Jumping all-in

Local mountain biker is on precipice of something big

Kyle Warner, 20, in Upper Bidwell Park.

Kyle Warner, 20, in Upper Bidwell Park.

Photo By Brian Raphael

Watch him ride:
Don’t take our word for it—check out Kyle Warner’s stylish forest ride in Norcal Production’s Full Throttle: Episode 2 at www.pinkbike.com/video/312330/.

On a windy day this spring, Kyle Warner was on his self-constructed backyard racing track doing what he loves—riding his mountain bike.

It was so windy, in fact, that Warner felt his bike push sideways in mid-air after hitting a jump. He attempted to adjust, but the awkward landing popped his front tire; he fell flat on his back, and his head hit the ground hard. The crash “set my spine forward on my top vertebrae, and I got a pretty solid concussion, too,” he said.

As is typical of Warner’s attitude, he found something positive in something ugly.

“That was my first crash in about a year, and I was actually pretty stoked,” Warner said, smiling widely. “You get tentative if you haven’t fallen in a long time. It makes you feel like you’re not made of glass when you crash really hard.”

Warner has sacrificed what’s typically most important to 20-year-olds—nights with friends, parties, dating—in his pursuit of a long-term career as a professional mountain-bike racer.

He’s stayed up countless nights sending hundreds of emails to bike companies seeking sponsorships. He spends mornings toiling away in the gym, striving for all-around athleticism. He goes to extremes to challenge himself—lately, he’s practiced holding his breath for minutes on end while solving puzzles, preparing his brain to make snap decisions without sufficient oxygen supply.

Above all else, Warner rides his bike.

Shortly after graduating Chico High School in 2011 and following a dominating stretch on the regional junior downhill racing circuit, Warner became a professional mountain-bike racer. This past winter, he formed the Young Guns, a two-man, Chico-based racing-team, with 20-year-old Chico State student Bobby Zidek, a talented rider in his own right.

Together, they are focusing on enduro, an emerging discipline that combines the speed and skill of downhill racing and the endurance of long-distance, cross-country riding. The sport’s popularity has “exploded” over the last year, Warner said, relating his excitement in being on the forefront of what looks to be a national trend away from traditional downhill racing.

And Warner appears on the verge of breaking into the top-10 riders in the nation during the upcoming season.

After ranking No. 14 last year as the second-youngest racer on the enduro circuit, Warner had a busy off-season—he signed a one-year sponsorship contract with the international company Felt Bicycles, was featured in full-page spreads in biking magazines like Mountain Bike Action and Decline Magazine, and lined up 20 sponsors for the season, all while maintaining a strict riding and weight-training regimen.

As those close to him have noted, his focus on racing has taken on a different nature since turning pro. His longtime best friend and childhood neighbor, Adam Moore, agreed he has changed—while Warner was always passionate about his sport, now he radiates a palpable intensity that drives his every move.

Aspects of Warner’s life not directly related to his pursuit of a long-term career as a professional mountain-bike racer have faded to the background; even his part-time job at Greenline Cycles proved to be too much of a commitment. He recently quit, after agreeing to work on bikes when he can, and now devotes his full attention to training for the upcoming enduro season that will kick off in earnest at the end of this month.

Warner is determined to crack the upper echelon of enduro mountain-bike racing.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

That is not to say Warner is certain of the path ahead.

“By the time I’m 23, I should know if I’m going to make it,” he said. “But it all hinges on this season.”

The upcoming enduro circuit will test Warner’s abilities against the fastest and most seasoned riders in the nation, take him to the technically challenging slopes of Whistler, British Columbia, and send him hurtling down a French glacier at speeds in excess of 60 mph. The results at the end of the season likely will determine whether he lands a lucrative, long-term contract extension.

If he fails, it certainly won’t be due to lack of commitment. Much like what he does on his bike on a daily basis, he is taking a leap of faith he finds simultaneously daunting and exhilarating.

“It’s like standing at the edge of a pool with your toes in the water versus jumping,” he said softly. “You’ll never know what it feels like until you go all-in.”

Warner and Zidek believe enduro is taking off because it’s similar to what casual riders do with their friends, and the competitions themselves foster more social interaction than downhill and cross-country events. In between timed downhill sections (there are usually five to seven different trails at each event), competing racers often ride back up to the top of the mountain together. Throughout the day, riders will spend several hours on their bikes, racing for about 30 minutes total.

“The average rider, when they go out and ride, they’re essentially doing an enduro,” Zidek said. “They’re not going up the hills that fast, but they’re really pushing themselves on the downhill sections, which is really what enduro is all about.”

“In downhill racing, it’s so serious,” Warner said. “You don’t see anyone all weekend, you don’t talk to anyone. You race for about two and a half minutes and you go home.”

As a team, Warner and Zidek help each other train and market themselves to bike companies. But when it comes to racing they often end up as competitors.

Though he’s always reveled in the simple pleasure of riding his bike, Warner was initially drawn to the trails in Upper Bidwell Park because of the solitude they offered. Beginning in the sixth grade, Warner carried the enormous weight of being “the head of household.” His single mother, Jeanette, “has always been clinically depressed,” Warner explained, but her condition—and consequently, Warner’s life at home—was made worse by his brother’s tragic motocross accident in 2001.

“He had a bad accident where he broke both his legs and wasn’t able to race anymore,” Warner said, and his brother’s ongoing health problems related to the injury “made my mom even more depressed.”

The situation was compounded by his mother’s treatment for hepatitis C (contracted from a bad blood transfusion after giving birth to an older brother in 1979), which is similar to cancer treatment in that the side effects can be debilitating. For a long stretch, Jeanette was “completely wiped out,” Warner said, unable to get out of bed, much less help him deal with the adult responsibilities he assumed as an adolescent.

The stress almost became too much to bear in Warner’s early years at Chico High School. During his freshman year, he found momentary distraction as the second-string quarterback on the football team, but the three-hour practices offered too brief a respite.

“I had to get away as much as I could,” Warner reflected. “I didn’t want to go home.”

Professional mountain-bike racer Kyle Warner hops a group of brave volunteers during the Bike Safety Rodeo at Durham Elementary School on April 28.

Photos by Kyle Delmar

Moore, his best friend, recalled introducing Warner to mountain biking around the time he was playing football. He traded his mountain bike for Warner’s “junker BMX bike.” Riding in Upper Park offered the perfect escape for Warner—he could ride as long as he wanted, which was often long into the night and early morning hours. It was a positive outlet for a teen who “had nothing,” Moore said.

“What was going on was such a bad situation that I could see a lot of kids at that age becoming suicidal,” he said. “He was kind of a lone wolf; there weren’t many people he could call. If Kyle learned a new trick on his bike, he’d call me. He didn’t have anybody else he could really show it to, not even his mom.

“It would have been really easy for him [to go down the wrong path],” Moore continued. “Instead, he said, ‘I’m going to go ride my bike.’ That’s the difference between what could have been and what is, now.”

Warner quit the football team after his freshman season. Though he didn’t know it then, it was the first in a series of moves that would allow him to adopt racing mountain bikes as the central focus of his life.

By all accounts, Warner was a natural from the first time he got on a mountain bike, and his skills improved quickly. As he rode for such long periods of time, he developed exceptional endurance for climbing as well as the bike-handling skills necessary for high-speed descents.

“I was lucky because I was good at it naturally, and I had people pushing me,” Warner said. “I got my first taste of success—I won the first race I entered—and I was like, ‘OK, this is pretty fun.’”

Warner proceeded to excel in the junior circuit, winning 23 of the 27 races he entered and building a reputation in the local mountain-biking community with each victory.

“There’s no one in Chico on his level; he’s just so well-rounded,” said Moore, himself a member of a Greenline Cycles-sponsored mountain-biking team.

Encouraged by his early success, Warner began racing at the professional level at the age of 18. Without sponsorship, he paid his own way into big events. Against the higher level of competition, Warner began to see the need for training outside of riding trails.

In the summer of 2012, he began a weight-training regimen designed by Tyler Newton, an athletic trainer and former professional-basketball player at TNT Athletics in north Chico.

Newton immediately recognized his potential, but saw that he hadn’t yet fully devoted himself to his sport, describing Warner’s mentality as “halfway in, halfway out.” Warner paid for the sessions at first, but as his budget got tight Newton agreed to continue training him pro bono.

“Aside from how good of an athlete he is, the reason I train him and donate my time is because he’s a good person,” Newton said. “He has good character. I don’t worry about him wearing my sticker on his jersey. He represents what we do, embodies that success is earned.”

In August 2012, Warner left Chico to compete in national enduro events, where he met and befriended many of the country’s top riders. It was then that Warner began to believe a long-term career as a professional mountain biker was realistic.

“On that trip, I got to talk to a lot of guys who are already in top positions,” he said. “I saw I could do it; I knew I could because everyone was just an average person. I took that as an opportunity to be more confident in myself, knowing that no one is really extra special—it’s just who puts in the hard work.”

Warner pushes a tire at the TNT Athletics facility in north Chico under the supervision of trainer Tyler Newton.

Photo By Howard Hardee

“[Warner] was trying to find himself,” Newton said. “He got the confidence, showed himself what he could do in these races. One of the best guys in the world told him, ‘You’re a better rider than us right now, and once you get fit, you’re going to be ridiculous.’”

When Warner returned to Chico following the tour and resumed training at TNT, Newton sensed an intensity he hadn’t before; he could see Warner no longer had any trace of tentativeness.

Warner was no longer standing at the edge of the pool. He had gone all-in.

“He was like a man possessed,” Newton said.

“Talent only goes so far,” Warner asserted. “Some people are blessed with a lot of talent; others are blessed with a good work ethic. The people with the work ethic will always over-achieve people with the talent.

“When I came back, I was motivated because I knew I could achieve everything I wanted—I just needed to put in the work.”

Newton, whose career as a professional basketball player took him to Australia, Austria, France and Japan and to the doorstep of the NBA on more than one occasion, has trained hundreds of kids aspiring to become professional athletes. Suffice it to say, Newton knows first-hand what separates good athletes from great ones.

“I’ve been working with kids for a long time,” Newton said. “A lot of times they say they want something, and when I tell them what it’s going to take to get there, they see how hard it is, they don’t really want to do it anymore.”

But Warner is different, Newton insisted.

“He has one of the best—if not the best—work ethic I’ve ever seen in a young man, period.

“The kid’s amazing, man,” he continued. “He can push himself harder than 99 percent of people can. He doesn’t quit. You challenge him, he’ll do it and go further, almost to a fault. I had to have a conversation with him about over-training.”

On top of riding “pretty much every day,” Warner and Zidek, his Young Guns racing partner, meet with Newton three or four times a week for grueling one-hour sessions at TNT to improve core strength, muscular endurance and power.

While most serious mountain bikers have excellent cardiovascular endurance and their muscles specific to biking in the legs and backside are strong, Warner explained, he believes he has a significant edge over his competition by focusing on all-around athleticism through weight training.

“There are a lot of [mountain bikers] who don’t go to the gym and just ride all the time, and they’re strong for riding, but if you asked them to do 10 push-ups, they couldn’t do it,” he said.

Warner gets airborne.

Photo By Simon Cudby

With Warner’s extraordinary drive in the weight room apparent, Newton emphasized to him that if he wants to establish himself on the national enduro scene he must maintain focus when their training sessions are over—he has to keep his goal in mind when making seemingly trivial decisions in day-to-day life.

“If you want to do something special, you have to act special,” Newton said. “You have to get in the gym every day; you can’t go party. You have to sacrifice time with girlfriends, time with family. You’ve got to train.

“There are a million kids out there who ride bikes—what separates you from everybody else?”

In 2012, there were only two enduro racing series in the nation. This year, there are more than a half-dozen major events based mostly on the West Coast, with more in Colorado and one on the East Coast. Additionally, 2013 is the first year of the seven-event Enduro World Series, in which the Young Guns will compete in Whistler, B.C., and Winter Park, Colo.

For Warner, another season highlight will include the Megavalanche in France, which he described as a “500-person mass-start race, all going down this glacier. You hit 60 mph on the glacier, and then it all funnels into a single track.”

Since this is the first year of the world tour, Warner believes the Young Guns have a unique opportunity to establish themselves.

“No one knows who’s the fastest in the world right now because it’s so new, but at the end of this season we will,” Warner said.

All of the top riders on the enduro circuit are in their late 20s and early 30s, Warner said, suggesting he could race competitively for the next 20 years if all goes according to plan. It’s that longevity that bike companies like Felt find appealing, Warner explained. By signing a marketable young rider like Warner early on, they could develop him as the long-term face of the franchise.

“I have a couple friends who make $100,000 a year, which is more than you could ask for riding your bike,” Warner said. “It’s just hard to get up to that level, but when you do, you become an ambassador and you stay with that company for the rest of your life.”

Moore and Zidek have seen Warner’s exceptional ability and desire first-hand, and both offered a similar sentiment—a certain amount of good fortune will be necessary if he is to crack the upper echelon of enduro racing.

“I’ve seen the way he trains. I’ve seen the way he rides his bike,” Moore said. “He can [make it]; he just needs to catch a break. Someday there will be somebody standing at the finish line and saying, ‘Wow, that kid’s really fast.’”

“He’s extremely talented, but it really just comes down to the results at the end of the season,” Zidek said. “That’s my honest take on his chances—you have to look at the results.”

Newton added that Warner’s dedication has undoubtedly increased his chances of big-time success.

“I think it’s his time,” Newton said. “I wouldn’t say he deserves anything if he wasn’t earning it, because he is.”

Warner realizes those close to him envision big things for the season and his mountain-biking career beyond, but his own expectations will be the most difficult to live up to.

“I just don’t want to be wasted talent,” he said. “It’s scary to just go for it and chase your dream.”