Burke Swindlehurst Interview

Burke Swindlehurst started racing bikes in the late 1980’s and built a successful career as any rider to ever emerge from Utah. After his retirement from the peloton in 2010, he founded the wildly popular Crusher in the Tushar race that takes place annually in the Tushar Mountain Range near Beaver. This grueling one-day event attracts cyclist from all over the US and has grown into a “must-ride” event for cyclists who enjoy testing their limits. Known for his climbing prowess as a pro, Swindlehurst’s event is a modern testpiece for those who enjoy torturous climbs. He lives in Salt Lake City.

Bissell Rider head shot

What is your background?

I’m a lifelong Utahan and have lived all over state from Hurricane to Logan and points between. I graduated from high school in Beaver, which is where most of my family is from and that’s also where I met my wife, Tiffany.  We’ve lived in Salt Lake City now for 13 years. I love Utah and can’t imagine living anywhere else.

 

-How did you get into bike racing?

My first taste of endurance sports happened when I was 11. The boy scouts had a “hiking” merit badge that required you hike 50 miles over a certain period of time to get it. At that time I was living in Orem and my scout troop drove us up to Salt Lake and dropped us off at “This Is The Place” monument to participate in what they called the “50/20”, an acronym for covering 50 miles in under 20 hours, which in this case was the distance from the mouth of Emigration Canyon to Provo’s town park.  The “hike” began late afternoon in early and went through through the night and into the next day. I found myself running most of the distance for no other reason that I wanted to and I ended up finishing before sunrise with a group of adult runners who were using the event to train for Ultra-Marathons. Fast forward to a little over a year later, I had an Uncle who lived in Alaska who was an avid cyclist and he traveled to Utah to participate in the Master’s National Championships for cycling being hosted in Park City that Summer. I went out and watched him race and from that moment, I knew I wanted to race bikes. I asked for road bike for Christmas and on Christmas morning I hopped on my shiny new Peugeot and never looked back!

 

-How did you decide to give it a go as a career?

Actually, I never really considered it as a career until I had been a professional for several years. I just knew I wanted to see how far I could go in the sport and at some point I found myself getting paid to something that I would have done for free! Sometimes I still can’t believe that I’ve been able to earn a living based on my love of cycling. I feel incredibly fortunate for that.

 

-You spent a lot of years racing on the road, what were the early days like?

Those days are some of the best memories I have. Basically it was just a bunch of buddies who were crazy for bike racing loading up a van every weekend and driving for hours, sleeping on floors and waking up in a different state to race bikes. We had some great times and I made some lifelong friends in the process. We also had some amazing success for an amateur team racing against the pro outfits, which made it all the more fun.

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-How did the sport grow during your racing career, what were some of the biggest changes you saw? You know, I actually think there’s been a bit of a regression in road racing here in the United States from when I started in the early 90’s. In the 90’s there were a slew of great stage races and big one-day events all over the country and there were 10 or more domestic-based pro teams that paid their riders a livable wage to race a domestic program.

It feels like in the last 10 years a majority of those races have vanished and along with them, the team budgets have gone as well to the point where currently I think it would be nearly impossible to earn a living wage based on solely racing in the U.S. To do that now, you need to be on a team that races primarily overseas, and even then you’re often just eking out a living. I feel really lucky to have been able to carve out a career for close to 15 years based mainly on racing in here in the States. I hope to see a bounce-back in those grass-roots races so that other young riders can have the same opportunities I did. I think that the Utah High School Mountain Bike League and NICA are doing that for mountain bike racing. It’s really cool to see!

 

-What are some of your favorite memories from your road racing career?

Probably foremost in my mind would be taking my first overall victory at the Tour of the Gila in 1996. That was with the Einstein’s Bagels Team based here out of Salt Lake City and we were just a crew of young, driven amateur riders wanting desperately to prove ourselves against the large pro outfits. We pulled off a huge upset by defending our lead against teams like U.S. Postal and the L.A. Sheriff’s who were both dominating forces in Pro racing at the time. We gained a ton of confidence from that and our success built throughout the year to the point where started getting asked to “guest ride” with professional teams at races where they were short-handed. In all of my years of racing after that, those experiences in ’96 were the benchmark for not only how to race as team, but also have fun. It was a good life lesson. I found that if I’m not having fun, I’m not as effective at what I do, regardless of what it is.

 

-You had some good results in the Tour of Utah in the past, what was the race like for you?

Yeah, I have some great memories from the Tour of Utah. The event really started to blossom and gain notoriety near the tail end of my career, so I wasn’t really able to attack it with all the benefits of being a plucky “20-something” like I had with races like Tour of the Gila.  But, being able to race against some of the best riders in the world on roads that I had trained on so many times and see family and friends lining the roads really gave me extra motivation. In fact, I’d say the Tour of Utah was the primary reason I was able to maintain my motivation to race into my late 30’s. I also really enjoyed the time I spent behind the scenes with that organization designing courses and working with the teams. I definitely benefited and learned a lot from the professionalism of the all the great people involved with that event. From my perspective, the Tour of Utah has grown into not only one of the premier UCI races in the U.S., but also on the international stage. I know the riders who come from overseas to ride are struck by the beauty of our state and the friendly people here. They also relish racing on some of the most challenging courses they’ll see all season.

Nevada City 2010 solo

-What is the hardest climb you’ve ever done on a bike?

Oh, that’s a tough one! Some of the hardest climbs I’ve done haven’t necessarily been a reflection of the climb itself, but of the riders you’re trying to contend with. That being said, if you were to take the competition of out of the equation and look at it strictly from “bottom to top” point of view, Empire Pass from Midway to the top of Guardsman stands out in my mind. It has that leg-breaking stretch in the middle where even the most compact of gearing feels too big and that final mile on the rough pavement to the top of Guardsman is simply evil!

 

-How/why did you make the move from road racing to mountain biking?

I first started dabbling in mountain bike racing in the mid-90’s doing local events and I was really struck by the more laid back and friendly atmosphere that I found at the mountain bike races, which can lie in sharp contrast to road racing that can feel pretty cutthroat at times. By the early 2000’s I started doing some of the Pro NORBA races when I could fit them in with my road-racing calendar. I always felt revitalized after doing the mountain bike races and the technical aspect of it was extremely challenging, and that kept me coming back to see if I could improve. I don’t feel like I really got on top of my skills until the last year I raced, in 2010.

 

-How did you come up with the idea for the Crusher in the Tushar event?

Essentially, I just wanted to create an event that would combine what I loved about both road and mountain bike racing into a single platform. I wanted to bring those communities together and give them a course that would put them on equal footing and challenge their respective skills and fitness. To a greater extent, just to have those communities mingle a bit and rub-off on each other. I’ve been really happy with the results. People seem to enjoy themselves and at the core of it, that’s what I wanted to see the most and what I get the most satisfaction from.

 

 

-How has the race grown over the years? What does it mean to the community of Beaver?

I’ve been absolutely floored at the interest and growth in the event. The first year (2011) we had 180 riders show up, which was a lot more than I expected. This year the event filled to it’s capacity in 5 days, which is capped at 600 riders. We have riders from 30 U.S. States and 4 foreign countries coming. It blows my mind to be honest! The extent to which the community has embraced the event has been overwhelming. I really feel that the local volunteers is what gives the event its “soul” and it’s the single biggest compliment on the event that I get from the racers every year. I honestly don’t think I could replicate it anywhere else. In terms of what the event means to the community, I think it gives them an opportunity to showcase not only how stunningly beautiful the region is, but also give people a taste of that small-town hospitality and generosity that still exists and sometimes feels like is missing from the hustle and bustle of modern society.

 

 

-You race the event and are the event director as well?

Oh no, I don’t race in it! There’s way too much that goes into putting on the event and my bike starts to collect cobwebs in May until August. I don’t really race too much anymore. Mostly, I’m just a run-of-the-mill Strava junkie these days. I do most of my riding in the Fall and Winter now since so much of my energy is focused on the event the rest of the year, but I do still ride quite a bit and do some trail running, too. I love being fit and really look up to guys like Ned Overend and Dave Wiens who are setting new benchmarks for what “older” athletes are capable of.

 

-Describe the brutality of the race, what riders can expect to endure.

Uphill, both ways! At least, that’s how it feels since most of the descending is over in the blink of an eye. Though on paper it’s not an especially long race (70 miles), the accumulated elevation gain of over 10,500 feet (most of that on dirt) makes this one of the hardest events out there in my opinion. Most people don’t believe it until after they do it. I’ve had more than a few people tell me it’s harder than the Leadville 100 and it’s not uncommon to see top professionals reduced to walking their bikes up the race’s toughest climb. Racers have dubbed that climb the “Col ‘d Crush” and it will take most riders close to an hour ascend it. It can often be brutally hot, but we have 3 aid stations on just that climb alone to make sure nobody gets in over their head. Additionally we have close to 70 people from the Beaver and Piute County search and rescue units on course to ensure everyone’s safety.

 

-The race attracts a talented field from all over the country- what is the appeal?

I think riders are really just craving something different from usual road or mountain bike race, plus the laid-back atmosphere is appealing to the professional riders who want to remember that feeling that got them excited about bike racing in the first place. I know I have would been over-the-moon to be able to compete in an event like this when I was racing, which is really what prompted me to create the event from the get-go.

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-Your old teammate Levi Leipheimer won the race last year; can we expect him to defend his title?

Neither of our previous Men’s Pro champs will be returning this year (Tyler Wren in 2011 and 2012, Leipheimer in 2013, 2014), which means we’ll see a new champion crowned in this year’s men’s Pro event. I expect last year’s runner-up, Jamey Driscoll to be a strong contender along with Salt Lake’s Alex Grant and a host of other top riders from road, cyclocross and mountain bike racing. On the Women’s side, Park City’s Joey Lythgoe will be returning to defend her title against a strong field including long-time professional mountain biker Keli Emmett from Michigan.

We also have some great ongoing “Crusher” rivalries in our other categories as well that are always fun to watch play themselves out.

 

-Any other good riding in the Tushars that you’ve found?

For sure! The road ride from downtown Beaver to Eagle Point Resort is one of my all-time favorite rides. It’s incredibly scenic and it’s also right up there as one of the most difficult climbs I’ve ever done, starting an elevation of 6,000 feet in town to nearly 11,000 feet in about 17 miles. It makes a great out-and-back ride with a super-fun descent back into town.

 

-What’s next for you?

I ask myself that question every day! For now, I’m just wholly focused on trying to make the Crusher the best event I possibly can. Not necessarily the biggest, because I want the event to retain it’s character and intimacy and I think that can get lost when you focus on just trying to get as many participants as possible and that’s not what I’m after.

I’m also working on my Utah-based adventure travel outfit called “Utah à la carte”. I have my first tour with a group in mid-October and I’m super excited about that. I love to share my favorite things about Utah with others, whether that’s riding our incredible roads and single-track, exploring slot canyons and hiking in our mountains or flyfishing and this seems like the perfect way to do that.

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