FRONTLINE: Neighborhood

Two Wheels to Anywhere
Championship cyclist Jacob Burns
ROX Chester County.

Two Wheels to Anywhere
Championship cyclist Jacob Burns ROX Chester County.

Competitive bicyclists by nature don’t throw their athleticism in your face. They don’t possess great height, bulging muscles or the impressive heft that immediately telegraphs to the rest of us that they’re in far better shape than we could ever hope to be.

That’s until you happen to catch sight of their bulging calves or note to yourself that, for a man, those legs look just a little too smooth.

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Jacob Burns fits the profile. See him hanging around the sales floor at LoweRiders Bikes and Boards in Downingtown, and you might think that, by virtue of his presence, he has some knowledge in one of those areas. But without him providing the exact circumference of his soleus or gastrocnemius muscles—or divulging whether he does indeed put razor to flesh somewhere other than on his face—Burns’ credentials tell the tale.

At Penn State, he won the Collegiate National Track Cycling Champion in 2001. Two years prior, he’d made his presence known as Rookie of the Year for USA Cycling, the nation’s only professional track cycling league. Since then, he’s held various jobs in bicycle racing, working PR for various events like the Dodge Tour de Georgia, the Wachovia Cycling Series and the Track Cycling World Cup in Los Angeles, as well as coaching for various leagues and teams.

Pedal Power
Jacob Burns got his start at the Lehigh Valley Velodrome, an internationally renowned track-cycling mecca for 30 years. It’s also the place that eventually led him to Downingtown, where he has teamed with LoweRiders owner Andy Lowe to create the new ROX Cycling Center, which is designed to provide riders of all skill levels with the sort of top-notch coaching previously unavailable in the area.

Burns’ introduction to competitive cycling came when he’d just about given up on high school track. Stress injuries from the grueling workouts compelled him to seek out another athletic outlet. “Cycling actually is a good sport to get away from those injuries,” he says.

One Sunday, Burns and his parents paid a visit to the Lehigh Velodrome, where there was a practice session in progress. The coach noticed Burns’ interest and asked him if he wanted to join in. “He got me a bike out of their barn and trained me with all the other guys. It really got me hooked,” Burns recalls. “Out of that program came Olympic champions and world champions.”

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That coach is now Burns’ good friend, and subsequent involvement in the racing team there led to his success in the sport. “I probably would’ve ridden in college for fun,” he admits. “But I never would’ve attained the success or gotten involved in the other side of the sport as far as coaching and everything else.”

“Everything else” includes a four-year stint as marketing director for Lehigh Velodrome after completing his education at Penn State. It was there that he gained the admiration of William Covaleski, distribution manager and co-founder of Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown. A longtime fan of bike racing, Covaleski was impressed by the events Burns managed, eventually offering him a PR job at Victory, which Burns happily accepted.

But the desire to continue coaching remained—and for three years, Burns knocked around the idea of starting a program to train riders of all skill levels, from recreational riders to those with college or Olympic aspirations. In founding the ROX center with Lowe, Burns has tapped into a vibrant and active community of bikers while enjoying the support of a major bicycle retailer. In addition to coaching from Burns and national cycling champion Jeremy Miller, ROX also offers treatment through Personal Touch Physical Therapy in Downingtown.

Training through ROX takes place at LoweRiders at 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, either leaving from the parking lot or indoors on stationary bikes. Rides depart Saturdays from the Victory Brewing lot.

Still with Victory, Burns credits Cov-aleski with helping get ROX started. “He really supports me in doing this training center because he likes that Victory is staying involved in the sport,” Burns says. “He also likes that we’re getting future cyclists to the level to race professionally.”

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It’s that focus on the future that motivated Burns in the first place, acknowledging that he discovered the sport partly by accident. Back then, recruitment was non-existent, and it was up to bikers to seek out opportunities to compete. Burns wants to ensure that a passion for racing is no accident for young riders in Chester County. In fact, it’s a great alternative for teens who want to be athletic but haven’t had much luck with more traditional team sports. “I was a mediocre runner; I was always pretty good but not great,” Burns admits. “Then I came to cycling, and the added element of drafting and learning tactics made me really good. A lot of kids who don’t do well in the ball-and-stick sports do really well in cycling—not because the competition level is lower, but because there’s the added element of drafting.”

That element—increasing one’s own speed by using a lead rider to lessen wind resistance—is just one of many tactics that can be more effectively taught and easily learned by motivated riders. Others discover benefits they might not have expected—like college scholarships. “You don’t have to be the greatest athlete [to race at the collegiate level],” Burns says. “Sure, if you want to be an Olympic champion, you have to be. But to get a scholarship, you can be pretty good but nothing extraordinary.”

That said, Burns and his team are always on the lookout for talent that could potentially propel a racer to the national circuit or Olympic competition. Already the official trainer of Penn State’s cycling team, ROX also has the advantage of tapping into Chester County’s thriving bike-racing scene. With its challenging back roads—many of them lightly traveled—the area’s appeal is obvious.

“It’s a great cycling community,” says Burns. “There’s just something wonderful about being able to go out—whether it’s you and a couple of friends or you and a training group—ride around, not really encounter too many cars and have a good time.”

Naturally, the winding, hilly roads and fantastic scenery attract all skill levels—and Burns hopes ROX can reach a fair number at all stages of development.

“You always want to train with people who are a little better than you, because otherwise you’re not going to get better,” he says. “It’s beneficial for the young guys to see that there’s actually something to aspire to.”

For more information on ROX Cycling Center, visit roxcycling.com.

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