After eleven years of racing on professional teams, Burke Swindlehurst has decided to shake things up and follow his dream to combine his love of both the road and dirt as a professional racer. In order to do, the 36-year has rewritten the traditional sponsorship script and is going solo.
That’s right, no professional team affiliation but personal sponsors: “One Rider, One Jersey, Multiple Disciplines”.
Swindlehurst will be racing both road and mountain bike for Team Give/Blackbottoms fueled by First Endurance in 2010 – maybe some cyclocross too.
A few hours ago, we chatted on his plans and vision for the year.
What exactly are you doing in 2010?
What exactly am I doing in 2010, that’s a good question. I still don’t have a complete answer. I’m definitely flying by the seat of my pants, just going with what feels right to me. I’ve always had this dream of being able to race the road and mountain bike free of any conflicts of interest on one side or the another whether it be a road team or a mountain team. Having to divide my time and interest between trying to please two different interests, I’ve gotten to the point in my career where I was ready for a change, I either needed a big change or I needed to retire, one or the other and I’m definitely not ready to retire. I still really love to ride and race my bike and my body is still doing the job. I sat down one day mid-summer and realized ‘alright I have to do something’ (chuckles).
My mind just started working and there was a certain point where I decided that I wasn’t going to go out and start doing the usual thing where you call all the teams and try to find a gig on a road team. I just started working on this and I’ve had a lot of really great friends, tons, far more that I can even list that have helped me and given me support and encouragement to do this. It’s been fun. I’ve been really apprehensive and scared, wondering how this thing was going to work but after making the announcement today I’ve gotten so much great feedback I feel really energized and excited about it and I’m super excited.
I do think that the sport needs new thinking. Who says that you’re supposed to do it the same way every time.
Exactly, I started thinking that yes things are done a certain way but who’s to say that I couldn’t go about doing things the way that I would like to and I find enjoyable and still be able to give sponsors and other people a new way of getting press out. It doesn’t always have to be about the first person across the finish line, it can be about the person who reaches out to the fans, tells a good story. There’s so much diversification that can be done within the sport to accomplish the same end which is putting money into your sponsor’s pocket, putting money into your own pocket and doing what you enjoy and there are so many different ways to go about that. This is the way I’ve decided to go about it. It’s unique. There have been just as many people that have told me that I’m going to fail that have been excited for me and they are totally behind me.
People told you that you’re going to fail?
Well no they haven’t actually come out and told me that I’m to fail. I’ve approached people about sponsorship and told them what I’m doing and you get some pretty mixed reactions. Some people do not believe that it’s possible for me to road race without a team. And I personally believe that I’m going to be very successful at it because I think there’s a lot of room for the privateer and the opportunist in bike racing. I can take advantage of a lot of situations that people on teams can’t. I’m not going to go into details, I’m just going to go out and show people how it’s done and I’m going to have fun doing it.
That’s interesting. You do see yourself going solo into some of these races as opposed to joining a composite team.
There’s really only a couple of races where there are hard and set rules about competing on a team, Redlands is one of them. I think I would probably have to be on a composite team to do that race, I’m not actually sure I’ll do that race I might do a mountain bike event that same weekend instead. Obviously, I can’t do Tour of California and that’s probably the one big disappointment that I have out of this whole deal, Tour of California has been moved to a place in the calendar that I think suits me a lot better because I’m not really an early season rider. So that’s kind of a disappointment but I think pretty much every other race on the calendar I can enter as a private individual and yes I’m going to be behind the eight ball if I find myself by some stroke of luck in the leader’s jersey situation but I see myself going out there and going to stage wins, going for the KOM jersey and that sort of thing and just animating races in general. I have a feeling there’s probably going to be many times in the season that I’m going to be a fly in the ointment for a lot of these teams, I’m going to be getting in the way of some of their interests because I’m a strong enough rider to do it and the only agenda I have is mine. There are so many times in races that you’ll be doing something in a race and there’s all kind of politics that actually happen within a race, ‘why are you doing this or that?’ and ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. I can see where I’m going to be the guy that can get in there and mess up a lot of stuff and it sounds fun to me, I’m really looking forwards to it.
That sounds a lot like freedom and power to me.
Yes. And I’m also really looking forwards to getting back to the basics of racing, what got me excited in the first place. That means not having the radio in my ear and having somebody tell me how to race. I’m going to go back to where I’m racing on instinct which how I’ve always done best and every result I’ve ever gotten on the bike has been where I’ve followed just my instincts whether or not they seemed right at the time or in retrospect even, but it’s just how it’s worked out. A lot of times I’ve done things in races that I’ve looked at ‘that was pretty stupid but man it worked’. (laughs) And a lot of the times you do things that are textbook and they don’t work because you think ‘oh this is what I’m supposed to do’.
Everybody has read the same textbook anyway.
So it sounds like going back to when you started your career, going from race to race in your car, is that it?
Yes, I am and that’s really exciting to me. When I look back over 23 years of bike racing ….
23 years, wow.
Crazy isn’t it? My best memories are always of those races when I was an amateur, pulling up in your car, listening to your tunes just doing your own thing. Obviously I’ve had a lot of good experiences on all the pro teams I’ve ridden for but a lot of the great experiences came back before it was actually a job when you’re doing it because it was a passion. And I still do it because it’s a passion, I wouldn’t be sticking my neck out on the line right now if it wasn’t a passion.
You’re also going to be racing mountain bike. Have you figured out the breakdown, how much of each will you be doing?
I’m going to try and do 50-50 or as close to that as possible. The mountain bike races that I’ll be focusing on are mainly the ones more suited to my abilities as a rider. I’ll be looking at longer marathon-type events, events that have significant amount of climbing and altitude in them. Those have always been my bread and butter as a bike racer, whether it’s on the road or on a mountain bike. Events like Leadville, Firecracker 50 the [USA Cycling] marathon championships which are in Breckenridge, the Breck epic which is a stage race and then one thing that I’m really looking forwards to is Sea Otter and doing what I did this year which is racing all the road and mountain bike events.
That’s a lot of racing in four days at Sea Otter.
Yes it is. Actually technically I didn’t do all the road and mountain bike races, I did all the road races and then I did the cross-country but this season, I’m going to try and do the cross-country, the short track and all the road racing events.
Have you ever raced short track before?
I have actually. One of my best result on a mountain bike actually came on a short track event in Mammoth Lake California back in 2001. I finished top 10, top 12 in my first pro short track event. They are really intense and they’re super short, they’re only like 25 minutes long and there’s a lot of positioning. It’s actually not an event that’s really well suited to me but since this one was at 10,000 feet in Mammoth Lake and there was actually quite a bit of road on the course, it was almost really like a short crit at high elevation so it worked really well for me.
Well if you’re going to race short track, the next step is cross.
Actually, there has been a lot of talk on twitter today on whether or not I would race cross. I’m actually planning on doing some cross racing as well.
So you’re going to be racing almost twelve months out of the year at this point.
Yes I am.
What about training, does it matter if you’re racing mountain bike or road?
From what I can tell whether you’re a mountain biker, a cross racer you’re spending a lot of times using the road bike as a training tool and the other part of the time, you are on your other bike, mountain or cross, working mainly on your skills which is a huge part of the game in both those disciplines. I’m definitely going to have to address the skills part of things but I think as far as training goes, I don’t know like I said I’m just shooting from the hip right now. I guess I’m going to learn as I go.
How scary is it?
It is really scary. I’ve gotten some really good experiences at mountain bike races and I’ve also gotten some really scary experiences because you can be cruising along just fine, super confident in your skills on a mountain bike and the next thing you know you’re on the ground for no reason. (chuckles) There’s definitely some fear there but the same thing can be said of any bike event. I’m looking forwards to all the challenges that are here, that’s what most exciting to me. The way things have been for me on a road bike for the last few years almost felt like I was in that movie Groundhog Day where you wake up… I was at the Redlands crit this year, going around and around, actually calculating as I was going around how many laps of the Redlands crit course I’d done. I couldn’t decide if I’d done fourteen or fifteen times, that’s like over 900 hundred laps on this crit course. For me, it’s really exciting, I don’t know what’s coming at me this year and that makes me want to get up and go out and train. That’s something when you get to be my age, it’s not necessarily the body that lets you down when you get older, it’s more the motivation. So if you can keep the motivation strong, that’s the biggest battle, right now I’m feeling really motivated.
Have you decided what your first race is going to be?
I haven’t yet. I’m still in the process of finalizing some sponsors. A lot of my event calendar, this is a fun thing for me I’m giving my sponsors a lot of input on what my events calendar will look like. If there are certain races or events that are important to them that aren’t necessarily on the NRC calendar or even a race for that matter maybe it’s a charity ride, I’m going to let them help steer me on whether I’m going there. I do anticipate my first race will probably be in March although I might do some local mountain bike events in Utah here in February. I think my first real big target of the year will be Sea Otter, I’d really love to make a splash in one of the road races and crack the top 10 in the cross country, I came close last year, I was twenty-first, I started at the back of around 153 guys. By doing all those events, I used that as preparation for Tour of the Gila, give my body a huge workload at sea level. Tour of the Gila will be the next really big goal for me, I want to be an animator at that race, I’ve always loved it and I’ve done well there, if I could some more history at that race, I’d be really excited.
How does one go about finding sponsors?
For me it’s been a bit of everything. I’ve tried every approach, from asking friends what connections they might have to just cold calling people to walking into the front door of a place where I know that somebody should have interest in what I’m doing which is the case of BlackBottoms my presenting sponsor. They’re a clothing company out of Salt Lake City and I basically just walked in and told them what I was doing, sat down and they had all the same question ‘how can you road race without a team’. I talked them through it and after about one hour they fully bought into it and came onboard. It’s been really fun and humbling to me too to have people get behind me, especially a company like BlackBottoms, they’re not the most well known company out there so I’m really hoping to raise awareness for them and hopefully do some work with them and give them input on their clothing design and how to make a great product as well.
What is success for you this year? What will make it a good year for you?
I guess if I can to the end to the season and have people … particularly my sponsors and people that basically took a risk because right now everybody is looking at it as a risk, I don’t personally believe it is, I think I might just redefine along the way what sponsorship can be. A lot of these people that have looked at me sideways ‘how can I not explain this vision to you, it’s so unique, how can it not be successful?’. So if I can get to the end of the season and have my sponsors look at me and go ‘jeez that was the best decision we’ve ever made, what can we do for next year?’, that will be a successful year for me. That means I win some races along the way or maybe write some content on my blog that got people excited, I just want to draw on all kind of resources when it comes to this project whether it’s telling a great story on the blog, anything I can do to get people excited about bike racing and what I’m doing, to me that is success.
A lot of hard work but Swindlehurst is looking forwards to the challenge. One thing on the agenda is to create a jersey “that’s really unique and represents who I am a little bit”, and in order to do so, Swindlehurst has been “trying to figure out a way that I can build in my love for music into my jersey”.