Slovakian cycling is riding a wave at the moment with the likes of world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and the Velits brothers Peter and Martin putting the country on the cycling map. The challenge for Slovakia will be to build on that success, and young Erik Baska looks like he could be the next rider to pick up the mantle.
At just 22, Baska is riding his first season at WorldTour level after being picked up by the Tinkoff team for the 2016 season. He’s already begun making his name as a race winner after an impressive sprint win at the Handzame Classic two weeks ago. Now he is mixing it with the big names and was part of the team that helped Sagan to glory at Gent-Wevelgem.
“It was perfect but for me, it was a really hard experience. We tried to get the maximum for Peter but, for me as a rider, it was really hard,” he told Cyclingnews at the Three days of De Panne, a race that he hopes to have a few of his own chances at. “I really enjoy it, but it’s not easy to ride here in Belgium. I want to try and get more experience, and I want to learn a lot about it.”
Baska’s introduction to De Panne was a tough one with two ascents of the Muur Van Geraardsbergen and crosswinds to contend with, and he eventually rolled in with the main peloton over 14 minutes down. The lumpy stage 2 from Zottegem to Oostduinkerke should be more up his alley.
A latecomer to cycling
Cyclingnews talks to him on the start line at De Panne, as he leans up against the barriers, his voice just audible over the other noise that surrounds him. Baska is a softly spoken and unassuming rider; he doesn't hold the same presence as his countryman Sagan, but he's undoubtedly quick in a sprint and a promising prospect. He was a relative latecomer to riding and first got into mountain biking at the age of 14. His path into road racing came when Tibor Velits, the uncle of Martin and Peter, began coaching him while he was riding for the local CK Epic Dohňany team.
“He started to train me, and he asked me if I wanted to start road cycling,” he explained. “I said yes but, at first, I did road cycling as training for mountain biking then it was more and more and then I stopped with mountain biking.”
Despite the late entry into the sport, Baska was quick to make up for it and was signed up to the Slovakian outfit Dukla Trenčín – Trek in 2013. He took the under-23 national time trial title that year at the age of 19. He spent another season with the team, getting his first taste of the classics with the under-23 Tour of Flanders in 2014.
Baska was quickly snapped up by the AWT-Greenway team, the continental outfit set up by Etixx-QuickStep general manager Patrick Lefevere. He rewarded their faith with five victories, including the under-23 European title – joining riders such as Stefan Keung, Kris Boeckmans and Giovanni Visconti as former winners of the event.
The season also gave him more time to sample the racing in Belgium and, to his delight, it was a style of racing that he liked. “I like the Classics because all day there is something to do. It’s not like you can go easy at the back of the peloton it’s always as if you are at the front of the peloton,” he said.
When asked if he had a favourite race, he said that there was still time to decide. “I don’t know these races, but after this season I will,” he laughed.
Baska signed a two-year contract with the Tinkoff team last October, securing his place in the team until 2017. The move also linked him up with Slovakia’s current leading light Sagan, who Baska hopes to learn as much as he can from the world champion.
“It’s something special because there is only one Peter and, I don’t know how to say it, but it’s really nice to ride with him in the team. When I was in my first races with him in Gent, it was pretty nice. I want to gain experience from him and help him a lot.”
After De Panne, Baska will ride at Scheldeprijs and the Tour of Croatia next month.