After a good but not great start to his season, American Tim Johnson (Cannondale p/b cyclocrossworld.com) racked up four wins this past month; two victories including a C1 at Jingle Cross, one at CXLA and at the final race of the USGP in Bend, Oregon.
“It feels really good.” Johnson said of his four victories, “I actually had a good start to the year, solid second places at C1s but I was missing the wins so it's nice to be able to turn that up as the season gets longer when the other guys are getting tired and less motivated so that makes me feel good.”
Following the finale of the USGP, the New Englander made his way to Southern California for an intense training camp with BMC's Taylor Phinney for the final push to the 2013 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Louisville. The preparation for Worlds really started in 2011 when Johnson put an end to his professional road racing career to focus on cyclo-cross but the resulting season ended up being disappointing. The veteran learned from his mistakes.
“Actually, this year I did as much as I possibly could to change my approach and process, so that meant much more training in the off season, in the summer, so June, July, August and also taking better care of my body and my mind. Because what happened is that I always approached cross as something that I just do in addition to road racing or in addition to my normal life but I didn't necessarily take the time to make it number one. So then last year showed to me that if I don't take my cross as the most important thing then I suffer for it and my results suffer so this year I had to really learn that lesson and put into practice.”
A few years ago, his recipe of racing on the road and then jumping into cross was successful but things have changed. “Everyone is getting faster. Everyone is taking it more seriously. And what I was doing during my road season was basically great training for cross. So last year was a combination of no road which meant that I had to rely on my own ability to train which I didn't do a very good job of it to be honest with you so then when I got into it, I was suffering. I kind of pulled out some okay results but they were mostly because of either tactics, guile or luck and that's really no way to put together a good year, you put together you need to really take charge and do it the best way possible.”
“I'm here in California now training with Taylor and we talked about that, do I miss road racing?” he said. “Yeah, I do. I miss the camaraderie of it. I miss being able to really push myself whether it's for my own results or other guys' results, I think it's one thing to be physically fit it's another thing to be fit and hungry. With road racing, you're always competing, you're always competing against yourself, your teammates, the other racers and it just kind of builds on itself, you have this natural progression but when you're racing and training alone, it's really easy to plateau so I miss road racing for that.”
And it isn't just the physical aspect, Johnson also worked on his mind game. “If I thought that I had done enough then you become stale and you stagnate and it's not really the way to do it. I'm always looking to learn new things or learn a lesson or gain some knowledge somehow and I think that's just part of a progression. If I can say that I progressed my entire career that it's been a pretty successful career.”
In the past years when Nationals was still being held in December, Johnson would have a training camp in California in January as part of his final push. He found that it worked well for him and adapted his schedule. “The year of St Wendel, that was 2011, I had great form because I got back to Europe and I was front group in Pont Chateau, I was front group in Hoogerheide, and then St Wendel I was riding top 10 when I crashed, so that was a great lead-up and that included coming out to the West Coast and really pushing it. So this year I'm training here with Taylor, get a good solid week of great riding, got Biju out here helping us and making sure we're actually eating and drinking the way that we should when we're training this hard and hopefully it works. I know that my legs work, I'm glad that they're back, I'm looking forwards to see what I can do.”
Worlds. Johnson is one of the rare few Americans to have stood on a cross Worlds podium when, in 1999, he finished third in the under23 race won by Belgian Bart Wellens. He remembers being in total shock while at the same time not understanding the enormity of what had just happened.
“That day I came from the back, I never really rode at the front until the very, very end and I was just chewing up riders the whole time. Our coach at the time was standing on the course, he would give me placings and he just got more and more and more excited every single lap and he was basically jumping up and down by the time I came through on the last lap and I had gotten up to fourth I think. He was screaming. He's not a very emotional person and so he's up there freaking out and the course was just treacherous, hilly and sketchy and it took every ounce of your concentration.” Johnson said of that fateful and very cold day in Proprad, Slovakia.
“I got to the line and I hadn't even realized what truly happened and the press conference was a blur, the podium itself is a blur. The thing that really made it real was the drive back to Switzerland where we flew out of and being in the car with the old USA Cycling National Team director Uri. He had been to every single world championships from road, cross, track for the last 30 years and the whole car ride, he was so excited and he kept saying, this is huge, this is huge and I'm sitting in the car with Matt Kelly.”
The other rider in the car, Matt Kelly, had won the junior world championships. “Matt was an actual rainbow jersey and I have a medal. Looking at basically through his eyes, two great draft picks for the future, the junior and under23 with medals and he just couldn't believe it. He basically babysat Americans at worlds for the previous 10 years. People would come into the sport because it was fun, we all paid our own way, all that stuff up until then and to have two legitimate contenders and it made me realize the enormity of what it was.”
That 1999 Worlds bronze medal is now hanging in Johnson's mother's house.
Other Americans that have stood on the Worlds podium include Katie Compton (Silver, 2007, Bronze 2010; Silver 2011) and Jonathan Page and Danny Summerhill (both Silver medals, 2007). Johnson does believe that the success of 1999, or 2007, can be repeated.
“Danny's been competitive, we've had a few top 10s in the juniors since then but I think we are definitely going to repeat it. Unlike 1999 or 2007, I think we're looking at a more sustainable model for growth and performance because when we did it the first time there really were no where to go except for Europe. So Matt went to mountain biking, I went to road racing, we didn't really have a place to go in cross.”
But now, he feels that if racers, such as Compton, up and coming juniors Logan Owen, Curtis White, Spencer Downing, or his teammate Kaitie Antonneau to name just a few, continue to do well internationally that they can have a successful career in cyclo-cross.
“There's a real place for them to go, there's a job, there's a salary, there are races to race at, there are people that are interested. At the time we were basically racing in a vacuum and not many noticed or cared. You put a junior cyclocross world champion on the velonews cover in 1999 and no one really cared it really wasn't as big of a deal as it would be now.”
Johnson wants to be part of a strong USA team for the 2013 Worlds, the first time that the event will be held outside of Europe in 60 years. “We need five of the best on the start line no matter what, I don't think my spot is a guarantee but I'm going to fight for it and I'm going to fight for that day.”
Following the training camp, Johnson will be racing at the Namur and Zolder World Cups on December 23 and 26, respectively. He will return stateside and then the final push. “I'm going to go the Chicago race which is the weekend before Nationals, I'll do Nationals, I'm not sure about doing the UCI race in Ohio but definitely considering it and then the Worlds.” Then, he'll head to Japan for his final cross race of the season.
What will be going through his mind when he's lining up on the start grid in Louisville at the start of the World Championships in the United States?
“You know it's funny because I've been lucky to have emotions play a part in racing before and have it work, and i've also had emotions play in a race and have it not work. But I think if didn't let the enormity of that special feeling about racing at home play a part, I think I'd be wrong. I think I need to let it really help build me up, I think I need to really let it in and work with it because it's going to be such a powerful influence and force.” he replied.
“It's not like racing on the other side of the moon and no one really cares or it's six o'clock in the morning at home, only the diehard are actually paying attention. This year we're going to be on the start line and everyone is going to be paying attention and that's just such an awesome feeling.”
And Johnson wants to see the fans out in drove in Louisville. “I think Dan's article was great because he said it's not about waving a Lion of Flanders flag, it's waving the Stars and Stripes and I think that that is definitely a big piece of the puzzle that can be put in.” he said of the Dan Seaton article in Velonews. “I did road worlds in Ontario (Canada) in 2003 and that was pretty damn close to home and there were a lot of Americans that traveled up there and watched, it made it special thing to be close.”
“Now to race in the States, I want people to feel that we are our people, our countrymen are out there racing and I want them to put everything into us as they can.”