Back in the saddle

Local pro cyclist quits biking, loses fitness, finds passion again

Jonathan Baker competing in the 2016 Snelling Road Race in Merced County.

Jonathan Baker competing in the 2016 Snelling Road Race in Merced County.

PHOTO by craig huffman

Jonathan Baker’s cycling career started with more of a crash than a bang. “I was 3 and my mom was trying to teach me how to ride,” he said. “She was pushing me down the street and I hadn’t quite got the balancing down and she thought I had. … And she let go. I ended up veering into some shrubbery and crashing onto the side of the road. So that was my first bike ride ever.”

Baker, now 42, recovered quite well. In fact, as an adult, he’s found himself on the podium for several high-profile road-bike races. In 2005, he finished second in the Tour of Puerto Rico while winning the King of the Mountains jersey, a title awarded a race’s best climber. In 2009 and 2010, he had back-to-back wins in the National Cyclo-Cross Championships for his division.

But then, after crashing his bike several times, Baker stopped riding altogether.

“I wasn’t able to train without pain,” he said. “I’d get on my bike and it wasn’t fun anymore. Between that and deciding to move back to California, I just kind of quit it cold turkey.”

He moved to Chico from Colorado and began pursuing a newfound passion—disc golf. But after gaining about 50 pounds, Baker turned to Chico’s cycling community to get back in shape.

“I had just turned 40. I was feeling creaky and slow and heavy,” he said. “I wanted to capture how I felt before. Pretty much, that was my midlife crisis.”

Baker grew up in the unincorporated community of Sawyers Bar in Siskiyou County, originally a Gold Rush-era mining camp where Baker’s father worked as a logger. Baker estimated that the town’s population at the time was 50. He didn’t get started as a competitive cyclist until age 25, while he was pursuing a career as a software engineer in San Francisco. His roommate, a serious mountain biker, invited Baker along for rides. He had a natural talent.

“[I] found myself riding out in the woods and enjoying it,” he said. “A couple months in, I would start dropping [my roommate] … who had been mountain biking for, you know, five years or so and I was kind of new to the sport.”

It was a late start for a racer. He explained that most racers begin riding seriously in their preteens and turn pro in their 20s, but Baker says he’s always been a little atypical.

“I’m kind of like a dog with a bone,” he said. “It’s like I won’t let go of it. If I find something I’m really passionate about, I’ll take it to its apex. Then, strangely enough, once I’m done with it, I just throw it away. I think that kind of passion helped me with bike racing.”

Turns out Baker is also a former professional chess player—he’s a designated “chess master,” according to the U.S. Chess Federation. And he takes some of the skills he learned on the board out into the field—Baker says he tries to win bike races tactically instead of with brute strength. That’s often an advantage when competing against younger racers in Chico.

“It’s not necessarily the strongest person who wins the race. Most of the time it’s not,” he said. “Most of the time, it’s the person who’s strong enough to win but puts themselves in a position to win.”

Fourteen months after he decided to get back in shape, Baker has dropped the 50 pounds and is riding competitively again, thanks to a weekly group ride to Oroville, he said.

“There’s one hill on the [Oroville] ride, everybody knows the hill … first time I did it, I got dropped. The next week, I’m like, ‘I’m going to attack before the hill and try to get a head start.’ I got caught, and dropped. But that kind of got my competitive juices going and I decided, ‘I think I want to race again,’ when before I was just trying to get back into shape. So the cycling community and the support that they gave me … that impetus and that push got me back into racing.”

Baker’s cycling IQ has come in handy several times in his career. He sealed a second-place finish in the Tour of Puerto Rico when he jumped from eighth place during a mountain stage. That stage culminated in a sprint finish against the winner of that year’s race, Wendy Cruz. More recently, he won the 2016 Paskenta Race outside of Chico, stepping up his pace with 40 miles to go. He beat the second-place finisher by six minutes.

“I think that caught a lot of people’s attention,” Baker said, “because for the last 10 years people from out of town have won this race, and I was the first person from Chico to win it.”

Baker said that without the local biking community, he wouldn’t have made a comeback. Now riding with the Chico Masters Cycling Team, he hopes he can share some of his knowledge with younger racers.

“Sometimes they get the better of me because they are strong and they are young, and they have certain attributes that are better than mine,” he said. “I was able to show them quite a few tactics and was able to win quite a few races by being crafty. I’m teaching them stuff and we are all raising the level of Chico cycling.”