Kiwi downhill mountain biker Jess Blewitt is normally at the front of the pack racing across the world, but this weekend she becomes the fox in a unique chase in her own backyard. Merryn Anderson reports.
Jess Blewitt is used to firsts, but this one makes her nervous.
The 20-year-old Kiwi downhill mountain biker was the first woman to compete in the Red Bull Hardline event last year – widely known as one of the toughest events in the sport.
And this weekend, she’ll be competing in the novel Red Bull Foxhunt for the first time.
New Zealand is hosting its first Foxhunt event, where 150 riders race downhill for 9.5kms being chased by the “foxes”.
Blewitt is one of three foxes for the Cardrona edition, a race unlike anything she’s ever done before.
“I’m super excited for it but also a little bit nervous, cause it can get a bit hectic. But it’s going to be a good time,” Blewitt says.
Normally racing on the track by herself, Blewitt will be the sole female chasing the 150 riders alongside fellow Kiwi Brook Macdonald and Australian Remy Morton.
The unique event means taking a different approach, but mere days before, Blewitt is pretty relaxed with her preparation.
“I’m just planning to turn up and follow Brook,” she laughs. “That’s my plan, get him to lead it out and he can get aggressive with it and hopefully he’ll clear a path for me.”
Macdonald was the one who presented Blewitt with her Red Bull helmet in November last year. The partnership with the worldwide sponsor is an athlete’s dream, she says.
“Everything they offer athletes support-wise is unreal. When you get that, it opens up even more doors,” she says.
Red Bull help Blewitt with anything she needs, including support with physio, personal training and even mindset sessions.
Blewitt was always a sporty kid, encouraged by her family to give anything a go. She considers listing all the sports she’s played, but laughs that it would take her way too long to remember them all.
Growing up in Mount Maunganui, Blewitt did surf lifesaving and started skiing when she was two, spending winters in Queenstown competing in ski racing when she was older.
She’d never done downhill or mountain biking, but was confident on a road bike, and was encouraged by a friend to give it a go in early 2018.
“When I came here, my mates were like ‘You road cycle?’ It’s like the dark side, that’s how they explain it,” Blewitt says, now living in Queenstown but travelling the world to compete during Kiwi winters.
Covid and lockdowns in 2020 meant Blewitt couldn’t compete at the Junior World Cup, and was thrown in the deep end at the elite level the following year, racing in the Enduro World Series and World Cup races.
But then in the final World Cup race in Snowshoe in the United States, Blewitt’s season came to a screaming halt. She crashed during one of her runs, injuring her leg, spine, wrist and ribs. After some time in hospital, was sent home to New Zealand during a lockdown.
“That was my first major injury, and it was quite the experience, being in America, going through their healthcare system,” Blewitt explains. “And then trying to get home and coming home to MIQ and doing two weeks in quarantine.”
And if a fortnight in MIQ wasn’t testing enough for the average person, the ever-active Blewitt had to do it in a wheelchair. Her mum was given permission to join her to help her navigate the tricky situation.
“At that point you just want to get home and straight into rehab and recovery, but you can’t really do that when they put you in that,” Blewitt says.
Like many athletes, Blewitt hates being stuck inside with nothing to do, and was eager to get out and back on the bike. “Mentally, it was hard but it got better quite rapidly,” she says.
“It definitely moved along faster than I – and a lot of people – thought in terms of getting back on the bike, getting back in the gym, even back on my downhill bike and my first race.”
The mental side of a sport that is high risk and requires reaction times of milliseconds isn’t a worry for Blewitt.
“I kind of don’t think about it too much,” she says. “The more you ponder that idea, then the more it gets stuck in your head, so it’s almost a negative thought in your mind.”
When speeding downhill, Blewitt empties her mind to focus on just her and the bike.
“You don’t really want too much going on in your mind at the time – otherwise then you start overthinking things,” she explains.
Blewitt was one of only two girls riding when she started, alongside a friend from school. She was used to competing in male-dominated sports with her history in ski racing, so it didn’t feel out of the ordinary to her.
“There’s definitely this male dominance in it, you’re obviously seeing it with [participation] numbers,” Blewitt says. But she sees the sport moving in the right direction.
She still gets “keyboard warriors” adding their narrow-minded comments to her social media posts, but they don’t throw her off her game.
Being the first woman to compete in Red Bull Hardline was just another day for Blewitt. “I went and did that and just proved girls can do it as well,” she says.
She’s recently seen an increase in the number of young girls involved in mountain biking, even at competitions.
“That was something I was really hoping I could inspire – to get some more younger girls coming through,” says Blewitt.
“We look at it now and it’s packed, we’ve got full podiums for the younger girls which is really cool to see actually.”
There are still spaces available to compete in Red Bull Foxhunt, with prizes for the top three men and women.
Blewitt’s parents are coming to watch, and a lot of her friends have entered, attempting to beat her down the course.
“There’s going to be some tough competition, because New Zealand has definitely got quite the talent of mountain bikers,” Blewitt says. “So she’s going to be full on.”