It is pretty impressive that in the span of less than a year, Brandon Baker has transformed himself from neophyte bicycle racer to reaching the sport’s elite level. The former professional motocross racer’s transformation is akin to a football or basketball player learning how to hit a baseball by tossing the ball in the air to himself and then ending up with a legitimate shot at making it to the Major Leagues. Impressive, especially considering how he even got to the point of even mounting a bike at all.
Before they Brandon and his two siblings were born, newly married couple couple Aaron and Nancy Baker arrived in Santa Barbara to work on the estate of ABC-CLIO founders Dr. Eric Boehm and his wife, Inge. They were both 19-years-old. Homeschooled by their mother, the Baker kids were also raised with a strong sense of faith and the love of outdoor sports.
“I tried playing baseball and I was pretty good,” Brandon explained at a local coffee shop on Thursday. “But I learned I wasn’t really into team sports. I think it was because I didn’t like needing to rely on others in order to be successful.”
The one sport he did take to was motocross.
“I learned to ride when I was five and loved it right away,” Brandon said. “But I was a late bloomer and didn’t start racing until I was 13. Other kids were racing when they were half my age, so I was a little behind the 8-ball. I had a lot of catching up to do.”
But instead of hesitating like a lot of newcomers tend to do when going up against people with more experience, he pulled the throttle back and let it go.
Photo by Russell Holliday
“I really went all out to try and catch up which could be a good thing, but it could also be very bad because I felt the pressure to try and keep up. And I tried, even if I didn’t have the resources or experience under me.”
That determination led him to become good enough earn his professional motocross racing license in 2011-a level he maintained for three years. But this foray also had its consequences where numerous crashes, mechanical issues and some bad luck exacted a toll on his body at the cost of several broken bones and by his estimation, 13 concussions. One such spill led to a compression of three vertebrae in the middle of his back. But if that crash didn’t deter him from continuing, a one soon-after did.
In 2013, a mistake on a super-cross track led to a crash that sent Baker flying over the handlebars onto the ground. Initially incorrectly diagnosed with hip and tailbone issues while also being sent home wearing a neck collar, Baker learned the hard truth of the severity of his injuries six weeks later.
“I was out on a ride and turned my head and almost blacked out because of this insane pain,” the 25-year-old said. “I went to a different doctor here in Santa Barbara who said ‘you are partially decapitated get back in the neck collar and don’t move for six to eight weeks.”
As if a major C-1 (neck) vertebrae injury wasn’t enough, the doctor added one thing that struck home for Baker-he was lucky to be walking. Despite this particularly eye-opening incident, Baker got back on his motorcycle until the next crash that left him with more broken vertebrae bones.
“It was at this point, my parents sat me down and asked me to stop,” he said.
“I loved motocross but you get hurt enough where you don’t know the lines between loving something and fearing it. It was scary, I kept having bad dreams, nightmares that kept waking me up in the middle of the night. I had them enough were I was battling thoughts of depression. My career was cut short, but it wasn’t a hard decision. I accomplished what I wanted to do in the sport. After a whole lot of prayer, I realized I was at peace at being done.”
While channeling his energies into school and work, Baker mounted a bike with a lot less horsepower – averaging close to 300 miles on a weekly basis while climbing the equivalent of the height of Mt. Everest. One of such rides followed by his usual subsequent coffee stop at Handlebar Roasters, elicited an invitation.
“Tosh Clements was working there and asked me if I raced,” he said. “I said I didn’t race, but he invited me to the Sunday World’s (a popular local group ride in Santa Barbara) ride. I show up, and see Ted King, Jesse Anthony and a bunch of other pro riders there and wondered what the heck I got myself into(laughs).”
Baker not only survived the ride, but he even got in the mix on a couple of the sprints during the ride. Thanks to encouragement from Clements, he had found his new-athletic pursuit.
“Motocross was my livelihood, my everything,” he said. “When that was taken away from me I was lost for a while. I realized that even though I was a man of faith, I was still missing something. And cycling filled that void.”
In those group rides, he befriended another positive influence Gary Douville, a longtime cyclist whose name is often at the top of the weekly time trial results.
“At first I thought with this scraggly guy in a beard, Gary was kind of scary looking and intimidating,” Baker said while laughing. “On a ride, I could hear him in the back yelling orders, which I of course followed. Right away, he taught me to be a hard ass on the bike and to ride above my ability.”
Douville also got him on a new racing bike, a Stinner- a locally handcrafted steel bicycle frame maker founded by Aaron Stinner (stinnerframeworks.com).
“First Tosh, then Gary and Aaron have all been such a big part of my development as a cyclist,” he said.
Photo by Matthew Miller
The fourth horseman in his development as a rider was David Priest of Carmichael Training Systems (trainright.com) up in the Santa Ynez Valley.
“I was kind of coaching myself, but if someone gave me advice that I thought I could use, I would use it,” Baker said. “But David came along and started outlining a plan for me. Then he put me on the Figueroa Mountain Brewery Racing team even though I was just starting as a (Category 5) racer. His coaching opened up a whole new world to me in how to train and how to race.”
After finishing up 2015 by racing in a few events in the Cat 5 level, Baker started 2016 with a bang by finishing first and second in two races at the Santa Barbara Road Race. In the criterium, he finished first to accumulate enough points to move up to Cat 4. A few weeks later, he was down to Cat 3 much earlier than he anticipated. (For Baker’s results, click on this link: https://www.road-results.com/racer/106327 ).
“I was hoping to get to 3 and maybe halfway on my way to Cat 2, but it was early and I was already there, so I went for it,” the Santa Barbara native said.
Baker achieved his Cat 2 level by March of 2016 and immediately began racing. An early highlight was the Tour of the Gila Stage Race where he got two seventh place finishes and a top 13 to overcome a potentially disastrous stage where a mechanical issue nearly knocked him entirely from the standings. He recovered from that to finish the five-stage race 13th overall in the general classification standings.
“That was an eye-opener because let’s just say that the competition there was hard,” he said with widening eyes. “They were adapted to the elevations and here I was coming from sea level and at a distinct disadvantage. Those guys were really, really good. To finish where I did, was really rewarding.
To cap off a great year, in July he finished sixth in a tight cluster of the general classification standings at the five-stage Cascade Cycling Classic, a mere 49 seconds in arrears of the champion. Better yet, he accumulated enough points to reach Category 1, the top amateur level of the sport.
“I want to take cycling as far as I can,” Baker said. “It started out a something that could fill a void, but then it became this thing that I’ve had some success in. But to tell you the truth, I just love being out on my bike.”
After a restful offseason spent working and working on his AA degree in athletic science (kinesiology) at SBCC while training and juggling several jobs, Baker is back training well, despite having a month long illness that kept him from being at his peak, which is fine with him.
“Of course I want to win, but I know it’s early and don’t want to be peaking in January,” Baker said. “I want to be realistic in where I am right now. I am just glad that I can start racing. I’m excited to be on a new team (Stinner Men of Steel) and working with David. I am constantly learning from him because I know that the moment you stop learning is when you plateau and don’t improve. That keeps me going. I want to eventually be a cycling coach, that’s what I’m studying for.
Of course, I want to be a pro rider, but even getting there is so hard. ButI want to take this as far as I can go with it.”