What a season for Tim Johnson of the dominant Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com team. After an early season shoulder injury, he’s racked up 10 UCI wins this season, won the overall at NACT and is going into US Cross National Championships as one of the favorites. The next big race is of course the USA Cyclocross National Championship on Sunday where the 32-year hopes to regain the Stars and Stripes which he won in 2007.
I sat down with Johnson and his wife, the fabulous Lyne Bessette, over hot chocolate on a cold Wednesday afternoon in Bend, Oregon to talk about the upcoming race, his season, his watchfulness of all things cross and lots more.
You’ve been flying for weeks now, racking up wins. If the form still there for the big race on Sunday? Are you still peaking?
I don’t know if it was really any kind of peaking or just riding my wave because it’s hard to figure out how to do it all when you race eleven months out of the year, so running into a few good weeks where everything goes right is less about fitness and more about life in general. It’s nice when everything clicks so if it’s still clicking now? I hope so, I don’t know.
You’ve been doing this eleven-month year for years now, you still haven’t figured it out?
I did ‘01, ‘02 year round and I took ‘03 and ‘04 off, and then ‘05, ‘06, ‘07, ‘08 ‘09 – Jesus that is a long time. I think it might be impossible how to do it perfectly but I think I’ve figured out how to do it well enough to be successful a little bit every month of the year. I don’t win races on the road but I help to win races so that to me is just as good as winning a cross race. I don’t have any dead months.
Is that your goal to be consistent over 11 months as opposed to having high and low months?
I think if I had months that were way high and way lower I’d have a harder time having the jobs that I have. I don’t know. American road racing is really tough, there aren’t a ton of positions available so if I’m not winning races then I need to be ready to help win races. Obviously, I’d to love to win more on the road and cross but so far things are going pretty well.
You’ve had 10 wins this year, so far.
That’s the most ever.
Is it? I was going to ask you that.
For me, oh yeah for sure, especially at this level. I’ve won New England races and I’ve never won that many in a season.
So how amazing is this?
It’s nice (big smile). That’s the thing, there’s no specific reason for it happening or not happening, it’s just happening and that’s the way I like it.
It’s not just you, the team has been dominating this year. What brought that on? You’ve been with Cyclocrossworld.com for four years now, is it just progression?
We brought Jeremy on two years ago and Jeremy was kind of a young punk, he could do well but he couldn’t really win and now to see him progress and win on his own at a big race like Sunday is really … on one hand as part of building a team it’s nice, it’s good to see. But then as a teammate, it’s great to see because at any one race if the three of us line up we can win. And Jamey is such a huge surprise, last year he was a kid that raced part-time with us and then he had a great Nationals. It was one of the harder Nationals ever because it was mostly based on fitness so I told him to go up the road early on, he showed that he has a talent to ride at a very high level for a long period of time. Ryan was the only one able to catch him and drop him so he gets second, it’s like wow this kid’s got an engine. This year he showed that he really does and he’s able to actually win.
Is he going to have a fast start one day?
Yeah (laughs) He can get away with that in the States but in Europe you spend seven, eight, ten minutes in the back like that, you can’t get it back. So yeah eventually he will.
Do you think your early shoulder injury did anything to change your season?
I missed five races, two C1, it was a big break. Do I think it would be any different? I’d love to think it wouldn’t be. I’d love to think that I’d been able to ride like that even if I hadn’t been hurt because that’s what you want, you never want to sit on the sidelines. But I think it did help me.
It forced a break.
Yeah. I’m constantly riding and racing too much and a little bit of a forced break like that did help.
So maybe something to think about next year?
Yeah (laughs) I’ll take it as it happens.
Going into the big race on Sunday, with such a season behind you, how confident are you? Who’s going to take it?
I will give no predictions, no comment. (laughs)
Okay, how confident are you then?
I’m confident in my own races, in my own chances. It’s just like any other race this year, if you don’t show up at the line able and convinced that you can win the race then you’re not really a contender. I will line up thinking that I can win the race because I have in the past and I think that’s all I can ask for Everything else has to happen in my favor just like anyone else. It’s not just how strong you are or how fit you are, there’s a million different things that go into it.
Once you have your physical preparation done, how much of it is mental at that point?
A lot, a ton. If you don’t have the right mental approach, you’ll make it easier to make a mistake or if there is a mistake then you won’t be able to come back from it. There are pitfalls in everything and if your mind isn’t able to handle what’s thrown at it then your legs can’t do it by themselves. This isn’t a 45-minute climb in the Tour where everybody is already dead, this is the one hour when everybody is fresh and ready to fight so everything has to go your way.
So let’s talk contenders. You have Todd Wells who was flying last weekend, Jeremy Powers, Ryan Trebon, Jonathan Page and yourself. Tell me about these riders and what do you know about Jonathan’s form?
His form has got to be good because if he did an 8th in Spain on Sunday, he was only one minute seventeen back and that’s a huge finish. I watched the race and it was really difficult so physically he’s more than prepared. Jonathan sometimes has a problem getting his stuff together so that he’s able to race well once he’s like that. I have absolutely no idea of what’s he’s going to do, I’m sure he’s going to be fighting like crazy to win the race. Ryan had a down weekend but he got a fourth and a third just like I did, so if I think I had an okay weekend then he must think he had an okay weekend, and he’s going to be able to come back from it. Jeremy is riding great, he’s coming back, he’ll be racing convinced that he can win too. I think Todd is pedaling perfectly, he just looks like he’s flying when he’s riding and that kind of extra oomph that he has is really the deciding factor of whether or not he can win. I think he set himself up perfectly for this weekend.
Is Wells the one you’re watching most of all?
If we were racing the course like it is today then I think he would be up there and Jonathan would be up there no matter what and I would be up there. But it’s going to change, there are 2000 people racing on the course, the ruts are going to be different, it’s going to be muddy, it’s going to be wet, it’s going to be slippery.
Your kind of course.
Yeah, I’ll take anything like that.
What do you think that you finished third and fourth people go oh my God Tim Johnson is bad?
I don’t even know what to say about that. Colt came over with a video camera ’so you suck’ and I’m like WTF. Results a lot of time don’t mean anything compared to how the rider is, how the race went. Results can mean anything. That day three guys were better than me but does that mean I suck all of a sudden? Or does it mean that they were just equal or a little bit better which they were. I don’t think I was horrible. If I look back to earlier this season, I had days where I won but I didn’t feel like a million bucks, what does that mean then? What grade would I give myself on a day that I win and I feel awesome, or a day that I win and I feel bad? Or a day that I get fourth at a USGP? I can give myself exact same grade all three races but have three different results. People can say whatever they want (laughs).
How does that work with Jeremy being a competitor and a teammate? Do you work together to drop the other guys or is it every man for himself straight from the gun?
It won’t be every man for himself straight from the gun but it will be once the race is firmly within our grasp. It’s like everything when you can use your teammate to your advantage and the team’s advantage then you will and he and I would both be able to do that, never mind Jamey. It’s Nationals and after a while you have to get to the line first.
What is your preparation starting from now and on the day of the race? How much does the cold weather impact your preparation?
I don’t think it changes it that much. This week I’ll just be trying to rest, get my leg speed back, really just kind of saving it up. You say that but what does that really mean? Do a couple workouts on the computrainer. I don’t mind when it’s like this because I don’t mind riding inside, it’s really not a bother for me. Some people freak out, that it’s the biggest thing in the entire world that they can’t go ride outside, for us living in Canada and Boston, to get on the trainer and do an hour, an hour and a half workout on it and get off and be done with it and be okay with it is totally normal. I don’t think my fitness will suffer from staying in Bend for the week.
The day before the race we’ll go out and do fast laps on the course just like we’re racing because in my case especially my second day has been usually better. That’s mostly due to the fact that I really race hard on Saturday so I show up Sunday and I’m opened up and ready to go. I need to be able to replicate that on Saturday.
Yeah it has been hard but I think I have it figured out. But then race day, I’ll probably ride that morning just slightly on the trainer. Then head over there three hours before to have time to do tire selection, tire pressure but not just for me because we have three riders. We have enough mechanics but the sheer size of the operation, we all have three bikes, we’ve got three set of wheels that we need on those bikes with the right pressure then we have a spare wheel, it’s big.
What’s next after Nationals? I know that you are going to Worlds but you’re not doing the whole European campaign?
I’ve done it different ways. The Christmas camp style, I’ve done that in ‘96, ‘97, ‘98, ‘99, types of situation like that. Over the years because of my road schedule, I can’t give myself that much time over there. I did it two years ago and I had a horrible string of cross races there then I came back and then I had a terrible Tour of California. Really, it didn’t work out for a third of my year, it just kind of killed it. So last year after Nationals, I stopped, got off my bike, I went cross-country skiing, I had a normal Christmas with my family. Then I went to California and did my training for road so by the time cross Worlds came around I was actually flying because I was fresh, popped. The day of cross Worlds we’re in the middle of our training camp and all the guys on the team were giving me shit because I was flying, asking ‘why wasn’t I in Europe?’ when I was attacking these guys in Temeculah. So this year because of the Tour of California changing and our camp changing, I got to go back. I’ll take some time off after this race, stay in Bend for a few weeks and go down to Santa Barbara with Lyne and then I’ll do that cross race in Santa Cruz in January. [note that race is Surf City]
I’ll get the hecklers ready.
Exactly (laughs). And then I’ll fly to Europe on January 20th, do the last World Cup and then Worlds.
What’s your goal for Worlds?
How much do you watch and pay attention to what is going on in Europe?
A lot. It’s easier now. I watched a lot of the World Cups, I watch a lot of the SuperPrestige.
What are you looking for? What are you looking at?
How guys are racing. Not just how they are racing as athletes but how they actually do things. This sport has changed so much, the speeds that we’re going at now, the speeds that we’re racing at are much different than when I started. But to stay near the top you have to be able to change. You watch what they are using for different tires and riding styles. Like Sven Nys, he used to win by minutes at every race now he’s having to actually win the race. It’s cool to watch things play out, how he deals with riders around him. How Niels Albert spends way too much energy compared to everyone else but still wins because he’s so strong. You can pick up all kinds of things watching that stuff.
How much have you used afterwards?
Give me an example that you picked up.
When Sven Nys was dominant, he would just go and it didn’t matter what he did, he was still able to win. Now he’s just as strong as he was but everybody else is stronger so he races differently. It’s like he turtles up and he spends thirty-five or forty minutes watching the guys that he’s with and then he hits them. So in that way, he’s racing against these young kids who are like ‘oh my God Sven is not even on my wheel, I’m winning, this is awesome’. And Sven is like ‘okay punk, I’m out of here’. It’s interesting, everybody has a different style. As we get more and more players in the scene here we’re all developing in our styles a little bit.
So how healthy is the scene here?
I think it’s a turning point actually. We’re just at the point that the racing that we do in the Elite level is turning into something that people want to watch even if they’re not racing cross. Before the only people that would watch us were the people that were racing because they had a vested interest, they were racing on the same course that day. But now people are going out of their way to watch other races on the other side of the country, they’re tracking riders the whole time. It’s becoming so much more widespread so there’s going to be a point where the racing that we do at the Elite Level will have to stand on its own. And we can have an Elite level race that people will tune into all across the country. And that’s really the next step where the sport will mature a little bit more. We still have the same races that we do all across the country, those are participatory and everybody is doing them. Then the biggest races are the ones that make the biggest splash and people talk about them in between those races. Like last weekend was arguably the best weekend of racing that we’ve had all year. I think in a couple of years, we’ll have five of those instead of twelve or sixteen races that you don’t know if anyone is going to show or who’s going to be there. It might just be six weekends where everybody shows and everybody fights.
So what brought this on?
I think that there are a lot of races across the country, and I think that there are a lot of UCI races. I think promoters are going to start not putting on UCI races because there’s already a race nearby, which is fine because that race is still going to serve that people that want to go out and race for themselves and want to go out and race with their buddies. The thing that is different is that we’re not like Europe. In Europe there is no cross scene, it is only the Elite riders and that’s it, and no one gives a shot about any other race ever. But here in the States, we’re lucky to have so many people involved in it and the sport is built on that foundation so it’s good that we haven’t gotten too big too early and we’re given a few more years for people to see the sport on their own time. Well now if we start to show the sport to other people, we’ve already got all these people behind us, and it’s going to be easier. We’ve got to have some broadcasting stuff.
That’s the next big step.
This weekend there are actually going to broadcast it live but that’s through backpack held transmitter with a live feed that’s going to be edited with an eight second delay. It’s going to be very ragged compared to broadcast television. But I think that the number of people that are going to be tuning in is going to be huge so that will be a good sign of how much people tune in to something that they are not next to.
I was telling someone yesterday that cross is the one cycling discipline that should be broadcast.
You want to watch a crit on tv? I’m a professional road racer and I don’t want to watch a crit on tv.
Are you planning on helping that behind the scenes in a couple of years?I know that you still have more years of racing.
Well, we’re helping it now. There’s a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes making sure that cross continues on the right path, and gets more eyeballs and people continue to see it and if I race for another two or three years that will be fine with me, I’d be happy with that. I’m happy already.