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By Karen Kefauver
August 19, 2011
Link to Sentinel article

In a few weeks, Kiran MacKinnon will compete in the biggest three-minute race of his life.
Mountain Biker Kiran MacKinnon

MacKinnon will be at the start line Sept. 4 for his one shot to win the downhill mountain bike race at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Champéry, Switzerland, held Aug. 29 Sept 4.

One of only seven athletes in the nation selected to compete for the United States in the junior downhill division, MacKinnon, 18, is proud to represent Santa Cruz County in the sport he loves. He also acknowledges a huge challenge lies ahead.

“The world championships is the mountain biking equivalent of the Olympics,” said MacKinnon, a recent Soquel High graduate and an Aromas resident. “I have never raced at this level before. There’s going to be 120 kids in my category. Each country selects only a few of its best riders to represent them.”

At GRT, considered one of the most prestigious tours in North America and overseen by USA Cycling, MacKinnon won a race at Highland Bike Park in New Hampshire and finished strong in others on the circuit.

“He’s the first junior from our area to be selected for the world mountain bike championships in downhill,” said Alison Markiewicz,
MacKinnon’s mother.

MacKinnon has worked hard but is modest about his success, especially considering he only started downhill mountain biking in earnest during his sophomore year at Soquel High.

He credits his childhood babysitter, Nick Simpson, a former Santa Cruz resident who now works at Trailhead Cyclery in Los Gatos, with introducing him to the sport.

And he said his two years racing shifter karts helped him, especially in picking a good line to follow.

“I wanted to be a professional race car driver,” he said. “Whatever I am doing, I pay attention to detail. I put my mind to something and I want to do it well. I focus 100 percent on it and try to be the best at it.”

This year’s course in Switzerland is notoriously steep – and therefore fast.

MacKinnon and the other racers have an idea of what they are in for because the course was also used at a World Cup race in 2010.

“Usually going fast is fun,” said MacKinnon, who rides a Santa Cruz Carbon V10. “At some races, I get up to speeds of 45 or 50 mph, depending on the track. Some are slower and some faster. Typically, the time it takes from top to bottom on a downhill race track ranges from two minutes to four or five minutes.”

Going that fast with just a helmet, a neck brace and some knee pads for protection can lead to some nasty spills – as MacKinnon can attest. At last year’s nationals he took a massive fall he said could have left him in a wheelchair if not for his armor. Instead, it allowed him to add his back to the list of body parts he has broken while mountain biking, which also includes his collarbone and hand.

With so much on the line and just one chance to attain it – downhill competitors get a single run – the pressure to push the pace and take risks is even greater than normal at the world championships. MacKinnon doesn’t seem concerned.

“I tell myself that I am the only one putting pressure on myself and that pressure will make me perform worse, so I don’t pressure myself,” he said. “I plan to go out and have as much fun as possible.”

The key for him is to let his natural talent take the lead.

“During some of my better performances, I wasn’t thinking at all,” he said. “I just kind of go into a zone. There are people screaming on the side of track and I don’t hear them.

I go into a place were I am so concentrated nothing else enters my head.”

For spectators like Markiewicz, however, the race experience can be more harrowing. She traveled with her son this spring and summer to races in New Hampshire, New York and Colorado, among others. She will also be in Switzerland, along with his dad, Doug MacKinnon, and his older brother Miles. Yet she still can’t bring herself to watch him tackle the treacherous parts of the downhill courses. “This sport is scary for me,” said Markiewicz. “As a spectator, you can hike the course. There are these 20-foot drops that they jump off, and they ride their bikes through lots of rocks and hairpin turns at high speed. I never look at the race course, ever! I just stay at the bottom and am always relieved when he gets to the bottom.

“There are a few moms out there at the races who handle it the same way,” she added with a laugh. “I just wait at the finish line.”

MacKinnon’s dad, Doug, added, “I’m happy when he finishes the race. I can start breathing more freely.”

One thing MacKinnon and his parents don’t focus on is that he was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 8 years old.

“I’m a Type 1 diabetic, insulin dependent,” he wrote in an email after he was asked about being a diabetic.

“I check my blood and give medicine accordingly. I don’t think it’s made anything a whole lot harder. Being a diabetic rewards healthy eating, and that’s good for athletes anyway. I work hard at controlling it. If controlled, it does not affect my performance.”

Dr. Warren Scott, a sports medicine specialist in Soquel and a family friend who has been coaching MacKinnon and has helped monitored him medically, is impressed.

“Kiran did what he said: He made it to the world championships in Switzerland,” Scott said.

“He is all-natural talent. He trained hard, raced hard, and finished 1-2-3 in nearly all his races.”

Staring down some of the best up-and-coming mountain bikers on the planet, MacKinnon has set his goals a little lower than that for the world championships.

“I think top 20 would be really good,” he said. “That’s what I am hoping for.”

MacKinnon prepared for the season by training at Rocky’s Gym on 41st Avenue, taking spin classes and lifting weights. His practice fields were the cross country rides or downhill trails in Santa Cruz, Whistler or Northstar at Tahoe. He also works odd jobs at Santa Cruz Bicycles, one of his main sponsors along with E*Thirteen components, Troy Lee Design and Maxxis Tires.

Despite the sponsorship, MacKinnon is not officially on a bike team.

“It’s tough getting on a legit team. There are only one or two really good national teams I would like to be on,” he said.

MacKinnon is headed to Cabrillo College as soon as he gets back from Switzerland [classes begin Aug. 29] with an eye toward a career in the cycling industry. Until then, MacKinnon is fully focused on his upcoming world championship.

“I’m excited for Kiran,” said his dad, Doug MacKinnon. “This has been a dream of his for a couple years. It should be a fun two weeks. I have faith in him, his ability.”

Karen Kefauver, www.karenkefauver.com, is a freelance sports and travel journalist based in Santa Cruz. She blogs about cycling for the Sentinel at www.santacruzlive.com/blogs/outside.

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