One-on-One With Tim Johnson

With the US cyclocross season starting with a bang at CrossVegas tonight, it was more than time to catch up with Tim Johnson of the Cannondale p/b team and see what he’s been up to. After years of racing both road and cross seasons, the 34-year old rider put the road aside to focus on cyclocross with the Louisville 2013 World Cyclocross Championships looming ahead.

Throughout the year, Johnson raced a few road races and also went back to his roots by racing at both Leadville and Breck Epic. In our conversation, we discussed his preparation and his take on the upcoming which should be “over the top competitive”.

And we also talk about the so-called battle royale between Johnson and his friend and former teammate Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus). Last season, the victory often came down to a two-man fight between the two teammates but with Powers moving on to a new team, the hype around their duel has increased. Is it real? Johnson answers that question and many other.

Tim Johnson (Cannondale p/b on his way to winning the 2009 USA National Cyclocross Championships

Are you ready for cross season?
TJ: What a question to start off. I feel it’s such a broad topic and I don’t think I can every say I’m ready but yes and no. Yes, no and maybe, can I answer that way? Yes, I am ready in the way that I will have a plane ticket, I will get on the plan and I’ll fly to Vegas (laughs), I’ll be able to get off the plane, get in my clothes and then go to the race, so yes I’m ready for that. Physically, I am looking for more form but that’s always the case. As much as you train and prepare you always want more but, I think in this case, I really am looking for more. I’m looking for more of a longer run in into the season. By changing the recipe of how I got ready for the season over the last ten years now, or whatever it’s been, by going from a race like Tour of Missouri or even something like Univest or a whole series of races, from August into September it’s really easy to just carry that plateau of fitness right into the first cross race. You might suffer a little bit with some of the specific areas about cross but overall you’re really fit, so I’m going into the cross season under-raced but prepared so I think it’s just going to be different.

Tim Johnson (UnitedHealthcare) leads the chase at the front of the 2010 Tour of Elk Grove

So one year without doing a full road season, has it going according to plan? Did you miss it?
I definitely missed it. I missed the camaraderie of the crew, I missed being out with the boys and being at the races with a very clear task of what to do and how to do it. But also, I just missed the whole scene. Being a part of something for that long, it really became part of my identity so I wasn’t at the races or I wasn’t with the guys, yeah I definitely missed that. Cycling is a sport, cycling is a job, it’s also a lifestyle and definitely some big changes this year.

Did you feel a bit lost, like what to do with your time and yourself?
No. I think I just had to re-appropriate time. I had plenty to do, I had so much fun stuff to do that I feel like the year flew by, I think it flew by faster than what it did as a racer but when you’re sitting in a hotel after a stage, it seems like time stands still because you’re just sitting there. Basically being a bike racer is like the easiest thing in the world, all you have to do is ride, get off the bike, eat, go back on your bike, eat, very simple. And as anyone in the real world will tell, it’s not like that (laughs). So this year I had a real taste of real life and bike racing.

(laughs) And did you enjoy real life?
(laughs) Oh man.

It’s not all it’s cracked to be. So do you have any concerns going into cross season about being under-raced?
I’m definitely under-raced. I’m looking for, what I did by changing things out, I spent a lot of time doing workouts. I did a lot of stuff to correct some of my weaknesses, so basically I’m going to end up having to re-adjust things and by that I think I’m going to have an inconsistent first half, maybe six weeks of the season before I find my groove.

So we’re going to see all in this in the media that Tim Johnson has lost it in the first four, five weeks?
(laughs) Yeah exactly, I’ll call it right now. I’m going to suck.

What weaknesses did you work on?
I can’t tell you.

2009 US National Cross Champion Tim Johnson ( at CrossVegas

Oohh. Okay then. You raced Leadville and Breck Epic, how was that?
It was a blast. I had a ton of fun, I grew up mountain biking, that was my first real entrance into cycling and I continued all the way through, went up to 21 or so and raced as a pro way back then and got kind of smashed. Basically when I went back to school I had a scholarship for mountain biking so mountain biking has always been there. To be able to get back, spend more time doing different kinds of mountain bike rides and races was something that I needed to do to kind of fill out my year.

How were you accepted as a little roadie going into those races?
(laughs) It’s classic. Who said it on twitter? It was Ben Bostrom, he said don’t sweat it, it’s only seven and a half cross races in a row. And I was like yes totally. And it was. Being able to jump on a mountain bike and jump on a road bike or a cross bike is something that, I am the luckiest guy in the world. It’s the coolest part of my job is being able to go and try these different things. In the springtime, I rode jumps and tried to do a backflip on a cross bike. Did some shit that was absolutely out of my world, out of my little comfort zone. That’s the coolest part, that’s really what it’s all about because I think that being one type of rider, or just being head down, never looking around, never seeing what’s going around, that’s the kind of rider that I never want to be. So being able to try that stuff and being a part of all these different disciplines was really the coolest part of my year.

Did you do the backflip on a cross bike?
I almost did.

Okay back to cross. How competitive do you think the cross season is going to be this year?
I expect it to be over the top competitive. We’ve got new guys, we’ve got kind of a shifting race calendar. I think it’s going to be balls to the wall to start, I think it might quiet down a little bit in the middle of the season and then it’s going to just turn right up at the end again.

As far as who I expect to be killing it, I would definitely say that Jeremy (Powers) is going to be flying at the beginning because I’ve watched him race and I’ve seen some of the races that he’s been a part of and I’ve seen that he’s done well. So I expect nothing less for him to just shoot out the start of the season like a cannon. And kind of matching him, I think that Christian (Heule) is going to be hauling some balls, he’s got a really good season ahead of him. He’s coming here, he brought his whole family over, they’re going to be here for the majority of the US season besides some of the races that he’s going to back to Europe for. So I think he’s going to be cooking but I also think that after seeing Ryan (Trebon) and talking to him, I think Ryan is going to be really, really on form, he’s going to be really motivated to try and make something of this year.

Are we going to see the Ryan of a few years back then?
I’d love to. When he’s on, he’s on and he’s really tough to beat so I think he’s definitely going to be killing it.

Sprint for the holeshot is on between Jeremy Powers (Cannondale, Ryan Trebon (Kona) and Tim Johnson (Cannondale Cyclocrossworldcom) at Grand Prix Gloucester

Anybody else? Do you think there’s going to be any surprises, someone that will just pop up and surprise people?
I get that question every year and every year is the same answer. I want to see a surprise, I want to see someone just come up and cause us all to say ‘holy shit, what have we got here’. And I hope that’s a 21-year old American, or a 22-year old American that is going to be the guy. Watching Danny (Summerhill) ride so well and just kick ass at Colorado, I was so pumped for him but I know he gets a call up and he’s not going to be doing much cross.

He’s already told me that he’s not going to be doing as much this year.
His career goes up and cross may not be as big of a part. It’s the reality, I did the same thing, I didn’t race cross for three years because I was trying to be a road racer and I was putting all my effort into that. I know where he’s coming from, I know he’s an absolute world-class talent so he’s gotta go where he needs to go.

It’s a shame for cross.
He’ll come back. You can’t get so close to the World Championship in any discipline and then not come back and try again. When we stayed together two years ago in the Czech Republic, he wanted to badly to have a really great second-to-last under23. Last year, same thing, he almost had the race that he needed. He was so close to getting back on the podium and when you get something like that, you’re going to have that for life.

Why did Christian Heule join to Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld to race in the USA?
We asked him to come. He’s a great rider, he’s one of the first Europeans to come here and race consistently for years now. I think the first time he won StarCrossed was ’08 maybe, might be even ’07. And he’s just the kind of guy where he’s a great rider but he’s a good guy off the bike and as far as being part of our team, you want guys and girls that are living the life and are racing the race. They are a part of what the sport is and they’re not just going to clam up and not be a part of anything. The culture is so special and he’s a great guy.

There are a lot of more Euros coming to the USA, obviously it’s for the World Championships coming up. Do you think that they’ll be surprised by the racing here especially with the balls to the wall start of the season?
Last year, at Madison it was probably out most stacked field of motivated guys, Jeremy took the first day and I took the second day, and we went 1-2 both days. That was probably something that they didn’t expect.

(Francis) Mourey just walked over the first few races of the year and we got there and were on our own turf, we were able to take out those two races, in addition to a lot of other races. But still I’d love to be able to say that when a Euro comes over here that they’re going to be surprised but the fact is that they’re great athletes and great bike racers. You can never assume anything when you go against someone that is that good, no race is won until it’s over.

Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld teammates in 2010, Jeremy Powers and Tim Johnson battled for the 2010 USGP lead

You mentioned Jeremy a few times, there’s a lot of talk of the Johnson vs Powers, Powers vs Johnson showdown. How much of it is hype and how much is real?
(laughs) The thing is that we’re going to end up on the bike, 45 minutes into the race with, well I’m going to be sweating my nuts off and Jeremy is going to have his head down, and nothing is going to matter at that point besides trying to beat each other. So those are the kinds of time that I think are going to happen a lot more often, that’s also my favorite part of the race. You go to all these races, you travel all around, everybody is friendly or even friends with each other. But when it gets down to the race, you really want to win and so does the other guy, but I want to win more, but he wants to win more… and if you have to look at it, then you’re going to try to fucking win, that’s how it goes.

Some of this hype could be considered mind games. How much is the mental part important to you? You’ve been racing ten years or longer, do you feel that you’ve mastered the mental preparation? How much have you indulged playing mind games with people?
The racing starts before the gun goes off and the racing ends well after the finish line (laughs).

What about mental preparation. Do you feel to have to work on that or do you feel you have that mastered now?

I have nothing mastered. The day that I think that I have everything mastered, I’m going to get my ass kicked all over the place.

I changed all kinds of things this year and that’s part of what it’s all about, I need to change for the future. When I started working on this plan on how to be my best next year … so far in my cycling career, I’ve never sacrificed anything, I’ve always been going with what I had. In the middle of the season, (saying) ‘oh it’s weird I need to work on this’, I never really had time for that because I was racing 11 months out of the year and I was literally smashed from a tough road into a tough cross season into a tough road season, it was really hard to work on what I needed to work on. Now I’ve been able to step back a little bit, take a real look at who I am as a rider and try and change things.

I remember that we talked about this a year ago, this is a dream come true isn’t it?
Do you know that it was two years ago, that the Tuesday before Nationals. These plans were already in the works then and it was a dream. It takes and took a lot of work to get to a point where it might become a reality. The thing is that cross is awesome, cross is fun, cross is the coolest party on the weekend that you want to go to because you can be a part of the party and then you can watch the party from the outside and you can just have a great time the whole way around. But then the racing side of cross is getting more and more intense, it’s getting more important to be really prepared, to show up ready to go, when you’re dealing with World Championships medals and going up against the best in the world well shit really matters then. And that’s kind of where we’re at.

What’s your schedule this year? How many trips to Europe?
Well so far we’ve got three, October and then November and January. I did three last year and I probably shouldn’t of. So we’re adjusting things to make sure that it’s going to be better. By winning Fort Collins, jumping on a plane sick, going and trying to have an okay race as Asper and an absolutely shitty race at Koksijde, I blew Portland and Nationals by doing that. So I learned my lesson, I tried to be superman and it didn’t work. (laughs) I had to take some real hard look at my schedule.

A focused Tim Johnson (USA) at the 2011 Cross world Championships

We have five people on the team this year, we added Nicole Duke. Kaitie (Antonneau) is going to do a pretty similar schedule to last year. She’s so experienced now and it’s funny, she’s only 19 but she’s held a schedule that included multiple trips to Europe for road, and with us for cross and a full schedule for school. And every time she’s doing a race, she’s learning stuff and getting better.The thing is with a a lot of young athlete that’s tough is to keep them in the sport but I think that Kaitie has some great people around here and after working with Jamey while he was still in school, we know really it doesn’t matter. School is the most important, keeping her happy and making sure that she’s not overloaded with races, travel, school, that does no one any good and we went to make sure that she has everything she needs to be a successful person and then the bike racing is second.

Nicole comes in. She’s really new to cross but she’s got a hell of a lot of power. She’s got some good skills but she’s going to be learning the ropes a lot of times but hopefully she’s going to be a real force when it comes down to these races when you get a lot of girls there, and it’s funny the results were different almost every weekend especially when Katie (Compton) wasn’t there. Even some of those weekends, Katie was really pushed to the limit by Katerina or Georgia, so hopefully she can really pick up her speed and be competitive.

What’s more important for you this year, if you had to pick one, USGP or Nationals?
You know it’s going to be tough because I need to really look at the year as a whole and not just race by race. So I think that I’m going to have to take the USGP as it comes and Nationals is definitely a big focus. It’s going to be petty huge. I hadn’t gone into a National kind of under-armed, I showed up with a little pin knife to that fight last year, and I got my ass handed to me and that was so hard to take and such a rough way to go through it that I want to make sure that I get there in the best condition so that I have a chance to win that I can. Even last year the four guys in front of me could have flatted and I still wouldn’t have won (laughs).

Johnson’s first cross race of the season will be CrossVegas on Wednesday in Las Vegas, NV.

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