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An interview with Tim Johnson, November 23, 2006

Growing USA 'cross scene

Tim Johnson is one of the serious players in the cyclo-cross world, often seen passionately enjoying the winter on his 'cross bike after a season of road racing. The American is always at the business end of the races, making him the perfect rider to talk to about the growing 'cross scene in the United States. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown spoke with Tim Johnson (Cannondale/cyclocrossworld.com) as he was in the Northwest preparing for his final two USGP races.

Johnson makes it look easy
Photo ©: FJ Hughes
(Click for larger image)

Beginning cyclo-cross at an early age, Tim Johnson finished the 1999 U23 world championships third behind Belgians Bart Wellens and Tom Vannoppen, going on to recorded numerous successes in the USA. He kicked off 2006 with an explosion, winning in Vermont, Southampton and Downeast, before Ryan Trebon (Kona) took control of the USA 'cross scene.

"Since then it has been the reign of Ryan," said the 29 year-old in a half-joking manner. "He has had really good luck and good form, wining every race he entered until this last week when he had a mechanical and got fourth [in Boulder Cup, November 5]. It was a big opportunity for us to attack; too bad for Todd Wells and I, Wicks bridged up and got us both.

"Right now I am committed to the last two days of the USGP, in Tacoma and Portland. [In Portland, Johnson went on to win the epic finale - ed.] From there we will go to New England, preparing for nationals. Last year it was such a huge event for everyone, with over a 1,000 racers. The blizzard made it so spectacular but I think that this year will once again show how big cyclo-cross has become in the USA. We should see a massive turnout in Providence [Rhode Island]."

Johnson is referring to the growth of the cyclo-cross scene in the USA. The professional races have much greater depth than a few years back, and the amateur levels are growing in large numbers. At all the races Johnson attends, he is met with a roar from fans surrounding the typically-short 'cross circuits.

"It has been getting much bigger in the last years," Johnson noted. "There are more and more people riding 'cross bikes. If your garage has a mountain or road bike already then your next bike is going to be a cyclo-cross bike. All the people that got into the sport six or seven years ago because of Lance Armstrong, their garages are already full [with road and mountain bikes]. ... They can go out and do a race, a short race, and be back home with their family and kids in the afternoon.

Tim Johnson knows how to handle his bike
Photo ©: FJ Hughes
(Click for larger image)

"That is how more riders are getting into the discipline. Becoming fans, racing and also cheering us on. When we are racing at the upper level, all of those people know their racing.

Cyclo-cross has always enjoyed a large number of road racers who want to keep their legs moving in the winter but there is also a influx from the mountain bike community towards the discipline.

"Well, I hate to say it but it is partly due to the demise of mountain biking," continued Johnson in regards to why the upper-end of the sport is growing. "There is more money in 'cross, so those guys are making the switch and racing. Like Todd [Wells] and Ryan [Trebon]. Ryan is current USA national mountain bike champion but he sees more of a future on the cyclo-cross bike.

"The other thing is that companies realize getting behind a 'cross rider provides them with exposure during the [road] off-season, in the winter. That is helping build the industry support."

Tim Johnson on his way to win
Photo ©: Susan Candee
(Click for larger image)

Like in road racing, the pinnacle of 'cross racing is often viewed in Europe, where riders like Sven Nys and Bart Wellens have ruled for years. Making the trip across the Atlantic Ocean and competing on foreign territory is something that Johnson believes is possible.

"That is my goal for the next cyclo-cross season; I have already started making plans for that," noted the rider from Massachusetts, who has previously battled with the Belgians early on in his 'cross career. "I will do a combination; not turning my back on the USGP. Go to Europe and do a few races, come back here for nationals, then back to Europe for the last month and a half leading to the worlds.

"A globalization, like Sven was saying. That would also help Bart's reality show!"

- Tim Johnson on need for World Cup race in the USA.

"It is a testament to the USGP, because I don't want to leave the USGP competition. Like [Sven] Nys said in the Cyclingnews interview, we need a world cup here in the USA. If we formed a world cup and held another big race on the previous weekend, then the guys can come over for two solid races. We can duke it out with these guys on our home turf. For promoters it would be good and for the growth of cyclo-cross in the USA it would be great. A globalization, like Sven was saying. That would also help Bart's reality show!" [Bart Wellens has a popular reality show in Belgium, Wellens en Wee. - ed.]

Johnson believes the Americans would do best to travel in a pack. "You know in my first world cup in 1999 (as a solo rider) it was just me and Jonathan Sundt. I think I got 17th in Switzerland [GP de Suisse]. If we go over together we can then show our strength against the Europeans. The USA riders are so fast in early season that if we went over early then I think we can give a good indicator of our power."

Tim Johnson with win in final USGP race
Photo ©: Mitch Clinton
(Click for larger image)

"Ryan [Trebon] is still emerging; he is 26 or 27 years-old," summarized Johnson when asked about the new crop of talent in the USA. "He is number one, and we have known how good he is for a while. Todd [Wells] is the current champion and has been getting better and better through this season. Jeremy Powers, who banged his head against the wall racing in Europe, is getting better here [in the USA]. His efforts in Europe are paying off and he will continue to use that experience to grow. ... Then there are a lot of other riders I don't watch, just because I am wrestling with Ryan and Barry."

After our interview, Johnson finally won the battle against Trebon in the final USGP race of the season, the Stumptown Cup. Sunday, in Portland, Oregon he excelled in the extremely damp, muddy conditions to ride free of his competitors, while Trebon, who had the USGP series locked-up, finished fifth.

Visit Cyclingnews' list of cyclo-cross races for the 2006-2007 season.

Other Talking Cycling Interviews