It had been 377 days for Tim Johnson (Cannondale-cyclocrossworld.com) to go winless at a UCI cross race before he raised his arms in victory this Sunday at JingleCross, and 73 days since his first race this year at CrossVegas.
“Yeah it’s been frustrating but I’ve had good races and I’ve had frustrating ones also but, all three of us first time winners this year but I was the only one to get all the crap the whole year.” laughed Johnson after finally getting that victory.
As Johnson pointed out, he wasn’t the only one without the big W before this weekend, his teammate Jamey Driscoll and US Cross Champion Todd Wells (Specialized) were also looking for that first victory which they also both claimed this weekend. But it was Johnson that was beset with the ‘winless Timmy nickname’. Simply put, expectations were higher from the three-time US Cross Champion Johnson, expectations that came about after he and his then teammates, Driscoll and Jeremy Powers, dominated the US racing these past few years.
Years that Johnson loved.“I wish it could last like that all the time, that would be great.” Johnson told podiuminsight on Sunday. He added with a laugh, “It was so awesome so of course I want it to be like that.”
But it just didn’t happen this year for him or his team. Before this weekend, the tree-rider squad had claimed only one victory, GP Gloucester by new teammate Christian Heule.
“It has been a while.” Johnson said about his team winning. “When you’re lining up with a full field, and a full field of guys that are always improving, you can’t guarantee anything. It’s tough.”
Johnson repeatedly used the word “tough” to describe his year so far. “I’m definitely not too obtuse to recognize that it affected me. I think it’s different because I had enjoyed such success so on one hand it’s flattering for people to expect me to win, on the other hand it just adds to the pressure that I put on myself to win.”
“It’s tough, it’s really hard especially when the competition is always getting better, other riders are always improving and making leaps. You can never count on anyone else but yourself, for whatever it’s worth, it’s been a trying year. I think that if I can have some success this year, like I did today then it’s good enough for me and I can plan trying for more next year.”
Lessons learned. Especially difficult for the 34-year old who changed everything this year. After racing on both the road and cross for nine of the last 11 years, Johnson decided to no longer race as a pro on the road. Instead, he spend time doing charity work like the Ride on Washington and mountain bike racing such as Leadville and Breck Epic.
“I had a great time this year but having a great time during the spring and summer didn’t exactly translate into winning every single race I got into in the fall. Trying to weigh that ‘do I really want to stop racing competitively all the time’ or ‘have a lot of fun’? I kind of need more thoughts on that a little bit more. Going into next year, I definitely learned a lot of things, and I hope that I can have that ratio a bit better.”
He was missing that structure linked with racing day in and day out. “I think that a free form year presents a lot of opportunities but also, there’s a lot more responsibility that comes with it and racing for it is honestly is a lot easier. It’s easier to go to a race and then go to the next race and go to the next race and you give yourself a minimum amount of fitness so by not doing that I lost that structure so what I need to do is get that back, at least at a level where it makes sense.” Johnson explained. “I’m going to do more road but I’m also going to continue to do the fun stuff like the Ride on Washington, like the mountain biking, stuff like that. I’m going to continue to do that.”
With that win still eluding him after finishing second on Friday to his teammate Driscoll, the pair did not start Saturday’s race in cold, extremely muddy conditions. A break that Johnson said was “absolutely” planned.
“By not racing, I don’t want it to ever be about not respecting what we have, to not do a UCI race, a race that John (Meehan) puts on and puts on so much effort is tough, that’s the part where I felt bad but physically I hadn’t had the best season and I really needed to make sure that I could have a chance to win, not racing yesterday was the best chance to do that for me.”
The whole point was not only to win, but to win that C1 race to get as many points as possible. “To come out all the way out here and race that was the whole point, there’s a lot of points, there’s a lot of money, it’s really important to get those especially when I’ve had the year that I’ve had.”
So Johnson, on his bike equipped with disc brakes, went off like a bullet on Sunday’s mucky course. The only other rider to match his pace, and even attack him for a short time, was Driscoll.
“We had everything into the race. As soon as the gun went off, it was time to battle.” Johnson commented. “I caught Jamey at the top of the hill, where it flattens up a little bit, it’s all hard and windy. I caught him there, went down the downhill together to the pit area and then shoot back out, went around him after the barns, then hit the gas as hard as I could through the circle and then onto the straightaway. And I really laid the gas down there and tried to get a gap before we got to the flyover and up the runup because he was really strong in the runup so I needed to get there a gap.”
How hard did he have to go? “As hard as I could. You’re out there racing, everybody wants to win, everybody wants to go as fast as they can up that hill, and try not to fall down that other side. But to put together an hour of racing as fast as we possibly can, it takes everything you have.”
And that was it, Johnson soloed to the win, with a huge grin on his face. “I feel much better actually.” he laughed when asked how it felt to finally win. “The training is going well, the fitness is coming up and I feel like things are going right. So I was feeling good about and I think I’m getting to that point.”
What’s next? Though it’s been difficult, Johnson said that he was not second-guessing his decision to not race full time on the road. “It’s just making sure that I made the right decision. I’m not second-guessing anymore I’m doing more double-checking not second-guessing.”
The whole point of doing it this year was a test run before next year, the one that all US Cross racers have circled with the 2013 Cyclocross World Championships in Louisville. “There were a lot of unknowns and I think I hit a lot of questions, and hopefully by next year I can have some of them answered.”
There is still a lot more racing to come, starting with the Cyclocross LA weekend, then straight to Bend for the USGP finale. “Then from Bend I’m flying to Belgium. I’m going to do the World Cup in Namur and in Heusden-Zolder.” Followed of course by US Cross Nationals in early January and then Worlds.
Johnson made the decision to not race at the Koksijde World Cup this weekend, on the same course where the 2012 World Championships will be held.
“Last year I went to Koksijde, and did that World Cup and did the exact same course. Watching the race yesterday with Jamey and I felt very very glad to not be there.” Johnson said. “It’s a special thing, it’s a completely different animal and I realized last year that that animal is something that I could leave over there, kind of watch it and not really touch it all the time. The World Championships this year is going to be a crapshoot for me, I realize that staying here trying to get my form together, trying to get a win under my belt was probably the best move for me, I’m glad I did.”
But what if Sunday’s race is his only win of the season? “I can try for more next year.” Johnson replied. “I guess I’m saying that winning every single race is something that only happens once in a long time.”