Simon Burney is the author of the seminal “how to” book on cyclocross, Cyclocross Training and Technique, now in its 3rd edition. He is a former professional cyclocross racer and has spent more than twenty years managing professional cyclocross and mountain bike teams, working with some of the top ‘cross racers in the world. Simon served as the Performance Manager for mountain bike at British Cycling and has raced, wrenched, or managed the national team at the Cyclocross World Championships for 28 years. CXM Contributor Bill Schieken recently talked with Simon about his racing career, life after racing, and advice he has for those starting out in the sport. Part I of the interview is here, and the full interview will be posted shortly at www.cxhairs.com. Here are some highlights from that conversation.
How did you get involved in cyclocross? Was cyclocross always your main focus?
BURNEY: When I was a Junior category rider I just raced anything I could, on the road in the summer, ‘cross in the winter, and didn’t really have a focus. I was OK but not great, but in my late teens ‘cross started to click and became the focus.
To be in the pro ranks you were obviously a great racer. Brag a little about your career.
BURNEY: I was never a great racer, I was OK in a country that had a pretty low standard of competition! Every now and then a rider would perform at the Worlds, and there was a small number of professional riders who I grew up respecting, and one of them, Eric Stone, persuaded me to turn pro whilst we were on a GB Team trip to a race in France when I was 20.
I had just left working at Raleigh to open a bike shop so it seemed like a good way to publicize the shop and I knew that I wanted to give ‘cross the best shot I could. Remember back then there was no U23 category, it was Am and Pro, so I figured why not? I got enough sponsorship to cover all the costs and make a few quid, and off I went! My career was pretty short and sweet; I finished 4th at the National Championships in 1983 and was selected for the Pro Worlds in Oss, Holland where I finished 24th. I missed Worlds the following year as I was injured but that was a relief as it was on the ice at Munich and I hated racing on ice.
My best overseas results usually came in France, and I really liked the courses there. Hillier and more varied than Belgium at the time, and I loved racing in Switzerland which at the time was like Belgium is now; all the best riders and races. I was a lot better when it was hilly, muddy and generally a bit slower, and I didn’t mind running at all.
Some professional athletes go out with a whimper, you seem to have gone out with a bang. Tell us how your racing career ended.
BURNEY: Oh, mine ended with me whimpering like a baby! It ended in a muddy puddle next to a set of barriers at a local race in Sheffield. There was quite a fast downhill approach to some hurdles and it was raining and muddy and as I jumped off, my left foot just slid into the barrier and I fell over it and twisted as I’d got my bike in the air, and I snapped every ligament in my left knee. Every single one; nothing connecting lower leg to upper leg. I had three weeks in hospital and a re-build, then another reconstruction around 18 months later. I was 25 at the time and felt like I was still learning, so it was disappointing to finish like that. I guess I needed longer spikes in my shoes!
It certainly looks like you have made the best of a wretched situation. It must have been tempting to say the hell with it and leave the sport behind. Why did you decide to stay involved?
BURNEY: It never occurred to me not to stay involved, in fact until you asked me the question I had never thought about the fact there might have been an alternative!
Everything I did was about the sport, all my friends were in it, and it was my job and I still had my bike shop business, so there was never a fleeting moment when I was going to walk away.
It also coincided with the time that Baker and Gould were becoming really good and we had put a small team together, so it was quite natural to spend more time on that, and grow the team as they became world class riders. I guess I was in the right place at the right time with the right guys on my team, as with them we started a great professional mountain bike and ‘cross team and twenty years later I’m still working in the same environment.
What are the top two or three pieces of advice you would give to the aspiring ‘cross racer?
BURNEY: Come into the season in as good a shape as you can, and if you work or study full time which most of this group will be doing, take advantage of training in the light before the clocks change. Once you get into the season be specific with your training for the racing you are doing and practice the efforts that you struggle with most during a race, which could be sprinting out of a corner, jumping barriers or the last two laps of the race.
Secondly it’s unfortunate but ‘cross is a damn hard sport and there are no real short cuts. The more you put in, the more you will get out, so adjust your goals to be realistic about what you can put in and make them tough but attainable.
Thirdly let some air out of your tyres!
Does the sport continue to grow in Europe or is this a North American phenomenon?
BURNEY: I don’t see it growing, in fact in some countries it is declining. For sure the growth market is America as far as number of races and participation goes. In the UK for example the number of races has stayed around the same but participation in Kids races has grown a lot. Every race in the UK has to have a race for U12’s with a free entry on a small circuit, and this has grown immensely in recent years. Hopefully they will stay in the sport as they get older, but we have hardly any U23 riders racing so at the moment they disappear after school age.
For the full interview with Simon Burney, please visit Bill Schieken’s site at www.cxhairs.com.