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BEND, Ore. (VN) — On Sunday afternoon, Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) will line up in defense of his stars-and-stripes jersey at the U.S. national cyclocross championships for the third time in his career. Twelve months ago Johnson, 33, won his second title in three years on the Bend, Oregon, course where he’ll roll up to the line a few minutes before 2:30 p.m. Pacific.
With is arguably the deepest field ever assembled for `cross nationals, Johnson’s defense will likely be his most challenging from a competition standpoint. He is three months into his busiest season ever for travel, already with two midseason European trips and still more ahead.
Johnson sat down to breakfast for a conversation with VeloNews the day ahead of his defense. One of the top riders in the annals of U.S. ’cross was candid about his confidence, an up-and-down season and the importance of that stars-and-stripes jersey.
Q. Where have your thoughts been the last couple days?
A. I’ve been trying to gather up a little bit of steam just because having inconsistent form is kind of new for me. This is where I’m going to stop complaining. I’ve been sick twice this fall. I’ve barely ever been sick in `cross season in years past and I think it’s because of the added travel and the wider reaching schedule, which is what I wanted to do. So I’ve got to deal with it.
I’ve been trying to gather up a little bit of steam and focus on what I have to do tomorrow. The way the conditions are, the way the course is, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good chance. Before the race, I thought Jeremy was the number one and he would be the guy that would be hard to beat, with Todd (Wells), Ryan (Trebon) kind of on the outside, or at least with a shot, but not five-star.
But after I saw the course I thought, “This is Ryan all the way.” All the hard sections of the course are split up between long straightaways. It’s more difficult for him to win when there are multiple hard sections in a row that are tied together. With these breaks in between he can get right back up to speed. I’d say he’s far and away my favorite.
Q. What about your odds?
A. I don’t want to give myself odds. That’s a legitimate concern because I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in whether or not I’m going to have good legs. In years past, I could say that I’ll probably be okay tomorrow and if everything works out I could have a shot. But I don’t know and that’s a little scary. It’s not the way I’d like to feel the day before the national championships.
I’m putting everything into tomorrow and then I’ll take a deep breath and then work on the last four weeks of the season.
Q. In Portland last weekend you had a slow start, but you climbed back to third on Saturday and finished a solid second to Jeremy (Powers) Sunday. Will that impact your prep for tomorrow? Will you do a bigger effort than usual the day before the race?
A. Yeah, a little bit. I can pin that one on travel, the nine-hour difference from Europe to here. Arriving back home in Boston with a few days to get used to that six-hour difference, and then the three-hour difference to Portland, that’s all fine. But throughout all that it’s really tough to get in training when you’re tired from traveling. You may think you’re tired from training, but you’re really not.
I think the whole basis of this is because I was injured in the road season. It’s kind of left me with a fleeting, not base, but a fleeting idea of fitness. Usually everything was clockwork. I would race, race, race all spring and summer and then roll right into ’cross and cruise right through.
Because I had eight weeks of no riding at all, it makes it difficult to know where it is.
Q. At the same time, you’ve had an intense travel schedule this fall with two midseason European trips and a full U.S. calendar.
A. Whether or not I bit off more than I can chew is the question I’m asking and answering. Luckily with the support of Cannondale and our team we’ve been able to do this. But it’s not just doing this, it’s doing it right.
I look at someone like Todd Wells who does the full World Cup schedule on different continents and what we’re doing is just going back and forth to Europe. It’s not that bad. It’s nothing crazy, but how do you manage that to be successful on both sides.
Katie doesn’t race and then she races. She might be doing a little bit more than I like to do. I like racing, I like traveling, but I want to do it better than I am. That’s what I’m focusing on finding – how to do that.
Q. Have you been out watching other races this week?
A. On Thursday I rode around after the women and Ned’s (Overend) race. That’s when the singlespeed race was. I saw Adam (Craig) warming up and I watched a couple laps of the singlespeed race. You’ve got to watch and see where people are going through those puddles.
I think there are a lot of chances for mechanicals. It may not be the most difficult course in the world, but it has some nail biters. It’s slick, it’s muddy, there’s ruts, but there aren’t any straight drops into any ‘Oh my God, am I going to make it?’”
Q. How special is it to pull on the stars-and-stripes jersey in the van in Europe?
A. It’s pretty special, but more than that it means more to do it over here. It’s great over there and it’s instant recognition for those fans to know what it is, but I think the reactions that you get here in the States are more powerful, because they understand if there’s 2,000 racers here racing for their own jerseys, maybe they made it maybe didn’t, they see you riding around in a jersey they tried for in their own category and you’re wearing the jersey from the biggest and baddest category. I think that’s more powerful.
Q. Will you wear it Sunday at all?
A. I will warming up. Totally. Happily.
I’ve been thinking about it. Being lucky enough to win it before, I think it gets more and more special to win it. To pull it off and then to have to win it back, it’s a huge thing. Someone on the outside might say that there are only four or five guys that are potential winners, but that doesn’t matter. Those guys want it and they’re trying to theoretically take it off your back. That just makes that fight so much more powerful.
If I roll around and pre-ride in that, I’m going to try not to think about it, but I probably will.
Q. Is that extra motivation?
A. Yeah. When I had it in 2007 going into 2008 and we had the second year in Kansas City, rolling around that course I knew I wasn’t going to wear it that afternoon. I wasn’t riding that well. I’d hurt my knee a few weeks earlier and Ryan was absolutely on fire. I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to win this thing again.’ I had counted myself out immediately. That actually made it easier to deal with because for me to win today it would be insane and I got fifth.
Tomorrow I actually have a legitimate shot, so it makes me think about it more.
Q. When you count yourself out, is it easier to enjoy those final moments in the jersey?
A. It’s a lighter feeling.
The one thing that I feel like I’ve been good with throughout my career is that the pressure of trying to win doesn’t get in the way of actual functioning. I’m still trying to put together good laps, a good start, a race where I don’t crash, don’t have any issues.
Sometimes when you have a pressure opportunity, it can weigh you down and it can feel like it’s crushing you. I’ve been okay at keeping that at bay and turning that into energy that can help me.
Q. Will it be strange to slip on the green and black Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com skinsuit tomorrow?
A. No, because that’s my team.
Q. What has been your most difficult title, whether for on or off the bike reasons?
A. I think 2007, racing against Jonathan (Page). The course was so treacherous and I think we were really evenly matched. It all came down to the last lap. That was the most difficult racing wise, for sure.
Q. And what about the most meaningful?
A. I’d say last year; 2007 was big because I stepped away from the sport for a few years and came back in 2005-06. In 2006 I got third in Providence and lost to Page in a sprint. So 2007 was huge, but I think last year the atmosphere, the course, the people made it more special.
Q. Does anyone put on a better nationals than Bend?
A. Besides the Presidio and Providence… Providence had a nice venue and activities after the race downtown. But Bend puts all that to shame. You walk around town and everybody knows what you’re doing and they’re into it.
Q. You’ll take a break after this weekend before heading into the final month of the season. How long do you take to refocus after Sunday?
A. A solid week-and-a-half, two weeks. I’ll have some solid rest and get off the bike. I’m going to go have a nice Christmas in Quebec and another one at home. Then I’ll go out to California and start training out there and then head back to Europe in January. That refocus is physical and mental.