352nd MXS crew chief competes in mountain-X challenges

RAF Mildenhall -- Hearts pound in the riders' chests and all eyes are on the starting lights as they flash first red, then yellow then green.

The gate hisses as it raises into the starting position, to the sound of, "Riders ready ... watch the gate."

Beep ... beep ... beeeeep!

Crashing down, the gate drops sharply like a drawbridge, signaling the race has begun.
In that split second, four mountain-X bicyclists - hundreds of pounds of speeding metal and determined riders - fly into the air and cross the starting line. As mud sprays everywhere, the riders focus on reaching the finish line in 30 seconds or less.

The crowd roars wildly with excitement as the riders stand up on their pedals; the starting sequence can hardly be heard over the spectators cheering on their favorite rider.

For Bob Burnes, a senior airman and helicopter crew chief in the 352nd Maintenance Squadron support section, this is heaven.

After getting MH-53 Pave Low helicopters in the air for a living, he unwinds by flying through the air and speeding round a track on his beloved mountain-X bike.

The 31-year-old Salinas, Calif., native is the only American riding in mountain-X competitions around the United Kingdom, and was ranked fourth in the UK in 2006.

He rides at various locations around the country, and is eager for other Americans to join him and experience the thrill for themselves.

Mountain-X riding involves four people per race, riding on a downhill course incorporating large jumps, tight turns and plenty of areas to sprint. Races typically last between 25 to 40 seconds on a course 1/8 to 1/4 mile long.

"I think that's what makes it the most fun to watch," said Burnes, "because you're not sitting there waiting for ages to see (the riders) go by again."

In England, riders can be from 7 to 80 years old, "providing you think you can do it then!" laughed Burnes. And there's a veterans class for anyone older than 45.

"Most of the tracks are rollable, which means everyone can do it," he said. "For instance, some of the (younger riders) aren't very good at jumping 20-foot gaps, so they roll down them.

Burnes said he gets a real sense of accomplishment and purpose from riding.

"I'm the only guy who can make or break it, and I decide if I win or lose," he said. "I get such a rush from competing."

As a former California police officer, Burnes is no stranger to adrenalin, but said the thrill of racing is incomparable.

"This is like it's me against the world, for at least 40 seconds - the gate drops, and it's on, right now. There's no let up whatsoever; there are four motos (individual races), and you'll do each moto in about 25 to 40 seconds, then it's right back to the top to do it all over again."

The senior airman said being at the starting line is like having tunnel vision.

"It's like you're looking through binoculars, and all you can see is that 3 meters in front of you. There's no sense of what's beside you, and no sense of sound. You don't feel cold any more - you just feel and hear your own breathing. All I see is the line that my bike needs to take to go the fastest."

But the thrill of Mountain-X racing doesn't come cheap.

In addition to the specialty racing bike, which can cost from $1,200 to more than $5,000, a full-face helmet is vital, along with gloves, knee, shin and elbow protection, and goggles. Burnes also wears a core-saver and back-plate to protect his chest, sternum and kidneys.

To offset the expense, Burnes has eight major sponsors who support him with equipment and entry fees.

"Bob is very passionate about his riding and a very confident and competent racer," said Suzanne Lacey, a new four-X rider and friend of Burnes. "He's pretty aggressive on the track, definitely a fast racer and good competitor."

Along with his wife, Kimberley, who constantly provides her support, he also has a couple of very good friends who have helped him both financially and just by being there for him.

"In my last race in September, someone 'T-boned' me (hit him from the side) at about 25 to 30 mph and blew out my forks," he said. "I still placed third, but my bike was written off."

Luckily, Burnes walked away from it without a scratch.

His friend (who doesn't wish to be named) paid for a special four-X frame (hand-built, hand-designed and built specifically for racing) and gave it to him as a surprise.

"He told me to stop by his house as he had some sodas in the fridge for us to take to work," he said. "I went to get the drinks from his fridge, and I turned around and saw the four-X frame - I knew it wasn't his because he's into cross-country racing and wants nothing to do with four-X. I picked it up to look at it, and he said, 'It's yours'. It was his way of saying congratulations; he doesn't say those kind of things too much."

Burnes races in the masters category, which usually sees between 12 to 25 people racing throughout the day.

Race categories are set according to age: youth -- 7 to 11; juvenile -- 12 to 14s; juniors -- 15 to 17; seniors -- 18 to 29; masters -- 30 to 39; and veterans -- 40-plus.

The elite (professional) category riders are paid to ride, after qualifying on the podium in first to third places and maintaining their top-five status for a year or more.

Between March and October, Burnes took first place six times, second place several times, third place eight times, and fourth place four times. He races three to four motos at each race meeting.

"When you're standing on the podium, it's like you're on top of the world. But I'm aware that it could always change in the next race," he said.