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Baldwin slays bad luck demons and remembers old times at Mogollon

Chris Baldwin looks like the 2006 overall Gila champion-edition in a tough finale on Wednesday

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Silver City, N.M. (VN) — On Wednesday, Bissell’s Chris Baldwin reached the summit of the steep Mongollon climb 12 seconds behind stage winner Janier Acevedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman). It was Baldwin’s best finish at the Silver City’s Tour of the Gila since he finished second overall in 2007 and with the ride, the Colorado-based veteran pushed back against demons that have haunted his team in the early part of 2013.

“I didn’t win the race, but I had a good day,” Baldwin said after the stage. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy.”

A professional since 1999, Baldwin won the Tour of the Gila overall in 2006. “Thanks for remembering it,” he said, smiling, when asked about his past victory. “You have a long memory if you remember that.” Though Baldwin has never repeated that 2006 success, he has ridden consistently at Tour of the Gila. He thrives in New Mexico’s desert climate and on the race’s difficult climbs.

“I absolutely love it down here,” said Baldwin. “I’ve always had an affinity for the desert. It sounds cheesy, but I love the inhospitability of it. The blazing sun on the road, the wind. I love this kind of desolate terrain.”

A smiling, down-to-earth character, Baldwin was quick to deprecate his accomplishments.

“I think the last time I podiumed was Tour de Toona last year,” he said. “My last [National Racing Calendar] podium is out of memory.”

In 2011, Baldwin had four podium finishes, including the overall classifications at Tour de Toona and Redlands Bicycle Classic, and in 2012, he rode consistently to top-five finishes at the Cascade Classic and Gila. They say elephants never forget, but it does not require any great feat of memory to conjure up Baldwin’s past results.

The Coloradan’s success comes as a bright spot for Bissell after a streak of bad luck of the sort that summons up images of black cats and broken mirrors. Crashes, including Phil Gaimon’s dramatic fall at the San Dimas Stage Race, and mechanicals at inopportune moments have made for rough going at Bissell in 2013.

“This is the worst streak I’ve ever seen,” said Baldwin. “You don’t see that stuff from the outside, you just see the results. Or, the lack of results.”

And Baldwin has not escaped a personal visit from the bad luck demons. At Redlands, a strange succession of events led him to be disqualified from the race after the Beaumont Circuit Race. When he broke a shifter on his own bike, he switched to a spare, but it was Jason McCartney’s bike and the saddle height needed adjustment.

“In 18 years, I’ve never had that happen. To lower the saddle, you have to hold on to the car to raise your butt up,” explained Baldwin. “It’s something I’ve done 100 different times in races.”

At Redlands, the commissaires ruled that he had held on to the car too long, and threw him out of the race. He went to the podium, expecting to receive the mountains jersey. Instead, he learned he was disqualified. “We didn’t know until that night,” he said. “I was gutted.” Carter Jones did give the team a glimmer at Redlands when he won the mountains classification Baldwin had been chasing.

During Wednesday’s Mogollon stage in New Mexico, the Bissell bad luck streak seemed set to continue when Jones crashed, and Bissell’s stage-racing ace, Gaimon, suffered a string of mishaps. Recovered from his San Dimas crash, Gaimon came to Gila with ambitions for the overall. He finished the Mogollon stage 49 seconds behind Acevedo after struggling through mechanical problems and getting caught up in a crash not far from the final climb.

“Someone ran into the back of me during the feedzone the first time through, and bent my derailleur into my wheel, so I had to stop,” said Gaimon. “I got a neutral bike, and then the team got me on a spare bike that was kind of set up for Jeremy Vennell. The saddle height was right, but it’s not my bike, and I didn’t feel right all day.”

When Acevedo attacked, Gaimon went with him. By then he knew Baldwin was on a good day, and Gaimon’s jump to Acevedo provided a perfect set-up for Baldwin. The two teammates spent the week before Gila training together in Colorado, and Gaimon knew exactly what Baldwin could do.

“I felt like if I had to sacrifice myself and go for a gamble; it was worth it,” said Gaimon. “Then it paid off, because Baldwin rode awesome. I was training with him last week, and this makes me feel a lot better about a couple of our rides! It’s great to see him up there; he works his butt off.”

Baldwin didn’t win the race, but he brought some much-needed success to the team. As Baldwin talked on Wednesday, it was clear that his team’s bad luck streak has cut deeply. He has an intense loyalty to Bissell, where he has ridden since 2011. The team has brought him new energy in the later years of his career.

“It’s been a rebirth for me at Bissell,” he said. “The team just has a good atmosphere, like a family. We have a lot of talent, especially young talent.”

After Wednesday’s stage, Baldwin was as much caught up in his teammates’ fates as he was in his own success.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “Carter had a crash, Phil had a crash. We could have had two more teammates up there, and done something special.”

It was clear Baldwin would rather see Gaimon chasing the overall, and he admitted he was worried about Friday’s time trial, despite multiple elite national TT titles on his palmares.

“I really struggle with the time trials,” he said. “It’s a better one for a guy like me with the climb, but it’s still hard. As I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten harder.”

But that is another problem for another day. On Wednesday, Baldwin climbed free of the bad luck demons that have stalked him and his team, and rode to his highest stage finish in recent seasons. He credited Bissell with rejuvenating him as a rider, and perhaps that energy will carry him through to the Gila Monster on Sunday.

“I felt good, I had good legs. I think people put a lot of emphasis on the day, but these results are sealed long before the day,” said Baldwin. “I’m not the most emotional rider. I’ve done my homework, and I’m pretty much in cruise control on the day. I’ve always thought you could put together a good team in the U.S. I feel like we have that at Bissell.”

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