Simon Burney: in the right place at the right time
There are not too many people who have been part of the cross-country scene for over 30 years. Simon Burney is one of them. At the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Albstadt the lean Briton with white hair was present in various functions and recently he has become the head of the off-road disciplines at the World Cycling Federation. But Burney also knows the sport from other perspectives. As team manager, as personal manager of athletes and as national coach.
Simon Burney stands out in the mountain bike scene with his 1.94 meters of height and the silver-grey hair. Since 2007 also because he was at the World Cups and World Championships for the UCI. First as technical delegate, then as coordinator. But it wouldn´t do him justice if he were classified as a mere functionary. From an active cyclo-cross rider with a much too early end to his career, to a bike shop owner, he became a young manager of several team formations in the early years of mountain biking. He worked with many World Cup winners, including three-time Danish World Champion Henrik Djernis and also Olympic Champion Sabine Spitz who rode under his aegis for American Eagle in 1999, to name just two examples. Since this year he has been working for the UCI as Off Road Manager, succeeding the Belgian Peter van den Abeele, whom he had signed as a rider in the 1990s.
Simon Burney, you worked as a freelancer for the UCI for a long time. Only since the beginning of this season have you been in a position of responsibility as off-road manager. Now, of all times, in times of the Corona pandemic.
Yes, of all times in this major crisis (laughs). But the situation is unknown to everyone. There are people who say we should simply cancel the World Cup. But it’s not our business to cancel. Take for example Nove Mesto. They can’t do it in May, but they say they could do it in autumn, in September or October. In the end we have a contract. It’s really complicated. Of course we want to have as many races as possible, so we would be happy if we still had races in October or whenever it is possible to do something in the country. It will probably be a short season with many races, but it wouldn’t be fair to the athletes, the teams and their sponsors to cancel everything.
At the moment it is difficult to plan anything.
It is. Right now you don’t know what will happen. You can only take one step at a time in terms of races that are cancelled. Only when we see light at the end of the tunnel can we really start planning. It’s not easy.
So at the moment there are no concrete plans for a possible remaining season?
No. See: every event organizer is in a different situation. In all countries there are different procedures, different laws. Then there´s also the fact that every event is set up differently. Some are dependent on tourism, some on a private agency or a sponsor. It is different everywhere. We have to wait for the organisers to tell us that a move to October is possible or whatever. The World Championships have priority and we have to wait and see what date is possible. Then we can plan the other events around it.
Simon, it’s a very long personal history that has led you to this role at the UCI. How did it all begin?
My father was a runner, a very good runner. As a child I was always with him at competitions. I was in the same club as him, trained there. I was..phew..early teenage years maybe, when I wanted my first bike – because everybody had one. I really liked that, also cleaning the bike, working on it, buying new parts and things like that. In the UK, apart from the National Cycling Union, there is the Cyclist Touring Club (CTC), still the biggest in terms of members. They do rides every Sunday. I was maybe 15 and the guy who owned the bike shop in my town always took part and encouraged kids to join in. That’s how I got involved. 30, 40 people, kids and adults. It started at 10:00 and then you rode all day. It was a good way to get to know cycling. Also about cycling sport, because there were also people who were doing races.
Does this mean that it was also the beginning of competitive sports for you?
In my first junior year I competed in my first race, when I was 16. Before that I didn’t race. It was road races and time trials, which was pretty big for us at that time. Then at the club they told me about cyclo-cross. I had grown up as a runner and that’s why it made sense to me (because cyclo-cross also has running sections). I then concentrated a little more on cyclo-cross and road racing and became a professional at the age of 21, taking part in professional cyclo-cross world championships.
Does that mean you drove international races?
In France, Switzerland and a bit in Belgium. I trained with colleagues who were close by, Tim Gould and David Baker. They were cyclo-cross riders like me. When I was 23, I had a crash in the first race of the season. I injured myself pretty badly and was in hospital for a few weeks. That ended my cycling career.
What was your best result?
Today I would have one more year in the U23 when I had to end my career. Looking back, I have to say that I was still too young. Maybe I rode big races too early for which I was not good enough.
In the British school system, students finish the O-Level (Ordinary Level) at the age of 16, then go on to do an apprenticeship or continue to attend school in order to achieve the A-Level (Academic Level) which qualifies for university. Simon Burney left school after one year of A-Level to complete a commercial apprenticeship. Not in any company, but at Raleigh, which was based in Burney’s home town of Nottingham. Raleigh is known in German cycling circles not least because first Dietrich Thurau (77), then Klaus-Peter Thaler (78) wore the Yellow Jersey for Ti-Raleigh in the Tour de France. At that time, 12,000 people were employed by the bicycle company, including Simon Burney’s father. The trainees had the opportunity to get to know different departments and in the end more or less choose in which department they wanted to work. But Simon Burney wanted to advance his cycling career and did not stay long after the apprenticeship ended. Instead, he opened a bike shop.
You had already opened a bike shop at that time.
Yes, I had one between the ages of 21 and 25, which allowed me to train, race and at the same time I could use the races to help my bike shop. After I had to stop competing, I sold the shop. At that time I managed Tim.
It basically merged into the career as a cycling manager.
Yeah, that’s how it was. More or less by chance I started right at the top (laughs).
Because Tim and Dave were your friends?
Yes. I managed riders who won big races. I had to learn pretty quickly – how to win sponsors, how to work with them. What you have to organize for a team that has grown very fast. It was pretty international. We were the first Europeans in the USA, but in 1992, as the Peugeot/Look team, we had Mike Kloser as the first American in a European team. It was a new sport in new places. As I said: I had to learn quickly. But it was super exciting to be involved in this sport.
But only your active career was finished after the injury.
I could not work and had nothing to do. Tim Gould and David Baker were a bit younger than me and I started to support them. We started a small team (Ace Racing Team) and got a small sponsorship. We did that for a year and the following year Peugeot Cycles sponsored us.
When was that?
- Cyclo-cross in winter, road races in summer. That year, Peugeot launched its first mountain bike. They brought us a few and said if we could go to a few races, that would be great. So the guys went to the first British races organised by the Mountain Bike Club of Great Britain. It wasn’t under the umbrella of the cycling federation at that time. So they went to these races. The people who rode there weren’t road riders or cyclo-crossers. They bought mountain bikes and rode them. Our guys were on a totally different physical level and they basically won everything. In 1988 we went to the Grundig World Championships in Crans Montana in Switzerland. That was the first time we saw the Americans. John Tomac, Ned Overend, Mike Kloser came. Kloser won, I think before Overend and David was third or fourth, in any case the best European.
That gave another boost to the team?
It was pretty easy to get sponsors back then. Peugeot was very happy that we were so good. That’s why we did cyclo-cross in winter and mountain biking instead of roads in summer. Mountain biking became more and more important for the team. The sponsorship then changed from Peugeot Great Britain to Peugeot France and we were the first Europeans to fly to races in the USA. We flew to Big Bear for the NORBA (National Off Road Bicycle Association) finals. Tim (Gould) won and beat Ned Overend which was the first time this happened. America was the heart of the whole thing. That’s where the money was, the sponsors, the early races.
What year was that?
That was 1989. Then we went to Mammoth Mountain for the unofficial American “World Championships”. They were, I think, fifth or fourth and ninth. It was the first time that we raced at an altitude of over 2000 meters. That was pretty tough. The European World Championships were held in Spa (Belgium). I think Mike Kluge won (actually it was John Tomac), David (Baker) was second.
This means that you and your team were right at the top when the mountain bike sport really took off.
Somehow we were in the right place at the right time – with the right riders (laughs). My own cycling career ended much earlier than I had hoped because of my injury, but I was able to work with my friends. Only in cyclo-cross and mountain biking did we get pretty easy. They knew about off-road cycling, were pretty fit. Because we were the first to go to the USA, we got a lot of sponsors from there too. By chance at the same time the story happened with Frischi (Thomas Frischknecht), who was signed by Ritchey. There was a US guy who came with Don Myrah to cyclo-cross races in Europe and worked for Ritchey. He approached Frischi, hey you should come to America to ride mountain bike races. Then Henrik Djernis (Denmark) came along, also from Cyclo-Cross. At the first UCI World Championship in 1990 in Durango (USA) Tim was third behind Ned Overend and Frischi. The Ritchey team and my Peugeot team were closely connected because Ritchey had also sponsored us since 1990. We travelled together. At European races I organised both teams. In America Dave Mc Laughlin took care of that. Ritchey was the link between the two teams.
You were dealing with top-class riders.
In 1991 Tim Gould won the first official UCI Mountain Bike World Cup race in Bassano del Grappa (Italy). The sport developed rapidly, the TV presence on Eurosport was good, the sponsors were there. It was a new sport and it grew very fast. I was just in the right place when it started.
Simon Burney has remained true to the cyclo-cross sport to this day. Riders from his teams rode in narrow tyres in winter, too. As early as 1989 he wrote a book about cyclo-cross training, which had its third edition in 2009 and he was partly involved in cyclo-cross events. Among other things he organized a world cup. He was also active for a while as a co-commentator for TV broadcasts of the Cyclo-Cross World Cup.
You came as a cyclo-cross rider and discovered the sport of mountain biking. What was your perspective on this new sport? Was it just a fun thing, did you see a market in it or what was it?
When we started, we had no idea. We rode it like cross-country races. We saw the mountain bikes almost as cyclo-cross bikes. We put cyclo-cross pedals on them, we made the handlebars look like cyclo-cross. Only when we went to America and saw the tracks there did we realize that cyclo-cross was not the best role model. We were sponsored by Campagnolo, which was quite heavy equipment. I remember talking to Daryl Price who was riding for Specialized back then. They had Shimano equipment and compared to Peugeot-Campagnolo the difference in weight was considerable. We quickly realized what we had to change.
And how did you assess the development of the sport back then?
We always knew: mountain biking won´t go away, it will get bigger and bigger. Many cyclo-cross riders laughed about that and road riders also thought it was a simple matter. That they could come and just do it. From time to time you could see road riders who came and tried it because they thought they could win a lot of money. But it didn’t work. It was easier for a cross rider, but it was still also different. The climbs were long and the races were longer, two and a half to three hours. It was different than today. But we took it seriously from day one. The guys I worked with always wanted to win the races, always wanted to learn. They didn’t ride the mountain bike races because the sponsor wanted them to. They quickly realized that they could ride there well and make a living out of it.
As a cyclo-cross rider back then, was it possible to live on the income?
Mike Kluge or Frischi: yes, also Djernis. But for a Brit it was hard, unless you lived in Switzerland. Back then the best riders were there and there was a lot of money. World champions got good starting money, but for Brits that nobody knows, it was difficult.
The 90s were probably pretty wild in the young mountain biking sport.
Yes, it was like that.
If you compare that time with today, the sport, the atmosphere in the scene. What has changed mainly?
Hmm, interesting question. I think cross-country hasn’t changed as much as downhill. Downhill in the 90s was about the races, but it was also about the personalities. They were doing parties and stuff for the magazines. That changed a lot. But not cross-country. Even in the early days with Frischi, Overend, Tomac, they all ran the sport as professionally and seriously as they could. There is not much difference between what Frischi did in 1991 and what Nino is doing in 2020.
In the mid 90s there were huge crowds of spectators, TV broadcasts, the sponsors were there, there were many teams, many riders. There were qualification races at the World Cup, 250 starters at the World Cup in Houffalize and so on. The atmosphere hasn’t changed, but they have become more professional downhill. It’s all about performance and the personality comes after.
Where do you see milestones in the development of cross-country sports?
I think the sport was in a good situation in those early years. To become an Olympic sport so early (1996) has brought a lot of attention. But maybe it grew too fast because of that and I think it suffered from that in the late 90s. Until 2008 it was quite difficult. The sport tried to do things the same way as always, but people wanted to try new things. I´m talking 24-hour races, stage races, and later enduro. Everyone wanted to do something new. That led to a decline, mountain biking was hardly seen on TV, teams had a hard time getting sponsors.
The adventurous times of the early days had disappeared in this phase from the end of the 90s, the sales figures of mountain bikes decreased, the market was clearing up. Too little attention had been paid to the further development of the discipline. On the contrary: In 2003 the race duration was even increased again for a short time. At the Olympic Games in Beijing, the broadcasting of the mountain bike races was the most expensive production of all disciplines. In the forest passages, too many cameras were needed to capture the action. In addition, the race was boring because there were quickly too big gaps between the positions on the track and you only saw a few riders scurrying through the forest. This led to consequences. The races of the London 2012 Olympic Games were held in Hadleigh Park on an artificially created course in an open terrain, which gave the spectators on site the opportunity to see a lot. The production effort was significantly reduced, the races were exciting until the end and mountain biking was saved as part of the Olympic program.
After that there was a change?
I think Beijing 2008 was one big wake-up call. The UCI was told that if cross-country didn´t change significantly, the sport would be taken out of the Olympic program. I think that was the point where the courses changed, became shorter and more attractive for TV and spectators. I think the first one was in Offenburg. The type of courses, to name individual passages and spectator routes, was the starting point for what we have now. After Beijing 2008, that was the biggest change that cross-country sport needed.
You say the sport needed it.
Yeah, it wouldn’t have gone further in the same style. It would have gotten worse and worse. The London 2012 Olympics course was something we never had before. Some World Cup events have adopted this style, Rio was similar. The next step was Red Bull TV. That was perhaps the second most important step. The fact that these people were involved forced everyone to make improvements, the goal to become more professional and to deliver a good performance. What we have now is working well and the (user) numbers continue to move in the right direction. They want to invest further.
What is your personal motivation to be part of the whole, even after such a long time.
Oh, I love the races and being part of it. As a racer I stopped too early, but I carried on that tension and passion. I have found my place. I was team manager for a long time, then coach and now with the UCI. But it was always about the races.
Is it a kind of family?
Yes, sure. There are people who quit and you don’t realize how many have come and gone. I’ve seen 30 world championships, you see them as juniors, as U23 riders, then elite and at some point they stop. It is a small community. It’s not football, everybody knows everybody. It’s the World Cup circus, moving from one place to another. Many think alike. There are some people who make good money, but it’s not the bottom line. It’s about the sport and the passion for it. Maybe I have a little bit of influence now on where the sport is going, but it’s still about the races and the athletes.
These are impressive figures, which prove how much Simon Burney is connected with the mountain bike sport. He has experienced 205 of a total of 220 Cross-Country World Cup events on site. The last time he missed a World Cup was in 2012 due to a knee operation. He was part of all 30 official world championships so far. And also at a few predecessors, when mountain biking was not yet recognized as a discipline in the UCI. Nevertheless, he still doesn’t seem tired of it.
Are there any highlights in your career in cycling that you particularly like to look back on?
(Laughs and thinks about it). One was certainly the mountain bike race at the Commonwealth Games in Australia in 2006. I coached the English team and we won gold and silver with Liam Killeen and Oliver Beckinsale. That was probably the best result I had in that position. They beat good Australians and Canadians like Roland Green (2-time World Champion). But it’s not the same when you are a team manager or work for the UCI as when you are a rider and win a big race. I can’t influence anything. But when I think of big events, the World Championship in Lenzerheide comes to mind. When Nino (Schurter) won, the minute before he crossed the finish line in front of this huge crowd, in front of his home crowd. That’s when everything came together.
Which people have influenced you the most?
Phew. Good question. Oh, yes, there is a person named Richard Duffell. I met him at Raleigh, and he was a good friend. He was in the cyclo-cross races and eventually became marketing manager at Peugeot. He took the risk to sponsor our team with Peugeot bikes. Without that, the story would have been different and his influence was quite strong at that time. There are a lot of people in cycling who were important. I also think of Sid Standard the owner of the bike shop who introduced me to cycling. He had a really big influence.
What do you think about the personalities in this cross-country sport?
It depends on how you define personalities. We have a great mix of personalities. Cross-country is a sport where you train alone a lot. The athletes are happy with themselves, they are calm and motivated and they are not necessarily great (extroverted) personalities. I think it is the same in marathon running or triathlon. They are very competition-oriented and incredibly focused on what they do. Take Jaroslav Kulhavy (2012 Olympic champion) because he fits the description. But as I said: it depends on what you understand by personality.
And how do you see that in the ladies?
The ladies’ sport has developed greatly, it has become so strong. There are female rider who are real role models. For gender equality and bike racing and mountain biking in particular. They are all good in social media, in front of the cameras, in interviews. They all know what makes them a pro, but they are also incredibly talented and focused on what they do. But they are also very close. After the starting signal they are very ambitious and fight for every position, but after that they have coffee together. So they are perfect role models for the next generation. With the men it’s a little different. I think Nino is not necessarily a great personality or even a Julien Absalon. But they are great athletes and that is all they need to be. They let their results speak for themselves.
The fact that the atmosphere in the women’s events has changed so much is perhaps also one of the positive developments.
Ever since I joined, mountain biking has always been the cycling discipline with the greatest gender equity. Women and men ride the same routes over the same time distance, on the same day and for the same prize money. I think we were always ahead of the rest of cycling sports. The only thing – and I don’t know why that was – was the Olympic Games where 50 men were allowed to ride, but only 30 women. Fortunately, that was changed after Rio 2016. In this sport it was never considered that there should be a difference between men and women. There have always been teams with women and men, it was always the same day. When I went back to cyclo-cross, I always realised how unfair it is.
Simon Burney also managed teams in which men and women rode. Sabine Spitz was one of them, the British Caroline Alexander another. In general, even today most of the professional teams are still made up of men and women.
It was Peter van den Abeele, one of your former athletes, who brought you to the UCI.
Yes. Peter rode in my teams from ’96 to ’99. He quit after the Olympic Games in Sydney, then managed a women’s team on the road for two years and joined the UCI in 2005. After changing the structures at British Cycling, Peter offered me the job as Technical Delegate. But this was on a fee basis. I did a lot of other small things to finance my life. But the job at the UCI became more and more.
A few years ago you said you didn’t want to go to the UCI in Aigle full-time and sit in the office.
(Laughs). Yeah, that’s true. And I never did.
But you are there now.
I never thought there’d be this opportunity. To be honest: I’m getting older too and the last few years I’ve been to very, very many races and I haven’t missed one for a long time. The races are still the best part of my job and I also like to travel. But you get to a point where it’s always the same, you get to the same places again and again. It gets harder and harder. Airports are no fun and neither is sitting in a plane. We are not getting any younger and when someone quit his job pretty quickly, Peter asked me surprisingly if I wanted to do that. Within a few days I had to decide. I thought, okay, I’ll give it a try. I also felt like I needed something new.
Will we not see you at races as much anymore?
It’s not that much different, though. Of course I won’t be at every World Cup anymore, but I will be at the important races. But I’ll be at events I never had to be at before, like the BMX World Cups and a bit more cyclo-cross. I think I can learn something.
So far I have never been employed by the UCI, always just an independent consultant. I went from Technical Delegate in Cross-Country to Event Coordinator and was thus the person responsible at the UCI for the events and coordinated the cooperation with the organizing committee, television and all the people involved. Each discipline has a coordinator, cyclo-cross, mountain bike, trial, BMX and I now manage the coordinators.
Is it part of your job to develop the sports further?
Yes, absolutely. It is more about the big picture. The coordinators look at the daily business, the details. I will have to look a few years into the future, think about what we will do at the Olympics, what can we do to keep downhill interesting and so on. A bit bigger projects, I would say.
Regarding cross-country sports, what is on your wish list?
The goal is to bring short track into the Olympic program which will probably be decided at the end of this year – for Paris 2024. Then I would like to work on the structures in the marathon and stage races. I’d like to revitalize the marathon sport a bit and hope we can introduce a new series and come back to a marathon ranking. It’s also about reducing the influence of marathon and stage races on the cross-country world rankings, as we see in the Olympic qualifying. We want to separate that a little bit, so that the marathon scene can specialize more and more teams are created again. I think a lot can develop with the events with a large number of participants, which is good for the sport and the bike industry.
How do you want to approach this structurally?
We talk to the national federations, we have a kind of Nations Forum at the World Championships. At the World Cup races we talk to the teams regularly. So far it happens less with the marathon teams, but we try to consult there as well. But it is of course our responsibility at the UCI to think about this. I believe that you have to try things out to see if they work. If we take the eliminator: we tried it, it didn’t work in the cross-country World Cup. It was an experiment.
The short track on the other hand worked well.
Yes, it did. I’m really happy about the way it’s going. There will be a World Championship for the first time in 2021 which will increase the importance, too.
One problem with the short track is that you have to limit the number of participants because of the short format. In the World Cup this is done via the world ranking list, but that is difficult in other races.
Yes, my plan is to do two runs and the best 20 qualify for the final. It’s all about timing. I think the riders can compensate for two twenty-minute races on the same day. One in the morning, the second in the afternoon. That shouldn’t be a big problem. I think it’s important in a world championship to be more open to new riders.
This is the plan for Val di Sole 2021?
Yes. But it still needs discussion and confirmation in the mountain bike commission.
Short profil: Simon Burney
Home town: Nottingham, Great Britain
Residence: Bex, Switzerland
Greatest sport successes: 24th of the Cyclo-Cross Worlds,
Gold and Silver at the Commonwealth Games 2006 as British national coach
In addition: numerous victories and podium finishes as team manager
1987-1988 Ace Racing Team/Peugeot
1989-1991 Peugeot Cycles
1992 Peugeot – Look
1994 Louis Garneau (as manager of Caroline Alexander)
1995 until 1996 BMW-Proflex.
1999 American Eagle
2000 – 2007 Performance Manager at British Cycling
Current Position: Off-Road Manager of the UCI
Photo: Irmo Keizer