Mountain Bike Icons - the Burry Stander story
[Words by Steve Thomas]
It’s hard to believe that ten long years have passed since that dreadful day of 3 January 2013, the morning that many of us opened up our news feeds to read that the South African star of mud and dust, Burry Stander, had been run down by a taxibus driver and killed while heading home after a training ride in his home region in South Africa.
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At just 25 years of age, Burry had already made his mark on the highest podium rungs of the mountain bike world, with an Under 23 UCI MTB World Title, a couple of World Cup wins, an African Championship title, Cape Epic wins and countless other honours to his name. An impressive haul for any top veteran rider, and yet Burry had still not touched the berms of what he was capable of attaining in the years to come.
However, there was much more to Burry Stander than top-draw race results; he was a recently married family man, a successful businessman, a role model to an entire continent of aspiring young riders and much more – in short, Burry was a true legend.
In a quest to find out more about Burry and his life we spoke with his older brother Duane, and most of what follows are in his own words and speaks from the heart.
The early years
Burry was the youngest of three boys (by eight years) in a very close-knit and active family. His two-wheeled story began on a small bicycle and a PW50 motorbike.
He would always race around on them while his older brothers participated in motocross events in South Africa. As a family, we decided to retire the motorbikes in 1997 but this left a big void in our lives. We had also moved to a small farm which was surrounded by sugarcane fields and plenty of rolling green hills - the perfect area for some great two-wheeled action.
It was then that our older brother, Charl, befriended the neighbours in the farming community, and they introduced him to the sport of mountain biking and the local trails.
And so it was that one by one we all were taken out on a mountain bike ride, and we fell in love with riding, the sport, and the newly discovered trails in our area
The first rides
My first memory of Burry riding was of him having to push his chromoly framed, rubber/elastomer forked, cantilever brake mountain bike up steep grassy hills, with his chin hardly reaching above the top tube. But he was determined to tag along on the grown-up rides and to hold his own. Once we were all riding mountain bikes it didn’t take long for us to rekindle our competitive racing spirit and for the family to start traveling the country and participate in marathon, cross-country, and downhill mountain biking events.
I think that being the youngest brother, Burry always felt that he had to prove to us that he could do what we could do and to prove us wrong. He would try and ride up the hills that we would and try and keep up on the downhills or master a technical section that we would ride. I think as time went on and his riding progressed he wanted to prove to himself and to the doubters, and to the world that being from South Africa does not put you at a disadvantage - if you are willing to do what it takes.
He also had confidence in the bucket load, which is essential in professional sports. But maybe he had so much confidence because he knew that he had always done his best in preparation, in training, and in racing.
There were so many highlights in Burry’s career, which was cut short far too early. Those first international racing years from 2006 with Team GT, and meeting his good friend and teammate Todd Wells. They got on like a house on fire from the get-go and managed to inspire and bring out the best in each other. I truly believe both played a crucial role in the success that they had with GT and in the successes that would be achieved in the coming years.
In 2008 things really started to click for Burry, and World Cup top 10s were becoming the standard. He would go on to finish second to Nino Schurter at the MTB World Champs in Val di Sole, Italy.
2009 was a massive year for Burry; he had signed for Specialized Factory Racing. Todd had joined him from GT, and he made lifelong friends with the new team and staff. Life was good and the vibe within the team was excellent, and this was reflected in the results that the team achieved together. He achieved one of his most important goals - to become the U23 MTB World Champion, and a couple of weeks later went on to win his first World Cup in Champery, Switzerland. But, more impressive than the win was that it was also the first World Cup XC win by a South African mountain biker. He came from behind to catch and pass Julian Absalon to take victory in a very thrilling race.
2010 was his first attempt at the Elite UCI MTB World Champs, in Mt St Anne in Canada, and Burry earned a bronze medal. In 2011, after three previous attempts, Burry finally became the first South African to win the coveted Cape Epic title, the biggest mountain bike stage race in the world. This race win and the dominant victory that was to follow in 2012 was truly a complete team effort by everyone involved. Burry raced the Cape Epic five times with Christoph Sauser.
In 2012 he became Singlespeed Mountainbike World Champion – which showed Burry’s different side and approach to his riding; the fun and enjoyment of what he truly loved to do. He dressed up, downed beers and he got the compulsory champion’s tattoo, and then downed more beer from a dirty old gumboot.
His performance at the 2012 Olympic Games, where the gold medal was his ultimate dream; is where Burry earned the respect and attention of people all around the world - and especially in South Africa. Not for the position he finished in (5th), but for the way in which he raced. After a bad start, Burry had to put his head down and dig deep to close the gap and chase down two of the best XC racers in the world; Nino Schurter (Silver) and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Gold), and he did just that about halfway through the race.
Had he been racing for just any medal that day he could have sat up and followed their wheels to the finish line, but no, Burry was going for gold and was not going to settle for anything less. When he caught them he immediately attacked - going for the win, and making the race really hard for the next two laps. Unfortunately, he would pay the price for his early efforts and roll home in a very respectable fifth place.
I believe that the biggest personal, or riding highlight for Burry would have been meeting his wife Cherise through the local cycling scene, and going on to marry her in May 2012 in a beautiful beach ceremony.
Burry and business
Burry’s first venture into the business world consisted of him successfully importing bike bags and Rotor bike components into South Africa, and he did that for multiple years up until his passing.
I believe that almost all cyclists dream of one day owning their own bike shop and for Burry, this was no different. He was a very driven person and was determined to build a life after cycling for himself and his family.
Having raced on Specialized for multiple years, Burry was very passionate about the brand and the world-leading products and bikes that it was producing. He felt that in his home province, and in South Africa in general, the brand retail representation to riders, the service, and the backup and support could be better. Once he set his mind on something he was going to make it happen, and at the end of 2010 our dad, Burry, and I partnered and opened our first Specialized shop in the Kwazulu Natal province, followed a year later by a second in our hometown of Shelly Beach.
Burry’s ultimate goal was to open and own a Specialized Concept Store, and after successfully negotiating and planning with Specialized (spearheaded by Bobby Behan, ex-team manager) Burry opened the very first Specialized Concept Store in South Africa in November of 2012.
He had achieved another life goal, just in time. Two of these stores remain, while the Shelly Beach store has relocated to the farm where Burry’s cycling journey started, and is operated and run by our parents. The Concept Store in Ballito was bought from the family by Burry’s oldest brother Charl, who has turned the store into a real success and continues to build on Burry’s legacy.
Burry would be proud and pleased with the presentation of Specialized as a brand, and that riders in the community are getting the support and service that he set out to achieve.
The hopes and dreams that will never come true
Burry had a love for cars, so I am sure that he would have loved to add to his collection. He had some unfinished business with the Olympics, and that gold medal would have definitely been an important goal for him. During his time racing the Cape Epic with Christoph (Sauser) he became a patron of the songo.info charity in Kayamandi, Stellenbosch.
The charity works towards providing a safe space for children to play on bikes, and it has evolved into an educational and sports programme focused on creating a long-term impact for the children. He would have continued working with Songo and done more charitable work - giving back to the cycling community.
I know that he had earmarked more areas for potential stores, and I think he would have had other areas that he would have loved to explore within the business world. After racing, I could see him stepping into a coaching role, especially working with youngsters on the psychological side of the sport, as that often gets overlooked or neglected. Burry would have been a great dad, and this would have been one of his hopes for the future for sure. He loved his nephew and nieces very much and was always ready to play and entertain, even with some heavy training legs.
The last goodbye
The last day we spent together was Boxing Day 2012, our whole family had a great Christmas that year, and we are all so blessed that we got to celebrate as a family - until the 3 January, which will always be a tough day for us. Ever since then the 26 December always plays on my mind, as it was the last day I got to spend with my brother. As a family, we were rocked to the core. Nothing like that had happened to us, and naively and wrongly we didn’t think it could. That day changed our lives forever, and they will never be as good as they could have been without Burry.
The cycling world was shocked and in disbelief. If I had one wish for Burry, it would be that he knew what an impact and influence he had; the number of people paying their respects and the support had us all amazed, both at home and abroad. Now with living abroad, I get to experience this from time to time still, when people remember Burry and bring up his name in a conversation, nothing makes me more proud and gives me a bigger smile. The cycling world had lost one of its own, for many he was a hero, an idol, a competitor, a teammate, and for others a friend, a brother, a husband, and a son.
A decade on - the legacy of Burry Stander
Burry was known to the world for his exceptional ability on a mountain bike and his do-or-die race craft. Those who got to know him on a personal level got to experience and appreciate the awesome human being that he was, a true example of what it means to live your life to the fullest. He had a big heart, a great work ethic, 110% dedication, contagious energy, and the list just goes on…
Most importantly, he proved to himself and others, especially South Africans, that no matter where you are from or what struggles you have had in the past, they should never be a limiting factor in achieving your goals and dreams. If you set your mind to something and you are willing to put in the work and make the sacrifices then you will win or be successful.
Remain humble and remember where you come from, Burry could have moved and lived anywhere in the world but he chose to stay on the south coast where he was brought up and started cycling. He regularly spent time with his high school friends, relaxing beachside on his recovery days, and could often be found completing a round of golf at the local course. He had a great love for the coast and the people, it had a special place in his heart and that is also why he chose to get married here on a local beach.