On a dirt track nestled in the hills of Santa Barbara, Chris Burke soars through the air on his bike. The 22 year-old phenom traverses the track that he helped design at Elings Park so fast that if you blink you might miss him take a turn or launch six feet into the air.
He removes his helmet and a bit of steam rises from his shaggy hair. His face is flushed from the exercise and the chilly night while he rests comfortably on his bike. He sits under the floodlights that illuminate the track on a slightly foggy Friday night. You would not know from talking to him, but there is a buzz going around BMX circles that he has a shot of making the national team for the 2008 Olympics when BMX makes its Olympic debut.
“They might take 15 or so riders to the training camps for the Olympics, and maybe only three will make the team,” Burke said. “I just have to see if I can make it to the competitions like the [Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI)] qualifiers.”
Burke began riding at the tender age of nine, when a friend took him to the local BMX track, which was then located at Earl Warren Showgrounds. From that moment on, he was hooked and worked his way to the top of the amateur world.
“I live 500 feet from the dirt track. I couldn’t help but do it,” Burke said. “It’s either that or surf, and that water’s cold.”
As an amateur he won an impressive 17 national championships, including a title in two events at the American Bicycle Association World Championships. Now, Burke is considered an elite rider in the A Pro class. He will need to work his way into the AA Pro class by earning $3,000 in race winnings, and earn points at a UCI race to be considered for the Olympic team. Simply making it to these competitions can be difficult considering he is also a full-time student with aspirations of graduating this spring with his degree in sociology. For him to travel across the country to compete in a BMX event means a lot of sacrifices.
“People might hype it up more than you think,” Burke said. “I dedicate a lot of my time to this but the top athletes that do this do nothing else. They don’t go to school; they don’t have jobs or anything.”
Burke somehow finds the time to study, work out six days a week and practice every Wednesday and Friday night at Elings Park. And when he is not working out, practicing or studying, he is out riding his bike for fun with his best friend Jarret Kolich. Kolich is an SBCC student who many, including Burke himself, think has a better shot at making the Olympics than Burke does. Together they might sneak into the local skate park where bikes are not allowed, or ride BMX trails and jumps in Goleta to keep things interesting.
“We’re always riding different things,” Burke said. “That’s what makes us better racers, being able to do different things that give you all-around skills on bikes instead of just simply racing.”
Burke loves the exercise and strength that riding has given him, but it has also banged him up in his journey towards the top. A dislocated shoulder, a torn muscle in his abdomen and countless cuts and bruises round out the list of injuries he has suffered from the crashes that come with the territory, but no broken bones.
“I’d say that’s very lucky,” Burke said.
When all is said and done, Burke is very humble about his skills and chances at making the Olympics. He mentions offhand that he thinks his chances are all right, but that he does not want to say something that he is not sure he can back up. He would rather let his bike do the talking for him. It is what makes people want to hang out with him off the track, and what makes opposing riders cringe when they see his name on the list of competitors. His quiet confidence and humility have kept him out of the spotlight for now, but come 2008, Burke might finally have to admit to the world just how good he really is.