Tim Johnson is taking the summer off.
The three-time national cyclocross champion has spent every summer since 2001 racing in the domestic peloton, however that’s about to change — he’ll spend the next two years preparing solely for cyclocross, with the objective of reaching the podium at the 2013 world cyclocross championship in Louisville, Kentucky.
It’s an ambitious goal, to be sure; after finishing third behind Bart Wellens and Tom Vannoppen at the 1999 under-23 worlds, Johnson has only broken the elite men’s top-15 twice at worlds, in 2002 and 2010. He will turn 34 in August, and knows his opportunities to return to the podium at a world cyclocross championship are growing scarce.
On the road, Johnson has raced with Momentum Sports-managed teams — Health Net, OUCH, UnitedHealthcare — since 2006. He served as a road captain and utility rider, capable of both driving breakaways and chasing them down, and often played a role in the team’s various lead-out trains. His top road result came in 2003, his last year with Saturn, at Australia’s Herald Sun Tour when he won two stages and took the overall win by sneaking into a final-stage breakaway and snatching up time bonuses that jumped him to the top of the classification.
The national cyclocross champion in 2000 at only 23, Johnson took a four-year hiatus from racing ’cross to focus on his road career. He returned to his beloved discipline in 2005, and by 2006 was again a force at national-level races; he took additional national titles in 2007 and 2009.
In addition to his Cylocrossworld.com-Cannondale team, Red Bull has been a personal sponsor of Johnson’s since 2008; that backing played a major role in his decision to step away from full-time road racing to focus on cyclocross.
“The biggest catalyst for (changing his race schedule) was being able to work with Red Bull,” Johnson said. “They’re not just a sponsor, they’re really behind you. Red Bull has a performance program set up for its athletes that asks ‘what do you need to be the best in your sport?’ and helps you get there. It’s the same mentality behind Project X, when Red Bull built Shaun White a half-pipe in Silverton (Colorado) so he could train for the Vancouver Olympics. That helped him win the gold medal. For me it’s obviously different, but the idea is the same. I love cyclocross, and I know I am good, but how can I be better? How can I do well at the international level? They’ve asked me the same thing, and the answer we came to is that I can’t race 11 months out of the year.”
Stepping away from full-time road racing to focus on cyclocross will help Johnson avoid being overtired and also help stay him stay clear of injury; last year he broke his ankle at the Dana Point Grand Prix and spent several months off the bike. However he isn’t sidestepping road racing completely; over the next two years Johnson will contest select domestic stage races, including Oregon’s Cascade Cycling Classic, and Vermont’s Green Mountain Stage Race, as well as “a few local mountain bike races.” Because he is not racing for a UCI-registered pro team, Johnson won’t be eligible to enter UCI events such as the Tour of Utah or Elk Grove.
Riding to the Capitol
The new opening in Johnson’s summer schedule will allow the Massachusetts native to pursue other interests; in 2011, that will include hosting a series of training camps, as well as a March 4-8 ride from Boston to the 11th annual National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C.
The nearly 500-mile ride, titled “Tim Johnson’s Ride On Washington,” aims to raise funds and awareness for the Bikes Belong Foundation. It is, Johnson said, the perfect way to combine base miles with a cause he feels passionately about.
“I was going to the Bike Summit anyhow, and I like to ride my bike, so I committed to do the ride,” Johnson said. “We’ve set it up in stages, sort of like a stage race, riding one day from Boston to Hartford, another through Bethel, Connecticut — where some of the Cannondale crew will join us — and on down to D.C. Anyone that wants to join us is welcome. We will post all the start and finish locations online. It’s free and they can ride along for a few minutes or the entire time.”
Tim Johnson’s Ride On Washington: The Itinerary
Friday, March 4: Boston-Providence-Hartford, 130 miles
Saturday, March 5: Hartford-Bethel-New York, 90 miles
Sunday, March 6: New York-Trenton-Philadelphia, 100 miles
Monday, March 7: Philadelphia-Wilmington-Baltimore, 110 miles
Tuesday, March 8: Baltimore-Washington D.C., 40 miles
A handful of riders will join Johnson for the entire ride, including well-known cycling announcer and advocate Richard Fries. Each of the “Long Haulers” will be asked to raise $1,000 for Bikes Belong. So far the event has been promised support from Firefly Bicycles, Red Bull, BikeReg.com, Strava.com, Rapha, Marriott, Cannondale, Thule, Light and Motion and Harpoon Brewery. SRAM is donating a neutral support vehicle to follow behind the ride, and Johnson is hopeful Boston Mayor Thomas Menino will join the ride for a stretch.
The inspiration for the fundraising ride began in 2010, when Johnson first attended the National Bike Summit, a gathering of cycling advocacy groups organized by the League of American Bicyclists, with the support of the Bikes Belong Foundation. The first active high-profile pro racer to attend, Johnson had the opportunity to meet with politicians, such as Massachusetts Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown, and briefly speak at a political action committee dinner. Johnson said he left the event with a new appreciation of cycling advocacy.
“It’s way bigger than any race,” he said. “I was meeting people who were working hard on bike paths in Madison, Wisconsin, or putting together bike sharing programs, or trying to figure out what is in a transportation bill being passed in the House or Senate that can benefit cyclists in their locale. I realized these issues are so much wider reaching than racing a criterium, or winning cyclocross nationals. And I realized that as a racer I am making a living on the sales of bikes, and that these people buy those bikes but don’t follow racing. I realized how large the cycling world is, and how little of it has to do with racing. My eyes were opened.”
It was at that 2010 National Bike Summit that People For Bikes was launched — a Bikes Belong initiative to gather 1 million digital pledges as a means to tap into money the federal government allocates to expand and improve the country’s transportation infrastructure. (So far People For Bikes has collected 200,000 pledges.) Johnson was so inspired he successfully lobbied to have Cylocrossworld.com-Cannondale place the People For Bikes logo on its team kits for the 2010-11 ’cross season.
“As competitive cyclists we’re such a visible part of the sport, and the activity of cycling, and we have a huge ability to influence,” Johnson said. “It’s also a responsibility.”