Jesse Shawn Phibbs was born on July 8, 1989, to Michele and Matt Phibbs, a farming couple in Leamington, Ont. When Matt wasn’t working on the farm, growing soybeans, corn and wheat, he’d be trucking canned goods, and was sometimes away for a couple of days at a time. In those days, Michele stayed home with the three kids (Jesse’s brother Andrew was two years older, Shane three years younger). Matt remembers Jesse as a happy baby who got along well with his brothers. “We have a bunch of pictures, and in 99 per cent of them, he’s smiling,” Matt says.
As they grew older, Jesse and his brothers got into sports, playing on their local hockey team. “I coached them,” says Matt. “They were all on my team, at one time or another.” Hockey wasn’t their only sport; the boys also liked swimming, baseball and being outdoors, and the family took frequent camping trips. But Jesse especially loved biking. “He was riding a two-wheel bicycle before he was four years old,” Michele says. Jesse got on his first dirt bike at around age 10, riding on the laneways around the farm property. From that point on, he was hooked.
At 15, Jesse “got the itch” to start competing, Matt says, and took up flat track racing, which is done on a modified dirt bike. Every Wednesday, he’d head to the track with Scott Buchan, a local autobody technician and long-time friend of his father’s who’d once raced professionally. “It started out just me and him, as a way to practise. Then somebody else would show up, and [those training nights] kept growing,” says Scott, 46. Thanks to Jesse’s natural talent and skill, soon enough he was the “best at the club,” Scott says.
Both Scott and Matt acknowledge that flat track racing can be dangerous, but Jesse was known as a cautious rider. Beyond the protective gear he’d wear when he was out on the bike, “Jesse was very careful. He was progressing slowly, and knew his limits. He wouldn’t ride over his head,” Matt says. As for his parents, “we didn’t push him to race. We told him from the start, if you want to go, we’ll support you. But if you don’t want to go, it’s all up to you.” They did support him, in various ways. Matt would help Jesse work on his bikes, and both parents would accompany him to races in their motorhome, where Michele would cook him hot meals.
In 2005, Jesse had an accident. He was passing another competitor whose bike flipped, knocking Jesse’s down and sending him flying into the fence, his father says. “He got hurt really badly, and broke both his wrists and a leg.” Jesse spent a lot of time at the fracture clinic getting X-rayed, and there he struck up a friendship with the technician, who’d also raced bikes. (“Jesse would always stop and talk to everybody,” Matt recalls.) That conversation inspired Jesse to pursue a career as a medical radiology technician (MRT), too. After high school, he left for Fanshawe College in London, Ont., where he threw himself into his studies, bringing home the best grades he’d ever had.
In recent months, he was at the point where he was finally running the machines, “the last step” in his training, Matt says. He was to graduate in April, and hoped to find a job as an MRT. “He liked being able to help people,” Matt says.
But working as a medical technician wasn’t Jesse’s only goal—he was also chasing a career as a professional bike racer, and hoped the two could go hand in hand. In March, after amassing enough points to qualify as a pro, Jesse reached that goal. He started the season riding a red Honda dirt bike (Jesse had spent the winter building the Honda motor, helped by Scott and other friends). Still, “his first couple of races of the season, he was nervous, more so than usual,” Scott says. At the first race, in Daytona, Fla., he failed to qualify, but he wouldn’t be discouraged: at his third pro race in Ohio, in June, he placed third in the qualifying round and 10th overall. “He was starting to get the feeling of riding with the pros,” and he was enjoying himself, Matt says. “The last thing I’d tell him when he went out there was, ‘Go have fun, Jess.’ ”
On Aug. 28, Jesse was at an event in Indianapolis. In what some called a freak accident, he lost control of the bike. Another rider was unable to veer out of the way in time, and struck him from behind. Jesse never regained consciousness, and died of his injuries on Oct. 5. He was 21 years old.