Feet away from the boisterous podium preparation at the Queen Stage of the Larry H Miller Tour of Utah, another scene was happening, also full of emotion, all silent and poignant. A lone racer, after crossing the finish line, stood immobile by the railing.
A local reporter came by to ask a question, but the rider, in a very race occurrence for him, shook his head indicating that he could not answer.
And with that, quietly, with no fanfare, no official press release, Burke Swindlehurst finished his last road race as a professional cyclist. Truly the only official notice was his Song Of The Day (SOTD) tweet ‘Like the song says, this could be…..”The Last Time” by The Rolling Stones …. I don’t know.’
“I don’t think I can even verbalize it.” replied the 36-year old, a few days later when asked what was going through his mind at that point. “I was just standing there and it hit me with a ton of bricks, like wow that was probably the last time that I will challenge my body in the manner that I’d just had and even though I do see myself continuing to race in the future I knew that it was one of those defining moments, it just struck me that I’d look back on for years to come. But I’ve had a lot of friends that have gone through retirement, they all tell me it’s hard and I know it’s going to be hard, it’s already proven to be hard the last three days for me. I guess it’s just hard to explain, even though I’m going to continue being involved with the sport and continue racing, there’s something about knowing that that was your last race as a professional, it’s hard to put into words but it’s very poignant.”
A few minutes later at the finish line, after shaking hands with other riders, he smiled and answered the reporter’s question.
Was it truly his last race? “I think so. I can’t say for certain that that was my last road race but I’m pretty sure that was the last race of my career where I’m going to be wearing the will race for food sign around my neck.” replied an introspective and emotional Swindlehurst.
“At the same time, I’m still going to race. You’ll definitely see me out there next year, probably not to the extent of which I’ve been racing the last twenty years but there’s definitely some events that I want to do and I definitely want to stay in shape. There are a lot of things in this world that are important and for me, fitness is at the top of the list, money is much further down the list than fitness is. I want to stay healthy and I want to still be able to go out and ride with the boys. I think that things are going to change for me here soon but I don’t think it’s going to be a dramatic, drastic change.”
He is still planning on a few mountain bike races next year that he couldn’t fit into his schedule, such as Leadville and the Breck Epic, which conflicts with the Tour of Utah, and if possible the Marathon Mountain Bike Championships.
“As far as the road goes, I’ve already given 100 percent yes that I will be at the Iron Horse road race next year, it’s their 40th anniversary and they’re trying to assemble as many of the previous winners that they possibly can. So I told them I’ll be here, I can’t guarantee what condition I’ll be in, but I’ll be here.”
Why now? “It had to happen at one time unfortunately.” he chuckled.
“Somebody asked me what it would take for me to keep on racing, and my response to them was ‘Well if you happen to know where the fountain of youth is, direct me to it and I’ll keep racing’. This year, I had a lot of duties outside of just racing my bike, obviously with everything I created for myself and just the nature of the project I undertook this year.”
Swindlehurst went on his own this year, in a team of one sponsored by TeamGive p/b BlackBottoms, he raced both mountain bike and road. He also expanded his role with the Tour of Utah, taking on the Director of competition role for the 2010 edition.
“I started to take on a lot more responsibilities that were outside of just simply racing my bike and that certainly took away from my time that I had to actually go out and train as did my duties with the Tour of Utah this year. Especially as it got closer to the race I found I had to make compromises, the last thing I ever want to do in life is let anybody down. And knowing I had signed up for the Tour of Utah to do a specific duty for them, when I woke up in the morning and saw that I had 35 emails, I waded through those before I even thought of getting on my bike and I think I certainly paid the price for that this week.”
“Although I do feel that I accomplished something great in my performance,” continued Swindlehurst who finished 13th on the final stage and 12th overall at Utah, “it was definitely not up to the standards which I’m accustomed to. I can’t say if it was necessarily aging or the amount of responsibilities that I took on this year but there’s definitely clues pointing to the fact that my biggest achievements on the bike are probably behind me. And when you come to the realization, it makes it a lot easier to make peace with walking away from the sport, at least from the aspect of being a biker racer.”
Looking Back. You would expect Swindlehurst to name one of his career wins as a defining moment, maybe his overall at the Tour of the Gila, a race he loves, but no it’s the people.
“I was speaking with somebody else this morning, they asked me if I had a defining moment, one certain moment in my career, the best moment of my career and that really stumped me. Because I realize when I look back at my career, I don’t see race wins and events, I see people’s faces. And for me, it’s always come back to the amount of friends that I’ve made over the years.”
One such friend is Chris Wherry, who came to Utah to be his side on his last race. Wherry retired at the end of 2009.
“It’s relationships like that over the years that to me if I was going to point to any one thing that was a take home message of what I love about bike racing, is the people and the friends that I’ve made over the years. For me that says it all, it’s not putting my arms out at one particular race, it’s just that collection of faces that I see when I think about bike racing, Chris Wherry, Ed Beamon, I could go on for days, the number of people that had a huge effect on my life, and made my life better, and it’s all come from bike racing.”
Any regrets? “You always look back and have regrets. Every race you do, it doesn’t matter what it is, sometimes even if it’s a race you’ve won, you’ll look back and think oh I should have done this, in hindsight I could have done that, or I could have won the race if I had only done this, or maybe I cold have dug a little bit deeper. I really don’t have any regrets at all, I’m happy with where I am right now, even if things didn’t go out … you kind of picture yourself in your mind, an ideal scenario, like doing the Tour de France or this or that. But ultimately, as you sit here in the present now, if you can be happy with yourself the way it is, and content the way you are right now that means that everything leading up to that point has been the way it should be and that’s the way I feel right now.”
And definitely no regrets on his last year, which he called “absolutely” worth it. “That’s something that I can speak for certainty that I have no regrets about was this year. I’ve grown a lot as a person this year in a lot of different ways and I think this year has really helped get me to a place where I needed to be, including taking that step towards retirement. If I had won the Snowbird stage last year there was a good possibility I would have retired and been able to go out that way. ”
Swindlehurst finished second to Alex Howes (Holowesko Partners) on the stage, both making it into the early break with Howes stricking out first on the final climb.
He continued, “That’s how every athlete wants to go out is on top. So I still felt like I had some unfinished business but this year, doing what I did, I feel that I’m able to go out on my terms and also do something that… when I told people what I wanted to do, they looked at me sideways, and even though privately they said ‘oh yeah that sounds like a great idea, good luck’, I could see in their eyes like ‘dude you’re crazy’. I really feel that I accomplished what I wanted to this year, I did have success on both the road and mountain bikes to varying degrees. I became a small business owner in the process which was not something that I had actually thought about until it got mid-way through the season and I realized wow I own a business, this is crazy. There were a lot of ups and downs in there but most of the experiences have been great. My sponsors that I’ve had this year have been phenomenal and anybody that got involved in this project did so not necessarily because they thought it was a great idea but because they wanted to support me and my vision. And that I’m hoping at this point that sponsors look back and think that was a great idea, I’ve gotten quite a bit of press just through the uniqueness of the project and I’m hoping they look back and think we got something for our buck there.”
It’s the people. Since it’s the people and not the races, who were the defining people in his career?
He paused. “Oh man, there’s a lot of them. I hesitate to even mention one of them because I don’t want to leave anyone out, there are that many people that played such a significant role in my career and I feel so grateful to them for that.”
He paused again. “Geez. Literally it’s like taking a deck of cards and thumbing it in front of your face and seeing images in front of your face, that’s how I feel, there are just so many people out there that have been so supportive of me. I came up in a family where we didn’t have a lot of money and they only way I was able to bike race was because there were so many people out there that were willing to step up and dedicate their time, energy and financial resources to help get to where I am, because I could have never done it on my own. In fact I feel that I’ve probably played the smallest part in my career,” he chuckled, “when I think about all the people that have helped me, mine is just a fraction of what I’ve put in compared to the enormous volume of energy, time and support that other people have put in into my career, I feel that my contribution is relatively small.”
After so many years of racing in Europe and North America, what advice would he give to young riders? “I love to hand out advice to kids, that’s one thing that I really like to do. But at the same time, I realize that not everybody views the sport the same way I do. My previous statement when I look back at my career I see people’s faces and not wins, I know I’m not your typical bike racer, in the fact that most of these kids do want to see wins, they want to go to the Tour de France and that’s important to them and I totally understand that and understand where that motivation comes from. That has never been my motivation and I think it shows in the path that I’ve chosen to go down, so when I do give advice, I give it knowing that maybe it’s not necessarily the advice they want to hear, and I guess that advice would be don’t take yourself too seriously.”
Another pause and he added, “It’s bike racing, it shouldn’t define who you are as a person, maybe it can define what you can accomplish, how you’ve been able to push your body and the gifts you’ve been given genetically but ultimately, whether or not you win a stage in the Tour de France, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the kind of person that someone is going to want to have over and babysit their children. When I look at like, that’s for me is a measure of a person. There are a lot of people that have accomplished great things but .. I guess I have a different value system that a lot of people do and I guess I don’t want to push that on these young kids. I try and keep that in perspective and realize that yeah winning bike races is important and I don’t want to diminish that for them.”
That doesn’t mean that Swindlehurst was not competitive by any means, but he doesn’t define himself by his wins.
“I define myself by how I treat other people. It always comes back to what my grandma told me as a kid, she always said that there’s only one thing you need to live your life by, the golden rule, do onto others as they do onto you. That’s how I feel, I’m not saying that I do that all the time, in the heat of the moment, I’m a bike racer just like anybody else, there’s a reason I became a bike racer, I’m a competitive person and when I get on the bike I might say or do things that aren’t in line with that motto but I always try after the race if I’ve done something like that, I like to think that I’m the kind of person that would recognize that and go find that person after the race and apologize, if I’d said something or maybe put them in the gutter or whatever, for me that’s what it comes down to, life, just treat other people the way you’d like to be treated.”
Twenty years of memories were all rushing back. “I’ve been having a roller coaster week, I’ll be going along just floating around cloud nine at one point, then five minutes I’ll be on the verge of tears. I’m not afraid to admit that, I think that’s only human.”
With some memories were on the lighter side. “There are a lot of funny memories in there. Chris Wherry has been on my mind quite a lot lately just because he came up and stayed with me and we were reliving some of the old times. A funny memory I have is when we first had the opportunity to hang out, we did a stage race in Moab, Utah in 1999, I can’t remember what they called it but essentially there was a junior stage race series, where everybody showed up for this thing. For three days, there were guys like George Hincapie, Bobby Julich, myself and Chris, we were staying in an RV, that was our housing for the week at a KOA. Chris and I were in this RV, and we got on the CB together and started messing with the truck drivers as they were going pass and for me that just sticks in my mind as one of those memories when you first start to get into trouble when you’re a kid, these truck drivers were getting so irate at us telling us to get off the channel. We’re using every bit of what we considered truck driver language, we knew at the time.”
We haven’t seen the last of Burke Swindlehurst on the road or the trails but next time, it will be in a different capacity.
What’s next? “I think that my role with the Tour of Utah will certainly be expanded upon, and I’m really looking forwards to that. And there are other opportunities that have been presented to me recently that I find really intriguing and I can’t help but think that there might be more opportunities out there that I haven’t even heard yet that I’d like to take advantage of. I certainly see myself staying in the sport, it’s my true passion in life and I’d be crazy to do anything else.”
If musicophile Swindlehurst will permit me, I think the next SOTD should be ‘My Way’ by, of course, Frank Sinatra.