Norwich man, 70, pedals his way to cycling gold

Four months of sleeping in an altitude tent on the basement floor of his Norwich home, years of rigorous training and a wife who put up with it all have paid off for Dave Burnett.

When the 70-year-old executive director of Reliance House returns from his extended "vacation," he will bring with him three gold medals and three championship jerseys he won at last week's USA Cycling Masters Road National Championship in Ogden, Utah.

Burnett won the 30.4-mile road race at Snowbasin Resort, the 12.4-mile time trial at Antelope Island and the fast-paced criterion through the downtown Ogden streets. He crashed once in the criterion, scraping his left hand, left ankle and left hip. But the bike was OK and he got up and finished. He finished with the top overall score in his age category.

That's no small feat for a sea-level dwelling East Coast man who didn't start cycling seriously until 10 years ago.

"I'm having more fun than you can imagine out here," Burnett said Monday, relaxing at the San Francisco home of his daughter, Molly Gilliss. "I'm 70 years old, and this is a kid's dream come true. To compete on the national level is something that has been beyond my wildest dreams."

Burnett isn't done competing in this western swing. After taking a short break visiting Molly, her husband, Brian Gilliss and his two young grandchildren, Burnett is headed to the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, Oct. 6 to 18, which features cycling, softball, tennis and a host of other sports.

"Old men playing silly games," Burnett said of his athletic pursuits.

Burnett has been an athlete all his life and a devoted competitive runner most of his adult life - he even raced motorcycles in his younger days. But an old high school football knee injury finally ended his running career at age 60. He took up cycling to rehabilitate his knee.

"My body seems to be much better suited to a racing bicycle, but I didn't learn that until I was 60," Burnett said.

It didn't take long for his hours of training and competitive nature to pay off. In 2012, Burnett and three teammates with a combined average age of 70 shattered a national record in the 2012 Race Across America, a 3,000-mile bicycle trek from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md. One of those teammates, Durward Higgins of Chattanooga, Tenn., finished just under 3 seconds behind Burnett in last week's criterion race in Ogden and came in third place in the time trial.

Burnett rides Trek brand road racing bicycles and is sponsored by Zane's Cycles of Branford.

"It's fun, being from the Northeast, to come out and beat all these guys from Colorado, Utah and California who live at altitude and come in with a substantial advantage," Burnett said in a USA Cycling interview.

Burnett said he trained for the altitude shift by sleeping in an altitude enclosure on the floor of his basement for four months. The tent simulates the oxygen level at 9,000 feet. That, combined with more than 20 hours of cycling training per week for more than a year, prepared him for the challenge.

And there was also the tolerance and support from his wife, Nancy Burnett.

"She's the one who deserves the credit, had the patience to put up with it," Burnett said. "Training requires a lot of support from a spouse. Unless you have that support, you cannot do it."

Nancy Burnett did not accompany her husband to Ogden. Instead she went on her own vacation to visit friends in Canada.

Back in Norwich, Burnett's co-workers at Reliance House, a regional agency that provides services to people with mental illness, have been cheering on their boss via the Internet and congratulatory text messages.

"We were all watching the news to see if he had won the events," said Kerry Lee, clinical director and a 17-year Reliance House employee. "It's just great to see someone we all know very well do so well."
Twitter: @Bessettetheday


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