“Is that your Coke over there?” Aldon Baker asks a mechanics, pointing to the 12 ounces of evidence. Baker, 48, has the wrinkles of someone who has never stopped smiling and the leathery, tan skin of someone who’s spent his entire life working hard out in the sun. He never sits and he never stands in one spot too long, but he always exudes patience and calmness. Except when he spots an open can of soda left on the floor. Baker’s a persnickety South African, and his facility is neat and orderly to the point of obsessiveness. Someone points out to me that the shelves all have matching plastic containers because Baker didn’t want cardboard boxes, which look messy. He doesn’t even like his riders pulling tear-offs on the practice track. “If you have to do it, can you at least do it on the same part of the track?” he asks them, jokingly.
The primary building on the Center Hill, Florida, property is 5,000 square feet broken into three walled-off sections: storage, race shop, and gym/office. The shop is spacious with a well-planned layout. On one side, in front of matching cabinets and toolboxes, are his riders’ motorcycles. The opposite wall has lockers (with each rider’s front number plate above, of course), a data center, kitchen, and a full bathroom. An abundance of open space allows Aldon to host guests without feeling cramped. On this particular day, heavy equipment company JCB has nearly two dozen representatives on hand for a presentation. It’s inexplicable how the floor of a supercross/motocross training center stays so clean when the surrounding soil is 50 shades of sand and clay. “It’s not easy,” Baker quips.
From an open garage door overlooking the 92-acre property, KTM’s Technical Director Ian Harrison sweeps his hand back and forth. “This was a forest out there,” he says. Large oak trees covered in Spanish moss are still peppered throughout, but three years ago the land was filled with trees, cattle, and manure. “When Aldon was telling me his grand plans, I thought, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that one before.’"
To hear Baker’s journey partially explains why he’s so particular; in June 2014, for the first time since he moved to the United States full time in the summer of 2000, the land, the equipment, the courses, the buildings, the infrastructure became 100 percent his responsibility. Before his only concern was the mental and physical fitness of his motocross racing clients, a handful of the sport’s best riders, who trusted in him for guidance. For the distant observer, Baker’s success has seemed almost automatic. His clients have won 13 of the last 17 Monster Energy Supercross titles and 12 of 18 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross championships in the premier 450 division. In three of the seasons he missed winning the supercross title (2004, 2007, 2008, 2010), the sole client he had at the time was out with injury and, in 2007, was on a part-time farewell tour (Ricky Carmichael).
None of this was ever part of his plan. In 2000, Baker qualified for the Sydney Summer Olympics in mountain biking. Two months before departure he was told that the South African National Olympic Committee decided to put more efforts toward athletics (track and field) and he was out. Baker was disappointed. He had spent four years racing and earning enough points to compete in the Olympics. Before that he spent four years in London where he was a personal trainer in a gym. He didn’t want to return to London, but fitness and athletics were in his blood. His father was a top marathon runner. His cousin was a motorcycle roadracer, which was also what Aldon did at the club level before the army called him up.
He started to line up a job in Australia with Oakley, one of his racing sponsors. That’s when Ricky Carmichael called. They had met a couple of times through mutual friend Johnny O’Mara while training and racing in the States. After a six-month tryout, Aldon got the job as the trainer to the sport’s most successful racer.
Baker’s training program evolved to include more than just one client and by 2014 he had two 450 contenders in Ryan Villopoto and Ken Roczen as well as a few 250 riders. Villopoto withdrew from the motocross season in early May and started the process of winding down his pro racing career completely. One of the major steps meant selling his home, property, and training facility in Florida, which also served as Baker’s base. When Villopoto was offered $250,000 more than the value of the property, Baker knew he had to scramble for a long-term solution. He would have use of the Villopoto property for a short time, and a public motocross track could fill in for the summer practice sessions for Roczen and Adam Cianciarulo, but it would never work for supercross training in the fall. Aldon had only four to five months to build a facility and he sweated through some seriously sleepless nights.
In what seemed like a miracle, the perfect piece of property popped up within a month: 92 acres at $325,000 from a motivated seller seeking quick cash. The land was only the first of many major costs however. At the very least, Baker needed a building, heavy equipment, and at minimum one supercross track to start, which costs $30,000 to build (not including the huge expense of sourcing, extracting, and moving 600 truckloads of dirt).
“No bank wanted to give me a loan,” he said of his new venture. Villopoto bridged him the money to get started, and after surviving the arduous permitting process, Baker was operational in time for the supercross training season that fall. To hear him tell it, the process went smoothly but it was stressful. “It got to the point where I felt like I was breathing through a straw,” he said.
Standing amid Baker’s spread today, which now features a second facility for developing 250 class riders—complete with a 5,600-square-foot building, a motocross and a supercross track—it feels like an empire of motorcycle athlete development. Baker’s time is focused exclusively on his four elite riders, who, in 2018 are Marvin Musquin, Zach Osborne, Broc Tickle, and Jason Anderson. “I was called crazy for putting Villopoto and Roczen together,” Baker said of having two elite riders training and riding together during the week. Now everyone is trying to put good guys together. No one was doing that back then.”
In May 2016, KTM announced that Baker would work exclusively with Husqvarna and KTM riders, a five-year deal where Baker is paid directly from the OEM. Without such a commitment, Baker said he never would have built the second facility, which is still exclusive to Husky/KTM riders and overseen by one of his former clients and fellow South African Tyla Rattray. Those riders pay Baker a lease fee for use of the garage, property, and tracks and Rattray a training fee. Baker feels like he has a good balance now, and a business with a built-in pipeline.
“The benefit to me is that I can bring a rider into my program earlier when I have an opening,” Baker said. His ultimate goal is to get to the point where he is training and overseeing trainers. “Tyla is kind of a test model. He has his own style but I can kind of back him up.”
Coming into the 2018 Supercross season, it’s debatable as to whether or not Baker’s squad includes the favorite for the title. The last time a client of his didn’t win the championship was in 2010, and while the white noise brigade will debate for weeks about how fast Ken Roczen, Eli Tomac, or Cooper Webb will be on January 6, 2018, it’s Aldon’s job to assure his riders that what they are doing is enough. He has 17 years of data and experience on which to base his judgments. Everyone wants Baker’s secret. There isn’t one. The simplest way of describing his method is that he builds a plan, executes it, and sticks with it. Professional athletes are fragile beings so when they stray, Baker knows how and when to get them back.
“The hardest thing for me is keeping them on the program with all the different scenarios (distractions) where they get pulled here and there. I can use my methods to bring them back on track quicker than if they were on their own.”
It’s been a long time since Baker didn’t have at least one former or current 450 supercross champion in his program. This doesn’t concern him. What started out as a six-month tryout nearly 18 years ago has evolved into an empire where worth isn’t measured in acres, or square feet, or truckloads. It’s measured in plastic #1 number plates.