Chris’ life – in his own words

12 April 2024

Note to the reader: This autobiography was written by Chris as part of a set of biographies he wrote for work (c. 2020). They recently shared it with me and I am publishing it on the first anniversary of Chris’ death. Read his obituary.

MEMBERS ONLY 

If he was taller and weighed more, Chris Baldwin might have lived an otherwise normal American life. A typical teenagerhood perhaps, a state college experience, the settled imperfection of urban normalcy. Maybe 20 more pounds and four inches taller at 13 years old would have been enough.

But Chris Baldwin was 4’11” and weighed 99lbs on the first day of his Freshman year in September, 1984, in his brand new LeTigre polo shirt from Mervyn’s and the Pacific Light collared jacket with snap epaulets that passed at a glance for Members Only as he walked under the stuccoed Spanish arches of West Hall at Fresno’s Roosevelt Performing Arts Magnet on the corner of Tulare and Cedar.

“I was too tiny for high school. Cute though. Like Ricky Schroeder cute. Jason Bateman cute. Anthony Michael Hall cute,” Chris said.

Cute was what had worked for Chris all through grade school and middle school and the first few days of brand new high school until the first Physical Education class where everybody had to dress out. 

Chris shows up, sees tall adult men and hairy shoulders, and thinks – ‘I’m four-foot-eleven and I weigh 99lbs and none of the nerf ball hijinks I play with the 9-year olds on my block matters now. If I stay here I am going to be hydraulically drill-pressed into sticky human goo.’

Being cute would ultimately be moot, as too tiny Chris could be rendered quite easily into sticky human goo.

So Baldwin goes to the tiny admin office labeled RPAM that’s really just an old janitor’s closet under a mini stucco arch, and there’s a mop basin and a covered-over industrial deep sink in one corner at the back.

The RPAM Director has flaming red hair and giant red nails and a personality that completely overwhelms the tiny room. There are photos of her on the walls that corner her desk. A lot of photos on stage and in costume.

“Can I help you,” the woman growls sweetly. She is wearing a giant sparkly hat with what appear to be dyed peacock feathers and a gauzy scarf.

Chris gulps. 

“I’d like to get into Theater Movement 3rd period please. I heard it qualifies for the PE elective.”

HELLO, DOLLY!

The Roosevelt Performing Arts Magnet High School. In Fresno, a California city so un-Californian that throughout his career Donny Osmond demoed all his pop recordings in the Fresno radio market first, ahead of the rest of the very tiny part of the country that is his listening audience. To test for listenability.

The red-headed RPAM Director remarked that here before them stood another young man who wanted out of PE. Theater Movement was tumbling and stage fighting and judo falls on tatami mats and eventually fencing. It was also ballroom dancing and some months in construction building the school musical’s elaborate set.

The receptionist said it was so popular, Theater Movement, but it was only offered during 7th period. 

‘I’m sorry honey, there’s no Theater Movement 3rd period. It’s only 7th period, just once a day.’ the RPAM Director said.

Chris looked around. Not dejected, just out of ideas. No going back to PE though. High probability for concussions and possibly teasing wedgies plus the basic discomfort of looking like a 5th grader in the locker room.

‘What about Intro to Ballet?’ The receptionist asked.

‘What about it?’ Chris said almost immediately, and everyone smiled.

TED KOPPEL’S HAIR

From then on, Chris spent at least one hour a day, in the four years until he graduated in 1988, doing pliés, tendus, elevés, jetés, cabrioles, pas de bourrées and pirouettes after first stretching at the barre and performing basic exercises to piano music on a tape deck stuck to an amplifier in the corner of a long, converted room with high windows and a vaulted wooden floor. 

The first year it is just him and 35 florid teenage ballerinas in leotards, tights. Wearing tropical toucan shorts and black Capezio ballet slippers, his experience was transformed by seeing his own teenage reflection in the wall-length mirrors as grotesquely topped with Ted Koppel’s hair. 

In his first year Chris is also cast in the Christmas-themed Tchaikovsky ballet ‘The Nutcracker’, put on by the Fresno Civic Ballet, and he plays Fritz in his first stage performance ever, the brother of Clara, the little Prussian girl whose polished Ottoman-era hand-held tabletop soldier comes to life after Fritz smashes him to bits at the end of a long temper tantrum.

Chris plays Fritz because he is 4’11” and weighs 99lbs. Fritz is 9 years old and Chris looks 9 years old, and so the transition from shiny elfin paperweight to Teutonic ADHD hooligan is seamless. The girl who plays Clara develops a mute crush on Chris. Chris puts up a heavy metal poster in the boys dressing room. That gets laughs.

A FAILURE AT MATH

RPAM students numbered around 500 within a larger population of more than 3,000 at Roosevelt. On Fridays in the Rough Rider Auditorium in fall the drum lines filed in from their music rooms and through side doors with a cracker jack stepping precision and clackety clack clacking of taped drumsticks and shoulder harnessed tom-toms into a perfect rendition of Rush’s YYZ drum solo, then the Marimba Band brought out a giant timbale xylophone and hammered through Tito Puente numbers in the musical mallets of serious Hispanic teens.

High school more or less occurred simultaneously with Baldwin’s adolescence. As it should. He learned to drive. In school he learned improv comedy, musical comedy, Shakespeare, sword fighting and judo falls. A few academic subjects continued to interest him. French is one. AP History and Mr. Sischo’s ownership of Academic Decathlon team selection is another. 

“I should have studied Spanish,” Chris said. “Fresno was and is a Spanish-speaking town, I could have been super fluent just by watching TV.”

But French was what turned his brain on for the first time in high school, and gave him a reason to look forward to academics and homework. Made his brain think. Of course Spanish was a deep well in the school. There was a German program, too. All the really smart kids hung out there, most for all four years. Not Chris though. Those German-learning guys all went to big colleges eventually, with scholarships. 

Baldwin gets a 4 in AP History. Gets picked his junior year as an alternate for the bad-ass Roosevelt High Academic Decathletes, together with all the guys who already got into Harvard, Brown, Yale, Stanford, CalTech and MIT. In other words, the guys from German class. 

But in his junior year of high school Chris could not manage to pass Algebra II. That summer he enrolled in six weeks of daily morning classes to meet the college elective requirement. It was the summer of Oliver North on TV every day, raising his right hand and swearing to tell the truth. 

BIKE RACING NEVER STOPS

Chris made friends in summer school with similar students in search of college credit. Some of whom liked to party. Which is why most of them were in summer school. One of whom passed him some European bike racing magazines with pictures of Greg Lemond winning the Tour de France and Andy Hampsten winning the Giro d’Italia.

This hooked Chris on bike racing at 16. This was his party. But like any number of cycling-hooked young men, he had no bike. He was still a teenager and he had no money. He had a job at Taco Bell with one of his Algebra II classmates, and that guy had a purple Cannondale with giant aluminum tubes. Another friend had a lime-green Univega and a foam helmet with mesh netting that looked like a beer cooler.

And all of a sudden Chris wanted to race bikes. Ballet was rigorous training, ballet was physically very tough and ballet provided exceptional athletic preparation, but ballet is an art and not a sport. Ballet is subjective and emotional and can move people to tears or inspire them to jump from their chairs and shout in exultation. 

“Bike racing is a sport. Football, basketball, baseball and golf are all games. There are points to be scored and weird applause lines and a whole lot of interruptions for TV commercials. Bike racing is aggressive and punishing and can turn your lungs inside out and send your pulse skyrocketing through your nose. Bike racing never stops,” Chris said.

MEPS FRESNO

Chris had no money at the end of his senior year, though he wanted to go to college. And so clever Army recruiters glided the goggle-eyed 17-year old into a comfy side-desk chair at the Military Entrance Processing Site in downtown Fresno and offered up to him an enlistment as a linguist.

‘Howd’ja like to learn a foreign language for Uncle Sam?’ Sgt Ramirez asks him shyly. Chris just wanted out of school for the day and agreed, but only if they can stop for Indian food at the mall. Sgt. Ramirez laughs a bit, most potential recruits, he says, when told they can go out to eat on the recruiter’s account choose pizza or burgers. Ramirez says he’s gained 15 pounds since he left artillery.

Ramirez can’t hear very well. Chris explains how naan works. Ramirez calls it ‘none’.

Later they set up a post-ASVAB assessment test called the D-LAB. Defense Language Aptitude Battery. A dive into a fictive language constructed out of some basic syllables, like bla, lab, alb, bal, etc. At some point they add an ‘N’ and it’s called ‘fictive voice’. It takes three hours and it is hands down the coolest test Chris has ever taken, and in his senior year he did Academic Decathlon all the way to State Finals and then helped lose in Sacramento by flubbing math and tanking Roosevelt into 2nd overall to LA’s William Taft.

He was 17. He signed up. His mom made a kind of a feeble attempt at humor with the really high ranking sergeant who came over to the house at the end of it all, some regional sergeant major who passed up his quota to take a gander at this ballet-dancing academic-decathloning hopelessly naive cowboy savant out of the Black and Hispanic Fresno neighborhoods called Calwa and Malaga. 

FINALLY OUT FROM THE CORNER OF BELMONT AND FOWLER

Baldwin graduated high school in mid June and left for Army basic training roughly 30 days later. But first he bought a racing bicycle, some cycling shoes, a helmet and a speedometer and he starts riding his brand new $500 bike into the baking heat of a Central California summer. Ballet is over. Long live ballet. 

He goes to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri and stays there from July until September. He learns to shoot. To march. To sing while marching to go shoot. To sing outdoors with a lot of other marched-out shooters. To eat giant meals three times a day and sleep nine hours a night in Missouri during a wet-bulb summer. He learns a lot of new slang. All with a shaven head. 

He gets dosed with chemical smoke to teach him to trust his gas mask and it comes back out his nose in great foamy yellow snot and giant banana slugs of sneezing in the swinging pendular air before him. Then it lands on his BDU top. He hears a drill sergeant screaming at him to pound his chest. 

“Just beat yourself in the chest. Beat your goddamned chest, private!” a drill sergeant yells.

Chris slams a fist into the puddle of snot on his shirt and gasps a wet, throaty gargle of air down his throat. He can not believe how painful it is not to be able to breathe right now. He vows not to forget this moment ever. He hallucinates in oxygen deficit.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He wrote Xanadu. ‘In Xanada did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree’. It was one of the poems Chris had to study for Academic Decathlon. 

Another chemically dosed private, a deeply muscled black guy from Alabama whom everybody calls Alabama, looks at the snotty, asphyxiating torso of Chris in front of him and asks in a clear voice: ‘Baldwin, who wrote Xanadu?’ and across the marching formation Baldwin gulps in a clean swallow of air and yells back, ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge, why?’

‘Thanks, nevermind, tell you later,’ and Alabama turns to the other recruit marching alongside to his right. ‘I told you, Coleridge, same as Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, quit lying!’

BASIC RUSSIAN COURSE 42/88, DLI-FLC, PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY

Baldwin entered the Defense Language Institute in the late 1988 summer of California’s central coast, and took up what turned out to be an 18-month educational course in Russian at the Presidio of Monterey.

He scored high enough in exit exams to earn a posting to Germany, and following more training in Texas and Massachusetts, and amid the build-up to Gulf War I, shipped out in 1990 to a tiny mountain base in Germany, with honest to goodness, legit cobblestone mountain roads to cycle on and a working Benedictine monastery across the valley on an opposing ridge-top that raised Saint Bernards and served homemade beer and sausages and was famous for its massively potent 25% alcohol Christmas kegs. 

“All of a sudden there I was riding my bike in Germany and learning yet another language. Everyday it came out in a burst of noise on television and radio and from people everywhere, who would patiently listen to me practice my German, even if all I wanted to do was ask if they had Twinkies or HoHos and a Coke,” Chris said.

Baldwin rode his bike with the special shoes and pedals and helmet and speedometer in the hills and mountains of extreme northern Bavaria and around Germany for two years. Cycling in this paradise, so different from Fresno, so exotic, so humane and normalized, so compact and quiet. 

The Army attempted to keep Baldwin longer. But college came first in Baldwin’s life, and paying for it meant one enlistment only. Soon after he got out in 1992, Baldwin moved to begin studying for a Russian degree at the University of Montana, where he graduated in 1998. 

Mid-way through his degree he skipped alternating semesters for a couple years to travel to Russia for the first time and apply himself to using the language with native speakers frequently and informally.

The only Russian professor in the university died suddenly of a heart attack in his final year of studies, while out with students practicing their Russian in a sports bar off campus, as was the custom every Thursday. 

OSHGU, OSH, KYRGYZSTAN

After he graduated college with a BA in Russian and literally no job offers above $7.38 an hour in Missoula, Baldwin organized a teaching fellowship in Osh, Kyrgyzstan and headed to Central Asia, where Russian is definitely spoken, but the culture, people and customs are Asian, the languages mostly in the Turkic family and the weather is much warmer.

And it worked for two years. Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, with a mostly dry and moderate climate. In the Ferghana Valley, where Chris taught at OSHGU, the anagram in Russian for Osh State University, Uzbek and Kyrgyz students sat through his Bruce Springsteen rhyming lyrics lessons and his NASCAR commentary cartoon dialogues for exploring the simple past tense.

And as his spoken Russian improved, Chris sought more work further upstream, eventually leaving Kyrgyzstan’s alpine capital Bishkek to migrate into Moscow and live in Russia’s capital through the same winter that Bush-vs.-Gore fought itself out in front of the world. 

When 9/11 struck Chris was out of Russia, having left in the summer to pursue a relationship in Chicago. 

“But speaking Russian and having Central Asian experience on the ground, not to mention having already served an enlistment in a tactical battalion, meant that those Private Military Companies that outsource the non-fighting jobs were out with contracts looking for guys like me by Halloween of 2001,” Baldwin said.

By Thanksgiving of 2001 Chris had a job lined up back in Uzbekistan, as an interpreter for a Kentucky national guard unit tasked with maintaining supply flows by truck across the Pyanzh river and south into Afghanistan. 

18 WEEKS ON/6 WEEKS OFF

And so Chris found himself in Central Asia again, speaking Russian again, this time on the border at a rail and road depot that met up with the Freedom Bridge into northern Afghanistan in the southern town of Termez. 

“My job was I kept the Thursday night slumps from happening, when local border guard staff, with Friday always a cultural and work day off, would habitually shut the gate and open the bottle and cease work until sometime Monday afternoon,” Chris said.

The job transformed into a permanent Russian interpreter gig after its completion. In 2003 Baldwin joined Raytheon as a staff linguist at their remote residence and work site for American weapons inspectors in Votkinsk, Russia. This time the job interview required a suit and tie, a new round of test interviews and in-person language checks, and came with a black diplomatic passport as an accredited Nuclear Weapons Inspector for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. 

Two years Chris did this. He lived on a 5-acre compound of four brick dormitory buildings called Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, where he and the rest of his colleagues shared in the 18-week duty rotations in total lockdown. Isolated from the Russian population center in town some 10 kilometers down the road.

But the US government provided a generous resupply budget for DTRA in Votkinsk. The treaty that enabled the inspection had originated under Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and was the verification component of the famous quotation ‘trust but verify’.

18 ON/6 OFF

Up to 30 American inspectors lived in Votkinsk right outside the Votkinsk Machinebuilding Plant, where SCUDS, Topols, Bulavas and other ICBMs were all manufactured and assembled. Russian inspectors ran a mirror-image site near Magna, Utah, and kept their eyes on a Minuteman II production facility north of Salt Lake City.

“18 weeks on, 6 weeks off. I did it for two years with a specific goal in mind. Use the gym on the second floor of Roosevelt to get fit and ride a stationary race bike trainer in my room. When it snowed me and my colleagues would invite our Russian counterparts out into a giant field across from the inspection site to do thousand-yard laps of the meadow’s circumference on cross country skis. Sometimes for hours,” Chris said.

And so finally Chris had a job in Votkinsk that paid him an adult salary. College had been paid for in full on the GI Bill and a few dishwashing and tutoring jobs. Kyrgyzstan had been a good place for low-cost exploring, but Chris left his mountain bike in Montana for the first year and only had it at the end, when he lived in Bishkek. There was never any cycling in Moscow, no matter how hard Chris tried.

And now, in 2003, Chris bought the expensive bike of his dreams, a custom measured, custom painted titanium beauty from a bespoke handcrafter out near Boston. 

Chris trained like a proverbial Rocky in Siberia for the two-plus years he spent in Votkinsk at DTRA. On his 6-week vacation rotations, timed to the day in an inescapable countdown, he flew to Spain and Italy, to Mallorca and Belgium, even the Netherlands, in search of dry, sunny weather to ride his bike in. 

REUTERS MOSCOW LAUNCH 

To get out of Votkinsk Baldwin applied to attend a one-year graduate course in New York City for $54,000 in journalism, and with the degree he got a job almost immediately at Reuters News in London. 

“That was the whole point of getting a Columbia J-School Masters, as far as I was concerned. The education was good and the network was supreme. But getting a job with the credential was always the goal,” Chris said.

But it meant that Baldwin took grad school less seriously than he should have, because he still took his own life as a bike racer more seriously than it merited, measuring his calories and sleep. Hitting the gym on a calendar program. Paying a trainer and joining a team.

He raced in Central Park in New York City that summer, and he won races all summer long. He got an apartment of his own on 107th and Central Park West and immediately locked himself out the first weekend, doorslam behind him and it cost $300 to get it drilled out on a Sunday.

But still his excitement for life was infectiously robust and there were people willing to pay him to speak Russian, as was his reason for joining Reuters. And then a promise of years in Moscow. That was what Baldwin thought he wanted. Move to Moscow. Be a Kremlin correspondent. 

But by the time he came to live in London he was spending more and more time on his bike. Traveling with it. Traveling on it. Visiting bike races on vacation. Writing volunteer stories about bike racing to be published on the sports wire at Reuters.

He kept in touch with Dan and Andy at NY Velocity, guys he raced with as teammates in Central Park. Those guys had real jobs, careers even. They had families and mortgages and sometimes whole seasons without plane flights or travel plans. They still raced and followed the sport, and were in the process of publishing information that cracked the surface of professional bike racing at the time – Baldwin sometimes sent them essays to publish.

Baldwin meanwhile got sent to Moscow for Reuters, and spent the next year mostly on a plane to the far time zones of Siberia. He wrote stories about space launches, oil spills, elections, a serial murder trial where he got to hear the killer’s final words to his accusers in court. 

“I got to work on cool stuff that zipped most of my cycling dreams into a gym bag, and then I just ran them to death on a treadmill in the basement gym of a giant shopping mall,” Chris said.

GET TO AMSTERDAM

Reuters sent him back to London after a busy year for oil market specific journalism training and all Chris wanted was to ride his bike. He commuted to work on an extra long loop to stretch his ride time to an hour. Both ways. He got on his bike five hours a day in the hills south of London on the weekends. He raced in after-work leagues north of the river at a place called Hog Hill. 

And he got sick of London actually, wanted back to Moscow. Spent almost a year in negotiations to switch companies and head back as an oil correspondent for Bloomberg. Chris quit Reuters amicably in late summer 2010. On the day he cleared his desk, just before lunch, the phone rang.

A Russian-American ex pro cyclist on the line. 

‘Vassili?’

“Chris? How’s it going? I got a team. I’m a manager now.”

‘Great, Vas. I’m in London, why did you call?’

“I got a team, like I said. I got a team and we got a European race budget and we’re gonna race in Europe. We got money for a Press Officer. We need somebody who can write. You want to come do this job for us?”

And the dream that took eight months of careful subterfuge in cloaking his emails and hiding the incoming phone numbers to take a rival’s job for a big salary jump in an eagerly-anticipated return to Moscow all slapped into a wall of bricks and smashed its forehead into a smooshed pulp. 

Into a sticky human goo.

‘Yes!’ Chris said, and with that simple affirmation began a decade-long adventure in professional bike racing that moved him all over the world and everywhere in Europe within a two-hour flight of his new home in Amsterdam. 

RACE LIFE BEGINS 

China, Australia, Japan, Korea, Argentina, Thailand, Canada, Latvia, Estonia, Turkey, Oman, California. France, Italy. Spain. Belgium. Denmark. Norway. Croatia. Dubai. Qatar. Emirates. Everywhere bike races happened, Baldwin went. Even for the year he stepped away to do an analogous job in Europe’s professional motocross league, MXGP, Baldwin traveled. Baldwin traveled usually twice, sometimes three times a month. Sometimes all month. Sometimes months at a time. 

From 2010 to 2018. Trolley suitcase, shaving kit. Chargers. Laptop. Cameras. Clear plastic tech bag. Small billfold. No cash. Cards. Passport. New Yorker still in its plastic wrapper. Read from Talk of the Town to the Fiction entry just before touchdown in Malpensa. Toss the address and wrapper in an Italian airport garbage can.

YELLOW JERSEY, TOUR DE FRANCE 2014

It started in northern England in July that year. Chris organized his flight from Amsterdam to arrive two nights before the 2014 Tour de France was set to begin in Leeds. 

With two days to the start his PR obligations kicked in. A BBC TV crew came to cover the meet-up of some local 10 and 11 year old grade-schoolers on a tour of the team bus, the team chef’s mobile home kitchen, the mechanics’ work stands, wash racks and preparatory areas, and trucks full of bikes on hooks in inventory. 

At the same time a diplomatic delegation arrived from the national embassy of the country from whose wealth fund the team’s budget derived its structure. 

The Diplomats and the Grade Schoolers met, on camera, exchanged phrases of greeting and welcome in the sponsoring country’s native language, exchanged handmade cultural gifts and were then joined by the tracksuit wearing riders in the late afternoon for a shaded autograph and photo session among a dozen or so giggly British kids. 

“This was the easiest way to comfortably meet the local media, entertain sponsors from within the national government, impress a bunch of squirrelly youngsters and keep the riders lightly obligated to expend any unnecessary strength or effort,” Chris said.

WHITTLED DOWN TO HIS LEANEST

“The Tour de France is the biggest sporting event that most people don’t fully understand in the world,” Chris said.

The NFL’s Superbowl makes sense for sponsors. There are next day newspaper articles ranking the half-time commercials and the whole thing lasts seven hours and something utterly unpredictable happens in the final thirty minutes.

The MLB’s World Series makes money into November now. 

The NBA Finals are also, uh…long, and they seem to pick up around about the time the NHL’s Stanley Cup ends and further along from where March Madness made its attempt at your sobriety and Gamblers Anonymous chip. 

But all of those sports league games make sense within the rules of competition and play; that a winner emerges by scoring more, rising first more often, accumulating and holding on to a triumphant lead at the end. Crossing the finish line first, one final time.

Bike racing in a stage race, like the 21-stage Tour de France, is all about spending the least amount of energy overall, with no special exertions or outbreaks of attacking early on, so as not to over excite the central nervous system of a professional athlete already whittled down to his leanest and entirely dependent on a staff of people dedicated to minimizing his stress levels off the bike and maximizing the extent that his precious recovery time is unimpeded.

WINNERS STAY IN BED

“Old guys like to say the Tour de France is won in bed. Imagine that’s the case if it takes three weeks and there are usually 22 teams of 9 riders each. That’s a lot of beds,” Chris said.

Within the team staff there are entourages of around 10-15 vehicles, ranging from luxury bus to chef kitchen mobile to VIP escort van to race-driving peloton Team Director cars, two per day just behind the pack, with spare bikes and wheels on top, coolers full of water bottles and soft drinks in the wagon hatchback, and a real live mechanic who can swap out flat tires from a tightly wedged pile of wheels in the back seat next to him. 

Usually there are 3-5 other such similar team vehicles roaming the 250km-or-so of race course ahead of the day’s route, looking for places to stop and hand out food and drinks to the pacelining riders as they later speed by. 

Staff are numbered up to as many as 30, on some days 50 or more all totaled, with in-house media, kitchen help, extra drivers and mechanics ferrying extra custom bikes and wheels for the oddball days, like the cobblestone stage five in France that ran in the rain and mud and used bikes with wider tires and dampening bumpers inside the frame. 

Everybody got two. Leaders three. Wheels were all different. You need people and drivers and vans and hotel rooms and magnetic strips inside radio frequency emitters that allow passage at European interstate toll gates to pull this sort of thing off. All that logistical planning is a big time fun thing to do at night among staff in pro cycling,” Chris said.

A TEAM-ISSUE JERSEY

The team took the yellow jersey on the second day in Britain, with a finish in Sheffield on a big curving approach that circled in on surging British roundabouts.

“The team drivers of the food and drink shuttle cars said in Yorkshire there were fans at every square meter of road the entire day. 186km in a land with shires and dales and bustling hedgerows. One million fans? Two million, they all said. No place to pee, even,” Chris said.

Inside 2k to go and it’s the Danish teammate this time. Third attack by the team inside this expected sprint finish. What for? The peloton thinks it’s going to be a mass sprint. This attacking team is betting against the house and wasting its strength. The race is three weeks long. They will regret this in the Alps.

The fourth teammate makes his move, the Italian National Champion in a team-issue jersey.

Vincenzo Nibali launched his attack about 1.4k to the finish as his Danish teammate’s powerful move was reeled in by the galloping sprinters’ teams, and then when Nibali was clear and stayed clear he dug in and sped off to a darkhorse victory on stage two as he sat up and held it to the line before the big guys could bring their heavy, lurching hulk bodies to the front for the mass sprint.

SIX-FOOT-FOUR NICOLAS CAGE LOOK-ALIKE

In 2014 on stage two of the Tour de France, Chris kicked into gear as the operating press officer for the holder of the yellow jersey for the remainder of the race. A job that entailed coordinations for race rights holding media in 170 countries around the world, a valuable property of live feed air time in post-race daily broadcasts that national television networks had paid tens of millions for. 

On any given day, the yellow jersey holder finishes his stage and is immediately whisked away by a red-hatted bodyguard squad who navigate a finish line full of mayhem, slipping the rider still on his bike behind TV sets and satellite trucks to find a small cabin to clean up in. He gets a wipedown with water and an alcohol sanitizer to open his skin to the air, he is rewrapped in dry team clothing. 

His face, head and ears are scrubbed and swabbed and he is handed a bottle of the race’s water sponsor, into which either Michele or Chris pour in a freshly opened bottle of sparkling water from a team stash under the bus. Six-foot-four Nicolas Cage look-alike Michele is Nibali’s personal masseur, called a soigneur in French and a massagiatore in Italian.

WET COBBLES NEVER HAPPENED ANY MORE

Because Nibali attacked on day two of the 2014 Tour de France and took the yellow jersey, his team’s sponsors enjoyed publicity in an unmatched arena of viewership in the UK and other countries following the sport. 

Because Nibali attacked on day two of the 2014 Tour de France and took the yellow jersey, his Team Director’s race caravan car was assigned a bright red number one caravan sticker and allowed to follow the next day’s race from the closest part of the race caravan. Beginning with stage three, just behind the race doctor’s open-top Skoda convertible.

After three stages in England, including a finish in London at Buckingham Palace, the 2014 Tour de France crossed the La Mancha-English Channel in one short evening, and then spent the next day’s stage four in an unremarkable corner of northern France near the beach. 

Stormclouds rolled in fluffy and white over the narrow and sandy front parking strip the race staff was sequestered into at the finish. Nibali had media duties each day that were manageable and flowing smoothly, Chris learning how to work with a flow of license holders while automating what tasks he could and performing on mobile what remained of the operations and other national requests. 

In competition stage four changed nothing, Nibali’s team held the yellow jersey for him and also the first car position for the next day’s rainy stage five into the cobblestones of slippery wet mud.

A day to live in the mind of bike race fans like no other. Wet cobbles never happened any more on the racing style’s mainstay events in the weeks of sunny, dry weather that bind March and April in the hills of Belgium’s Flanders region and France’s dreary old urban coal mines. Yet in July, with much more grass and greenery than in spring, wet cobbles would happen of all places at the Tour de France.

CROWDED MICROPHONE BOUQUETS

The Tour de France media center that day boxed itself into a drizzly concrete parking lot and then set up a mazework of pathways for air that flowed under parasols and expandable mobile pavilion awnings. Nibali in yellow crossed well ahead of all his rivals, only the fifth day of competition in a race that will last 16 more stages.

Michele’s most important immediate job was to get Nibali warm, dry and refueled as quickly as possible makes the next hour of media duties bearable for Nibali, because the reality is that in a Tour de France, there is a profit to be made by advertisers who wish to sell their products to the people brave enough to stay on the couch and watch the post-race analysis.

To get a rider directly off the bike at the end of stage five would be important because all riders were dirty from an entire day in mud and rain. Their skills will have been tested, their training implored upon and their strength sapped. 

Chris’s most important immediate job was to minimize the opportunities for excess inherent in that monopolization of the most interesting story in sports for the entire month of July.

National television networks that pay tiered broadcaster fees have the contractual right to an exclusive one-on-one live chat with leaders in all race categories at the Tour de France, every day. 

RADIO GAGGLE

The white jersey of the best rider under 25, the red polka dots of the points leader in the King of the Mountains competition. The green points jersey that means best sprinter. All of them must oblige this conga-line of eager earphone eyebrow scowlers, who ask earnest questions in their native language, questions agreed to with the press officer before and then explained quickly in Italian to Nibali as he sipped bubbles to rehydrate and awaited the next live shot. 

Nibali answered in Italian. Chris had the job of reassuring Nibali of a question’s meaning, and then standing with his arms ready to help crowded microphone bouquets capture their moment.

Then those who pay a lesser rights fee get a gaggle, usually divided into The Garibaldis (“Italian-speaking”) ,Sons of Valhalla (“Danish-speaking”), and The Nerdlingers, those one-man-band internet video sites run by guys in multi-pocketed fishing vests and holding a first generation digital camera on a monopod.

Then the radio gaggle.

Then Nibali is made to open to the lowest rights purchasers, the kind of people who come just to get free buffet food items in the massive, 2,500-seat media center. Then he sits through an official race press conference broadcast into the media center from a fixed desk, with contemporaneous interpretation into English. 

RAN OUT OF BOTTLES OF COKE

The press officer’s other most important job, organizing the rest-day press conference, was victory snatched from the hands of defeat, when, lodging in an honest-to-goodness roadside motel at the third exit of a roundabout for three consecutive nights, Chris put the entire press corps out in the hot parking lot glare of a July summer sun and sat a 12-panel table of team leaders, directors, doctors and riders to answer and listen as the yellow jersey leader explained quietly what had happened in the race so far and then commented on what was to happen further in the future. 

The riders and staff and most of the press stayed and ate in the roadside motel’s modest restaurant. Eventually the cafe ran out of bottles of coke. 

In the remaining two weeks of the 2014 Tour de France, Nibali won two more mountain top stages, for a total of four, and spent every day until the end in the leader’s yellow jersey. 19 days out of 21. Up to 90 minutes of media obligations and escorts every day, selfies with grandee behind-the-scenes VIPs, potential sponsors vetted for water bottles and sunglasses for their team car ride through the Alps and Pyrenees. 

There was a much calmer, catered rest day press conference at a chateau after the end of week two – the team bike sponsor paid for a buffet and Nibali sat under an awning to block the full French summer sun from his face.

Photographers were collegially watered, colleagues were photographically assisted, TV network runners and fixers all helped along in a spirit of yellow jersey madness until the final Sunday in Paris, on the Champs Elysee, where Chris parked his team car behind the bus and pushed send on the team’s social media accounts to schedule congratulatory victory tweets, posts and captioned photos. 

Then he sent his contracted photographers to stand at the team bus and capture staff celebrating with champagne and sparkling wine in the parking lot with their families. Riders coming in and change into fresh kit for a celebratory lap. Pizza boxes piled up in the bus. A couple of people from the entourage kind of drunk. 

VICTORY PARADE

The sun is setting but not down yet and Chris finishes Nibali’s final 2014 Tour de France interview of the race, a lengthy sit down with the Italian National rights-holder and broadcaster RAI-UNO, and their unbelievably fabulous powerhouse Alessandra DiStefano, who flew in Nibali’s parents from Sicily, and his wife and newborn daughter, for the first Italian Tour de France champion in a long, long time.

Nibali is released into the arms of his final obligation on the day, a visit to the anti-doping tent, where he will pee back most of his sparkling water into a sample vial and then sit for a minute or two as a gloved medic swipes his forearm and withdraws blood into four vials. 

Chris hustles back to the staging parade route and yells in triumph at the collection of team cars assembled in a line, filled with directors, masseurs, mechanics behind the whole team of nine finishing riders on brand new commemorative bikes from the sponsor. 

Chris begs a mechanic to remove one of the team bikes from a roof rack and then gets on and rides alongside his coworkers and teammates in a victory parade lap on the Champs Elysee at the end of the 2014 Tour de France.

THE SKYSCRAPER CLASSIC

In 2018 Chris stepped away from the hectic and exhilarating world of the pro cycling tour, with a few tips for travel in and around Europe:

Top tips for Italy: Eat grilled porkchops at the Fiumicino Airport in Rome at the to-order cafe past the Sky Alliance lounge. PS that lounge is usually crammed full of people, but the restaurant always has open tables. Good luck.

Top tips for Belgium: Do not drink more than two. Ever. No matter what they say it is.

Top tips for Norway:  You can not afford even one. It’s $17 for a pint at the airport hotel in Stavanger.

And on and on. Over nearly a decade, Chris had become a road warrior in Europe. He accumulated frequent flyer miles and spoken Italian. Some days he spoke Russian, French, Italian, Spanish and German all before lunch. He was the only native English speaker at most of his professional gatherings. It was exhilarating beyond measure.

And then one day at home he opened the refrigerator and saw two spoons, a lot of chopsticks and some apple slices in a bag, and nothing else.

Dan from NY Velocity called, he had run those freelance essays from bike races on the website a few years back. Once Dan designed a custom team victory t-shirt when Chris called him in 2013 after Nibali won a similar three-week race in his home country of Italy, this time in the snowy and unpredictable month of May. The team rejected Dan’s design in favor of a pink silk-screened cartoon shark. Munificently, Dan got to talking to Chris about content creation. The written word.

Dan and Chris had raced against each other in Central Park that one summer in 2005, and then on the same team over the winter into the next season. They had tag-teamed a few victories by working in partnership either out on the far side of Brooklyn or around a firehouse near Nyack. Once they raced out in Princeton. One time in the Skyscraper Classic in Harlem, where Chris finished 2nd in a sprint he should have won and Dan laughed first and loudest and longest of anyone else. 

“Of course we work well together. Multiple voices in my head are mostly just versions of Dan, cackling at me for coming up short in the Skyscraper Classic. It’s masochistic, I’ll admit, but I work harder and I work better because of it,” Chris said.

Away from pro cycling in 2018, Chris first got a new dog, an 8-month old Australian Shepherd, fit for training and a life of adventure. And he started up the content creation portfolio at Unimarketa. A Unimarketa Dog Trainer, at the next point in a lifelong adventure.

IF WISHES WERE HORSES

If Chris Baldwin was 20 pounds heavier and maybe four or five inches taller his freshman year of high school in 1984, he might have tried to play high school football with the varsity kids rather than taking ballet. Sophomore year he might have rushed for an average of 8-and-a-third yards per carry. Junior year blown his knee at an out-of-town game, nowhere to go but down, down, down – nothing but the ground left for him to fall to.

But Chris Baldwin was 4’11” and 99lbs at 13 and he looked like he was in the 5th grade. And he made choices based on this that set him on a path that brought him here. If it were any different, then none of this would have ever happened.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

One Reply to “Chris’ life – in his own words”

  1. Brooke- I am so terribly sorry for your loss. This biography is beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. Big hugs to you.

Leave a Reply