On any given summer morning in Queenstown, New Zealand, before the sun rises and before the town stirs to life, something big is astir. Try as he might to be quiet, big people have big feet and accidental stomping is inevitable. Kelly McGarry is a morning person and his energy is infections. In fact, he’s so raring to go before most people would even consider waking up, that he’s probably the one responsible for reaching over the backside of the mountains and lifting up the sun each day.
McGazza (pronounced with a short “a”, like “McGarry”) is mountain biking’s version of the Big Friendly Giant. At 6’5” he’s easily a head taller than most other guys on the circuit. But with his big height comes a big heart and Kelly is easily one of the nicest, most down to earth guys you will ever come across on two wheels. His wild, blond hair hangs around him like some sort of sunny aura. His megawatt smile and goofy demeanor are always on display whether he’s chatting up strangers on the chairlift, or eagerly anticipating his seventh espresso of the morning.
Though Kelly may be one of the most recognizable figures in mountain biking today, he never really had intention of becoming a pro rider. Growing up in Queenstown, his first bike was adorned with streamers and served as his main mode of transportation for primary school. Like most kids, he goofed around on BMX bikes with his buddies and brother, but never really thought beyond riding the local jump spot. As Kelly’s body got bigger, relying on a BMX became impractical and he made the jump to mountain bikes.
While Kelly always had a knack for riding bikes with the boys, he was raised to explore life beyond the confines of his hometown and would go out of his way to travel to unique places and experience different cultures. Following completion of a five-year carpentry apprenticeship, Kelly spent six months building houses with his father in Fiji, and fell in love with surfing in warm water. Subsequent trips to Central America and Mexico keep him pining for more adventures to coastal areas, but as alluring as the waves and water can be, Kelly always returned to bikes.
Like most people who fall in love with our sport, Kelly dreamed of riding the famed trails of Whistler Bike Park, and in 2006 he made the pilgrimage half way around the world on the quest for an endless summer. At that time the Crankworx slopestyle was an open, so anyone could enter the qualification round. He signed up on a whim, surprised pretty much everyone by qualifying for finals, and wound up placing a very respectable 18th. Companies took note of Kelly’s signature big mountain style, his excitable personality, his unique look and the rest is pretty much history. He’s been chasing summer ever since and currently holds the streak for the most consecutive appearances at the Crankworx slopestyle event at nine years running.
Kelly’s luck with Crankworx hasn’t always translated over to his other major event: Red Bull Rampage. A 2010 crash on the Icon Sender kept him out of finals. In 2012 Kelly injured his leg in practice and had to sit out the entire competition. But in 2013, everything changed. That iteration of Red Bull Rampage went down in history for a few reasons. The injuries were severe. The weather was intense and ultimately unruly enough for the event to be cut short. But, before Ma Nature had a chance to crash the party, Kelly was able to solidify himself as a bonafide bad ass.
Eyeing the infamous Canyon Gap on his first day in Virgin, he knew right away that he wanted to try to flip the jump. The sheer size of the gap was enough to scare off a number of the riders. Factor in the actual “canyon” part; the potential consequences, and the overall idea of flipping the 73 footer were downright mental. Kelly’s build crew, headed by his girlfriend Sam Hitchcock, ensured that he had the best possible line heading into the massive jump. In his first of several straight-air attempts Kelly cased the landing, so Sam and crew went up to chisel away the dirt to make the line a bit steeper. It turned out perfectly. “It was much smoother than in previous years. I just hit it and while I was upside down thought ‘just chill and bring ‘er in for a landing.’” Needless to say it elevated Kelly’s status in the bike world to a new level. The GoPro footage of his run has surpassed 21 million views in under a year.
Kelly’s rise to the top of his game has most definitely not gotten to his head, though he half-jokingly wishes it would. Laughing, Kelly says, “Yeah I think I could represent a hair care sponsor pretty well. I have to condition every day!” (Hint, hint, Paul Mitchell.). And, why wouldn’t brands want to work with a guy like Kelly? Jon Kennedy, team manager for Team Diamondback has worked with him for almost five years now. “Kelly is pro on so many levels. He’s very relaxed and easy going and at the same time, will drive harder than anyone during a photo or video shoot,” Kennedy says. While working with Kelly always nets great contest results or media nuggets, there is one major drawback. Jokes Kennedy, “Ask Kelly about Jaba… his traveling parts bag that is literally the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This seems to live at every place he stays for a minimum of three weeks after he leaves. It’s like the slow trailing mess of Kelly’s life.”
In spite of Jaba, the rest of Kelly’s life is pretty tidy. He’s 32 years old and at the top of his game. He’s still getting magazine covers. He’s making people laugh and showing that you don’t have to take everything in mountain biking so seriously. He’s going bigger and bigger. There isn’t a bad thing you can say about the guy. This is who up and coming kids should aspire to be. The Big Friendly Giant is the roll model that mountain biking didn’t know it needed, but should be grateful to have.