This tribute was written for us by our friend, Leonie Watkins.
Friday brought the sad news several of us had been dreading since March. Our luminous Caylee was gone. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. She was going to have treatment, get well and be riding and racing with her pals again, soon. But Friday 30th October 2020 is where her story came to its close. So many adventures ahead. All those plans, ideas, outlandish dreams and schemes halted. She was nowhere near finished. I am angry on her behalf at the wretchedness, the unfairness of her premature death. But she wouldn’t want that, so instead I’ll reflect. Caylee was generous in all ways. She was open, kindhearted and balls to the wall fun. Women wanted to be her friend. Dudes wanted to date her. We all admired her. She was fiercely supportive, always on hand to offer herself in any capacity. She proudly never took herself, or life, too seriously. The sort of person who would make time for you, no matter how busy she might be. A stranger would stop to ask her about her bike or her gear at a potentially inopportune moment. I’d have to come to drag her away half an hour later. People, stories were her fuel and she loved to engage freely, randomly like that. Almost a decade in age between us yet she was insightful and wise beyond her young years, ever available with her enthusiastic advice on how to fix life’s wonky bits and pieces. Her vivacity was infectious. You wanted to keep up. If you couldn’t match hers she’d loan you a portion, and throw some encouragement your way, too. It was possible to catch positivity from Caylee the way you might catch a cold from someone else. She would drop her plans to be by your side at the slightest hint that perhaps two margaritas, a crap film and a cuddle were what you secretly needed. She just knew how to be a friend and the ways in which she could help. She was brave. She was bold. She was, it must be noted, fearless. Whether racing in the DTRA, throwing herself headfirst and out of her comfort zone off-road riding in Portugal, or dangling from the back of a moving vehicle to strike up whichever position would allow her to capture the perfect shot, she wanted in. A have-a-go-attitude which was only switched to off while she slept. She had that until the very end. These last few months pre and post an invasive operation, I never once heard her complain. Sure, she got tired, but her spirit pierced through the sickness and the endless dreadful effects of the drugs she was forced to take. Foremost, she was rightly very annoyed that this thing had come along to try and take her down. It was hugely inconvenient, because she had a summer of surfing, biking and photographing to do. Where many people would slow down under the weight of a serious illness, Caylee was plotting how, and exactly when, she could get out again to do the things she loved most. Her passion for creativity, specifically photography, was her space to breathe. She once told me it gave her great satisfaction to preserve a moment that would be seen only once. Motorcycles were another outlet for her energy. They brought her nothing but joy. She revelled in all that biking had opened her up to, at the doors that had swung open as a consequence of riding (although I’d suggest she created many of these opportunities herself, by getting out there, building connections and developing contacts). Plenty of those people she came to know professionally also became firm friends through the years. The relationships she advanced through riding and racing were held dear and close to her heart. These were her people.
It was no accident that she was selected by Sideburn to be the rep on both the recent women’s only Morocco tours. A regular contributor to Sideburn, Caylee was an experienced, technically capable rider graced with the precise skillset required to keep group morale at its peak in good, and equally testing times. She captured the events in such a way that to look at her photos evokes a palpable sense of place and time for anyone, whether you were there, or not. I can’t think of another person who would have balanced their maturity as a rider with the ability to lasso a bunch of wildly different personalities together over hundreds of miles and across several days. She was so encouraging and reassuring. She made you believe you could achieve anything by looking you in the eye and wrinklIng her nose. 'Just relax, you can do it'. Behind her camera is where Caylee thrived. Her career was in full swing and it was blossoming on both sides of The Atlantic. Varied and interesting projects gave her a kick and every job spurred her to seek out the next, typically with an adventure attached. She was striking out and just beginning to hit her professional stride. We were friends but we were also collaborators. She’d frequently call me in the middle of the day, often while both of us were working, with a design or intention for something she was processing. 'Hey, I’ve had this great idea for a shoot...' She was up for anything, at any time.
Caylee was a great friend, confidant, and teammate. I’ve read and heard much of her personality in recent days echoed in the wonderful sentiments of others. How she was abundant in kindness. That earnest, keen nature she possessed. Caylee had an aptitude for anything she turned her attention to and she had an unquenchable curiosity for the unexplored. As we know, she was extraordinarily talented. You would see her distinctive visual approach copied over and over. Another common appraisal is the word, “cool”. It’s undeniable she was uniquely stylish, but Caylee was cool in the the right way, the real way. She never tried to be anyone else, and she didn’t need to. She was her genuine self through and through. “Like it or lump it, mate.” She would say. The last time I saw her in person we spotted each other across Margate sands at The Malle Beach Race, a gale blowing between us. Her face lit up. We scuttled toward one another. She bounded in clodhopping boots, skipping over the ruts to greet me, bright eyed as ever - that beautiful toothy grin stretching from ear to ear. We hugged. I gave her a fireman’s lift. I commented that she was cocooned in layer upon layer of clothing - a suitable disguise. If you didn’t know she was unwell, you certainly wouldn’t have guessed. She showed no signs of a person wrestling life-threatening cancer. She was happy. Thrilled to be in the company of so many of her mates, buzzing at the sounds of bikes ripping around her, camera swinging about her neck. Everyone who knew Caylee has their own set of memories to treasure. So many of them are shared, but we each have our own personal and private notes to cherish. Because that’s who Caylee was. She shone brightly and hard and she honed her spotlight right on you. You felt that warmth she exuded, her intensity and her inimitable verve for life. These are just a few of the innumerable things we will miss about her. She was loved enormously, admired and respected while she was alive. And now we must honour everything she was by celebrating her short but exceptional life - her talent for photography, her racing achievements, her countless friends around the globe who loved her so. It’s true that you can judge a person by the measure of their friends. The outpouring of love from all kinds of people around the world in reaction to her death is staggering, but not surprising. It says so much of her character. Tears ran down my face last night thinking of her final hours. I pondered if perhaps she had intel that Sean Connery was checking out and thought she’d give him a backie. We will each remember Caylee in our own ways but to all of us, she will forever be young, she will always be beautiful, and she will always be the woman with an intrepid, lionhearted spirit. Caylee Hankins. Forever 31.
Top photo: Calli Faraway