A conversation with Burke Swindlehurst

Burke Swindlehurst, one of North America’s strongest domestic climbers in generations, joined FE as Sponsorship Director last year. That gives us immediate, intimate access to him for all his hot takes on racing, his tactical advice, and the occasional – and, unfortunately, totally accidental – humbling on office group rides. (It also means he’s demolishing us in our internal WorldTour fantasy game.)

Despite only just coming on board in an official capacity, Burke’s history with First Endurance goes all the way back to the beginning. Testing, product development, and even our approach to constant revision and performance-first design ethos – Burke has constantly pushed us to do better, regardless of how much we’d already done.

In this blog post, he agreed to field our questions about the Tour of the Gila, a race he’s won three times and whose combination of altitude and climactic climbing suit his characteristics to a T.

Slaying the Gila Monster

What was your overall tactical approach to the race every year? Were you trying to gain time along the way, or did you want to just kind of sit tight and let other people play their cards while you just followed along until the end, knowing that it's all going to come down to the last big stage?

I always took an opportunistic approach to Gila – and racing in general. The way I saw it, there  were never any guarantees that you're going to be the strongest rider on any given day. You can know you're a good climber and that you're one of the better climbers, but you can’t take anything for granted – at least I never felt I could. So anytime I saw an opportunity, I'd go for it. That’s especially true for Gila, because the stages never really change, so I got to know the race inside and out. 

Was there a specific point you found to be the best for taking the jersey and holding it till the end?

It was all over the map. The first year that I won the general classification, I snuck away on the first road stage to Mogollon in a small breakaway, which eventually went all the way to the finish line. I won the stage, taking over the race lead, and then carried the jersey to the end. That was in ‘96.

The second time I took the overall, in ‘98, I grabbed the jersey by winning the opening TT, which was the opening stage back in the day. Again, I carried it all the way to the end.

The third – and final – time I won the overall, I scooped it on the last day on the Gila Monster stage after starting the day somewhere around 5th on the general classification. That was definitely my most memorable and proudest moment from my Gila participations. 

What are the danger stages for time gaps?

Honestly, they're all dangerous. You can lose the race at any point along the way, but the only place you can truly really win it all is on the Gila Monster stage.

So when you took the lead on the first day, you probably didn't sleep well at night.

You know, I I don't recall ever being overly anxious during the race. It's just one of those races where you’re just like, “whatever is gonna happen is gonna happen,” and you try not to waste too much energy worrying about it, because that's just energy that's not going to be there for you tomorrow.

That said, I used to get very anxious leading up to the race. In retrospect, I almost feel like the success I had over the years at Gila was almost in spite of myself with all of the energy I’d put into worrying about my training and preparation being spot-on. 

How much time would you be comfortable giving up on a daily basis? And what's not surmountable towards the end?

That’s a tough one to answer. I’d say it depends largely on who you're racing against. Ideally, no time! But, I’d say If you’re angling for the overall win, you really don't want to start that last stage more than a minute behind on GC. That said, the Gila Monster stage is so tough that I've seen guys start that stage in the leader’s jersey and end up finishing several minutes down. It’s that tough of a final stage.

What kind of time gaps should people expect to see across the top 10? How much time are we talking about?

That really depends on the depth of the field. I’d say it can go anywhere from three to five minutes for a really “deep” field and upwards of 15 minutes to 10th place by the end of the final stage. It also really depends on how hard the final stage is raced, but I've seen years when there have been fewer than 20 riders that even finished the “Queen” stage. Every edition and every field is too different to really nail that down.

How important is it to have a team there?

It's extremely important if you’re aiming for the general classification, but I’d say it’s not critical to having a great race and experience. I've “freelanced” it a couple of times in the early years, but if you’re hoping to do well in the overall, you almost certainly need a team. If you’re on your own, you can kind of hide in the bunch and make a big play on the last day on the Gila Monster. But it would be a tall order to win the overall as a privateer.

What’s the best approach to the Gila Monster climb on the final stage?

There are three distinct climbs in the Gila Monster stage.

There's the initial climb to get to the cliff dwellings, after which you drop down and do a long, fast and somewhat technical descent, and then you hit the cliff dwellings, turn around, and then comes the second climb.

That second climb is the super steep one. That’s the really brutal climb where the real selection is almost always made. It just has some crazy steep grades. I’d say it’s a 30-minute leg bust of a climb.

The last climb has a couple of quick descents here and there, but probably along the same lines: 30-40 minutes of just grinding and gutting it out to the finish line there in Pinos Altos. So, the approach to that? Well, I guess it would be “never say die!” 

Burke does Silver City

Did you stay at hotels or host housing?

I did a bit of both over the years, and I have a lot of great memories in that respect, both from having awesome host families (Hi Doug and Kathryn!) to spending a lot of time in a specific motel there over the years,The Drifter.

The Drifter had a great little cafe and breakfast, so that became a bit of a ritual for me and for a few of my teammates over the years as well. Once a race becomes your “A” race, the race you look forward to all year, you try not to deviate from your approach to it. So I had my “go-to” breakfast, the “pancake sandwich” which had eggs, hashbrowns, and bacon all stacked together. I also recall how delighted I was when I’d end up having the same awesome waitress from previous years. It just kind of made you feel like things were destined to go your way. 

There was also this great Mexican restaurant, Jalisco, that we were all crazy for, and we would eat at ritualistically as well. You go to Gila, you eat your breakfast at The Drifter, and then dinner at Jalisco. Do those two things, and the rest would practically take care of itself… Haha! 

From heat to wind

So a lot of the off-bike parts of your “program” (Breakfast is important!) to the race stayed the same over the years, even as the race itself made some significant changes. How have you seen the course change?

There are two main changes I've seen over the close to 20-year span that I participated. First, it used to start with the time trial as stage one. They eventually moved the TT to the middle of the week. I guess that change was made in the early 2000s.

The second – and biggest – change I saw over the years, though, was a calendar shift. When I first started doing Gila, it was in the third week or fourth week in June. They transitioned over into the current spot, late-April/early-May, in the early 2000s. That was a big shift, because the weather is vastly different in spring compared to late June.

When it was in June, managing the heat was the major factor, but the transition to a spring date had a dramatic effect on the race dynamics because riding in the wind became a critical element. I could always manage the heat really well, but suddenly we're talking about echelons and positioning, which was not my bag at all.

That change put me in a place where I had to be even more opportunistic, because you just never knew how or when the wind was going to come into play, so you had to be vigilant in your positioning. I used to be the kind of guy that would just float around the back of the peloton until it was “go time,” especially at an event like Gila that I knew front to back. I’d be like, “okay, I can hang out in this spot, then I’ve got to get myself to the front.” But they changed the date to spring, and the wind became a huge factor. Now, you have to be hyper-vigilant, start to finish, because you just never know when the wind is going to come into play.

Was that a hard lesson you had to learn because you were “tailgunning” at the back too much? Did you ever get caught out on a certain stage or a certain edition?

No, luckily that didn't happen to me. Well, I mean, it happened – but I wasn't even tailgunning! I was maybe just 15-20 riders back at most, and if you're a GC guy, especially in that kind of wind, you have to stay in the top five on some of those stages. All it takes is one person to open the gap, and if you're five-to-ten riders behind that guy, no matter where he is, it can be a tall order to close that gap, especially when the finish is within sniffing distance.

Where was that? Do you remember a specific stage or part of a stage? It sounds like you're referring to one instance.

Yeah, that was in the Inner Loop Road stage and it was near the finish, inside of 10 km’s to go. You can often have some really severe crosswinds on that stage nearing the finish. I've even seen riders blown straight off the road by strong wind gusts, so you also have to take that into consideration when considering your wheel selection.

That would definitely be one of my tips: be really mindful of the rim depth and the predicted wind for any given stage because if the winds pick up, it can be vicious!

A deep dish wheelset is great if there's little or no wind, but once the race transitioned from June into the spring, it pretty much meant that I rode shallower rims – like sub-30mm – for the entire race, just because I didn't want to be fighting my bike all day in the crosswinds.

These days, it’s hard to imagine seeing that kind of rim in a race. Is taking a low profile rim like that to handle crosswinds even viable anymore?

I think it depends on the rider. If you're a larger rider who has more weight on the bike and can control the bike a little bit more, then I suspect you can get away with deeper rims. But if you're a super-light climber type, and you've got some deeper section wheels with the kind of crosswinds that you can potentially get at a race like Gila, you’re not only going to be fighting the bike, but you might just get blown off the road at some point. So yeah… those were chances that I’d just as soon not take, which meant extra vigilance in my positioning. 

Gila is more or less a climbers’ race, with the exception of the Inner Loop stage and criterium stages. And even then, if you’re not a somewhat capable climber, you're going to struggle. I think it would be a daily consideration or a case-by-case basis on what rim depth you're going to ride. The only day I don't really see rim depth coming into play would be the criterium, because it's downtown and the course is fairly sheltered.

If you have the ability to have both a light set of climbing wheels and a deeper wheelset, then you can judge the conditions daily. And I wouldn't go super deep. Maybe 33mm would be the most I would do – something along the lines of the ENVE 3.4’s – simply because of the unpredictability of the wind. 

There’s also a TT, though. Would you change for that?

Typically, yes – but again, the winds are so unpredictable that I’d keep a spare pair of lower profile rims handy at the startline. I remember one year I was literally queued-up for the start ramp in the time trial, like just two or three minutes away from my start, and the wind just started really whipping up.

I was running a tri-spoke up front and a disc wheel for the rear, but the wind got so crazy so quickly that I dashed back to the car looking for a set of lower profile wheels, and I ended up having to just grab a set of heavier training wheels, your basic set of aluminum box-section clinchers. I threw them on, and rode the TT on those. Had I not switched wheels, I honestly don’t know if I would have been able to finish without being blown off the road.

That happened back when the TT was the first stage, and they would start riders alphabetically. So after that stage, as you looked at the results – I can't even remember who won, but whoever ended up winning was not someone who you would ordinarily expect to do well in that time trial, and his last name started with  a “B” or a “C.” And as you’d scan the results, a lot of the guys who you expected to perform well were midpack because their last name started with, say, an “M” or something, because the wind hadn’t really started for the earlier riders. It was kind of comical, really, but I didn’t find too much humor in at the time, because I’m an “S,” and the wind just got more fierce as the afternoon wore on.

Gearing, nutrition, hydration

What about gearing? If you were locked into a single gearing for the entire race, except the TT, what’s your ideal spread?

Back when I was racing (the last year was 2010) I was probably racing with a 25 as my biggest cog, and running a “standard” 53/39 crankset. But if I were to do it now with the options available today, I would probably run a 10-32 cassette paired with a mid-compact crankset (52/36). Something along those lines. 

What about hydration, nutrition, and fueling in the race. Did you change from stage to stage, maybe need to pack extra gels on a particular stage because you knew that there were going to be points where you had to make sure that you could hang on?

I would approach every stage like, well, like pretty much everything I do in life: prepare for the worst and hope for the best! I probably always finished every stage at Gila with lots of stuff left in my pockets. I still do that in races to this day, so that's just kind of my MO. And I probably always carried more water than needed, but I'd rather have too much water than not enough.

I recall back in the ‘98 edition, when the race was still in the heat in June, all of us on team Nutra Fig were rolling with CamelBaks during the road stages. It was just so hot, like high 90’s to low 100’s, and we knew how critical hydration was going to be. That was my first year as a “pro” (on paper at least), and that team was a true bare-bones affair. We didn’t really have any kind of support staff or anyone in the feed zones. So yeah, we were CamelBak’n it, the whole lot of us.

I remember one of my teammates at the time filled his CamelBak with Pepsi, and it got so pumped-up with all the carbonation that it looked like he was carrying an oxygen cylinder on his back and we were all worried it was going to explode on his back! Haha.. good times! 

Is hydration still as critical now that the race isn’t as hot?

No matter what time of year it is, you have to remember you’re still at between 7,000 to 9,000 feet or so in elevation at any given point, and it's always extremely dry there. I have a buddy who used to call Gila the “Nosebleed Classic” because of the combination elevation and how dry it is there.

So, yeah, staying hydrated, particularly if you're not used to that kind of environment, is critical. If you're coming from somewhere that's typically a little more humid at lower elevation, it’s going to be a shock to the system. You can lose a lot of your hydration status just from respiration in a high desert environment like Silver City, let alone sweating, etc.

Altitude alone can be an issue for many of those riders.

Very true, and that brings up another point where altitude is concerned. There are folks who are  going to be coming from sea level who don't have the luxury of training at altitude beforehand, and sometimes they plan to travel to the race a week ahead of time to acclimate.

My advice is, if you can't do at least two weeks at altitude beforehand, then save it for the last minute. Just get there as close to the race as you can, like the day before, and just go for an easy spin that day. I would maybe do a couple of gentle openers, but don't go for a hard ride, because the second you really start to tax yourself at altitude – that’s a hard hole to pull yourself up out of. That's the same advice I offer for people with my event, the Crusher, too.

“The race has a palpable soul”

Gila has always been a special race for you. Why do you think that is?

Gila was not only the first legit stage race that I ever did, but it also turned out to be a “rite of passage” in many ways for not only my future in cycling, but also my first steps into adulthood.

The first time I participated (1991), I was in my last season as a rider in the junior ranks. As a High School graduation gift, my Mother handed me the keys to the family car, along with a few hundred bucks, and more or less said, “Have fun – and don’t do anything stupid.” And just like that, me and my best buddy hit the road for Silver City, New Mexico. 

We did have fun and we (mostly) didn’t do anything stupid. 

Another huge reason why I love Gila so much is because of the folks involved with the event, and in particular the event directors, Jack Brennan and Michelle Geels. They’ve been at it for as long as I can remember, and they’re both some of the most authentic and passionate people I’ve ever come across. It’s impossible not to love this race because of how much they love it. I think it would be impossible to overstate all that they have done not just for the local community, but for cycling in the US in general. Because of folks like them and all the others from within the local community who pitch in, this race has a palpable soul that you can feel, and that’s super rare.

Speaking of the local community, Gila has THE coolest winner’s trophy of any event in the form of handmade bowls crafted by local artist, Robin Parsons. They’re by far my most treasured cycling mementos, and again, are a reflection of the soul that has always imbued Tour of the Gila.

April 12, 2023 — Burke Swindlehurst
Tags: coaching

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