After a self-professed frustrating year, the 2-Time USPRO Time Trial Champion, in 2003 and 2005, Chris Baldwin (Toyota-United) is skipping the TT this year to focus on the road race in the upcoming US Professional Championships in Greenville. Combined with the lost of the team sponsor, 2008 has been a rough ride for the (almost) always smiling rider but that didn’t dim the tremendous passion the 32-year old still feels for the sport or his optimism about the state of cycling in the US.
After playing phone tag with Chris, I caught up with him while he was on an afternoon bike ride with his lovely wife Kimberly, a retired professional cyclist. He took the time to answer all my questions about his year, his future and his thoughts about US cycling.
Let’s talk about the US Nationals coming up this weekend.
Chris: I actually decided against doing the time trial this year, I’m really trying to focus on the road race and hoping that goes well. With the time trial the day before, I think that takes the sting out of your legs for the next day, so that is the focus and I’m looking forwards to ride with Chris [Wherry] and Justin [England] and we have kind of a small squad but a good hit squad, so it should be fun.
What do you think is going to happen this year? Current Road Champ Levi Leipheimer is not riding and you were one of the few that stuck with him last for a bit anyway.
Chris: (laughs) I think a bit is right. I think that’s it going to be pretty similar with everybody looking at Garmin because they have so many riders, they have the most opportunities to use the riders for breakaways and what not, key on them, and then George [Hincapie] is going to be good and I think he has a couple of teammates.
What’s the plan for the Toyota-United team? Are your teammates riding for you?
Chris: No. We’re just three guys, I don’t thing anyone is riding for anyone else, we’re all riding for each together, we’ll see how it goes. Luckily, it’s kind of a mountain bike race in its style, in that it’s a hard enough race that the selection happens naturally, I think it bodes well for a smaller team.
Was the decision not to do the TT based on the road race the day after or the new course?
Chris: I would say all of the above. If there had been a decent break between the two, I would do it regardless just to do it. But with just not feeling it and not time trialing well all year, and the course, just like you said, is now flatter and two turns, a u-turn… All these factors combined, it doesn’t look like a good course for me, I’m not timetrialing well, not enough rest before the road race, it just kind of all pointed towards to just not do it. Not having it as a goal, well it’s a load off my shoulders, I’ve been training hard to timetrial all year and it just hasn’t happened, there comes a point where you feel like beating a dead horse, banging your head against the wall. Personally, it’s nice to focus on the road race for a change.
Chris Baldwin sticking to eventual winner Levi Leipheimer’s wheel at 2007 US Pro Road Race
You mentioned that you were not timetrialing well this year, so let’s talk about your year, it’s been a pretty tough year for you.
Chris: The year… I’m kind of my biggest critic, and to me it’s been a horrible year, I’m really disappointed, it’s just been frustrating, I never hit my stride all year, it’s just been frustrating. I’ve never been afraid to try new training and experiment with new workouts and what not and I tried a lot of new stuff and it just didn’t work for me for the first half of the year. I reverted back to my past training, after that, after Mt Hood I retooled and that was working but some things were still not there, foundation-type things that you build upon, so I just never got going one hundred percent and that compounded with a very light race schedule and then that got lighter as we lost some races this year with Tour of Toona and Colorado, those are two races that are good for me, I just felt kind of under-raced and the training wasn’t right. At Cascade, I was climbing well, not timetrialing well, and tactically things just didn’t work out and I felt … it was a lot of effort for a poor result. I’ve never had so much fitness yield such a poor result before in all my life. I felt I was riding really well there, I climbed with [Santiago] Botero, and I was one of the guys with Levi [Leiphemer who won Cascade] but things just didn’t work out.
So what do you think happened this year? Was it a combination of things, was it bad luck?
Chris: Yeah, I just can’t explain it better than that. It was a combination of things, I tried some training that didn’t necessarily work for me, compounded with a really light race schedule where I was really under-raced, I raced like a third of the days that I did the year before. I generally like to race less and do some training, and build up for events but this was extremely light.
In Utah, a lot of the guys were saying that you were climbing quite well.
Chris: Again, on day two of Utah, I came out of that stage thinking I was going to be a contender for the race, probably the best I felt all year was probably at stage 2 in Utah, and then on Snowbird [stage 4], I wasn’t bad but I wasn’t at that level, and then again barely timetrialing in the top ten. I felt fantastic on day two, a little minor adjustments needed to be made coming into the race. Cascade is generally decided early on the race, but Utah was the opposite everything happened in the last two days, so maybe that was it, but those are all subtleties.
That’s tough mentally, how do you handle that? Do you wish for the year to be over, and start again next year?
Chris: I try not to be like that. I want to enjoy each race, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to race, I want to make the most out of every day on the bike. As far as getting back to my level, I think I need to take a break and go back to the things that work for me. Like I said, I’ve always experimented with training, I’ve never been afraid to try new things training wise throughout my career and I’ve kind of decided at this point, you know I’m not a spring chicken anymore, it’s time to really analyze what has worked for me and stick with that. You can change things up a little bit but there comes a point where you want to tap into the experience that you’ve gained. So definitely I’m looking forwards to starting from scratch and rebuilding. (laughs)
In past interviews, you mentioned many times that you admire Scott Moninger. Did that change anything for you having him as a DS on the team this year?
Chris: Yeah, I think he was a real asset in the car, it’s really nice to have somebody who was a stage race giving me advice and tips. I think, Scott, it was a bit of a learning year for him, and I’d really like a chance to continue to work with him. I think the relationship would be more beneficial as we move on, this year, Scott was kind of learning the ropes. He was directing me only I think at Utah, it was one of the first races that it was just him, the rest of the time he was working with Len [Pettyjohn], learning the ropes.
You said that you were no longer a spring chicken, and given the news about the team, what’s next for you? What’s happening next year, do you know?
Chris: I don’t know, I don’t know what the future is going to hold, and I’m just keeping an open mind and staying positive. I think, my intuition is that this year, it’s just going to be later, things are not going to happen quicker, I think teams are going to open up later, riders are just going to have to be patient. I’m around but I’m also confident that Sean [Tucker] will find something to replace the Toyota sponsorship and that just going to happen a little bit later. I just think that things will work out the way they’re supposed to work out, it’s just going to take some patience.
So you haven’t signed with anybody yet?
Chris: No, nope.
So you’ve had a pretty stable career as far as teams, 6 years with Navigators, 3 years with Toyota.
Chris: Yeah, I don’t style myself as a loyal rider you know, the paychecks on are time and I’ve been blessed with two wonderful organizations, I haven’t felt the need to change that more often than necessary. It’s really unfortunate that Toyota didn’t continue, we had such a good team, it was a lot of fun to be part of.
Chris Baldwin at the front of the Toyota-United leadout train
How tough is it for you to go through this right now, and maybe have to adapt to a new team?
Chris: I guess I just have an attitude about it. I think that I was really stressed out for a while when we first got in the news, and we got the news as early as Gila in April, more kind of bad news recently, it’s been kind of a year of bad news unfortunately. I think that once I got past the initial stress of it, I just realized that cycling is a blessing and we are all lucky to have done this. This is my past tenth year, I did the math, I think I’m blessed to have gone this long. Things will work out the way they’re supposed to work out, whatever that means. I really want to continue racing, it’s what I love, but if things don’t work out, that’s life. It’s kind of living in a dream, I consider myself lucky to have lived the dream for ten years.
Ten years is a long time.
Chris: It goes by like two days.
What do you want to do next? What is it that you’d like to do next in racing and maybe after?
Chris: Racing wise, I don’t feel that I have accomplished what I want to in the NRC domestic scene. I’ve knocked on the door of NRC stage races so many times but won only one [Tour of the Gila in 2006], so just keep trying to knock on the door of those key races. I love Cascade and Utah and I don’t get tired of them and I’d like to still try and come out in those races. It would be nice to race internationally again like I did with Navigators, I’d love to get back to Europe or do something like that. Maybe with another organization, do one of the other Grand Tours, who knows. I don’t have any specific objectives, I can find an objective in anything is what I’m trying to say. Does that makes sense?
Yes it does.
Chris: Racing domestically, I can try to win Cascade and if I have a chance to go try and maybe finish the Vuelta, then that’s an objective too, I have to see what kind of program I’m in.
Have you thought what you are going to do after you finish racing?
Chris: No, this has obviously spurred, there’s been multiple events that have spurred a rush to figure out life after cycling but when you’re a cyclist this long, you live in the cycling bubble (laughs). Sometimes, it takes something like this to really make you think what you want to do afterwards. I don’t know, I’ve always had a pipe dream of opening up a restaurant, so maybe that’s it.
What kind of food?
Chris: Actually I want to do easy stuff, kind of low-brow stuff like salads and sandwiches and that kind of stuff. Order at the counter but a nice place, that’s been my pipe dream.
As long as there’s wine, I’ll be there.
Chris: Oh yeah and five beers on tap.
That’s a beautiful dream to me. Moving on to a new subject, on which I’m curious to get your opinion on. What do you think is the state of cycling in the US? Do you think it’s healthy? Do you think these teams disappearing is part of the natural cycle or is there a problem?
Chris: I think it’s extremely healthy. We’re going through a little bit of trauma with these teams but I think that it’s a result of the economy and I think that as soon as we weather that, we’re going to come out even stronger because what I look at is the depth of the riders right now. And I’ve never seen more young guys coming back, more grass roots kind of guys filling up the spots, it’s very similar to Europe now. We use to always say that the difference between here and Europe wasn’t – and I raced back and forth with Navigators and I never thought there was that much – the best guys weren’t that much better over there than they were over here, I just thought that there was more of them. But here, you are starting to see, these Garmin guys, these 20 to 25 year old guys come up, and they are timetrialing, look at Blake Caldwell at the Tour of Utah, I’ve just never seen so much talent coming up and be supported by different teams. I think that combined with the fact that we have three quote grand Tours in America, California, Georgia and Missouri, I think that is phenomenal! Compare that to when I started in 1999 with Navigators, it’s just been upwards. There will always be rocky spots with the teams this year and what not, but like I said, I think all that is regroup.
Is there anything that can be done to make cycling more appealing to sponsors?
Chris: I think it’s very appealing right now, I really think it’s an issue with the economy, I really do. Of course, there is the doping stuff and we can talk about that all day long but that’s kind of beating a dead horse. It’s a new frontier cycling, it’s just a matter of hitting them when they have disposable cash and that’s an issue right now. I honestly believe it. The ten years that I’ve been in it, I’ve seen it become more legitimate, teams supported better, better races, more races, all that.
Are the salaries better for the racers?
Chris: I think it’s much better, I really do. It might sound optimistic. If I look at what I started until now, I can’t tell you how different it is. I never thought you’d see most teams with buses, motorhomes, European riders racing in the Cascade Classic, Levi Leipheimer coming home for the Cascade Classic, [Santiago] Botero, [Oscar] Sevilla, these guys racing domestic races and enjoying it.
Are they really enjoying it?
Chris: I think they do. And I think it shows how competitive it is over here.
Do you do wish you were starting now as a pro?
Chris: Ooooh yeah, absolutely. I could have come up on one of these teams (laughs) I’m just joking. I don’t have any regrets. I was really lucky that [Ed] Beamon took a chance on me ten years ago, and I had a chance to do everything I’ve done. I think that you’re going to see the fruits of what these teams are trying to do right now, I keep coming back to Garmin, but Garmin and Columbia, these teams are supporting all these young riders and I think you’re going to see that.
All this new talent coming up, is it mostly through teams? Or is it USA Cycling support for developing riders?
Chris: That’s a great program. When I came through, it was just we’d go over for a couple of races on trips. Now these guys go and live in a house in Belgium, you know, that’s just phenomenal support. The stuff is in place for those guys, if they want to work hard, there is opportunity there. And that’s the key.
And a few more years for you.
Chris: Yeah, yeah absolutely. Scott [Moninger] went until he was forty, and I’m going to try for forty-one. (laughs) Year to year. I would race as long as the opportunity is there. No diminishing fire for the sport at all, I really feel that it’s what I was meant to be doing, I could keep at it as long as somebody wants to put up with me.
Thank you Chris for your time.
Chris Baldwin, Tour of Utah Time Trial
All photos copyright Lyne Lamoureux