Nate Kanney: Life after the Red Bull & KTM

Retired off-roader Nate Kanney on life after the Red Bull KTM Factory Off-road Racing Team
Nathan Kanney © WMR Competition Performance
By Jerry Bernardo

Nathan Kanney was living the dream of every young and hungry off-roader: The kid from New York state had earned a factory ride, notched some big wins and was competing against some of the best riders in the world.

In his heart, Kanney knew that the big money was in supercross, but having grown up racing in the nasty, rock-strewn woods of New England, he just couldn’t peel himself away from his life-long goal: an off-road championship.

The former Team USA International Six Days Enduro (ISDE) World Trophy team racer knew the clock was ticking, and when the money he was earning began to thin out, he had to recalculate what he wanted out of his life. Sure, a factory big rig and fistful of KTM300-XC power will tide you over for a while, but your landlord doesn’t give two shits about who wins the last GNCC.

However, after eight years on the pro circuit one of the finest off-roaders has called it quits. “Nate Dog” bowed out gracefully with a decent résumé and turned his love of off-road racing to a similar but slightly quieter genre: competitive bicycle racing. [Nate now spends his days at work managing Bikeway Bicycles in upstate New York]

Today, still smiling and fit as hell, Nate Kanney looks back on the single-track path to a happier life.

Victory on hometown soil
“Of the five GNCC wins I accumulated during my career, the one that stands out the most has to be my first win at Unadilla. I only won that round of the GNCCs once, although it seems like I should have more wins there,” Kanney recalls. (He finished a close second three other times.) “The year that I did win at Unadilla, the 13-time World Enduro Champion Juha Salminen was there so that gives it a bit more credibility. All of my family and friends came to watch me race at the ‘Dilla, and they all wanted to see me win. I truly don’t know how many of them thought that I could.

“To have my first GNCC win there--with them, on my home track--was unreal. At the time I was [a complete privateer] racing a Yamaha YZ250, and I remember that it was a really wet and slippery course. The conditions that day were treacherous as hell. With each lap that went by, it seemed that there would be one less pro running up in front.

“Back in the early days at Unadilla, the dirt there was really good and loamy. It was a typical upstate New York wet weekend so the ground was really soft and the ruts out on the track were insane.

“When the three-hour race boiled down to the last two laps, it was just Juha (the enduro god) and me (the American privateer) left up in front. Juha made a big mistake in a bad place and crashed. He landed face first in a huge puddle and got up soaking wet. At that point I made a run for it and got to the finish before he could try to reel me in and catch me.”
Nate smile as he reflects, “Winning that day was the pinnacle of my entire life! Taking those checkers was a feeling I’ll probably never get to replicate again.”

Nathan Kanney © Andrew Franciaosa

Red Bull Last Man Standing
“In 2006 after winning Unadilla [and before moving to Italy to race with Husqvarna for a year] I raced the first Last Man Standing hard enduro in Texas where I finished second behind David Knight. Red Bull had laid out some really tough stuff for us. All of the spectator points that were close to the pits were just that: a spectacle. At all of those spots there was a very impressive obstacle--either a big uphill or a treacherous downhill. The areas they chose were big enough to fit all the fans and lights and TV cameras. Unfortunately, back out on the rest of the course things got even worse. We were constantly faced with tight ravines and canyons that were steep, as well. For me, as a rider, they were even more impressive than the spectator locations.

“In those spots there was no space, nowhere to get creative with your line choice. It all boiled down to technique and riding ability. Out there on those two 40-mile loops, if you couldn’t make it up a hill you were screwed because you were stuck in a ravine.

“At that time I was a good enough rider to do everything on the course by myself whereas everybody behind me had already resorted to riding as a team or doing the chain gang and helping other riders out.”

Nathan Kanney © KTM

No gold watch, just some muddy crutches
“At the beginning of the 2012 season, I knew there was a 90% chance it would be my last and I eventually decided to retire from racing. I could have probably still made a living as a pro, but the money I was earning was shrinking each year,” Kanney confides. “There seemed to be less and less interest from the manufacturers in the sport. They were all pulling back support--not putting it in.

“In retrospect, it was impossible for me to take the risk needed anymore. I couldn't ride with the heart and the speed I used to, because the idea of having a career-ending injury was terrifying. I had one really big crash in 2010 and that ended up being my last race on a factory KTM. I knew that I was still young enough to be good at other things. I did all the math and I decided [racing professionally] was not going to be a good career path so I called it quits--reluctantly of course--as that meant I had not achieved my goal of winning a national title.”


Pedal Power
“I retired from racing motorcycles at 29 years old, and now I race bicycles. I compete in cross-country, road racing, cyclocross and also in enduros. I always mix it up--I do a little bit of everything. You know that saying, ‘When racing is in your blood’?

“People sometimes ask me how does bicycle racing compare to off-road motorcycle competition. A cross-country mountain bike race [in my opinion] is almost exactly the same as a hare scramble. The action, the strategy, everything seems to be the same. Once you have done it and you get to the same level, it’s hardly any different. I compete at an Expert/Pro level regionally now, at that level I get the same excitement as I got in off-road racing.

Pharrell says Nate is happy
“I’m about to turn 32 years old and I’m surprisingly happy, although happiness did not come so quickly when I was done racing. At first it was hard to accept and move on. In the beginning all I could think about was that had I retired before I won a championship.

“After a while I started to look at the wins that I had and all of the experiences during my career. I think I made the right choice; I’m back up here in northern New York living on a mountain with some of the best training spots you could ask for right in my back yard.

“Life is good.”

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