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Big Mountains, Italian Holidays, and the Seven Dwarves: A Conversation with Climber Jamie Burrow

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Riccione, Italy

British climber Jamie Burrow turned professional with the U.S. Postal Service team in 2000 after racing as an U23 in France and Italy. He never reached the inner circle at the American team, and after two years, signed with Italian team Amore & Vita - Beretta. Burrow spent five years racing in the professional ranks in Italy, but most Italian cycling fans don't recognize his name because of his professional exploits. Instead, Burrow is best known in Italy for his results in the Grand Fondo events, the long, mountainous one-day races held throughout the year.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to chat with Jamie. We talked about how cycling differs between Italy and France, what it takes to be a top level climber, and why he loved racing Grand Fondos. He also told me about his newest project the Mpire Cycling Centre and his not-so-secret super power, cake decorating. What, you didn't think it was possible to render Snow White and all seven dwarves in cake? Read on, my friends, and all will be revealed!

France v. Italy

Gav: You got your own start racing in France, then shifted to Italy, right?

Jamie: I rode my first senior year in Dunkirque at 18-19 in 1996. Then I moved to Italy in 1997.

Gav: What differences do you see between the two countries in terms of their approaches to cycling? Racing, training, culture. I know, big questions. But what are your general impressions?

Jamie: The French have a much bigger fan base. The people love to go and watch a bike race. Italian races are empty. Riccione, Italy. Photo: Jamie Burrow.

Regards to racing, the Italians have the best schooling in the world. You live in team houses all season with strict rules, and learn the job inside out. If you have some talent, the Italian U23 teams will help you find and develop it.

Gav: That's interesting, because you hear in the media, oh, the French aren't interested in cycling anymore. I've never much believed that. The Italians, by contrast, are often portrayed as cycling mad.

Jamie: The Giro is very big. But there is no following in other races. The French people camp on the corse even for a French Cup.

Gav: Ah, got it. So, France, people turn out for the regional races, the French Cup, stuff like that. That would explain how French teams can get good sponsor support for winning in France.

The Italians seem to be much more structured and scientific about training. Is that the case?

Jamie: Yes, they are very structured. I think that other countries are now even more scientific, but the Italians have the most discipline.

Gav: That's funny, because it totally goes against cultural stereotypes. Italians as most disciplined. For a while, the French have seemed to really struggle to get international results, though it seems like they are starting to rebound. What do you think accounts for that?

Jamie: The French are lacking in international results. I think it’s often too easy for an average French guy to keep a job. The French teams normaly have around 90% french riders in their teams. I have often seen real average guys with 10 year carreers earning good money, as they pass from one French team to another, two years here, then move on.....

Gav: I guess that makes sense in the context of the fan base - that people turn out even for the smallest races, so you can have lots of French riders focused on winning that stuff. Where, in Italy, if the Giro is the only race anyone really pays attention to, the only guys making a good living are the top level.

Jamie: I assume that’s how they keep their jobs, local popularity.

Gav: I think you're right about that, really. So, it's probably fair to say that cycling in France is deeper Samuel Dumoulin, Maxime Bouet, Ruben Moreno Perez, Koen de Kort ride the early break, Tour de France 2009. Photo: Jasper Juinen/Getty. - there are more guys making a living, more races that get fans - but Italy has better riders at the top level, because that's all there is.

Jamie: The Italians have to work harder to keep jobs. Within closed circles it’s very big here, just not much general following. Also, they don’t cover any races on t.v. This makes it harder to keep a job, as you don’t get noticed as much.

Gav: Right - and harder for teams to keep sponsors. Is that to some degree what happened with your career? You raced in Italy for several years after Postal? And it was hard to get noticed?

Jamie: Exactly, I was very often in the mix, many times I could get away on the final climb of the day and get caught in the finale. Then, I wasn’t a fast finisher, so I had lots of average top 10's. But the break or decisive moves were not on t.v.

Gav: Heh, pet peave - when the coverage doesn't show the early moves.

Jamie: Exactly. You see how many guys, who are not winners, manage to keep jobs from riding all day in no-man’s land, but have maybe four hours live t.v in other countries.

Gav: The headbangers. No real racing reason for them to be out there, just headbanging billboards.

And as a climber, you needed a solid climb to give you enough road to get a big result. Most races - outside the Giro - aren't going to have that, right? They're more suited to the guys like Bettini - who can climb, but have those silly fast finishes.

Jamie: The Giro di Trentino is the only other climber’s race (outside the Giro) in the season, and the Giro favorites are all there on top form.

Gav: Good race, but if that's all there is...

Talking Climbing

Gav: What kinds of climbs suited you best? Can you do a quicky comparison among the Dolomiti, Alps and Pyrénéen climbs?

Jamie: The longer the better, with average gradients. Unfortunately, I didn’t get many chances to race them as a pro. The Italian climbs are steeper, for sure. I like the Mortirolo, but I’m better on something like the Tourmalet.

The Alps have steep hairpins which break your rythm if you are on the limit, but can benefit you if you are trying to make your move.

The Pyrénées have long straights that never end, and often you can’t see the top of the climb until you are on it. In the Dolomites, you don’t benefit so much from being on the wheel, compared to the Pyrénées, where you can save a lot of watts.

Gav: Plateau de Beille, Tour de France 2004.Heh, never-ending straights. Purgatorio. Do you have a favorite climb?

Jamie: My favorite climb is probably Mont Ventoux.

Gav: Ventoux! The moonscape! That thing is so crazy.

Jamie: You can really suffer there on a bad day. It’s claimed many victims.

Gav: Especially if there's wind. Amazing how much difference wind makes on that climb.

Do you still have the record for Plateau de Beille? How would you describe that one?

Jamie: That was steady 16km, I think, with no real bad changes in gradient. They had a mountain time trial there a few years back in the Dauphiné, and Levi won. I imagine that was a record as they only rode the climb. We did it at the end of a 160km stage.

Gav: Right on. My memory from seeing it raced is that it's pretty steady - but I haven't ridden any of the climbs, so it's all based on watching the racing. Sometimes that's misleading!

Jamie: For sure, even riding them in different states of form can be so misleading. I don’t understand guys who check out vital Giro and Tour stages at this time of year. It’s too different.

Gav: I definitely have experienced that one! One day you ride it and it's like, oh, no big, I can fly on this thing. Next time, ack! Why didn't I bring more gears!

Jamie: :-)

Miguel Indurain, Bjarne Riis, Alex Zülle on the Alpe d'Huez, 12 July 1995. Pascal Rondeau/Allsport.Gav: What characteristics do the best climbers share? Obviously, strength-to-weight ratio is the gold standard. Is there more to it than that? And who would you rate as the top two or three pure climbers at the moment?

Jamie: Yes, the power-to-weight is the key factor. The big difference at the top level is that of an attacking out the saddle climber, and that of a bigger powerful guy who has seated acceleration. They can both be lethal in their own way. Indurain would ride away and you wouldn’t notice on t.v. that he was accelerating. Whereas Lance, Pantani had a real impresive kick. At the moment, I think Ricardo Riccò is the best, closely followed by Contador.

Gav: Indurain, the invisible attacker. Ullrich could do that kind of climbing too, when he was on form. Suddenly, there's daylight and you wonder how it got there.

Jamie: It can often do more damage, too. As you try to follow until you blow. Whereas an attack you can respond to at your own pace.

Gav: Right, if you know they're a big attacker guy, eventually they'll slow down. So you just let it go, and bring it back.

But a guy like Indurain, it's like, he's not slowing down.

The Big Move guys are always fun to watch.

Jamie: Oh yeah, everyone wants to see a big attack in the mountains.

Gav: Ha! Yes, we're so transparent that way :)

Holiday in Italy: The Mpire Center

Gav: So tell me what you're doing at the Mpire Center.

Jamie: Well, we have taken over a hotel in Riccione, which was previously only open in the summer months, and we will be extending the season with cycling specific holidays.

Gav: Where is Riccione exactly? It's on the Adriatic, right?

Jamie: It’s on the Adriatic coast. It’s Pantani's old stomping ground. We’re trying to cover all aspects of cycling, from touring and sight-seeing trips, all the way through to one-on-one coaching camps.

Gav: Right on, so near Cesena. Everything I know about Italian geography I learned from the Giro. A typical week for you could be leading touring type rides or hosting a racing team?

Jamie:Riccione, Italy. Yes, next to Cesena. We will cater for everyone. It’s a new project, we open on the 2nd April 2011 with the Horizon Fitness Cycling Team training camp. This is an open camp. Anyone can come and train with the team and get advice from me or from the team (staff and riders). We expect to cater to a lot of general cyclists who want to find a general all-round improvement in their performance.

Gav: I didn't know the Horizon camp was open. So, anyone can come, train with the team, enjoy the Italy, and learn about cycling. Very cool idea. Do you coach riders in addition to what you do at Mpire?

Jamie: I don’t think anyone else has offered that kind of service yet. We also have some nice trips planned that combine riding round the medieval towns with local food and wine. I haven’t coached until now. But it will become a big part of the Mpire cycling centre.

Gav: The local food and wine part, that sounds scrumptious.

Jamie: If people like the service we offer at the hotel, then we will propose further coaching advice after they leave.

Gav: Makes sense! So it's part vacay, part improve your cycling. We have some camps like that here, but they're usually one-offs.

Jamie: Yes, that’s the general idea.

Italy loves Grand Fondos

Jamie Burrow racing it up at a 2009 Grand Fondo. Photo: Jamie Burrow. Gav: Are you still doing Grand Fondos - or is the Mpire Center taking up your time now?

Jamie: I stopped at the end of last year to dedicate all my time on Mpire. The level is very high, and you have to follow the same lifestyle as in the pros.

Gav: From what I understand they're hugely popular in Italy? And the courses sound crazy hard, so I'm not surprised it's a full-time deal to be good at them.

Jamie: It’s very big. It’s also the only form of racing you can do once you are more than 26 years old, so you have many ex pro's or top elites that want to race for a living still.

Gav: And you can make a living at it?

Jamie: The top teams take 2-5 ex-pros and can pay well. With only a few guys and racing only once a week, other expenses are fairly minimal. Most of the sponsors are from inside the cycling industry.

Gav: I didn't realize it was that well-paid. Funny, we have "grand fondos" starting to show up here in the US, but they're really just recreational rides with a stylish name. Do people turn out to watch the fondos? Is there a fan base?

Jamie: It’s very popular. In any news agent’s shop, you will find 6-7 cycling mags. Five of them will be fondo specific, so you can get a lot of press. It’s also a big family day out for many Jamie Burrow winning the Maratona dles Dolomites in 2009. Photo: Jamie Burrow.as they all have "pasta parties" after the race. This brings a lot of fans. The Maratona dles Dolomites has 6 hours live coverage on national t.v.

Gav: Whoa, 6 hours of live coverage? Crazy. I think I'll skip the ride and head for the pasta party! As a climber, the courses would suit you well, too.

Jamie: I am probably better known in Italy for my fondo results than as a pro. The courses were fantastic. The kind of thing I dreamt of as a pro. I compare the big fondos to running marathons. You have the elites at the front, then thousands of fun riders just trying to get round. The "Pantani" does Gavia, Mortirolo, Santa Cristina.

Gav: Oh my. Nothing easy about that one! Climber's party!

Jamie: Oh yeah, and the break always goes already on Gavia. Long day.... I admire alot of the people who ride those events. Some of them are 12 hour jobs, and they have to go to work the next day.

Gav: That's crazy. Like, how do you even train enough to finish if you work 12 hours!

Secret Super Power: Cake Decorating

Gav: So, I’m told you know something about cake designing?

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cake by Jamie BurrowJamie: :-) Yeah that’s a hobby of mine. I have thought about making it a career a couple of times, too. Maybe, if all else fails.... I wouldn’t mind my own "Charm City Cakes."

Gav: What’s the coolest design you've done so far?

Jamie: I did the "Black pearl" from Pirates of the Carribean. And Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs this year for my mum. That took about 35 hours. I like all things to do with art and design. I’m doing all the decor in the hotel.

Gav: Okay, now I’m hungry for cake.

Interview by Jen See.