Burke Swindlehurst headed back to the SRAM Tour of the Gila for the 16th time this week, but for the rider with the race’s greatest number of stage wins (six) to his credit, Gila is a whole new beast this year.
Swindlehurst left his Bissell team after the 2009 season to follow a path he had considered for almost 10 years. The 37-year old is competing full-time in 2010 as a dual discipline athlete on a team of one.
“I’ve been toying with this idea since 2001 when I first dabbled with mountain bike racing,” said Swindlehurst. “It’s been one of those things that I’ve always thought about, but haven’t had the resources or, you know, you kind of have in your mind that you’re a pro road racer; ultimately you want to make it to the top of the sport and go ProTour. I’m at the point in my career, I’m 37, where I’m not going to make it to the Tour de France and I’ve made peace with that.”
The four-time winner of the Gila Monster stage set out in July 2009 to forge his new path, leaving Bissell on amicable terms at the end of the season.
“I started working on it back in July of last year and have definitely had some hiccups along the way,” said Swindlehurst. “Getting people to buy into what I wanted to do was definitely a daunting process.”
What he wanted to do was create a team, beginning as a solo rider in 2010 and building a roster moving forward, of riders that compete in mountain bike and road events. The team would not be tied to National Racing Calendar points or to the UCI mountain bike points, but rather, to events that are intriguing and important to the riders themselves. Events like Gila and the Leadville 100 would be targets for the team.
Swindlehurst had what he thought was a confirmed deal with a bike manufacturer, which he will not name, to come aboard as his title sponsor and road/mountain supplier.
“I was operating under that assumption until about December when all of a sudden they yanked the rug out from underneath me,” said Swindlehurst.
By December, most pros are well into their base training for the coming season; Swindlehurst was reeling, considering retirement. When he contacted his former Bissell boss, Glenn Mitchell did not have any roster spots left.
“I was scrambling, thinking, ‘All right, this is it, I’m out of the game. I guess I’m going to be retiring,’” said Swindlehurst.
Just as the sun appeared to be setting on his career, new Tour of Utah director Karen Weiss suggested that Swindlehurst speak with teamgive.org head Dave Watkins. The non-profit sponsored the 2009 Utah leader’s jersey and by January signed on to partner with Swindlehurst in his new project.
While the stress of the last minute sponsor change weighed on his nerves, the Utah native was excited for the new turn.
“It’s good for me to be involved with something like this because something I’ve struggled with during my career as a bike racer is wondering what I’m doing to give back to the community,” said Swindlehurst. “This is a way for me to feed that desire more than a typical bike racer with a big corporate logo on my bike.”
Teamgive.org is a Utah-based non-profit organization focused on finding a cure for neurological disease in children.
With teamgive.org on board as title sponsor, Swindlehurst’s project took on a Utah-centric flavor. His clothing, road bike and nutrition sponsors ─ Blackbottoms, Delta 7 and First Endurance ─ are all based in the greater Salt Lake City area.
Swindlehurst admitted that selling those sponsors ─ and the others he courted ─ was challenging.
“People’s first and foremost question was, ‘Can you race without a team?’” he said. “There is a place for solo riders I believe, and I’m hoping to show that this year, that you can manipulate the system and to use the knowledge that I’ve gained through years of racing on teams and use that to my advantage.”
Swindlehurst will take that place, in his low-key teamgive.org-BlackBottoms kit, at a series of events that are ultimately important to him this year.
After Gila, he will take the start at the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic, Tour de Nez, Nevada City Classic, Cascade Classic, TransRockies, Tour of Utah and the Tahoe-Sierra 100.
“I put together a pretty ambitious calendar early on,” said Swindlehurst. “Having road raced and been on teams where I’ve raced upwards of 90 days a year, I put together a calendar that would have basically had me doing around 65 events this year.”
Realizing the burden that that 65-event schedule would place on him as a solo rider, Swindlehurst reduced his race load. “I’m shifting focus to events that are close to my heart, that I have strong feelings for, and that suit my abilities as a rider,” he said.
While he didn’t hit pay dirt in the Leadville lottery, Swindlehurst is hoping to be on the start list at the US Pro Championships in Greenville, South Carolina in September, though he will likely need to find a place on a Continental team roster to do so.