From challenges to championship
17-year-old Chicoan grew up fast, cycles faster
Kyle Warner has proven that growing up fast is sometimes the best thing possible.
Last year, while his mother, Jeanette Warner, was undergoing treatment for hepatitis C—contracted during a bad blood transfusion during the birth of an older brother back in 1979—then-16-year-old Kyle found the weight of the world on his shoulders. From taking care of their pets—two dogs and eight cats—to cooking for himself and his mom, as well as being a junior at Chico High School, Kyle took on a heavy load.
Moreover, he had to go it alone; his brother was in rehab for drug addiction, and his father had been off the radar for six years, as he and Jeanette “split up,” as she put it, shortly after Kyle’s birth. It was much more responsibility than most care-free teens have to deal with.
“She was basically incapacitated for six months,” Kyle said. “It made me mature really fast. I think it’ll help me out in the long run.”
Still, it wasn’t easy.
“I had a lot of guilt,” offered the 55-year-old Jeanette, her voice shaking during a recent interview. “He really was struggling. As much as I wanted to help, I just couldn’t. I could barely get out of bed.”
But it was in the midst of these difficult times that Kyle discovered an outlet and a new passion: mountain biking. And now what started as a way to escape has led the young athlete to a shot at a career in the sport.
“When my mom went through treatment … I was just down in the dumps a lot,” Kyle said. “When I would get mad or sad I’d go hop on my bike.”
Warner, who began racing a year ago this month, has won nine races already. One of his few poor finishes came recently at the Junior Expert U.S. National Championship in Granby Ranch, Colo., on July 19, due to a crash. “It was pretty cool, just to get to ride with a lot of the top U.S. guys,” Kyle said. “Tons of people were getting injured. I was definitely scared … but it was a real fun experience.”
Just one error can spell disaster for Kyle’s specific brand of cycling, called “downhill,” which features rigorous tracks that he said take an average of two to four minutes to complete.
“I know he loves it, so I just have to let him go,” said Jeanette, laughing. “Usually I don’t say, ‘Be careful,’ anymore, just ‘Have fun.’ ”
Next up, Kyle has his sights set on a potential trip to the World Downhill Championships in Quebec, which begin on Aug. 31. He has a chance as a wild-card selection, after impressing talent scouts at the national competition, despite his crash, he said.
A friend of Kyle’s who works at Sports LTD on Mangrove Avenue introduced him to mountain biking. His interest in the activity became much more than a hobby almost immediately, as right away it was apparent he was an exceptional rider.
Looking back, it’s not a huge surprise that Kyle got hooked so quickly, considering he’s been an outdoors person for as long as he can remember. “When I was little we’d always go play and swim at Upper Park,” he said. “It gave me a love for the outdoors.”
A recent high school graduate, Kyle is now planning to take his general education at Butte College before likely transferring to Chico State. His goal is to major in mechanical engineering in hopes of working with a bicycle company like Specialized—the brand he uses in racing.
Jeanette said she knew right away that cycling was the best thing possible for Kyle.
“It was pretty awful for a while,” she said. “That’s why he needed an outlet.”
Despite his early success, and his young age, Kyle, still just 17 (he turns 18 on July 31), shows no signs of over-confidence. What’s evident beyond his soft-spoken nature is a steely toughness obviously strengthened by the experience of caring for his mother.
Kyle gives a lot of credit for his success to the Thunderbringers, a local biking team that took him in.
“It’s just a bunch of guys having fun, and we decided to form a team,” Kyle said. “It’s mainly Chico people.” Kyle was dubbed “Sky-Warner”—playing off of the Star Wars’ character Luke Skywalker—by his teammates.
Jeanette sees what the group has done for her son beyond racing.
“They treat him like a little brother,” she said of the team, whose members are mostly 18 and older. “That’s another reason why it was good Kyle found this. We don’t really have family. … Both of my parents have passed away as well.”
Jeanette Warner’s story has a happy ending, too.
Just as Kyle began racing in the summer and fall of 2009, she found complete recovery from her miserable days of hepatitis treatment and was declared “cured” by Chico Family Health Center this past September. She endured several months of what she called a “watered-down version of chemotherapy,” the same kind of treatment used to counter malignant melanoma.
These days, she is back in school, online, to receive an associate’s degree, and is the hepatitis C spokeswoman for the Butte County Department of Health. With both endless optimism and a realistic look at the ugliness of the disease itself, she volunteers her time preaching for anyone and everyone in the community to get tested.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Warner said.