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Introducing: Makayla MacPherson

American Makayla MacPherson was 32nd in the women's junior time trial and fifth in the junior road race in 2021 UCI Road Worlds in Flanders
American Makayla MacPherson was 32nd in the women's junior time trial and fifth in the junior road race in 2021 UCI Road Worlds in Flanders (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Makayla MacPherson is one of two up-and-coming teenagers signed by Human Powered Health for the next two seasons. This past year as a member of the amateur LUX Cycling development squad and USA Cycling’s junior women’s national team, MacPherson checked off a huge number of boxes on the ‘to do’ list before her 19th birthday – a US Junior road race title, two wins in European stage races, several podiums in elite women’s criterium events, and a first semester at college. Turning 19 in mid September, she then went on to finish fifth in U23 Road Race World Championships in Flanders, won a US elite track title and signed a two-year contract to race professionally in the top-tier of cycling. 

Cyclingnews spoke with the young Californian who has now extended her roots in Tennessee at Milligan University and will soon set up shop in Spain with Human Powered Health, which has submitted an application for a Women’s WorldTour licence for 2022 and 2023. 

She spoke about falling in love with the bicycle at age seven on the track, learning from a luminary like Coryn Labecki (née Rivera), and achieving success so people “know who I am when I race”.

Cyclingnews: You are only 19 years old and yet you have accomplished a lot so far in road cycling and on the track. How did you get started?

Makayla MacPherson: I started out on the track, actually, when I was seven. My dad wanted me to start out there because it put his mind at ease that I was not riding on the road with a bunch of cars around me. The worst thing is that maybe I crash and get scraped a little. But I was always an outdoor kid and I was already scraping my knees from time to time. Slowly he took me out onto the road, and I fell in love with that. First, it was strictly on the river trail. Not too exciting, but eventually I needed to go out and explore. I can’t keep riding the same one road. 

CN: Fast forward 12 years and you have just made a big move from racing as a junior with Lux/Sideshow p/b Specialized to signing a pro contract to race for Human Powered Health. Tell us about your last year on the development team and preparing to jump to elites.

MM:  It is definitely a huge step. I’m super excited to make that step. It was so late in the year, I think, and it happened so fast I didn’t know that I was going to make that jump. I had resigned myself to stay with Lux for a couple of years, maybe taking it slower. But I’m really excited that Lux was able to take me over to Europe and then I was able to showcase some of my talents on a bigger scale, because obviously it’s kind of hard to do that over here [US] with just the crit racing and crit scene. Because of COVID, everything was pushed back so late that I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t be able to showcase my talents over in Europe and I am super excited that I was able to. Now that I am able to grow with some of my mentors. I’m so excited for that! 

CN: It was a big year for you in 2021 at US national championships, where you won the stars-and-stripes jersey in the women’s junior (17-18) road race, and took silver in junior time trial and bronze in the junior criterium. How exciting was that?

MM: I was really proud of myself. It shows that I am representing my country and it was something that I worked for and the stepping stone of what I wanted. First, I won the national championship and I get to represent the United States and I’m going over to Europe they’ll all know who I am right when I put that on. I see the national championship as having some respect for that person. And being able to win in that jersey, I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s just something else! It’s just something to be proud of. 

CN: Your summer programme was mainly criterium racing in the US. Across 22 days of racing on the road, you had 18 podiums, including third place finishes at USA Cycling Pro Road Tour events Armed Forces Cycling Classic, Tulsa Tough, and a top five in the elite category of Into the Lion’s Den. What were your highlights from the crit races you did?

MM: I think the crit racing that I did was pretty significant in the sense that I was sprinting against people like Skylar Schneider [L39ION of  Los Angeles] and Olivia Ray [Rally Cycling] and Kendall Ryan [L39ION of Los Angeles], which are people I grew up watching. I thought it was really cool that now I am racing against them, and getting podiums with them which was super amazing. I think that all that racing, and all that racing with my team, was really beneficial for me because it taught us how to work together. The constant racing was just huge in that it teaches how to race. Crit racing, that bumping of elbows and going as hard as you can for an hour, was basically training me for the races I did in Europe. Those races are a little different, but it’s still the same thing in that I am bumping elbows, going fast through corners, so it taught me a lot. Lux made sure we got as much racing as we could to get ready for Europe. 

CN: You got an “atta girl” on social media from US Olympian Coryn Labecki, who has more than 70 national titles, after landing on the podium the second day at Armed Forces alongside Maggie Coles-Lyster (DNA Pro Cycling) and Kendall Ryan, beating Skylar Schneider in the sprint for third. What was that like to receive a message from her?

MM: I can tell you that when I saw the notification on my phone, I definitely jumped up a bit. She noticed! She lives in California and I have ridden with her numerous times. She’s always an amazing person to talk to, to ask advice. She’s one of the biggest women’s cyclists that are making it in Europe, so I’m still a little bit in awe. I look up to her as a mentor. Seeing her congratulate me is like ‘wow’, someone I look up to saying I have done a good job. She’s always super, super chill to talk to, super relatable in the sense that she’s been through it as a junior. She knows what I’ve been going through. 

She helped us with some course recon on the Worlds course [Flanders] with the USA Cycling team. I picked her brain about it and it was super helpful. She even wanted to help, ‘OK, ask away.’ She also said that no matter what, I can always call her when we are over in Europe because she knows that sometimes it can get a little hard. So, she’s one of the best people I know to ask advice.

CN: You made it to Europe for two stage races with LUX and then with Team USA at the World Championships. Tell us how you almost didn’t make the trip.

MM: Going over there was an insane process for me, getting over to Europe was so stressful. My passport almost didn’t allow me to go because it was about to expire in three months, and I didn’t know there had to be a certain amount of time before it expires. Because I was going to the Netherlands, it had to be six months [before the expiration date]. So I flew to Atlanta, my dad had to fly from California since I was only 17 to get an emergency passport. 

I flew to the embassy in Atlanta and my dad met me in Atlanta. Luckily I had a sob story about how I needed to get to Europe to race the World Championships, ‘please let me’. I was supposed to have an appointment to get into the embassy [in Atlanta] and I didn’t, I just showed up! So luckily, by the grace of God, they let me in and in two hours I had a passport and that night I was on a plane to Europe.

CN: Your trip overseas with LUX was your first time racing in Europe. You won a stage at Watersley Ladies Challenge in the Netherlands, and finished second overall in the three-day race, then followed with a criterium win on stage 5 at Rás na mBan in Kilkenny, Ireland. Talk about those races leading up to Worlds.

MM: Luckily, Lux wanted us to have some experience racing in Europe before racing the World Championships. Roy [Knickman, team manager] is one of the best people working with juniors. I got there the day before my race. I hadn’t been on my bike since I was flying from Atlanta to Europe. But I came over here to race my bike and that’s what I am going to do. I’m going to leave everything I have out there and I won the very first road race that I did. It just kind of showed ‘wow, I can do this. I can race in Europe.’ I just raced my heart out. I put everything into it. I just love riding my bike.

I was so grateful for that, so grateful that I got to race Watersley. It’s one of the hardest races. A lot of the roads are so tiny and it’s pretty aggressive racing, with the field and the roads, which are like bike paths. You’ve got to get used to bumping elbows and making sure you are at the front, trying to dodge crashes and everything. So I think it really helped me when it came time for Worlds, because I was used to all of that. I wasn’t so nervous at the World Championships. It was the biggest race to this point in my career. They made a huge effort to get us over there. 

CN: You finished fifth overall in the women's junior road race and 32nd in the junior time trial at Worlds, and your US teammate Kaia Schmid won the silver medal in the road race. Did this surpass your personal expectations?

MM: I don’t know if I would say it surpassed my expectations, because I went there to win. But I’m super proud of the result, in the sense that I worked so hard all year for this and I left everything out there. Fifth place is what I could do and I was proud of that result. Being fifth in the world is not an easy thing to do [laughing]. My teammate Kaia Schmid, she was second, which I was super proud of. I was just cheering for her in the pack while she was off in the front, knowing that coming into the sprint she’d have a good shot. As I crossed that finish line I was like ‘who won? I need to know.’  I’m super proud of her, super proud of what we did. I am so glad that not only was she my teammate on USA Cycling but she’s my teammate from Lux, and now also on Human Powered Health.

CN: Schmid was a teammate of yours at LUX and with Team USA. How excited were you to know she’d continue as a teammate for the next two years with Human Powered Health?

MM: I had signed with Rally first. I knew that she was considering Human Powered Health and I was just saying ‘come on, come on, we can be teammates again’. I was a little sad that COVID happened and we were not able to do as much racing as we were supposed to with LUX, so this would give us a chance to race together more. And also just have that familiar base. Making the move over to Europe, I think we both wanted that. We’re going to room together which I think is going to be so fun. Kaia and I are about to sign a lease on an apartment. 

And also, having someone who is also obviously young going to a WorldTour team [Human Powered Health application in process]. The fact that we have that together to bond over and be the ‘little kids’ on the team, maybe a little bit scared, but we are super excited.  

CN: It will be your first time living overseas. Do you have any concerns about a new language or continuing your college degree in nursing at Milligan University?

MM: Human Powered Health realises we [Schmid and herself] are both young and that we’ll probably have to come home a little bit more often than maybe some of the older riders. And they are adamant about both of us staying in school, which I think is amazing. 

When I learned that I would be moving to Spain, I wanted to stay in school. I want to do both. Maybe not to the extent I was doing it, but still further my academic career. One of the things they [the team] said was that cycling is hugely important, but it’s not everything. Sometimes you need a little balance in your life, to focus on something other than cycling – ‘cycling, eat, sleep, repeat’. Something else to occupy your brain. Luckily, COVID helped in the sense that Milligan had moved all their stuff online, so there are classes I can take online.

I am limited but I know some Spanish. I want to get better and that is something I look to start aggressively so when I get there I can hold a basic conversation. My mom was actually from Nicaragua so her first language was Spanish. She moved here [US] when she was very, very young. My grandma spoke Spanish, she lived with us the first 15 years of my life. So I’ve always been around that [language].

CN: So rather than take some time off from cycling after finishing in the top five of the Into the Lion’s Den in California in October, you were back on the track in mid-November in Detroit, Michigan. You won the elite women’s USA Cycling Madison Track title with Chloe Patrick on November 12. How did that happen?

MM: It was a spur of the moment decision. They reached out to me because they were having trouble getting some women out there. I thought, how can they have all these men out and not showcase women from across the country? I was super glad I did. The people at the Lexus Velodrome were so amazing. The atmosphere was awesome, it was like a little party on the infield. 

CN: Looking ahead to 2022, what is your biggest goal for the next step in your career?

MM: I cannot stop thinking about racing the women’s Tour [de France Femmes]. The fact that there is now a women’s Tour is so amazing to me because I always watched the Tour de France, but I always wanted a Tour de France for women. That is the one that I am most excited for. It’s such a huge step for women. I’m hoping that the Tour is on my schedule, we’ll see. Obviously I don’t know my schedule yet for next year. The team is amazing in that they want to work with each athlete and put them in the best races possible for them. I think it would be one of my proudest moments to make that Tour team and be able to go down in history as one of the first people to do it. That would be amazing.

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Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling for people of all abilities and ages. Tyson has been recognized for communications excellence with 10 Phoenix Awards, presented by the Georgia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp - and was recognized by a national media outlet as the first female depicted in a pro baseball card set (Ft. Myers Royals). She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times. Her favorite road rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in  Provence (France). Her favorite mountain bike rides are in Park City, Utah (USA).