What's Cool In Road Cycling

Inside Astana: Chris Baldwin Gets PEZ’d!

Interview: Every team has one; a ‘press guy’ or ‘gal’ in some cases, all do a great job sending out press releases, setting up interviews and arranging media days and presentations. That’s not all they do and most are like a swan, all cool and graceful above the water line, but working like crazy beneath the surface. Chris Baldwin was one of the most helpful, but with his mastery of the Russian language there was always an air of mystery. Now we know a bit more about the man who used to be with the Astana team.

Here at PEZ we first got to know Chris Baldwin as ‘press guy’ at Team Type 1 and continued our relationship with him when he moved to Astana. He’s moved on now, into moto-cross but as an ‘Anglo’ at the heart of a – dare we say, ‘notorious?’ – Eastern, WorldTour team we thought he’d be well worth speaking to.

Here’s what he had to say, recently – and stick with it, his first answer is long but just endorses that ‘he ain’t your average ‘press guy.’

TDFR 2014 - stage -19

PEZ: Chris, thank you for chatting with us; I knew you first from your TT1 days, what did you do before that?
Chris Baldwin: My career is a winding road through different fields and territories, but the centre line up until now has always been the Russian language.

When I was 17 in 1988 I joined the army and went to their language school in Monterey, California to learn how to be what they used to call a ‘cryptologic linguist’ – basically to sit in the back of an armored vehicle with really powerful field antennas and listen in as the Soviet Group of Forces in Germany played war-games and passed artillery code over the radio.

In 1990 when I got to the 108th MI Battalion in Wildflecken, Federal Republic of Germany, the Cold War was over, Germany was almost reunited, and the build up of American combat forces in Saudi Arabia was going full steam – The Soviets had morphed into the Russians and they were all packing up their weapons and going home. After college in Montana on the GI Bill I taught English in Kyrgyzstan until $200 a month was no longer a good idea, and then slowly migrated up the post-Soviet food chain until I got to Moscow, where I lasted about a year until $1250 a month wasn’t enough.

I had an American girlfriend in Chicago for about two years, and we lived together through 9/11, after which I got hooked up with some private contractors for a Special Forces Battalion that was deployed in Uzbekistan – there my job was to turn my Central Asian skills and my Russian language ability into an asset for the Army’s Civilian Affairs division and help keep a bridgehead for delivery trucks open across the Amu Darya river into Afghanistan until they could finish the airfields in Kabul and Kandahar.

From there I moved up to Votkinsk in Russia as a translator for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and their on-site missile inspection team outside a rocket engine factory that was part of the Reagan-era ‘Trust But Verify’ program that morphed over the years into the INF and START 2 treaties. That lasted two years until I was done for good with government contracting, so I took my money and got a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University and soon found myself at the Reuters news agency – first in London, then later in Moscow.

In 2010 I had enough of Foggy Albion and was on my way back to Moscow as an oil reporter when Vassily Davidenko called me out of the blue and offered a spot as a press officer at Team Type 1.

stage 1 of the 2012 USA Pro Challenge
Alessandro Bazzana of Team Type 1-Sanofis in the 2012 USA Pro Challenge

PEZ: Team Type 1 was more than just a cycling team, or is that an illusion?
TT1 was pretty cool all told, but in the early days they had a hard time distinguishing themselves as a marketable product for their sponsor, the Sanofi Aventis pharmaceutical company – my job was to humanize the diabetes story for medical journalists and help promote their overall racing program in cycling media.

The first year was just throwing as much at the wall as I could to see what stuck – the second year was really cool because guys like Laszlo Bodrogi and Rubens Bertogliatti taught Alessandro Bazzana and Daniele Colli how to win races, and young guys like Georg Preidler and Vegard Stake Laengen got us into the Tours of Austria and Norway.

PEZ: TT1 to Astana, tell us about that leap.
That’s a story that’s already been told at the Cycling Podcast with Lionel and Richard, so I’ll just say here that Vino made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

TDFR 2014 - stage -19

PEZ: What’s the team language on Astana?
Astana was half Italian, half Russian – and neither of those two tribes really spoke much outside of their own tongues – with the rest of the guys – the Estonians, the Dutch and the Dane, we had a very high level of English.

PEZ: Kazakhs – dour and inscrutable or friendly and cuddly?
You have to make a distinction here – do you mean ethnic Kazakhs, an Asiatic people from Central Asia, or do you mean Kazakh citizens within the modern geopolitical boundaries?

Kazakhstan has dozens of ethnicities, led in number by Russians but including Armenians, Koreans, ethnic Volga Germans, Belarusians, Tatars, Uighyurs, Georgians and Chechens – though most of the Chechens and pretty much all of the Germans migrated back to their native homelands after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Personally I find people everywhere in the Former Soviet Union friendly, hospitable and genuinely quite open and warm – but I speak their language and have lived and worked among them for years now, and I have gone through a period of cultural adaptation myself, so I don’t really see them as ‘other.’

To address your question directly I guess I’d say that to outsiders their dour inscrutability is just a surface behavior – once scratched it’s friendly cuddles and lots of delicious barbecues!

Stage 6 of the Tour de Langkawi 2012
Vino has many fans all over the World

PEZ: Vino – what’s he really like?
Vino is a blonde vampire with impeccable taste in hipster jeans and copious amounts of hair gel – at least if Cycling Weekly mag is to be believed.

I was lucky to see him and work up close, and I can say that he’s basically like any other driven champion athlete – ruthlessly goal-oriented, unsentimental in his daily work and motivated not so much by winning as by just beating his competition.

In private he is in fact quite sentimental and given to bursts of poetry in memory of his dead friend Andrei Kivilev – he’s also a village kid who came from a podunk nowheresville railyard in the worst period of mafia thuggery and post-soviet collapse to live in Monaco among the gaudy excess of Mediterranean Europe’s flashy elite – to cynical Yanks and Brits that’s immediately mockable, but for his family and to the folks back home in Kazakhstan he lives a glamorous and enviable life.

presentation team Astana 2015 in Duba
Not too much hair gel?

PEZ: It seems a little like ‘money is no object’ with the team – is that fair comment?
Well it was – up until last season in about April – right after we earned back our license from the UCI the Kazakh currency was devalued and then allowed to free-float, shifting from about 170 Tenge per Dollar to what is now I think 360 to $1 – the team budget is disbursed in a fixed amount of Kazakh Tenge and transferred into European accounts as Euros and Pounds – with the big exchange shift in 2015 their money now goes about half as far as it used to.

The City of Astana

PEZ: Did you ever get to the city of Astana – I’ve heard it’s phantasmagorical?
I first went to Astana in 2006 and saw a couple of modern skyscrapers in the middle of a dusty steppe – I went back twice in the last three years while I was working with the team and saw a totally different city in an architectural free-for-all that doesn’t quite offend the senses as much as Dubai does, but still manages to shock with its gigantism and epic scale.

PEZ: What was your best day with the team?
When Lieuwe Westra won the Queen Stage of the 2014 Dauphinè.

PEZ: And the worst?
The worst two days were when Valentin and Maxim came up positive – I first learned about it from Laura Weislo on a Wednesday night at 8:00 pm – the UCI posted on a PDF page three links deep into their homepage and didn’t even tell the team – That just sucked because we were about 10 days after the TdF victory with Vincenzo and still basking in the warm glow of the podium in Paris.

PEZ: Do you think Astana and Katusha get a ‘bad press’ simply because they’re Eastern teams?
Yes, but it’s more likely racism than geography – Vino is a bike geek just like a lot of us in the sport, but we in the West have been working our way through an ironic, cynical phase of our culture through journalism and storytelling while the Eastern teams are much more forthright and emotionally honest – each side has its advantages and disadvantages, but the Western perception is of thuggery, conspiracy and lying while the eastern guys see dishonor, hypocrisy and a lack of loyalty.


PEZ: Did you find the UCi fair and reasonable towards Astana?
No, at least not at first – but I think this is because Cookson and his team were incomplete in explaining their rationale in December and January of last season, and also because English-speaking fans on twitter were so virulently pissed off after five doping cases that their anger shook the UCI’s self-perceived legitimacy in its birthing moments.

PEZ: The World Tour – pro and cons in your eyes?
The World Tour is a good idea, but until the ASO starts sharing its television money the sport of cycling is stuck in superposition [a challenging concept in quantum physics – we can’t even begin to understand, ed.]

Tour stage win in England

PEZ: Why leave Astana?
The story I have told myself is that me and the management were married and our baby was the team – the baby got very sick, sick to the point of nearly dying, and it was a crisis that exposed the flaws and weaknesses of our relationship – so much so that even though the baby survived, the marriage was unrecoverable.

I was proud of the crisis management work I did once the shitstorm subsided, and the management ultimately prevailed in its work with ISSUL [the body which audited Astana, ed.] – but then there was a scandal at the Giro when Contador slid out after Katyusha attacked.

The scandal at the Tour with Boom’s cortisol level and then Nibali’s tugboat escapades at the Vuelta and I thought – ‘OK, I now have a PhD in Crisis Management’ – and that’s not really what I want to do for a living.

PEZ: Tell us about the new gig and how you got it.
I am now the press officer for Yamaha’s MXGP teams – the off-road motocross race series in Europe and a few cool places overseas – it’s cool because it’s a commercial sponsor and I have a lot to learn about this side of the job – at Astana there are no commercial sponsors, just the government and its sovereign wealth fund sloshing around in a marble bathtub.

With Astana I did everything at first – the social media, the race presence, the media contact – after three years it was like trying to scuba dive through a clogged drinking straw and my stress levels were too high for my own health – at Yamaha there is a strong back-office, a very motivated support team and a family atmosphere at the events.

‘Not your average press guy. . . we wish him well at Yamaha and will miss him.

TDFR 2014 - stage -19

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

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