Billed as America’s Toughest Stage Race, after taking a hiatus in 2007, the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah is back in 2008, bigger than ever. From August 13 until August 17, the 17 teams will be challenged by the 5-day, 5-stage, 336 mile race with 30,000 feet of climbing will all take place within a 100-mile radius, encompassing Salt Lake City, Nephi and Ogden.
Who best to describe the course than The Ninja – Bissell team leader and Salt Lake City resident Burke Swindlehurst who finished fourth overall in 2006? I chatted with Burke last week during his final preparation for the Tour of Utah.
We talked way back in February, just before the Tour of California, where you had basically just joined the Bissell team, and we talked about your goals for the year – which were “help the team get results” and “personally, Gila, Hood, Cascade and Utah”. You finished second at Gila, and Ben Jacques-Maynes finished 3rd at Hood. How satisfied are you with your year so far?
Burke: I’m actually very satisfied so far, it’s been better than I expected so far actually. I had a couple of races where I wanted to do well where things didn’t work out but it was more of … just how racing pans out more than not being prepared or not having form. Obviously the podium at Redlands was a really nice unexpected surprise, I usually don’t have super good form that early in the season, so that was nice. And then, Gila, pretty much went according to plan but there was just one little Columbian guy that kind of got in the way of things (laughs) but overall, I’m pretty happy with it.
Did your form at Redlands come about with your early preparation for Tour of California?
Burke: Yeah Tour of California was um I knew that was going to be a rough go for me especially given the weather we’d been having in Utah and the limited amount of training that I was able to do. Actually, you know I exceeded my own expectations there, it was ultimately the cold on that one stage that did me in and I got hypothermic, essentially just felt like I was going to crash at some point. I was so cold and that was really disappointing to have to abandon the race but at the same time, up to that point I had been riding above my expectations there too.
Tell me about the team now that you’ve coming to the end of the season.
Burke: The team is great, I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve told the guys this year, I’ve never been on a team where so many riders on a team have been able to have a taste of success. Usually you’re on a team and there’s always one or two go-to guys and the guys on the team end up rallying around those guys and working for that handful of riders but this year, it’s almost everybody on the team has gotten on a podium on an NRC race or won one so it’s been really cool.
You’ve played both roles this year, leader and domestique. Do you approach a race differently for each role?
Burke: Yeah, I do. There are certainly some races where I know that it’s not ideally suited to me and I’m more than happy to work for somebody else on the team. We got to Mt Hood, which was a race I initially planned to do well at, and we got there and Ben said ‘hey I’ve got the legs, I can win this thing’. All it takes is for somebody – especially somebody who can back it up and has backed it up like Ben – to tell me that he can win the race and I’m going to get behind him. That’s been fun to have some guys on the team like that, to know that I can work for them, they’re going come through with the goods or they’re going to die trying.
We also talked about maybe having a role as a mentor – did that pan out this year?
Burke: I think so. I didn’t really feel that I’ve gone out of my way to be a mentor and take on that role, I think it’s kind of happened to an extent, just based on some of the nicknames the guys have given me on the team are kind of mentor-type nickname…
What’s the nickname?
Burke: They’ve taken to calling me ‘the ninja’ for some reason. I think… hopefully there are guys in the team that have been able to learn from me a little bit and I hope I’ve been able to do that, that’s definitely one of my goals, and it’s certainly enjoyable to help guys realize their potential and kind of pass down what I know whether it’s given them confidence in a race or giving them insight into how a particular race might play out, those various kind of scenarios, it’s definitely been very fulfilling and rewarding so far.
Moving to the Tour of Utah. What was your involvement with the race? You were listed as technical director for a bit.
Burke: Yeah, I think that’s kind of a misstep in wording initially. I’m definitely involved with the race but I wouldn’t call myself the technical director by any stretch of the imagination. that goes to Chad Sperry who is also behind Cascade and Mt Hood. I’m more of a technical advisor, I guess you would say, basically I’ve been involved with the race since 2005 in one capacity or another, and most of it has been in relation to getting teams to come to the race and using my contacts to make sure that we get the top field here. I know directors and I know riders and I’m kind of that end of things, calling them up and getting them excited about the race and making sure that everything is working for them. It’s one of the things… some teams don’t have enough of a squad to be able to send a full team here so we also created an elite composite team so guys from Colavita [Sutter Home] and some elite amateurs were able to come and race as part of a team because that’s the structure of the Tour of Utah that’s it’s an only a team entry race. And so that was part of my doing, saying hey we need to provide an opportunity for guys like Anthony Colby for instance, Colavita couldn’t send a full squad but it’s definitely a race that Anthony wants to do, so we’ve made that happen.
Let’s look at the stages. Starting with the 101-miles stage 1, described as a flat to rolling course that starts and ends in Nephi.
Burke: That’s actually going to be a beautiful stage, it incorporates a road that we have used in the last several years here locally for a road race that happens in the end of the season. Basically it just goes out to rural farm country, kind of in Central Utah, the roads are nice, it’s going to be windy and it’s going to be hot. It’s going to challenging for sure, it’s not a walk in the park at all. I think it kind of showcases a side of Utah that people are not really aware of which is just the rural farm lands. I personally think it’s a gorgeous area so I’m really happy to see the race incorporate more of a rural side to it at least for one stage.
Next is the 85-mile stage 2 with 4 climbs starting in Ogden and ending in Salt Lake City.
Burke: That stage is going to be the one that has everybody talking after the race. The obvious stage, the road race on Saturday is not the exactly same as it was [before], it’s actually going to be a little longer and include more climbing than last time but everybody kind of knows that stage as the Queen Stage of the Tour but this stage 2 has got a lot of climbing, very difficult climbs and I think it’s going to catch some people off guard with its difficulty. I think a lot of people are looking at it and thinking like yeah that’s going to be stage where maybe the race isn’t won and it can be lost. After riding and training on it, it’s perhaps a stage where the race can be won as well.
The first climb looks steep and is quite early in the stage.
Burke: Yeah, it’s quite steep and I think people will lose their minds when we roll into this thing and see it. All the locals know it, we used to have a race that went up it probably 10 years ago, it’s a notorious climb. I would guess it averages between 10 and 12 percent [grade] and that’s probably, I’m guessing it’s going to take us about 20 minutes, it’s no joke. And the rest of the stage rolls through a beautiful, they call it the Wasatch Back , the backside of the Wasatch mountains, it will have a lot of rollers, it’s also going to be hot, probably windy. And there are still some substantial climbs in there especially the second to last climb before the finish, that’s almost a half hour worth of climbing.
This stage also climbs to almost 7500 feet. So how much will altitude play a role in the race?
Burke: I think it’s going to be a definite factor. If the guys are not acclimated, they’re really going to suffer particularly on stage 4 where with altitude if you’re not acclimated it usually catches up with you on the second or third day. Day 4 has the most substantial and the highest climbs. I think it’s definitely going to play a factor.
The third stage is the downtown criterium in Salt Lake City. And that brings us to the 99-mile stage 4, with a total of 4 climbs starting in Park City to a mountain top finish at Snow Bird.
Burke: I think that’s probably going to be the toughest stage in any US stage race this year as far as climbing goes. The terrain is absolutely beautiful, the closest thing to an alpine climb, something that’s close to the Tour de France that you are going to find in the US. Especially the big climb in the middle that goes over the Alpine loop, it has a lot of switchbacks and it goes up through the aspens. It’s pretty epic. Last time, we did the race, it was a little shorter, I think it was around 80 miles and we’ve gone ahead and added an additional 20 miles and probably another 2000 feet of climbing to it, it’s going to make it … whoever is top, the first person to cross the line will likely be the winner of the Tour of Utah. It’s won or lost on stage 4.
And the last stage is the 12-mile out and back time trial in Tooele.
Burke: The time trial is going to be interesting, I’m going out to the course tomorrow [Friday 08/08] because it starts and finishes on the Miller Motorsports Park racetrack so there’s definitely going to be some technical, there are some corners and stuff in there, that will lend itself to a rider that can handle his bike. So you definitely have some flat out time trialing when you get on the straight section but I think being able to handle your time trial bike through those corners is going to be… you could probably lose everything a good TTer makes up in just the flatout section could perhaps be given up when they hit the finishing circuit if they make any missteps through the corners so. I’m definitely going to have a look on those corners tomorrow. I think, we finished a stage there on a track and I think it may be using the same track, if it is there definitely places on that track that you are not going to be able in your aerobars, you’re going to have to come out of them to take the corners.
Which team & riders are the ones to watch?
Burke: I think the team to beat is going to be Rock Racing. They’ve got some pretty seriously talented riders on that team and riders that will do on a course like this. I think [Oscar] Sevilla is the guy to watch, if I had to pick one guy, it would have to be Sevilla. And obviously Tyler [Hamilton] looks like he’s gotten some form back too after Qinghai Lake. Aside from that, I’m not sure what Slipstream’s roster looks like, they submitted a roster awhile ago that included Danny Pate, Will Frishkorn, and Trent Lowe. Honestly, I can’t see those guys wanting to come do a race after the Tour de France like this, but if they do, those guys, especially Danny and Trent could be factors in the race for the overall. And there’s BMC, Jeff [Louder] and Darren [Lill] showed that they are riding really well at Cascade and I train with those guys, they both live here, and I know that they’re both guys to watch.
How’s your form?
Burke: I’ve been doing the work. Historically, August is the time of year when I’ve performed well so without going out on too much of a limb and making predictions, I’m just going to say that I’m prepared and looking forwards to it. I’ve done what I needed to do to get into the shape I needed to be in, and now I just need to execute it on the road.
Are you targeting any stages in particular?
Burke: Stage 4 definitely. The Gila Monster at the Tour of Gila, historically has been a stage I’ve done really well in the past and this stage on Saturday is probably the only race I can think of that suits me better than the Gila Monster. I’m really looking forwards to it.
How has the public received the Tour of Utah?
Burke: In 06, it was very well received by the public and it got a lot of talk. I’ll be out riding and I’ll have guys come up to me who I don’t know and they ask me if I’m doing the Tour of Utah. They’re obviously not the kind of people that are ingrained enough in the sport to look at me and know that I’m a professional and that of course I’ll be doing the race but they know that the Tour of Utah is going on.
I hope the race sticks around.
Burke: I think so. The backer Larry H Miller, his son Greg Miller who is actually taking over the family business, his father’s health isn’t doing great, he’s the one that is behind the race. He’s so passionate about the race, he maintained from day one when he canceled the race last year that it was going to happen this year, and I seriously doubted that and he maintained all along that we were going to have a race and here we are, we’re going to have the race. I’m really excited about it and I think it’s great to have people like Greg Miller behind the race who are passionate about bike racing.
And it’s great that it’s a hard stage race too.
Burke: This race… in 06 it wasn’t even an NRC event and yet we got an incredible field here and Scott Moninger listed it as one of his biggest achievement winning the race so that tells you what kind of race Tour of Utah is.
(originally published at roadbikereview.com)