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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews.com
If Jonathan Baker could press the reset button, he would have started his European cyclocross odyssey by hitting a few more easy races back in the United States.
As it was Baker opted for a tough final tune-up schedule before making the move to Belgium in early October (see “Livingthe ‘cross dream“). Since then the 33-year-old software engineer, who sold his house and took a four-month leave of absence from his job, has been mixing it up with the world’s best, taking his lumps and learning along the way. Back home Baker is a top-level amateur racer who can hang with most of the U.S. pros. In Europe he is a little fish in a very big pond.
“It would have been nice to come over here with a few more [UCI] points, so I wasn’t always starting so far back,” said Baker at the conclusion of World Cup No. 2 in Tabor, Czech Republic on October 28. “I probably passed six or seven guys today, but it’s hard to move up too far when you start so far back.”
That was one of Baker’s few regrets as he headed into the second month of a trip that will culminate two weeks after the world championships in Treviso, Italy at the end of January. His No. 1 goal is making the U.S. world’s team, but following a 41st place effort at the second round of the World Cup, he was convinced a top 30 was within reach.
A week later, Baker (Primus Mootry) made a big stride toward that goal, placing 29th at Superprestige No. 2 in Hamme-Zogge, Belgium. The American was the last rider to not get lapped by eventual winner Sven Nys (Rabobank).
VeloNews caught up with Baker in Tabor to get an update on his trip and find out how life on the other side of the pond has been treating him.
VeloNews: How’s the trip been so far?
Jonathan Baker: It’s been an adventure for sure. Getting [to Tabor] was hard. [My dad and I] flew into Prague and then took the train. But it would have been easier to drive my van. Instead we took the train, but first you had to catch a bus, and we were lugging this huge bike box up and down stairs. It sucked.
VN: How about your living situation back in Belgium? Things going better there?
JB: Yeah, it’s been awesome. We have a great place right in the middle of old town Bruges, which is a really cool city. Everyone is enjoying it. My whole family is there – my wife, my dad. My dad’s been helping me out. He was in the pit today. Living is good. I’m feeling a little bit better every day.
VN: What has been the biggest surprise at the races?
JB: I think the biggest thing is the technical nature of the courses. I am going faster technically here than I ever do at a race back home. That has been the biggest learning curve for me. I am outside of my comfort zone. The lines that get driven in are the really fast lines. It’s very precise, like a tire width and you have to hit that line perfect right at the edge of traction.
At Kalmthout [where Baker was second to last in 51st place] I didn’t get fast until the last half of the race. Here [in Tabor] I did probably 10 pre-ride laps and finally started to feel comfortable. It’s definitely a learning experience, but I’m having fun and working hard. Hopefully I’ll get some good results eventually.
VN: What’s the goal? Life experience?
JB: I just wanted to see where I stack up if I give it 100 percent. If that is 40th, whatever. But I think I could get in the top 30 at a World Cup. I’d be pretty happy with that. And obviously I wouldn’t be doing it if I weren’t having fun. I’m not looking to make a job out of it. But at the same time I’m not just here on vacation. I take it very seriously.
VN: Does seeing what it’s like over here give you a little more respect for what a guy like Jonathan Page has accomplished?
JB: Yeah for sure, I can see now why it took him such a long time to really break in. I have the utmost respect for Page. I think he was right in feeling that he didn’t get the publicity he deserved, because it is definitely a totally different level over here.
Sometimes it’s a little confusing. You see [reigning world champion Erwin] Vervecken go to New York and guys are keeping up with him. But then you see [reigning U.S. national champion Ryan] Trebon come over here and he’s struggling. Well, over here everyone is really fast and everybody is fighting you for every corner, elbowing you. You can’t make a single mistake, and you are not starting from the front like back home. Trebon is used to making that front selection and being with 2-3 guys in the front. That’s easy. Here you are fighting for 15th place and if you make one slip you never see the front again.