Hannah catches up with Jez Avery, the official joker of the British mountain bike scene and finds a darker side that nearly did for him.
Words Hannah Photography Mark and as credited
“I love waking up in the mornings.” It’s taken stunt rider Jez Avery a long while to be able to say this, because behind the showman front he’s been dogged – “tortured” he says – by mental illness. If you’re of a certain age, there’s a good chance you had a poster of Jez on your wall. Somersaulting into a harbour, leaping over a row of cars, or otherwise improbably balancing on a mountain bike, he was a well-known face in magazines and on the mountain bike events circuit throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, at last year’s Malverns revival, he was one of those fixtures that needed to be there to make it feel right. But he nearly didn’t make the Malverns in summer 2018 at all – in winter 2017 he made plans to end his life.
Sitting in a farmhouse in the Peak District, we’re 12 months on from when Jez thinks he started to see a life ahead of him once more. It’s a life he says is dependent on a cocktail of drugs, but it’s one that he wants, and he hopes that by telling his story, others might also ‘get their lives back’.
That charming man.
To the outside observer, his life appears a charmed one. He started out as a racer, forming ‘Team Hot Pies’ with friends Graeme Matthews and Paul Wilson before moving on to ride for Proflex, MBUK and Caratti Sport. He says he hated the cross-country riding but found fun on the dual slalom course, becoming a three-time National Champion. While waiting for podium presentations he’d mess around on his bike, performing tricks and challenges. How high could he bunny hop? Could he get up on top of that rock? What about that one? Could he do a wheelie without his front wheel in?
These time-filling tricks eventually became his profession, with magazines keen to capture images of impressive feats or to try to teach the rest of us how to show off a bit. Singletrack even ran a feature where Jez taught Mark to do such tricks as riding up onto a park bench and off again. While we’ve not seen Mark performing such feats recently, he remembers it fondly, and the jubilation on his face after successfully riding over the bench is no pose – it’s real.
Jez clearly looks back on this with pride too – he has a good collection of press cuttings, posters and even certificates from that time. The certificates are from his three appearances on ‘You Bet’, the prime-time TV show which saw him racing Olympians, riding bikes down snowy mountains and trying to bunny hop as high as possible. But despite all the public appearances and apparent celebrity, by the end of the ’90s things were becoming difficult.
The show must go on.
In 1999 his mum died suddenly, soon after he had started ‘Jez Avery’s Mountain Bike Stunt Show’. Following her death his dad’s health also declined, leading to his death in 2002. This hit Jez hard, especially as it was his parents who had bought him his first bikes and got him into cycling. He carried on though, and gradually his show grew into a full-on stunt show with motorbikes and buggies as well as mountain bikes – the original cycling element becoming a smaller part of his life.
The mixture of (Geordie-accented) commentary, driving, riding, tricks and kit set-up seems to suit Jez’s fast-paced multitasking brain perfectly. This is a man who can juggle. He struggled on and met his future wife and they had a daughter, Olivia, whom Jez dotes on.
Personal problems mounted over the next ten years, with Jez and his wife noticing how much he hates winters. A second home in Spain – meant to be the sunshine bolthole that would take the edge off the winter gloom – proved to be the final straw. The recession kicked in and by 2010 Jez found himself in a financial hole, with mortgages in two countries, negative equity, a divorce, and an income being hit as traditional bookings fell away.
To keep things afloat, he took a contract with a Monster Truck show, as a safety adviser and commentator. While this ‘circus family’ was supportive and the job was a financial lifeline, the pressure of being on tour had him breaking down in tears. “A 40-year-old bloke bursting into tears, that’s not normal, that’s some sort of emotional breakdown or imbalance, isn’t it?” Tour colleagues put it down to ‘tour blues’ and the pressure of taking on too much. The way Jez describes this time, it’s clear he may be a stuntman but he’s not a foolhardy daredevil. Seeing things set up wrong – ramps out of line, debris on the showfield – he didn’t delegate fixing these things to others, but instead took the tasks on himself. “If you want a job doing right, you do it yourself.”
While the pressure took its toll, Jez learnt some canny business tricks on the tour. He now has his show set up so that he can guarantee he will perform, whatever the weather. By getting ramp construction right, he can be sure that he can turn up to any booking and be sure of a pay cheque. Even if the event organisers cancel because a showfield is too boggy for visitors, or parking, or whatever, Jez will have been there ready to perform if needed. He’s still working on the show today, planning and rehearsing motorbike routines with his daughter – something he’s clearly thrilled about and looking forward to bringing to the crowds this summer. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back to when things weren’t looking so positive.
With the Monster Truck Tour getting too much, he sought medical help. A course of antidepressants and performing with his own set of show dates, Jez felt the pressure lifting and a new relationship gave his weekends off new meaning. Committed to living near his daughter – he still does regular school runs – and with a schedule of tour dates, he was prepared for that relationship to be a long-distance one and indeed he was soon engaged to be married. As summer turned to winter in 2015, everything seemed better, and Jez felt ready to stop taking the medication. His doctor wasn’t sure, but oversaw the gradual reduction in dosage until he was off the drugs. Within a year he’d be back on them.
Winter 2016/17 saw the return of winter gloom and these days Jez is keenly aware that Seasonal Affective Disorder is part of his condition. Like exotic flowers, he needs sunlight to thrive and he’s recently taken advantage of winter show bookings in Bahrain to get a hit of that golden medicine. He’s tanned, and smiling, and happy to perform tricks on his fresh out of the box GT Zaskar as he moves on to recount how 2017 took him on a sawtooth journey of highs and lows that would ultimately deliver him to a place where driving head on into a lorry seemed like a good idea.
In April 2017 his engagement ended, just as his show season was warming up. Push on, keep going – it’s what ‘real’ men do… In June, he was woken on a Thursday night to a report of a burglary where he stored his show kit. He drove through the night and it was confirmed: his livelihood had been stolen. Early on the Friday, he put out the news on Facebook. Without kit, there was no show – these weren’t just playthings that had been taken. Exhausted from lack of sleep, Jez had no idea how he was going to get through the summer. He was on his own, with no means of earning an income, and a bunch of bookings he couldn’t fulfil – including one for the next day. How could he go on?
Except that he wasn’t on his own. While he’d been out of the bike scene for a while, he’d not been forgotten. His Facebook post about the theft went far and wide, and before the day was out Bikeology had donated him a mountain bike, Inch Perfect Trials had offered a cheap motorbike, and Extreme Events Europe, a monster truck contact, had found him a knackered old buggy. It wasn’t the kit he was used to, but it worked, and he fulfilled the bookings that weekend, and for the rest of the season. Perhaps more importantly, Jez saw that he wasn’t alone. From the low of the theft came a soaring high, and he tackled that 2017 summer show season with gusto. “I saw it in a different light. Having all me kit nicked, borrowing someone’s kit and still enjoying what I do. I used it as part of the commentary, I said ‘Believe it or not, I’m riding this bike today and it’s out of a box two hours ago. That motorbike, I don’t know if the front brake’s going to work and that buggy is a pile of shit (but I don’t say shit…)’.” Jez doesn’t swear often during our chat, but when he does he invariably apologises.
World Champion. Of chat.
If talking were a sport, Jez would be world champion. He peppers our meeting with occasional snippets of showman commentary, and you can see how easily he can translate the free-flowing words into crowd-pleasing patter. Wrap that up with a wink and cheeky pointing finger, and even though I’ve never seen the show in action, I can picture the crowds at agricultural shows and town fetes up and down the country lapping up the performance. And so they did, right through that summer season of 2017. To help repay his circus family the favours they gave after the theft, he used his chat skills to commentate at a stunt show in November 2017. It was a roaring success. There was a huge crowd, his friends were there, the show was a hit. “It was a right stunt person camaraderie.” High, high, high.
But then low. Two days later, the year had caught up with him and he knew he needed help. He visited his doctor, but felt dismissed. He was sure he needed more help than was being offered and demanded to see a different doctor, going so far as to refuse to leave the surgery until he saw someone else. This would prove to be a life-saving move. He was prescribed a new course of medication but, as can often be the case with such treatment (meds can make things feel worse before they get better), he slipped further and further into depression.
Christmas and winter weather bore down on him and he became stuck in a cycle of anxiety and lack of sleep. Jez turned his planning skills to his death. He prepared to cancel his show bookings for the year ahead, and was sure he’d figured out an efficient and effective means of killing himself. “I wouldn’t fail at suicide,” he says. There was no suicide note, but an email to Si Paton at the Malverns was drafted – he felt bad for letting him down, but he couldn’t see how he could do the show. Certainly he couldn’t do the show dead, and he planned to be. By mid-January, he was driving home looking at oncoming lorries, thinking how easy it would be to pull out in front of one, in a final stunt show manoeuvre, only this one had no safety checks.
In a life-saving moment of clarity, he pulled over and rang his new doctor. The doctor responded immediately, calling him back to point out what Jez had missed: how would his daughter feel to lose him? How would his plans affect the life of the unfortunate truck driver? Jez is extremely grateful to Dr Boyes for this swift response and credits her with saving his life, listening, not dismissing, and saying just the right thing. The mention of his daughter gave him that connection back to the world that he needed. In his turmoil he lost sight of how much he loved her, something that shocks him even now.
An immediate review of his medication put Jez in a new drug-assisted schedule. “I’m an addicted drug taker of prescribed drugs. I’ve got to have them each day, and I’ve got to sleep each night and I’ve got to have drugs to sleep each night.” It’s not just the chemical effect of the pills that matters, it’s the routine that they allow him to keep. With regular sleep and the medication, he feels better than good. “You wouldn’t believe what I couldn’t do in day-to-day life, compared to what I can do now. As in, I’ve got to actually slow myself down, I can mega multitask.” But he knows to rein himself in… if he overdoes it, breaks his routine, misses his meds, he’ll pay for it. That recent trip to Bahrain taught him to keep his meds in his hand luggage – he had a difficult couple of days when his medication got lost with his bags, and he had to work to keep himself together as his routine went on a tour of the baggage conveyors.
Looking to the Malverns.
That email to Si at the Malverns never got sent. The new medication gave Jez the balance he needed to look ahead, and he found that he was looking forward to the Malverns. Arriving with his truck, surveying the arena and looking out over the venue, Jez felt that everything had been put in place to bring back the magic of the original. “It was spine-tingling. A blast and an honour to entertain there,” says Jez. Seeing so many old faces brought back memories of the past. “I didn’t realise how good those days were,” he says. And it’s not just that they were good, it’s that Jez was such a part of it. He describes his disbelief at seeing his name in the middle of an ‘MTB Legends’ T-shirt – one which he says he doesn’t usually wear in public, but concedes to wear for our photo shoot.
It’s this realisation that, to many people, he is a ‘someone’, which has brought him to the kitchen table where we’re now tucking into sandwiches. He’s glad to be here, glad to be alive, and glad to have found the cocktail of drugs and routine that keeps him here. He’s not just getting by, he’s living. It’s a far cry from the years of pushing on, ‘manning up’, and ‘pulling himself together’ that led to staring into the headlights of a truck, and he hopes that by talking about his health he’ll be able to use his influence to help others seek the help they need.
“Out of such a slump, [the Malverns] felt so positive. A big part of my life is mountain biking, and mountain biking fans and magazines taking photographs of us all them years. And I want to try to help anybody out there who struggled like me and is hiding it. I’d like to tell them I’ve had a big hiccup in my life, but I got my life back and I want others to know they can too.”
It’s been quite a life so far. What next for this multitasking motormouth, we wonder? Well, first, he’s got the next season of shows ahead of him, with a new routine that includes his daughter. Olivia, welcome to the circus.
Jez would like to thank
Kelly Suzanne Hope – Olivia’s mum, Andy and Jody Oldham – Bikeology Liverpool, Gary Grantham – Mini Monster Truck Mania, Michael Murty – Big Pete Monster Trucks Limited, Anthony Anderson – Extreme Events Europe, Mrs Lorraine Mycock and family, Kerry Bennett, Leslie Dally, Si Paton, Clive Gosling, Dale O’Connor, Martin Lidgley, Steve Miller, Dr Rebecca Boyes, my daughter Olivia Avery, my oldest sister Lynne Williams, 80s & 90s MTB Appreciation Facebook Group, and all mountain bike fans and followers x
Information and Support: Mental health
If you, or someone you know, have been affected by mental health issues, the following organisations may be able to help.
Mental Health Foundation
Mental Health Foundation provides a guide to Mental Health problems, topical issues and treatment options via their website.
Mind provides advice and support on a range of topics including types of mental health problem, legislation and details of local help and support in England and Wales.
Phone: 0300 123 3393 www.mind.org.uk
Information, support and advice for children and young people. Help for parents of those under 25 offered by phone.
Phone: 0808 802 5544 youngminds.org.uk
Inspire (Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health) provides local services to support the mental health and wellbeing of people across Northern Ireland.
Phone: 028 9032 8474 www.inspirewellbeing.org
SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health)
General mental health information and signpost you to your local services.
Phone: 0141 530 1000 www.samh.org.uk
Community Advice & Listening Line
Offering emotional support and information on mental health and related matters to people in Wales.
Phone: 0800 132 737 (24/7) or text “help” to 81066
Whatever you’re going through, a Samaritan will face it with you. We’re here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Phone: 116 123 www.samaritans.org
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Brilliant interview Hannah, some heavy stuff in there that could have been skirted around, but you tackled them head on without glorifying them.
Great interview I’d like to also add the following link.
Delighted things are looking up, Jez thoroughly deserves his place on the T Shirt.
I’m so glad we can talk about this stuff properly now. It’s still a work in progress (aren’t we all?) but what a step forward.