We tragically lost Burry Stander on 3 January 2013. But we will never let his legacy fade. Despite his incredible achievements, at 25, his best years as a bike racer were still ahead of him. What made him so successful? Mostly his desire to be the best in the world. On the 33rd anniversary of his birth, we take a look back to 2008 and his big breakthrough.

By Sean Badenhorst

Proudly South African, Burry carries his national flag after securing the silver medal in the Under-23 Men’s race in Italy in 2008. || Photo: Sven Martin

In 2007, filled with ambition, 19-year-old Burry Stander began to contest some rounds of the UCI XCO World Cup Series. He would turn 20 in September so this was his second year in the Under-23 division. He’d spent some of 2006 racing in the USA where he won three races and secured himself a sponsorship to race for GT Bikes. In typical Burry fashion, he had accumulated additional sponsors to help fund his single-minded, never-faltering quest for success.

But as any champion will tell you, success takes time, especially in the global context. You just have to start, stay focussed and keep working at it.

Round 1 was at Houffalize, Belgium on 22 April. In a field of 231, Burry finished a respectable 32nd. The race was won by Spain’s Jose Hermida with Julien Absalon and Christoph Sauser rounding out the top three places. Nino Schurter, a year older than Burry, was sixth.

On 27 May, the action moved to Offenberg, Germany. On one of the least technical courses, Burry was 63rd in a race won by Absalon. Next up was Champery, Switzerland on 10 June where Burry was 48th. Absalon, Sauser and Schurter were the top three in that order.

Later that month, on 24 June, the racing was at Mont Saint-Anne, Canada, where Burry would finish 25th. Absalon, Hermida, Geoff Kabush, Sauser and Schurter filled the first five places respectively. It was Burry’s best World Cup result, but it’s worth noting that there were 101 starters. North American rounds of the World Cup always have less depth, which needs to considered when looking at results. Nonetheless, it was motivating to be in the top 25 in his first year of World Cup racing…

The next World Cup was also in Canada a week later. On 1 July, Burry would finish 43rd in a field of 93. Absalon won again ahead of Sauser and Frederik Kessiakoff.

Burry contested the World Championships next at Fort William, Scotland. It was his second Under-23 World Champs appearance against a strong field. It was on 9 September so he was still 20 (he turned 21 a week later). He finished sixth on a muddy course. The top five were Jakob Fuglsang (DEN), Schurter (SUI), Jaroslav Kulhavy (CZE), Jiri Friedl (CZE) and Dariusz Batek (POL).

It was a solid foundation year and it no doubt set Burry up for what was to be a much bigger 2008.

Burry was invited by Sauser to race the 2008 Cape Epic with him. It was a challenging process because Sauser raced for Specialized and Burry raced for GT. But they overcame that obstacle by racing as Team Songo.info, supporting the charity that they established to build a BMX track for the youth in Khayamandi, a township outside Stellenbosch, South Africa.

“It was a huge thing. When someone of the calibre of Christoph Sauser, who at the time was one of the best in the world, asks you to race the Cape Epic with him, you know that he sees something in you,” recalls Duane Stander, Burry’s brother.

“The 2008 year was a real roller coaster of a season, but definitely Burry’s big breakthrough season, although it got off to a low start for him at the Cape Epic.”

After finishing fourth in the first ever Prologue stage for a Cape Epic, Burry and Christoph won Stage 1 and claimed the race lead. They finished second on Stage 2, but maintained their overall lead. Unfortunately, on Stage 3, a 133km haul from Calitzdorp to Riversdale, Burry was forced to withdraw with an ITB injury.

Hampered by an ITB injury, Burry reluctantly withdrew from the 2008 Cape Epic on Day 4, while in the leader’s jersey. Here his dad, Charles pushes his bike to the bakkie. || Photo Sven Martin/Sportzpics

The Iliotibial Band (ITB) is the ligament that runs from your pelvic bone to your shin bone along the outside of your leg. When it’s too tight, it rubs across the femoral epicondyle (the bone on the outside of the knee), which results in excruciating pain. He was forced to rest for a while. Not ideal when you have a World Cup season of racing planned.

“It’s really been a problem in that I can only ride for an hour and then the pain sets in. It’s very frustrating because I have a World Cup race in Belgium next weekend and am not even sure I’ll be able to race it,” said Stander on 10 April 2008.

But, 10 days later, the African MTB Kid was on the start line of the first UCI World Cup in Houffalize, Belgium! His injury wasn’t completely healed, but he was able to complete the race, finishing 59th from a field of 232. Absalon, Schurter and Sauser were the first three finishers respectively.

A week later, in Offenberg, Germany, at Round 2, Absalon won again, this time ahead of Sauser and Florian Vogel. Burry was an impressive seventh. His first World Cup top 10, which he would later say was the result that made him believe he could beat the world’s best.

“We were stunned! And so pleased for him that all his hard work, sacrifice, grit and determination had started to pay off. There was a boytjie from a small coastal town in South Africa mixing it with the world’s best at the age of 21! After this result, everything just clicked. Confidence in sport is an amazing thing,” says Duane.

Breakthrough! Burry finishes second at the Vallnord World Cup after a race-long battle with eventual winner, Christoph Sauser. || Photo: Sven Martin

Another week later and Round 3 in Madrid, Spain, saw Burry finish 13th. Absalon won again ahead of Hermida and Jean-Christoff Peraud in second and third.

After almost a month long break, Round 4 took place at Vallnord, Andora on 1 June. After three successive wins, Absalon was obviously considered the favourite. But it wasn’t his day in what turned out to be an unusual race that saw Burry lead and end up in second place.

Here’s Luke Webber’s race report of that race published on cyclingnews.com

At 14:00 local time, under slow moving heavy cloud, 120 riders set out on a 5.2-kilometre lap around the bottom of Vallnord bike park. No start loop was required as this was a classic Alpine course with climbs that required granny ring and a good sense of balance to avoid spinning out or flipping over the back. 

Geoff Kabush took the early lead but decided to drop back into the top ten. The first lap was a wicked selection process that tore the field apart – something we were not used to seeing in the previous three rounds on flatter courses at sea level. On lap one, thirty riders could be described as in contention whereas the rest were already fighting to even reach the finish.

From the start Sauser took the initiative, holding off a group of ten riders containing all the favourites, including Absalon who was looking to make it four wins from four races today.

Big day! Burry on his way to second place at the 2008 World Cup in Andorra. He led for a while on the incredibly steep course, but was eventually passed by Christoph Sauser. || Photo: Frank Bodenmuller

What was expected to follow was the usual chase back by the peloton and then an attack by the reigning World and Olympic champion (Absalon) which nobody would follow. The reality however was somewhat different.

South Africa’s young Burry Stander dragged everyone closer to Sauser before the biggest climb of the course, but when it hit the crippling grade, nobody could follow. Sauser held a gap of ten seconds to Stander and behind him was an ever-changing train of riders. Each time the stiff climb would claim a different victim and the order would be re-established.

On lap five disaster struck for Sauser – a flat tyre meant a long run to the tech zone. Fortunately part of this run was up the steepest climb (there was almost no difference between running and riding speeds) and within one lap the Swiss was back on the wheel of Stander.

Absalon (Orbea) would not claim his fourth successive victory and would instead finish only ninth, owing to some mechanical issues and possibly the need to rest before the World Championships in order to regain peak form.

“I was expecting better than today, but I had a big crash on the first lap and I was too cautious because I did not want to crash again. I had also damaged my chainrings – the gears were not working,” said Absalon.

An obviously reflective Stander (GT Bicycles) stood at the finish – amazed that he had the strength to lead and finish second at a World Cup at just 20 years of age, but annoyed that victory had been snatched from so close.

“Today’s course was very technical, not fast like Madrid or Offenburg, but much slower and kept your concentration at all times,” said Stander. “It was important not to make any silly mistakes but on lap five I crashed pretty hard and snapped my lockout lever. Just after that Susi [Sauser – ed.] had his flat and I could get by and into the lead which really lifted my morale. By the last lap though he was coming too strong, I could do nothing. With a flat coming back he was definitely the strongest rider today.”

The final surprise of the day was Canadian Geoff Kabush (Maxxis) turning in his best result on Euro soil, third after a solid ride picking off positions all race long and not fading.

That was Burry’s first World Cup podium finish, which was a huge result for the young South African. He was also the first Under-23 with Schurter down in 15th place as the second Under-23.

Burry on the top step of the Under-23 Men’s podium after finishing second overall at the World Cup in Andorra. Second was Nino Schurter (left) and third Matthias Flückiger (right). || Photo: Sven Martin

“In Burry’s own words, this result was ‘unexpected’. But man we were so excited and proud of ‘The Kid’. Nino Schurter finished a few minutes behind Burry that day, which was a big confidence boost for Burry ahead of the Under-23 World Champs in Italy a couple of weeks later,” recalls Duane.

After Vallnord, the World Cup moved to Fort William, Scotland. With another second-row start, Burry was well placed from the beginning and finished fifth overall, his second World Cup podium. Florian Vogel, Schurter and Sauser were the first three finishers in that order, making for an all-Swiss top three and showing that Schurter was going to be a force to be reckoned with at the upcoming World Champs.

Two weeks later it was the World Champs at Val di Sole, Italy. It was Schurter’s last year in the category. He’d won the gold in 2006 and been dethroned by Fuglsang at Fort William in 2007. For Burry, who still had one more year as an Under-23, it was always about trying to win every race he started and he knew that the strong Swiss contingent would be his biggest threat.

Here’s the race report by Sue George on cyclingnews.com:

Switzerland proved it is and will continue to be a force with which to be reckoned by placing three of its riders in the top four in the under 23 men’s cross country race on Friday afternoon. Riding a physically and tactically strong race, Nino Schurter (Switzerland) won the World Championship. South Africa’s Burry Stander put in a strong bid for the title, but after using up all his energy getting rid of eventual third placed Matthias Flückiger (Switzerland) and fourth placed Fabian Giger (Switzerland), he didn’t have enough left for Schurter.

On the first half-lap, Schurter and Stander separated themselves from the rest by a few seconds. Although they were going full throttle, the two appeared to ride almost effortlessly as they set the blistering pace while others fought the initial 125-rider, first lap chaos behind.

At the 2008 Under-23 World Champs, Burry set the pace for most of the race to get rid of as many Swiss rivals as possible. But he was unable to shake Nino Schurter. || Photo: Sven Martin

Flückiger was one such rider. “I wanted to follow Nino and Burry, but I’m not the fastest starter. Some passed me at the start and then I had to pass them all back while the gap was being made. That’s when I lost them.”

Stander, who has one more year remaining in the U23 ranks, had done has math and knew his odds were better with fewer Swiss racers in the mix up front, so he seized the opportunity the gap presented and went full bore to keep Schurter from gaining any team-mates nearer to them.

“Everywhere it was possible to drive [the pace], I was trying to drive. I didn’t want it to come back together,” said Stander, who was spotted at the front, with Schurter stuck to his wheel like glue all the way until lap four. “I had to do the work. I expected to do the work. I knew these were the two guys [Schurter and Flückiger – ed.] to watch.”

Schurter knew he was in a lucky situation. “It was a big fight with Burry, but I had a big advantage with a Swiss mate behind us.” Nonetheless he wasn’t sure of his chances until closer to the end of the six-lap race. “It wasn’t until the last two laps that I realized that I could make it my race,” said Schurter. “I was scared at the beginning because I had a problem with my chain. But I had a really good day and felt like I could beat Stander. I tried a few attacks to see if Stander could follow, and I realized he was having problems.”

Schurter patiently waited until Stander wore himself out driving the pace while successfully keeping the two chasers away.

Nino let Burry set the pace and then took the lead from him with a lap and a half to go. Burry claimed the silver medal 41 seconds later.|| Photo: Frank Bodenmuller

“I didn’t attack. I rode my own speed on the long climb and got a gap,” said Schurter, whose winning move came at the end of the penultimate lap. He crossed the line at one lap to go with a 24 second gap that only grew for the duration of the race. At the end, Schurter won in a time of 1:44:34. 

“The last lap was really hard. My tactic was going to be to attack on the last lap, but I didn’t have to. I was alone the last 1.5 laps. I was good to win my last year as an U23,” said Schurter, who is no stranger to the podium. He won the U23 world title in 2006 in New Zealand, but was upset last year by Jakob Fuglsang and finished second.

Stander was clearly the more tired of the original pair and was working hard on his final lap, but he kept the pressure on the pedals to finish a second, 41 seconds behind the Swiss winner. “I knew he’d have too much gas at the end,” said Stander, whose efforts were plenty to keep third placed Flückiger at bay, more than three minutes further back. In 2007, Stander had finished sixth in the U23 race.

Flückiger spent the entire race chasing the two leaders on his own. While other riders tended to form groups of two and three, Flückiger always rode alone, doggedly pursuing the two leaders.

From left, silver medallist, Burry Stander, gold medallist, Nino Schurter and bronze medallist, Mattias Flückiger. || Photo: Sven Martin

Five weeks later, Burry claimed third behind Absalon and Kabush at World Cup Round 6 at Mont-Saint-Anne, Canada. Then a week later, after lying fourth, he faded to finish 24th at Round 7 in Bromont in muddy conditions. Absalon won ahead of Lukas Flückiger and Adam Craig.

The South African was fourth in the UCI World Cup standings going into the Olympic Games in Beijing, China a fortnight later. But it wasn’t to be his best race, where he finished 15th behind most of the riders he’d beaten over the past three months. Absalon won ahead of compatriot Peraud with Schurter claiming the bronze just ahead of Sauser.

After the Olympics, there were still two more UCI World Cup rounds to follow. Burry finished sixth at Round 8 in Canberra, Australia behind winner, Ralph Naf of Switzerland and was 10th at the final round at Schladming, Austria, which was won by Sauser.

With nine World Cups, the World Championships and the Olympic Games, it was a busy international season for young Burry. His consistency saw him finish fifth overall in the final World Cup Series rankings and first Under-23 and also secured him a contract with Specialized from 2009.

We’ll write about his 2009 season sometime in the future, but for now, let’s sip a chocolate Sterri Stumpie and reflect on his breakthrough 2008 year and remember the incredible athlete and gentleman that made his family, friends, sponsors and country so proud!

After a number of consistent top finishes, Burry won Under-23 Men’s World Cup Series in 2008. || Photo: Sven Martin


A special thanks to Sven Martin and Frank Bodenmuller for the pics and to cyclingnews.com for being so committed to recording races and results in detail!