Tely Energy Racing KTM’s Steward Baylor is the wild card of the Amsoil Grand National Cross Country set. FMF KTM’s Kailub Russell, the six-time and defending GNCC champ, is most often challenged for titles by Rockstar Energy Husqvarna’s Thad Duvall, and those two put together professional programs and consistent finishes. As for Baylor, you never know what you’re going to get. He has the raw speed to battle them, but he’s often riding through injury, his weight is often a topic, and he boasts about eating ice cream and enjoying adult beverages throughout the week.
When he’s on, though, he sure is fast. Over the weekend he beat Russell and Duvall straight up by catching them, passing them, and pulling away to take the GNCC opener. Russell could only tip his visor and give Stu credit for an amazing ride. Duvall was disappointed with third.
It would seem like Baylor, then, is coming into this season on a mission, but after the race he revealed a bad knee injury almost prevented him from racing altogether! We rang him up on Tuesday to get the scoop on the weekend.
Racer X: Last week we posted a story written by GNCC scribe Jared Bolton that listed “Five Things To Watch” at the opener. You were not one of those five things, and then you called us out for that on the podium. So do we get crap for that, or are we actually responsible for motivating you? Can Racer X take credit for the win?
Steward Baylor: I think you guys can take credit because I can honestly say I thought about mid-race.
For real! During the race?
During the race! When I got in third, I was like, “All right. I can see them. I just need to sit right here. I got the two top guys right in front of me.” Then I was like, “You know what? I’m not one to watch. I’m going to pass these guys and check out.”
I’m like, man, Stu must have come in on fire this year and in super good shape. But then your interview at the end, you also said your knee was jacked up. So where did this come from?
I honestly don’t know. I did my knee right at five weeks ago. Just a practice crash and handlebar caught the outside of my knee. My foot got caught in the rut and my left leg from the knee down was like a 60-degree angle. It popped out completely. I felt the pop. I knew something was bad. Went to the doctor and he kind of looked at me like, “Right, okay. You walked in here and you’re telling me that happened. Okay.” We got the MRI results later that night and he called after hours. Luckily, I’ve kept the doctors in business around my area so everybody responds even after hours! They keep me going! He said, “The ACL is gone. That’s not our worry. Basically your MCL has bicep muscles that hold it to the bone and you’ve ripped almost everything completely off the bone, so your knee is classified as unstable.” He was talking about some other guys that had the injury, like a football player that took another blow to the knee and it basically damaged arteries and he’ll never be able to walk again. So I kind of had that on my mind. I thought, I’ll line up at the first National Enduro. If things aren’t going well, we’re going to get surgery. At that point, I didn’t really tell anybody aside from him and my family what was going on. I didn’t really expect anything. Leading up to then, I had worked really hard this year to be able to compete in the GNCC’s. Changed my workouts to more duration. Changed basically everything I did. I took a few weeks off just trying to nurse the knee. Every time I tried to throw a leg over the bike it immediately swelled up. I couldn’t ride for more than 20 or 30 minutes, but then over the last two weeks everything started clicking. The swelling stopped. The strength came back. My quads started firing again, which for a while my quads weren’t firing from the injury. Everything started clicking.
In the race, did it make an impact at all or did it feel good?
I hurt it briefly. It kind of came and went a couple times. I dabbed a few times. I made a couple early mistakes and just tip-over, little things like that that flared it up. But it never really hurt to the point where it hindered my performance by any means. I was kind of surprised. It really felt good all day.
You won the opener a couple years ago and that was similar to this. You won it straight up. Do you feel you’re even further ahead than where you were then?
Yeah. The difference between then and now, at that point I would say that for the last few years I’ve probably been the fastest guy. The smartest, definitely not. I’ve really paid attention to what Kailub does, what Thad does. There’s a lot more in a GNCC than just being the fastest guy out there. It’s more, I would say, something like NASCAR. There’s a lot of strategy. I think that a big part, the difference between being a guy that can win a race and a guy that can win a championship in GNCC isn’t fitness. It’s not who the fastest guy is. I think it’s who has the best strategy, who is the smartest on the track, and who can do it consistently. That’s where Kailub’s been so good. I think every year it’s safe to say that Kailub has not been the fastest guy. I would say the last couple years I think I’ve had the fastest speed, just raw speed. Every race we see that one lap time where I destroy everybody, but it’s only one lap. Before that, I think it was Thad. Thad was the guy who he could run the fastest lap for one lap. Kailub was never really the fastest guy. He was just the smartest, and he’s been so smart. So I think that’s going to be the hardest part for me as well. Now that I think I’ve got my strategy, am I going to continue it? How am I going to change it? That’s where Kailub is so good on the fly. He’s really smart with every move he makes on the track.
I think on the outside people would think, if you can’t do it every single lap, then it must be fitness. That’s not it actually?
No, it’s completely different. If you look at lap times, Kailub’s usually fourth lap or Thad’s fourth lap they’ll slow down a minute. It will be a minute difference. And then the last two they’re right back at race pace. They lose that minute in a matter of three miles. They slow down to a B rider pace for three miles and basically recalculate everything. They get their heart rate back down low, and then they make their final push. There’s timing to it. If you do it too early or if you do it late. I’ve always been bad about doing it too early. I think Thad does it too late and a lot of times it’s bit him when it comes down to beating Kailub. That’s where Kailub’s timing is just so good. He knows exactly when to push and how long he can push before he basically collapses. If you come in after GNCC and you can still stand and you don’t feel like collapsing, then you should have started pushing earlier. So I think there’s a lot behind it there that a lot of people overlook.
That said though, do you feel you’re in better shape this year?
I think I am in better shape. Coming in, the last couple years I feel that I’ve come in in pretty good shape. Last year I hurt my knee mid-season and I kind of fell out of it. I’m working with a new trainer, a cyclist coach, and he revamped the whole program. This year I wouldn’t say that I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, but I’m more well-rounded. My times on a bicycle are not as fast as they’ve ever been. Weights in the gym are not as strong as they’ve ever been. But I think I’ve been doing too much at the wrong times. This year we’re doing, I guess, smarter training.
With you there’s always going to be talk about eating ice cream and drinking beers, so it’s always the weight watch. Where are you at in that sense?
I’m definitely lighter than I ever have been. That’s a big part this year as well. I think the diet, that’s helping. I still drink beer. I still have ice cream, but I have to limit it. I have to do it like once a week instead of every night.
What about Sunday after three hours of winning in the sand?
After Sunday I had a massive cheesesteak and we had two things of ice cream, way too many beers. I hit it hard then. That was a definitely cheat day.
You earned it. Do you actually know what kind of calories you would burn in a race like that? It has to be ridiculous.
My watch tells me it’s somewhere upwards of 3,000 to 4,000 calories whenever we race. My max heart rate on a bicycle, or my zone five on a bicycle, my max would be like 175, 178, and my zone five is like 166, 165. Basically anything in science says that you cannot sustain a zone five heart rate for more than an hour. We’re doing it for three. It’s basically a total mind game at the GNCC’s being able to even push through what we do.
It didn’t look like you were that whipped at the end.
I really wasn’t. I was kind of surprised by that. I ran out of water a little early. I think with an hour to go I ran out of water. I knew I was going to be struggling and I never really hit the stage that I usually hit where I just don’t feel like I can go any further.
I would imagine the ice cream and the beers after 4,000 calories, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.
Yeah, definitely. I think I probably consumed enough beer to get at least half of those calories. I’d say with the ice cream and the cheesesteak sandwich… I got damn close to getting all 4,000 of those replenished.
One of the toughest parts of GNCC is running the gnarly Florida sand race then having a back-to-back with Georgia this weekend. The schedule doesn’t have back-to-back three-hour races except for this. So, anything you’re going to do different—besides the beer and ice cream—to try to be fresh by Sunday again?
There is no secret other than trying to get your hands healed up. I think we’re all in good enough shape at this point that we’re going to be able to line up on Sunday and not really feel fatigued. The thing is little injuries. Every race there’s something that happens. Somebody twists a knee here, you clip a tree, your shoulder’s sore. Things like that. That’s where you’ll find the struggle in Georgia. My biggest thing has always been my hands. You’re always going to blister in Florida. By the second lap in Georgia your hands are bleeding. So that’s always the toughest part for me. I struggle with it really bad. I think everybody kind of does. That would be my number one thing is just trying to get my hands back. Soak it in gasoline, spray some brake cleaner on it. If that doesn’t work, then I don’t know what will. [Laughs]
So, it’ll just be bleeding? Your gloves are just going to be bloody?
You guys are just a different breed. Are you worried at all with the knee if you get a mud race or a rut race or anything like that?
It’s feeling pretty good. The last few weeks we’ve got a lot of rain in South Carolina. I chose to stay in South Carolina. I’ve ridden in the mud quite a bit this year. I think everything should be good. The ruts still kind of scare me a little bit. The slick conditions more so than ruts even, just where you’re constantly dragging a toe or planting a foot. Those are where I seem to favor it. I don’t think I struggle in it. It’s more mental than anything. I know that I can damage it and that’s where I kind of worry a little bit. But I think I’m way further than I thought I would be in this process by now. I think given a few more weeks, that will be completely out of my mind. We’ll just be lining up like normal.
So this isn’t a one-race fluke? Florida sand, you were just on fire on day deal? You’re thinking this is sustainable?
I hope not. I guess we’ll see here next weekend. We’ll know by Sunday. I hope the battles continue. Somebody’s got to beat Kailub. I love him to death, but man, I want to be that guy.
That’s interesting you put it that way. Obviously everybody wants to win and you’re competitive, but you’re not hating on the guy or anything.
No. There’s nothing to hate. It’s like anything. Everybody hates the one that’s successful. I think people would love to hate him for that, but I think the biggest thing is we all want the same thing. Like him or hate him, you’ve got to respect everything he’s done. The six championships and 78 wins now. It’s pretty insane. I think guys like him help elevate the sport. He’s dipping into the moto side of things. It brings a reality to the GNCC’s that a lot of guys just could never do. I think that he’s helping the sport as a whole. Can’t ever hate on him for that.
But you’re going after it.
Yeah, definitely want to beat him.