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Interview of the Month: The Ringmaster – Aldon Baker

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Interview of the Month: The Ringmaster – Aldon Baker

When KTM secured the exclusive services of the most revered trainer in Supercross and Motocross KTM Motorsport Director Pit Beirer was moved to say: “Now the package is complete.” Aldon Baker is a name that evokes fear, desire, confidence and respect in AMA racing. We asked him about his ‘orange’ union, his work and the future of motocross training …

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Aldon Baker (RSA) 2017 © Ray Archer

KTM North America’s HQ sits quietly and plush in a suburb of Murrieta, California. Almost 3000 miles across the country and in the depths of Florida a more furious type of work – essential to the Red Bull racing wing of that operation – is taking place. Aldon Baker’s ‘Bakers Factory’ complex has been the sole domain of KTM AG athletes for over a year. The South African, who indirectly exerted his influence over the sport due to prolific alliances with Ricky Carmichael, James Stewart, Ryan Villopoto, Ken Roczen and Ryan Dungey (as well as working with racers such as former MotoGPTM world champion, the late Nicky Hayden), is now marshalling names like Marvin Musquin, Broc Tickle, Jason Anderson and Zach Osborne. A ‘Baker-crafted’ talent has won every 450 SX championship since 2010.

“From 2010 we worked hard: we built a new workshop, we got Roger [De Coster], we created a completely new bike and we got better riders,” recounts KTM Motorsport Director Pit Beirer of the origins of Baker becoming orange. “We were missing the trainer … and if we missed a championship then it was probably because Aldon was working with somebody else! But we also won championships with him on our side.”

“It was a target that at one time seemed unreachable when we first had it on the agenda but at the beginning of this year we got more and more riders to him and in the end we could finally close a deal in January that there would be nobody else in his camp apart from KTM and Husqvarna riders,” he adds. “It means we cannot create a better base for a rider. If you come to us you get a good bike, team and the best trainer. We can offer a package that is really important. It took seven years for me to get all these people together to run such an operation and I think it is something that can make us strong in the future.”

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Aldon Baker (RSA) 2017 © Ray Archer

Baker’s knowledge and work ethic and the subsequent results with his athletes have made him the most sought-after specialist away from a toolbox. Osborne has publicly commented on the ‘power of association’ of working with Aldon both in terms of the mental boost for the rider and the sense of foreboding for rivals on the track. Entering the Baker program however required unwavering levels of commitment.

“For sure I was scared!” half-jokes Musquin. “I did not know what to expect. In the beginning it was Roger De Coster’s idea. He said ‘I’d like you to meet Aldon and consider working with him and making a step mentally and physically in your program’. To be honest I was really curious about how it would be and I knew I’d need to move to Florida. I knew it would be a big change. Today I have no regrets. It helped me straight off in the first year. I had more confidence and I won a Supercross championship right away. It was fun to move to a new state and see new things and new tracks and riding with other riders: training all together was a big benefit.”

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Marvin Musquin (FRA) & Aldon Baker (RSA) 2017 © Ray Archer

If Baker initially made inroads through the conditioning and fortitude of his ‘clients’ then he recently made another through the ‘factory’s’ policy of encouraging and asking top-level athletes and fellow competitors to train together. “It was like ‘racing’ at the practice track,” reveals Musquin, “and that’s what we do with Anderson, Osborne and Tickle now … it is a good structure.”

“This whole sport has evolved, jeez, when I first started there were no trainers and I gained some ground and saw what worked,” says Baker, sipping on a bottle of water in the heat of the Las Vegas paddock for the 2017 Monster Energy Cup. “Back in the day I would never have put two good riders together. That was not the mentality. I think to get the level up you would have had to do that but who would have been willing then? It was a challenge, and now it is kinda the norm where good riders are working together.”

“I think it is good for the sport to create that level. The improvements in bikes and machinery [are so great] that we now need to improve the athlete to keep up and that’s one of the ways to do it.”

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Marvin Musquin (FRA) KTM 450 SX-F Anaheim (USA) 2018 © Simon Cudby

The factory, located in Sumter County, is Baker’s biggest move towards a future plan of working with other trainers as much as the riders themselves. “My goal is to get out of being a ‘one-man show’ and to develop a business. And part of that is having the full-circle and being able to bring in new guys and develop them. Having a team will create longevity,” he says. Stamping the complex with KTM AG insignia was another part of that process. “It has probably been the biggest turning point for me in regards to what I do in the industry,” he opines. “The deal came into the forefront when I was developing the facility because it is a massive undertaking and to have them backing that and wanting to be part of that is huge.”

“I remember thinking ‘I just need one Supercross track and an outdoors track …’ and now we are up to three Supercross and two outdoor tracks! It depends how big the land is but right now it’s to the limit of what I envisaged. It could never happen in California due to the [cost/availability of] land but if you look at it then most of our races are towards the east coast, so it makes sense to be in Florida. We have the workshops and the tracks but at some point I’d like to have the machine shop and suspension bay and the full deal. I think as the relationship grows KTM will see how important it is developing the riders … I believe they are a company that is ‘all-in’ when it comes to that side of the sport.”

Aldon is talkative. He has his views on Ryan Dungey (“I felt he could have done more years for sure. But I also know that when an athlete is going to question things then this is not good. If he had not been as successful as he was then he wouldn’t have quit. Ryan also wanted to have a family and he knew that would be hard to do in his situation. I think all of those put together meant that he made a good call.”) as well as on Jeffrey Herlings who he met briefly before the Dutchman won the last AMA Pro National of 2017 and the US GP in Florida (“man, he is committed and does a lot more than anyone else wants to do. He has the right attitude and it worked out well.”). He chats handling multiple race winners (“I think you eventually get a feeling for the right feedback at the right time and you have to be upfront with all the athletes. I think you need to have that respect factor, and that they trust you. From them there is always that worry of ‘are you helping him more than me’ and the answer is ‘no, I’m trying to help you all attain the best’. It is a balance and sometimes it is not an easy job.”) and his possible future influence in Europe (“I am getting to the stage now where I need to start training other trainers and that does include Europe and of course KTM and Husqvarna are open to that. There is a big umbrella. We need to work on some logistics but I do see it happening in the future.”).

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Aldon Baker (RSA) & Ryan Dungey (USA) Las Vegas (USA) 2017 © Simon Cudby

But we also want to chip away at some of that expertise when it comes to all that work in the gym and track. Are there still areas and fields for him to master? “If it was just about the training, so the cardio and the exercises then, heck, I have good enough ratios and information about the physiology of what the body is doing [not to worry] … but [the next stage] it is the mental side, the character of the athlete and the evolution of the sport,” he advocates. “What I did with Ricky back in the day would not work now. I’ve had to change things and try to learn. I have a lot more data to use and just watching motorcycling then you learn. A lot of it is on the track still: to make them sharp and fast and get them up to a level. The training is part of that … but it is a combination of everything and if you don’t have the circumstances to push that – which means the facility and a good team to provide the machinery and technical backing to be able to push all the time – then it is not easy.”

Baker certainly remains open to the latest technology and methods to diversify his feedback and to explore new waters. Where next?

“I think it is psychology,” he offers. “Something like nutrition has evolved and we know a lot more than we used to. The cool thing is that we now have a lot more tools to use, like these GPS systems to find better lines and see where speed can be won. Before it was just a stopwatch and looking at the track but technology has moved and it has been a big step forward, especially if you are watching four guys. It helps a lot.”

With almost two decades invested into Motocross Baker has developed a passion for what he does and the sport itself. He clearly has a path and objectives set for his professional life and development but what moves a man with so much success and such a potent reputation to keep on striving. “I think everyone at this level has talent and ability but helping them to really reach their goals is the fulfilment for me,” he defines. “If a guy retires under his terms and has done enough and won enough and reached his goals then that’s a real achievement.”

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Aldon Baker (RSA), Mathilde & Marvin Musquin (FRA) & Frank Latham (USA) 2017 © Ray Archer

Photos: Ray Archer | Simon Cudby


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      2019 – Rene Hofer – PC @RayArcher
      Hofer, from Linz, might have the right passport to generate sizeable interest in the corridors of Mattighofen but once ‘across the border’ of the race team that status carries more weight. “The opportunity to have an Austrian [in the race team] doesn’t happen very often so if it’s there then we try to grab it,” says KTM Offroad VP Robert Jonas. “I would definitely not say it is easier for him though by virtue of the fact he is Austrian.”
      Jonas should know. The former 125cc star was the last home-grown rider to come within the sphere of the works set-up and the sought-after SX technology at the end of the 1990s. Jonas suffered a serious knee injury before he could really show what he could do on the world stage in the first year of the new millennium. It happened two years before Hofer was even born. “I remember a little bit how it was,” he recalls. “At the final round of the Austrian Championship In ’99 I won the title and on the Sunday evening the manager responsible for the Austrian riders at that time received a phone call from Mr. Pierer [Pierer Mobility CEO] with the information that I would have a spot in the factory team. For me, it was a surprise and I was not counting on that opportunity. For sure I was thinking and working towards it…but it was a big surprise.”
      “I don’t think that is quite so much the case for Rene,” he reflects. “He was closer because of some good form in the European Championship [six top-five results from the eight rounds in 2019] and due to Jeffrey [Herlings] being injured he had the chance to be with us under the tent and to smell the factory team environment.”
      2019 – Rene Hofer – PC @RayArcher
      “It is a big opportunity and for sure a big challenge,” Jonas adds, “but I feel he also deserves it because he made some good progress. He surprised us with his two GP opportunities this year. He didn’t get those results for free because he didn’t have the best starts and worked his way through.”
      It is Hofer’s mindset and commitment that has strengthened his case with KTM race management and earned the total belief and conviction of people like Motocross Manager Joel Smets and former KTM Junior Team Manager Didi Lacher, whose judgment is highly valued in the Munderfing Race HQ.
      “He doesn’t give up. He always finishes the races and there are no complaints about circumstances,” assesses Gruebel. “He knows when he has made a mistake. I see him training hard. He is not shining in the sand races yet, but it was the same with Tom; the more time they spend in Belgium – there are not too many sand tracks in Austria – the more they improve and that will happen with Rene.”
      PC @RayArcher
      “He is a guy that can perform when he has to and you need to have that,” stresses Jonas. “He has a lot of work ahead, but I think he has a good chance to make it.”
      True to cliché, Hofer is the archetypal ‘old head on young shoulders’ and is aware that his 2020 is more than just a dream slot with the best factory team in the FIM World Championship paddock. “My phone was blowing up when I got confirmation,” he grins. “For me, it is such a big thing, and for some other people too, but I try to go smoothly with it.”
      “Tom had an unbelievable season this year, and this is not ‘usual’ [as a rookie],” he claims. “But it will be a learning year and I hope to get some results and confidence.”
      Rene Hofer – PC @RayArcher
      Hofer has yet to race in a major international meeting away from European shores. The twenty-date MXGP calendar will be a vast education for an aspiring athlete that is still in school (“officially I’m in year 12 so just one more and I have the possibility to leave when I’m eighteen but we’ll decide this in January”). “Traveling, cultures, overseas, food, time zones: I’m not used to this…. but Tom coped fine so I’m sure I can,” he says.
      Aside from the attention, the setting and the pressure, Hofer will also have to gain a full appreciation and understanding of the demands of MX2. “Well, there is much more riding time compared to EMX, which means getting used to the track,” he explains. “The starts are also so much more difficult. All the guys are super-close together and the braking points are much later. I need to get used to this a bit more. The speed is not too different, and you can see riders like [Roan] Van de Moosdijk or [Alberto] Forato have the pace to run near the top five. The starts are even more important in MX2 than EMX. Overall it is so much different in terms of intensity.”
      Intense is probably a fitting word for the experience that lays ahead for Hofer. But yet more spoils for Red Bull KTM with a native flavor might taste that little bit sweeter.
    • De Dementor
      AN EXCLUSIVE SNEAK PEEK AT THE BEAST PROTOTYPE
      When everyone was expecting KTM to unveil the KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R prototype, the leading European motorcycle manufacturer surprised the world by pulling the covers off the production version of the 2020 KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R at EICMA 2019. With no one seeing the KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R prototype in the flesh, 10 orange blooded fans had the unique opportunity to get face to face with THE BEAST prototype.
      @lissimorephoto
      The week prior to EICMA, KTM ran a social media competition asking fans to comment with a picture with them and their DUKE. KTM social media platforms were flooded with an overwhelming number of interest and many great images being shared.  
      Five lucky winners and an orange bleeder friend were invited to fly to Austria and were given the opportunity to be the first to get face to face with THE BEAST prototype.
      @lissimorephoto
      Saturday 16 November saw 10 anticipated DUKE fans arrive at the home of KTM at the KTM Motohall. Cameras where ready and anxious faces walked into the private viewing room known as the RC16 arena, where they were welcomed by two BEASTS lurking and ready to pounce on center stage!
      @lissimorephoto
      A high intensity READY TO RACE video captivated everyone’s attention and then the moment of reveal saw jaw-dropping action with the ready cameras rolling frantically. 
      After an in-depth run-through of some of the many changes and benefits from the KTM team, the lucky few had the opportunity to sit, touch and make use of this time to ask any in-depth questions they had.
      @lissimorephoto
      The hardest task was to pull the winners away from THE BEAST. Once all was in focus and drool was wiped away, the participants could proceed to take a guided tour of the KTM Motohall, where special attention was given on the 25 years of DUKE and the progression of the range. 
      Gift bags were handed out with a custom-made t-Shirt and even a signed knee slider from Red Bull KTM Factory Racing star Pol Espargaro. It wasn’t long and each winner had their shirt on and ready to pose with THE BEAST!
      @lissimorephoto
      The evening was concluded with a team dinner at The Garage Restaurant, here the lucky 10 got to enjoy some of the best Austrian cuisines in true KTM style. Surrounded by KTM memorabilia from yesteryears and even a KTM RC16 hanging from the wall made this the perfect setting to end the night.
      @lissimorephoto
      Sunday morning saw all SNEAK PEEK winners streaming through the KTM Motohall door to get a second tour done before the live viewing of the final round at Valencia of the MotoGP™ season.
      With KTM flag and cap in hand, our winners cheered on Red Bull KTM Ajo racer Brad Binder to his third victory in a row in the Moto2 class and Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s Pol Espargaro achieved a top 10 in the premier class onboard his KTM RC16 machine.
      @lissimorephoto
      “First of all, thank you for this weekend and this opportunity you offered me,” commented Quentin Harroch.“The visit to the KTM Motohall was just exceptional. And to be among the first to see THE BEAST prototype was just out of the ordinary. It was just a magical weekend! Well, of course, it makes me love the KTM brand even more than it already did! I can’t wait to order my new KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R.”

      “It was just an amazing weekend for us! The welcome that we received and all little attention to details … everything was great!” commented Yohann Girard. “I can’t thank KTM enough for the privilege to be the first to see the KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R Prototype, and this at the home of KTM in the KTM Motohall.”
      @lissimorephoto
      With smiles and many memorable memories made we send our winners on their way. 
      Photos: @lissimorephoto / KTM 
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