony is that a guy who had one of the biggest hearts in the industry died from a heart problem,” Kennedy says. “But he went in his favorite place, doing what he loved, so in some ways it’s the most beautiful thing that could have happened.”
Bike magazine has put together an in-depth and touching tribute to McGarry.