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Cyclist with Tri-State ties beat Armstrong

July 29, 2004|by ANDY MASON

Not even the mighty Lance Armstrong can disprove my theory that there are only six degrees of separation between the Tri-State's all-time great athletes and the world's.

In Armstrong's case, the separation is only six feet. That appears to be about the distance 1985 Chambersburg High School graduate Darren Baker edged him by for a stage victory at the 1992 Fitchburg Longsjo Classic cycling race in Massachusetts.

Check out the finish-line photo at www.jsmcelvery.com/photos/armstrong/92armstrong6.jpg

"Some people at work have been pulling up that picture, and they're like, 'What the hell is this?'" said Baker, 37, of Pleasant Hill, Calif. "That was a pretty cool day."

It wasn't the only day Baker, the former star cross country runner for the Trojans, beat Armstrong on the bike. But that's not something he really wants to brag about.

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"That shouldn't be the main focus of your column," Baker told me.

Considering Armstrong just won a record sixth straight Tour de France, though, it certainly seems worth mentioning.

"I mean, I beat him a lot of times and he beat me a lot of times. You can't win every race," Baker said. "The guy has won so many more races than I ever dreamt of winning. I had a few opportunities to finish ahead of him back then, but we weren't really competing against each other."

Baker, who graduated from the University of Maryland in '89, was Armstrong's teammate on the United States national team in '91 and '92. Following the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, where he was an alternate on the American squad, Baker turned pro and raced all over Europe. He retired in '97 as a member of the U.S. Postal Service team, shortly before Armstrong joined the Postals.

Baker said he and Armstrong aren't as chummy as they used to be.

"We roomed together all the time on the national team," he said. "But unfortunately we're not still buddies. If we see each other, we talk, but we don't really stay in touch."

These days, Baker isn't even rooting entirely for Armstrong.

"I was pulling for him until he got so dominant," he said. "Now, I'm pulling for someone else to challenge him."

However, Baker knows it probably will take some time for that to happen.

"People always ask me, 'Who's going to win the Tour?' and I always say, 'Don't bet against Lance,'" Baker said. "Nobody's going to beat him until he decides he's done. He'll win it again next year and the next year if he wants to.

"He wants to be the best bike racer who ever lived. I already think he is, without a doubt. ... You could put him on one of the weakest teams out there and he'd still find a way to win."

While Baker said no one in the early '90s could have predicted Armstrong's six Tour titles, he knew Armstrong was shaped from a different mold.

"You always knew he was going to be great. He was destined for stardom," Baker said. "You've never seen anyone so hungry and determined. If somebody throws down a challenge, he'll take it and fight to the bitter end, no matter what the consequences.

"I never had quite the drive he had."

Baker, a husband and father of two, is the vice president of investor sales at Citigroup Foreign Exchange. He still spends a dozen hours a week on his bike.




Andy Mason is assistant sports editor of The Morning Herald. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2334, or by e-mail at andrewm@herald-mail.com.

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