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An interview with Tim Johnson, December 12, 2008

Victory at last

Reigning US national cyclo-cross champion Tim Johnson made a most unexpected comeback victory when he won his first US Gran Prix of Cyclo-cross (USGP) title after suffering an acute knee injury just two weeks ago. Now, the hunt is on for the US national championship held in Kansas City. Johnson spoke to Cyclingnews' Kirsten Robbins about his readiness to defend his title and why this event will mark the last 'cross gallop of his 2008 season.

USGP series winner Tim Johnson (Cyclocrossworld.com/ Cannondale)
Photo : Mitch Clinton
(Click for larger image)

He had a mantel piece full of USGP silver second placed medals and just when the gold seemed to be slipping away from him mid-season, he clawed his way back into the USGP series leading position during the final round held in Portland. The victory did not come without a struggle to gain points ahead a stellar group of riders like defending champion Ryan Trebon, Todd Wells and his teammate Jeremy Powers, who were all within reach of the honorary title.

After a two week injury setback, Johnson won the series' round five, pulling himself back into the leading role. His third place finish in round six the next day was enough to solidify his first USGP victory. The gold medal has taken the spot light on the mantel amongst the hard earned memories of silver disappointments. This time around, the typical turbulence of cyclo-cross did not put a damper on Johnson's end of season success.

"I didn't think I was going to have a chance at USGP because of what happened to my knee and missing one race," said Johnson who was pleased to capture the overall in front of his good friend and USGP organizer, Bruce Fina. Fina watched him take runner up in prior years. "I went into the last round with no expectations. It was a huge surprise for me, shocking. Winning the first day in Portland was the best case scenario for me, and it happened."

Johnson won the overall series with the best five of six races totaling 207 points ahead second placed Wells and third placed Trebon. "I think the most important thing was not freak out or let an injury end my season," Johnson said. "I had people I trusted to look after me. We have a team doctor Mike Roshon in Colorado who was communicating with my doctor here in Boston."

Cyclo-cross is almost never without it's ups and downs but Johnson's decline came at the most crucial of times. He gained the USGP lead after a solo victory in round three's Mercer Cup, mid-November. However a knee injury, sustained after a crash during his winning round, knocked him off the series' pedestal and unable to start round four the next day. Furthermore, the torn bursa and acute bone bruising injury left him unable to contend the North American Cyclo-Cross Trophy (NACT) points series overall win held in Southampton the next week-end. Doctors orders were strict with 10 days rest.

"I think I can definitely win nationals again, whether it's this year, next year or the year after."

-Tim Johnson's confidence has increased from winning the USGP title.

As it turns out, the injury may have been a blessing in disguise. Rest for the multi-talented rider is a rarity, juggling a lengthy road season with his Health-Net Maxxis squad and jumping into the cyclo-cross season with little to no transition period. "It definitely sucks but it's not all doom and gloom," Johnson continued. "Having a long road season and then going straight into cyclo-cross means I don't normally get a lot or rest or recovery. I'm always running a little fatigued."

According to Johnson the fight for the top spot was not a lonely one. It took the undivided support of his Cyclocrossworld.com/Cannondale team to turn the around the wheel of fortune in his favor. People like the team owner and director, Stu Thorne. Encouragements from his teammate Jeremy Powers and Jamey Driscoll along with unconditional support from his wife and former teammate Lyne Bessette, made tough times conquerable.

Defending the stars and stripes

Tim Johnson (Cyclocrossworld / Cannondale)
Photo ©: Dave McElwaine
(Click for larger image)

Winning the national championships is a tough task and defending the title is quite possibly even tougher. Johnson defeated a number of top-notch talents in last year's national brawl. In the end it came down to a dramatic last lap showdown against the 2007 world cyclo-cross silver medalist Jonathan Page. Johnson gained the slim advantage he needed when Page took a wrong line and bobbled on the last lap. This time around, Johnson will face the same hard to beat competition in a race that is usually more demanding because of the typical unruly December weather Kansas City is well-known for.

"I think I can definitely win nationals again, whether it's this year, next year or the year after. I'm always going to be in for the fight," said Johnson who acknowledged that winning the USGP title has increased his confidence. "I don't mind the pressure when its given to me but I also don't seek it out. Having had an injury means I don't have as much pressure to repeat. Its not like I'm showing up to nationals having won every single race of the season, so I don't feel like I'm going to be any more marked than anyone else. It means I'm going to have to have that special day where everything will work out right. If you're lucky enough to win there its great but if you don't win it, its just one of those things. I hope I can do it."

There are multiple other riders who have proven their ability and strength this year, riders who deserve to be considered favorites for the national championship event. "Jonathan Page's thirteenth place result in the Spanish world cup last weekend means he may be the guy to win," said Johnson who will be wearing his 9 ball decal skin suit for the first time since he won last year's national championships. "Trebon winning on Sunday by more than 30 seconds means he might be the guy to win. Powers has had a great early season and has been focused on the championships all year. Wells has had some great races in the last few weeks -- But, I'd like to see a surprise victory next weekend."

Sacrificing 'cross for road

Tim Johnson on his way
Photo ©: Jon Safka
(Click for larger image)

Johnson was just 21 years old when he stood atop his first World Championship podium in 1999. The Massachusetts native financed his own way to Poprad, Slovakia that year, and then stood shoulder to shoulder with Belgian Bart Wellens on the U23 podium. He was the first American to stand on a world championships podium in the discipline. Having won the national title last season, he made the decision to return to European racing for some 'unfinished business' with world cup racing. Unlike last year, the 2008 US national cyclo-cross championships held on December 14 in Kansas City will mark his last hurrah of the season. Johnson confirmed that he will end his 'cross season early in order to join his professional road team OUCH presented by Maxxis for a team training camp in Temecula, California in January.

"Nationals will be my last race of the season and the reason is because I need to focus on next season with my new team," Johnson said. "I'm looking forward to doing stuff that I'm good at and that I enjoy. I love racing 'cross and I also love racing road, but I have to balance the two. This is one instant that I'm truly balancing by having to cut out the European 'cross racing so that I can race well on the road next year."

Johnson is expected to be in peak road condition for the Tour of California held in mid-February. His role in the early road season was enhanced when the former team Health Net-Maxxis expanded into what is now called OUCH presented by Maxxis and hired the power-house GC contender Floyd Landis to the roster. "My decision to not race 'cross is helped by my own ambition and the teams ambition for me at the beginning of next year," said Johnson, who met with Landis at a preliminary training camp held in Asheville, North Carolina in early November.

"I don't want to let my teammates down in California by not being as prepared as I should be," Johnson continued. "Doing the 'cross worlds and the last few world cups took a lot out of me. Last year I showed up less prepared. I felt like I showed up with half the tool box - You can't fix the sink if you only have half the tool box. I need to be stronger, not so tired and more well rounded going into the Tour of California this time."

Johnson confirmed that he will dust off his road bike on the Monday December 15, following the outcome of the US national cyclo-cross championships. He will begin preparing for the road squad's training camp held on January 22 in Temecula, home of the new title sponsor OUCH Sports Medical Center. "I'll try to take some of this 'cross fitness, the high intensity and make it more efficient with longer rides. When I do get to training camp I'll be better able to handle the mileage demands of six hour-plus days on the bike."

The excitement of the revamped team has been brewing for months with the addition of OUCH and Landis to the US-registered continental team. Johnson confirmed an on-bike relationship with his new teammate since the mid 1990's when Landis was well-known as a professional mountain biker. "I think on a basic level I'm excited to be able to have another tool at our disposal," Johnson said. "Floyd has a lot of experience obviously one of the most talented riders in the world. Having him as a card to play is going to be huge. I would think after having a major joint like a hip replaced, that a come back to the highest level in cycling would be difficult. But he crushed us at training camp a few weeks ago in Asheville. I know for a fact that he will be on good form at the Tour of California."

Related articles:
January 4, 2008: Unfinished business
November 23, 2006: Growing US 'cross scene: An interview with Tim Johnson
November 12, 2005: No regrets: An interview with Tim Johnson

Other Cyclingnews features

Photography

For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Mitch Clinton/www.clintonphoto.com

Images by Jon Safka/www.cyclingphotos.ca

  • Tim Johnson on his way to winning the second day of racing at the Toronto International Cyclo-cross race in November.

Images by Dave McElwaine/www.trailwatch.net