Local ‘small fish’ is ready to gun it | VailDaily.com

Local ‘small fish’ is ready to gun it

Shauna Farnell
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
Cody Downard | Beaver Creek Resort

For Boulder cyclist Chris Baldwin, one of the most memorable moments of last year’s inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge was pedaling through a sea of people as he was cresting Swan Mountain in Breckenridge and crashing into a drunk spectator who got too close.

Granted, this wasn’t his best memory. It happened during Baldwin’s stage of the race, when he felt he truly had a chance to make an attack for the podium in Breckenridge. Upset as he was, it meant a lot to him that such an enthusiastic throng of people was watching the race. And as he embarks on this year’s Pro Challenge, particularly through areas such as Minturn, which are bound to draw similar scenes where hundreds of screaming fans are closing onto the course as racers fly by, Baldwin plans to be “more vigilant.”

“This guy stepped out in front of me and I crashed. I knew the finish was in my grasp, and I really thought I could have done something in that stage,” Baldwin said. “A reporter asked me about it later. I said I’d take the cheering over preventing the crowd from closing in. I was definitely angry, but later I thought about how they could put up those barricades and that would change the whole feel of it. You don’t get the same energy as you go through. It’s cool. It’s like this tunnel of people that opens up. It annoys some guys, but I think it’s awesome.”

At age 36, Baldwin has competed at a pro level of cycling for half of his life. But the Pro Challenge has become the highlight of his year … especially after experiencing the unexpectedly monumental level of interest and support in last year’s race.

“It’s easy to sound like you’re blowing smoke, but it surpassed everything anyone imagined,” he said. “It always sounds like I’m gushing but it was really, truly just crazy. This race is a dream come true. The scene has exploded. I could have stopped racing after the Colorado race last year and been happy.”

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Unlike many of the teams coming in for the Pro Challenge fresh off the Tour de France and the Olympics, Baldwin’s Team Bissell concentrates primarily on top-notch events in the U.S.

“That’s the thing with a team like Bissell; we’re the small goldfish in a pond of big fish, so for us, these are the highlights of our year … by far the coolest races,” he said.

Now nearing the end of his career, when Baldwin is asked to name a high point, the first thing that comes to mind is his team’s recent success in the Tour de Utah (also claiming to be “America’s toughest stage race”), which just wrapped up Aug. 12. With a mix of veterans such as himself plus amateur racers that Baldwin said went into the event as “the Bad News Bears” whom “everyone expected to finish dead last,” Bissell managed to finish fourth in the team time trial, beating BMC Racing and other Olympic, Tour de France-level teams. Other career highlights for Baldwin include beating Lance Armstrong in a time trial in Georgia back in 2004.

But he hopes the ultimate highlight of his career is still to come -perhaps this week.

“Last year, it was the best ride I had. I wanted to be in the top 10 this year. But seeing as I was 20th last week in Utah, I don’t see those other 19 guys being any worse this week. Plus, you’ve got all the big international guys coming in.”

But Baldwin has something a lot of those other guys don’t have: the home-course advantage. He was up in the valley inspecting and riding part of the Stage 4 course this spring. Also, the very steep and challenging Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, where the tour is going to wrap up in a time trial on Sunday, is on Baldwin’s regular training rotation.

“I ride on Flagstaff almost four times a week,” Baldwin said. “All the local guys do the repeat training there. I think that’s a psychological advantage. It’s kind of a cliche to say that pro cycling is a rolling chess game, but it really is. There is so much subtle stuff, it’s impossible to even see some of it – the constant decisions you’re making like where you’re positioning yourself. Even on climbs, you can’t take the climbs as a whole. You have to break it into parts. You have to tell yourself and let loose mentally when you know there is a part that’s not so steep, then it’ll be easier on the wheels. That’s the kind of thing that will help us. For Coloradans who ride these passes, it’s a little easier because we know them so well. There is so much stuff that you can use a bit of brain for … but usually brawn still wins it.”

Having fun doesn’t hurt, either. And while Baldwin’s career is coming to an end soon, he feels like he’s started a new chapter.

“I feel awesome. I feel great right now. I’m having so much fun, and I definitely think that’s part of the formula you need to do well,” he said. “I really like the stages into Beaver Creek and Crested Butte. It’ll be hard this year, but it won’t be Levi (Leipheimer – last year’s overall winner) or Tejay (van Garderen, third overall) running away with it. We can attack and roll the dice. I’m really looking into that. I can’t wait.”

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