Manual for Speed spoke with Tim Johnson of Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com the night before the 2013 UCI Cylcocross World Championships—about anything and everything. What follows is in his own words.
I grew up in Middleton, MA, just north of Boston. At seven I was riding my BMX bike, a GT Pro Performer, on jumps we built in the huge dirt driveway at my house. My dad was a car mechanic so we had sheet metal lying around, and we would put a piece on top of some firewood and launch off that. Can-cans wouldn't even be invented for another six or seven years at that point.1
I wanted to be like my older brother, so I burned up two solid years from 13 to 15 going down the wrong direction. I pumped gas, making sixty bucks a week, and made questionable choices with my time. At the I had a neighbor who was diabetic and who rode his mountain bike three times a day to control his blood sugar. One day he was riding and came to the end of his driveway as a car came down the road; he hit his brakes, fell over and broke his hip. I helped him out for six months afterwards while he healed, working around the house and doing odd jobs. To say thank you after he was healthy, he bought me a magenta Klein Rascal. I had it for like six months while still working at the gas station with all of my stoner buddies, and of course it gets stolen, never to be seen again. Thankfully, I got an insurance check for it and with the money I got a Klein Attitude. I was 16 and all of a sudden had a Klein Attitude.
I started racing when I was 15 and coming out of the gas station phase, racing Juniors every weekend. I did maybe two beginner races, then sport, then expert, and then I started winning all of the expert races. I started going to the national series when I was 17 or 18—and by 20 I would be Pro MTB. I went to Junior MTB Worlds in September of 1995 and Stu2 was like, “Well what are you going to do now? The season’s over. Why don’t you come to a cross race?” I was like, “Uh… really? I don’t have a cross bike.” So I rode a mountain bike at my first five cross races. But I wound up on the podiums. Stu helped me get a cross bike by Junior Nationals that fall and I won; from there on I just stuck with it.
I went to college on a MTB scholarship to Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky but turned pro on the road before I finished. I raced for Saturn for three years, then went to Europe. Europe sucked. I let it suck. I went in thinking black is black and white is white and it wasn’t. It was a shitty team, drugs were everywhere, and all the while I was just a little kid on my bike. No one else on my team was riding for that reason: they were riding because it was their fucking job. They were doing anything they could to ride faster, and I was like, “Wow this is crazy, you guys are riding so fucking fast.”
I rode myself into the ground, because I thought if I trained harder I could be as fast as them. But in reality they were training just as hard while doing drugs. No chance.
Instead of quitting, I came back and re-found my love of the sport by joining this really low-budget team in Georgia, Jittery Joe’s. I went from the Pro Tour in Europe to Division III in the US over the course of one offseason. We drove a van to half the races we did. Normally that kills a cyclist, but for me it was the best thing I could’ve done. It reinforced why I do it, and that’s because I love to ride my bike. Not to mention, back in the US I was able to return to cross.
I still go back to Europe for at least five cross races a year, and have been doing so for the last six years. Before I turned pro on the road I was living full-time in Europe racing cross, but living in the States and going over there each year for a spell is a good balance for me.
I loved having teammates and racing for them on the road, and I miss road racing a lot for that camaraderie. I was the guy who was helping my teammates win. I was the one who chased or attacked or covered or led out, and I miss that. With cross, you do see similar things once in a while and it’s so cool when it works right—that’s a whole new level of what cross can be. I do think cross has more room for the quirky personalities. That's not to say road doesn't have room for it; I’m sure if you’ve spent time with a guy like Zabriskie, you know he’s totally unique. People don’t often think that road has room for guys like that, but it does. Cross still lends itself to those types better, though.
There used to be a big gap between the States and Europe, where the training was much more regimented and data/science-driven in Europe, but it’s changing. It used to be that I could ride the Tour of Missouri—which was a major stage race in the US at the end of the road season—then get off my bike, fly to Nevada and race Cross Vegas on Wednesday. After not riding a cross bike in months, I’d hop on one and immediately get podiums or even wins. You can’t do that anymore, because the level has risen. And yes, the approach to road and cross is still different, but again, that margin is shrinking. I don’t know what my VO2 max values are or anything like that, but you definitely try to train better and keep in mind what you can do—specifically—to be a better rider. It used to be that by doing a road season, I was training by default and it would work for cross season. Taking away that road season meant I had train specifically during that whole time. The first year I did cross without road first, I sucked. I didn’t ride enough, and I learned from that. I'm not like Trebon; Ryan is a professional trainer. You can just dump him off on his own for six weeks and by the end he will be in amazing shape. He came from a long mountain biking background, so he’s used to it.3
In this room there are probably 50 people I’ve known throughout my career4 that have had something important to do with that career. When you turn pro and start to reach those higher levels, you feel good about your success not just for yourself; you want to do it for everybody else, everybody who helped you along. And when you hit the Pro Tour, if you can’t make it you either quit or keep going no matter what.
I quit, but found a different place and way to ride because I love it too much. And now I have a much better connection to my sport because of it.5
- When I was like nine I saw Haro—Ron Wilkerson, Brian Blither and somebody else—do a show in North Conway, NH. They had the trailer with a quarter pipe and ripped all these shitty little airs, it was awesome. [↩]
- Thorne, now Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com Team Manager [↩]
- MFS mentions Ryan’s casual attitude to training, see previous, and Tim laughs. "That’s total bullshit. He’s such a fucking tight-ass. He’s a weenie. He’s too cool." [↩]
- We are in the Mezzanine of the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, where riders and media have congregated for the weekend. [↩]
- FTR #48: PRESERVE YOUR LOVE [↩]