At just 21 years old, Rowan Baker has emerged as one of the most exciting talents in the domestic road racing world this season. Representing the London Dynamo race team, Baker first captured our attention at the start of the year, playing a crucial role in the winning break at the Perfs Pedal road race, ultimately won by the WorldTour-bound Jack Rootkin-Gray. His eighth-place finish at the Rapha Lincoln Grand Prix, coupled with two National B road race victories, further underscored his potential, culminating in a sixth-place ranking in our national road race standings.
What makes Baker’s ascent all the more remarkable is that 2023 marked only his second full season as a competitive cyclist. Often finding himself as the lone club cyclist pitted against well-oiled UCI Continental and elite development teams, Baker’s journey is nothing short of inspiring.
The British Continental recently had the opportunity to sit down with Baker to delve deeper into his story, one that has seen him transition from an aspiring Olympic rower to finding his true calling in the world of cycling. This shift came after a troubling medical diagnosis forced him to put his rowing aspirations on hold, ultimately leading him to discover a new passion and purpose on two wheels.
In many ways, Baker is a born again cyclist, his recent conversion resulting him revisiting a passion that he’d first found in his very early years. He was first introduced to racing by his older brother. “When I was like, really quite young, about the age of like, five or six, I got into cycling because my older brother did it at the time,” he recalls. Those early year were marked by a mix of road cycling, cyclocross, and triathlons. However, as he grew older, his interest waned, and he found himself drawn to the sport of rowing.
Olympic rowing dreams
Rowing became Baker’s primary focus, and he excelled in the sport, eventually set for trials for the GB international team at the age of 18, only to find them cancelled due to the Covid pandemic. Undeterred, he went to university with Olympic rowing dreams at the forefront of his mind. “I went to King’s to do sport and exercise medicine as a degree, and to focus on rowing. The idea was to try and get to the Olympics, you know, see if I can do anything there,” he says.
I’d got myself into the first eight, into the top boat that year. I’d spent the whole winter training to essentially just be told ‘you can’t race any more this summer’
But with his Olympic dreams within reach, a troubling medical condition led to a heartbreaking halt in his rowing career. “I’d blackout at the end of hard efforts or even during them… When I was 19, I’d started to do under-23 rowing and I’d got to quite a high level already. But I’d had a couple of episodes of blacking out, and my coach had then gone to speak to British Rowing and he said for that summer of racing, I wasn’t going to be able to compete, due to it being a safety risk,” Baker shares. “I’d got myself into the first eight, into the top boat that year. I’d spent the whole winter training to essentially just be told ‘you can’t race any more this summer.'”
It was a difficult diagnosis to deal with, Baker’s hard work, his dreams, all dashed in an instant. “So yeah, I mean, at the time, I was, I was very put out for a few weeks. I didn’t really know what to do with myself, because, you know, at the time, I was, getting up, training from 5am to 7am, going off to uni, finishing uni, and then training from 4pm to 6 or 7 in the evening at the rowing club, and then going home eating. And that was pretty much my life that whole winter. So I was a bit lost for a while,’ he recounts.
From rower to road racer
This abrupt end to his rowing season left Baker at a crossroads, one that led him to revisiting his childhood passion for cycling. “I was like, ‘fuck it’, I might as well make the use of my fitness somehow. So I thought, ‘Well, I used to cycle when I was younger’… and we used to do cycling as cross training for rowing,” he says.
So, equipped with a £900 Dolan, he entered into a few races and immediately did well. “I got out of fourth cat doing a solo time trial off the front, from the gun. And I remember speaking to my brother afterwards… and he was like, ‘What power did you do?’ And I said I’d done like 360 [watts] or something for the hour as a fourth cat and he was like, ‘I think you should probably give cycling a go,'” laughs Baker.
I liked riding my bike winning or losing, which I think makes a big difference when you’re trying to get to the pinnacle of a sport
There was no turning back after those first few races, his transition from rower to cyclist a mental switch as much as a physical shift, he tells us. “To be honest, I enjoyed the sport a lot more than I enjoyed rowing. Because I found that when I was rowing, I was more doing it because I was good at it. I won races; that was my enjoyment for it really. Whereas I liked riding my bike winning or losing, which I think makes a big difference when you’re trying to get to the pinnacle of a sport, you can’t just enjoy it for the results ultimately can you?”
In 2022, he embarked on his first full season, swiftly accumulating British Cycling points to ascend the racing categories. “My goal that first year was to reach second cat as quickly as possible, enabling me to compete in all the Nat Bs I desired,” he reflects. His efforts paid off, culminating in notable achievements by season’s end. He clinched 5th place at the Roy Hillman Memorial Road Race in September, followed by a commendable 19th place finish in his inaugural National Road Series race, the Beaumont Trophy, a week later.
A breakthrough 2023
The conclusion of 2022 set the stage for Baker’s breakthrough season in 2023, highlighted by two pivotal races: the Perfs Pedal road race and the Rapha Lincoln Grand Prix.
It felt like a ride where I proved what my legs were capable of
Kicking off the season at the Perfs Pedal road race in February, Baker secured a fifth-place finish. He found himself in the winning move alongside three Saint Piran riders—eventual winner Jack Rootkin-Gray, Zeb Kyffin, and Harry Birchill—and Jack Crook of Richardsons Trek. This result marked a significant milestone for Baker. “It felt like a ride where I proved what my legs were capable of,” he said, attributing his success to rigorous winter training and improved fitness and riding skills.
The Lincoln Grand Prix further solidified Baker’s status as a rising star. Despite grappling with exams and suboptimal preparation, he managed an impressive eighth-place finish at one of the UK’s most prestigious one-day races. “Lincoln was surprising, to be honest. My preparation was far from ideal, given it coincided with my exam period. My training suffered as a result,” he confesses.
Nevertheless, Baker showcased his strategic prowess during the race, compensating for his lack of preparation.
“Once I managed to get across with Alex [Richardson], then that was it. You know, it was just a case of me sort of hanging on really. I felt I felt awful during that race, to be honest, but if you look at my heart rate during it, I set a record for my four hour max heart rate, averaging 180 bpm the whole time so it was just permanently on the red line. But somehow I made all the right moves to make up for the fact that maybe I was 10, 15, 20 watts from where my legs really needed to be. So yeah, that was a that was another moment where I felt like I’d proven where I was at. But yeah, that was a bit of a shock to me,” he says.
Behind the breakthrough
What factors propelled Baker to these new heights?
The first and perhaps most significant change Baker made was a substantial increase in his training load. “I think it’s dedicating more time to training and just being very focused on all the marginal gains that I can feasibly make,” he explains. In the past, Baker’s training regimen consisted of approximately 12 hours per week, never exceeding 20 hours. However, 2 marked a pivotal shift, with Baker consistently pushing his limits and embracing a more rigorous schedule. “I was always consistent. I didn’t really have many recovery weeks or anything,” he adds.
But it wasn’t just about logging more hours on the bike. Baker also made a conscious decision to invest more financially in his training, participating in training camps that he believes have been instrumental in his development. “I’ve upped my training load a bit more this year, invested a bit more financially speaking to make myself more broke, buying a new bike, doing things like training camps, which has definitely been useful,” he says with a chuckle.
Another crucial element in Baker’s success was his decision to ride with some of the best cyclists in London, including Alex Richardson and Zeb Kyffin. “Towards the start of the year, January, February time, I started riding with a certain group in London. I started to do regular rides with people like Alex Richardson, and like Zeb Kyffin, the best guys in London, regularly doing chain gangs on Wednesdays and Saturdays,” he recalls.
Just being able to regularly ride with guys like Alex has definitely taught me a huge amount about racecraft
The experience of riding with seasoned professionals like Richardson, an ex-pro cyclist, was invaluable for Baker. “Just being able to regularly ride with guys like Alex has definitely taught me a huge amount about racecraft,” he says. “He’s an ex-pro, he just is putting you in the bin every week. And then you slowly get a bit further into the ride before he drops you and then, you know, you’re gradually getting to the end of the ride; you end up learning a lot.”
This hands-on learning experience not only improved Baker’s racecraft but has had a tangible impact on his results. “I’ve definitely been able to utilise a lot of what I’ve learned from riding with that group of guys – and Alex specifically – this year. It has definitely helped my racecraft which has improved huge amounts since last year, which is I think, to be honest, probably the main reason my results have gotten a lot better,” he concludes.
Furthermore, as a university student and rising star in the cycling world, the financial and logistical backing from his club has been a crucial factor in his journey.
Anyone who does a Nat B within our race team, you get your entry paid for. And same for National As. The team were nice enough to pay for two of my training camps and supported all my race entries, all the travel costs and all the accommodation costs as well
“My club and race team have been very helpful with supporting racing, getting me to races financially speaking whilst still being a uni student,” Baker explains. This support has been multifaceted, covering everything from race entries to travel and accommodation costs. “Yeah, so anyone who does a Nat B within our race team, you get your entry paid for. And same for National As. The team were nice enough to pay for two of my training camps and supported all my race entries, all the travel costs and all the accommodation costs as well,” he adds.
This level of support is not something to be taken for granted, as Baker discovered when he was offered spots at elite teams. “I was offered spots at several British elite teams this year. But then I asked what support I’d get. And they were like, ‘full support for National As and that’s it’. And I was like, well, that’s only four or five races a year. That’s hardly a racing calendar,” he recalls.
For Baker, the practical support that enables him to participate in races is far more valuable than the prestige of being associated with a particular brand or team. “I couldn’t really care less about having a team bike, I’d rather there was more money, but I think that’s the case for a lot of riders I speak to in the UK. I’d rather have the support to go to races and to be able to do the races, than, you know, having to advertise that you ride these tyres, or you ride this bike. I just want to race at the end of the day,” he concludes.
The rest of Baker’s season was a mix of highs and lows. He had what he describes as a reasonable performance in the under-23 time trial at the National Road Championships, finishing 12th despite not having prior experience on a time trial bike. The road race at nationals did not go as well, but Baker was not disheartened as it was a powerful race that didn’t suit his style.
The National Circuit Series was a learning experience for Baker, where he refined his bike handling skills in hectic races. He performed well at Ilkley, which was a positive experience even without a great result. However, his season took a downturn after a crash at Lancaster, where he was fortunate to escape injury but was unable to finish the race. This was followed by a bout of tonsillitis and a chest infection, which kept him off the bike for several weeks.
Baker’s first race back after illness was the final round of the Men’s Under-23 National Road Series, where he felt better but not at his best. Despite this, he managed to get a result. But his season ended on a high note with a win at the Jeff Schils race – his second National B road race win of the year – where he credits the racecraft learned throughout the season as a significant factor in his victory. He says, “The race craft I learned throughout the season definitely helped me win that race, by a long way as well.”
Baker now finds himself at a crossroads. The young cyclist dreams of riding at the UCI Continental level but finds himself in a precarious position as he navigates the limited options available to him in the UK.
“I’ve had talks with a couple of teams about stepping up to the UCI Continental level. But yeah, I’ve had talks for a while, but nothing decisive has come out of them,” Baker shares, the frustration evident in his voice.
The end of the season has brought new opportunities, but also new challenges. Baker has found himself looking beyond the UK’s borders in search of a team that can help him achieve his ambitions.
There’s only so many spots in the UK, really
With just two UCI Continental teams in the UK, the domestic scene offers limited spots for those aspiring to reach the next level. “There’s only so many spots in the UK, really. I mean, it’d be nice to stay here. But, you know, I’m under 23 currently, and if I was to ever make it into professional cycling, now would be the time to do it,” he explains.
Baker’s journey into the world of professional cycling has been unconventional, having started at the age of 19 or 20. This late start has added another layer of complexity to his quest. “The thing is, I’ve come in relatively late, coming in at like 19, 20 years old. So, yeah, there’s just not many options,” he said.
Baker contrasts the two options in the UK. While Trinity Racing is well-funded, he says, Saint Piran operates on a tighter budget, with riders often having to dip into their own pockets to cover expenses.
“Knowing a few of the Saint Piran guys, you know, they do get access to races, but, you know, speaking to like, a couple of them, they’ve spent a lot of their own money this year, you know, on equipment and whatnot, just getting things repaired, because Saint Piran doesn’t have a huge budget,” Baker shares.
In contrast, foreign teams often have larger budgets and can provide better support to their riders. This has led Baker to cast his net wider in search of a team that can help him achieve his dreams.
I would like to be able to ride at Continental level next year. But at the moment, it’s not really in my hands
“I’ve spoken to a foreign team and I’m speaking to other teams, as well. I would like to be able to ride at Continental level next year. But at the moment, it’s not really in my hands,” he says.
As Baker waits for responses from the teams he has approached, his determination and passion for the sport nonetheless remains undiminished. The road ahead may be uncertain, but Baker is ready to pedal towards his dream, wherever it may take him next.