FEATURE: Baker looks back on sparkling cycling career
Mark Twain once said: “Learn to ride a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.”
Hertfordshire based Dave Baker has certainly not regretted a second of his stellar cycling career.
Why would you when you represent England at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games – with the likes of cycling legend Chris Boardman and Olympians Bryan Steel, Glen Sword and Simon Lillistone - in the Velodrome? Win the Western Division Road Race Championships as a precocious 18-year-old.
Storming to a bronze medal, racing against three world champions at that time, at an international invitation grass track event in Trinidad and Tobago.
Leaving a vapour trail behind him, not literally, at Saffron Lane, the then National Velodrome, and the five mile grass track championships in Leeds, to be crowned British National Track Champion over 1km and 5km respectively, in 1988.
Ok then, maybe one slight regret.
“I would have liked to enjoy a nice curry and a few beers and still win a bike race on a Sunday morning,” admitted Dave.
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Dave, now 51, grew up in a rural part of the West Country. With every pedal spin he made, he treasured the sport with more adoration each day. He cited his older brother, who was a prolific west of England racer, as his inspiration – a prodigious talent was blossoming. After his early successes, a sojourn in la belle France for an amateur French team in Paris, riding amateur classics, followed. This proved to be a ‘baptism of fire’ for the then Vicenarian, now deprived of sugar and fat from his diet under team orders; luxury.
“Moving to France for a couple of years, being completely focused on the bike and not earning was a big shock,” he acknowledged.
Cycling, unfortunately, is synonymous with doping - a matter Dave became all too aware of when competing at a motor-racing circuit in Montlhéry, 30km south of Paris in the mid 1980s.
“Without a doubt, I was beaten by drug cheats,” Dave said. “I was holding on for grim death to the wheel in front of me and riding at some incredible speed. Not once did it ease up in a two-hour race. I remember thinking it has to ease up.
“But when I looked up there were seven echelons up the road, pulling away from me. At the time I thought I wasn’t good enough but in hindsight I’m sure many were on the gear.”
A running joke in the Baker household was, “cycling pays for itself.” The stark reality painted quite a different picture – with Dave, a now triumphant national champion, pocketing a meagre £50 for his 1988 conquest in Leeds.
However, despite the hardships of cycling, Dave was never drawn into the tenebrous doping world, but did undergo blood and urine tests in his cycling career; a rather alien process for him.
“Unless you were in the top 1 per cent of riders, you had to try to scavenge a living and on several occasions I didn’t have enough money to buy petrol to drive home,” revealed Dave.
“I believe none of my teammates doped (including Boardman) and I was never tempted and I’m glad I didn’t. A lot of that was down to naivety perhaps as the gains are substantial.
“Drugs testing isn’t much fun. Stripping naked from your knees to the chest and urinating into a bottle was odd. I can recall stories when riders regaled us with tales they’d heard about using their spouse’s urine samples. ”
Dave’s talent didn’t go unnoticed and his crescendo arrived in 1990 after being selected for the Auckland Commonwealth Games, with the St George’s cross kit adorning his shoulders.
“To get that letter or phone call, knowing you have been selected for any major games is incredibly rewarding, a fantastic opportunity and a privilege,” he said.
Dave competed in the 1km Time Trial and the Points Race on the track, finishing 11th and 12th respectively in his solitary games.
His glittering cycling journey ended soon after, aged just 26, due to ‘negligible prize money’ along with the enticing prospects of a secure job and family life.
“I didn’t have the physiology to be world champion, I wasn’t selfish enough to reach the top and I had always wanted a family,” confessed Dave.
“The incentive to keep competing wasn’t there. I did it for the love of it. I’m not sure I could be a robot like they are today, being wired up in a lab and putting out the watts.”
Dave still possesses that adoration for cycling after a career littered with ‘phenomenal’ moments for him. Be it riding with his family, embarking on a lung-busting, solitary ride at break-neck speed or competing in masters events – Dave still enjoys making young legs ache.
In response to the question of whether or not his children will beat their old man one day, his deadpan delivery says it all.
“That…is never, ever going to happen!”