– Reported by Steve Frothingham –
First, a disclaimer: Tim Johnson got his start racing with a local bike club that I still belong to. But if I am biased, it’s from following his career, not because he’s a homie (although I do admit that when I wear my team jersey, I sometimes remember the day he wore a similar one while winning a national cyclocross title. But we don’t need to get into that). Tim’s a three-time national cross champion, winner of Australia’s 2003 Sun Tour and a U23 bronze medalist at the 1999 World Cyclocross Championships. Now he races on the road for the Health Net team and does the cross season wearing a Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com uniform.
Tim on his way to 2nd place at the Gloucester USGP# 2 on Oct. 8.
I spent some time with him recently when he was preparing for the first weekend of the U.S Grand Prix of Cyclocross and showing journalists the new Cannondale cyclocross line. After sampling the bikes and some Gloucester clams, we sat down for a chat in his plush RV, accompanied by his six-month old lab, Vitesse.
PEZ: I never really got the whole story about your European road racing adventure. What happened? Was it one season over there?
Tim Johnson: One season: ’04. I was with Saturn ’01, ’02, ’03. 2003 was the best year Saturn ever had; we won everything. We had Chris Horner, Nathan O’Neil, Tom Danielson and I worked for those guys all year long, then had a great second half of the season, won a bunch of races. That was when I went down to Australia and won the Suntour, all that. And I had tried to go over to Europe earlier, just because it’s a dream to go to Europe and race the biggest races and race the Tour and all that, and that was my dream and my shot.
At the end of ’03 I got a contract offer with Saunier-Duval and I took it. I was already signed with a team, but they let me go and I had the shittiest year I’ve ever had; I was sick, I’d go home and try to train, but I couldn’t train because I was already wasted, so I’d get sick again. Things just kept going back and forth. Then I did all the races on the calendar, because we were a first-year Division 1 team so we’d get invites and we’d fill up the squad and have to have all the riders at the race. So I got to do some pretty cool races, but for me as an athlete, I was pretty wasted all year. It was not a good situation.
So at the end of ’04, I decided to go home because I had a really good offer from Jittery Joes, which was a small team. I think it worked out perfectly, because it allowed me to do the US schedule with low pressure. I could try to make something happen if I could, or if I didn’t have good legs, that was OK. So that kind of set me up for ’06, because during ’05 I had an up–and-down year, but I got better as the year went on.
“Over the barrier, not into it. Got it?” Tim generously spent time before the Gloucester race trying to teach a couple of journalists how to race cross. The conclusion? After he retires from racing, Tim could make an excellent ski instructor for the most intransigent bunny-slope beginners.
PEZ:Why do you think you had such a bad year in Europe? Was it the schedule, the lifestyle, or just luck?
TIM: A lot of it was that I didn’t really do it correctly. I thought that I needed to change everything I did before. That I had to change the way I trained, the way I traveled, the way I slept. I basically got lost because I wasn’t guided down the right path. Because I’d have a bad race so I’d say, ‘oh, I gotta go train,’ but I was already tired, so I got worse, then I’d get to race, so I’d say, ‘I really suck, now I really have to go train.’ So it made for a really bad year because it’s one thing to do it in the US when it’s not as hard of a schedule, but over there, where it’s 200k races all the time, if you are not on top of your game, you’re at a major, major disadvantage.
PEZ:Then you returned to ‘cross?
TIM: Yup, I came back to cross last fall, that’s how I built on my summer of ’05. I had a great ‘cross season, I got second in the GP, I won the New England series, I won Gloucester. I had a bad national’s, but it was an awesome season, it was a great way to start the year. Then I got a great two-year contract with Health Net, which was awesome, because it allowed me to have a semi-leadership role.
PEZ:I saw you here at Gloucester at the end of that season, announcing at the Grand Prix …
TIM: Yeah, I was here in ’04, dressed up like Howard Cossell. I was the guy in the sandpit with the rototiller, to make it harder for people to ride through. Because if I couldn’t be out there riding I wanted to hurt them, however, I could.
What I realized after that was that I really missed cross for what it was and what it meant to me, which was to come to a race and spend time with friends and family. I mean, if you are in New England and you don’t do cross, you get shit for it. If you are a cyclist in New England, then cross is just something that you do. It’s a sport that I love and that I will probably end up doing the rest of my life. But I realized after the difficult year with Saunier-Duval that I just had to go back to what I love, and cross was just absolutely it. So for me, people ask if I have a hard time riding a road season then going into cross, but it’s really not that hard for me because it’s so much fun. This is why I loved cycling and this is what’s going to keep me in cycling. Going to Europe and getting my ass kicked is not going to keep me in cycling.
The U.S. Grand Prix of Cyclocross could turn into a season-long battle between big Ryan Trebon’s raw power and TJ’s technical finesse. At Gloucester, the two finished one-two both days, with Trebon out-powering Johnson on the dry course.
PEZ:Road racing still pays the bills?
TIM: Cross is big enough now that there are a number of riders making money specifically to race cross. And five years ago there was nobody, nobody at all in the U.S. Now there are probably 6, 8, 10 of us that make an actual salary to race cross. And the cool thing this year with Cannondale is to be able to work with them during the road season with Health Net, and then during the cross season under the Cannondale/Cyclocrossworld.com banner. It’s been such an easy transition, because during the road season, we talked about the cross bikes and the new design and all that, so for Cannondale to back me on this is awesome.
PEZ:Last year you couldn’t go to cross World’s because of your road team; would you like to eventually have a deal where you could focus more on cross?
TIM: Yeah, I’d love to see that happen, but I think in the US, or in general, it’s really hard to do just cross, because one of the things that gives me an advantage is all the road racing that I’ve done through the years: the fitness, the strength, the tactical knowledge. That all comes into play during the cross season. I think ideally, it would be great to have a road squad that also did cross in the fall. Maybe that’s in the future. Maybe if that happens then, yeah, I’d have a chance to go back to the World’s.
PEZ:It surprised me that you can’t see the World’s as even an option now.
TIM: Well, we have the Tour of California second week in February and World’s is first week in February, or last week in January. It’s super tight to prepare. And to be ready for the Tour of California, you have to have miles, you have to have endurance. You just can’t do both. And my position in the team as partial captain, or road captain or whatever, I need to be ready for that big race, because it’s huge for us.
PEZ:What about going to some World Cup cross events this year?
TIM: I’d like to. It’s hard to read results and see some of the guys I’ve raced against and beaten, doing really, really well. I went to World’s seven times to race cross, and I know a lot of the names that are racing, and some of my peer group are the guys that are going top five all the time. I can never say that I’ll beat them at any point, but I’d like to have a shot at it. One of the cool things is looking at Jonathan Page. He’s just totally come into his own, racing in Belgium, and to see him win a race and get on the podium, get top ten at World Cups, it’s been great.
PEZ:How hard would it be to pick one and go?
TIM: It wouldn’t be that hard. Lyne (Bessette, Tim’s wife) and I have talked about it as maybe a possibility, even this year. I’d have to be riding very well, because you have to have the fitness and the motivation. You can’t be half-assed. You go over there half-assed you are going to get crushed.
Tim races with Team Health Net on the road, and Team Cannondale/Cyclocrossworld in the dirt.
PEZ:What about the Grand Prix and the U.S. races: You are known as a bad-conditions rider – do you need sloppy races to win?
TIM: Not really, I think people have made more of it than there is, but I definitely like to see bad weather. I like the idea of an advantage. But last year I took it race by race and it worked out well. I’m not going to be picky.
PEZ: After Gloucester do you start thinking about Nationals?
TIM: No because when you go to the Northwest, it’s awesome. Those guys are nuts about cross. I’ll take a cross race in a landfill if people are going nuts for it. One of my favorite races of all time was the San Francisco Grand Prix, it’s just an overgrown parking lot in the Presidio, but there were thousands of people there going crazy. It was a terrible course, it was tiny, there were tons of corners, bad conditions, but it was so cool because there were so many people there. When you go to the Northwest, it doesn’t matter what kind of course they throw, the people are so pumped up. I’m definitely a result of my surrounding environment. If people are excited for the race, then so am I.
PEZ: Switching gears again, how have the drug scandals affected the morale of the U.S.-based professionals?
TIM: Well, I think for some of the guys who have aspirations of going to Europe, it’s been great, because it means things are changing, so basically you get a fair crack. And I think that’s great, because you don’t want to have the kids thinking, ‘oh, to do that, I have to take drugs’ – that’s just horrible. Anyone can have the experience in Europe they want to have, it’s totally up to them. So I think that’s a good thing.
PEZ: What was your experience when you were over there – did you get the impression there was a lot drugs?
TIM: You know, I really don’t like talking about it because for whatever reason I didn’t enjoy my time. But that’s not necessarily at all because of (drugs): I had a shitty year and I have no worries talking about that, that’s what sent me home. But all the other shit, I don’t really – it doesn’t interest me.
PEZ: Thanks for talking to us and best of luck this season – !
See more on Tim at:
• www.TeamHealthNet.com website.
• www.CyclocrossWorld.com website.