Tim Johnson Q&A: Curiously caught between soul rider and wattage dork
Tim Johnson finds himself caught in the strange crossroads between laser-focused racer and recreational cyclist, and he wants to talk
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Timothy Johnson is a professional cyclocross racer. Let’s just get that straight.
He’s a good one, too. He’s won the U.S. elite national championship three times, and has been one of the most consistent faces on the sharp end of U.S. cyclocross racing over the last 15 years. He finished third at the under-23 world championships in 1999, and is one of only two senior men from the United States to stand on a worlds podium, Jonathan Page being the other. This year, Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) has finished second four times at major races (Providence Cyclocross Festival, the Gran Prix of Gloucester) and won a few tune-up events. He was the first rider of his generation to call himself purely a ’cross racer.
Timothy Johnson is also a cyclist. Matter of fact, he’d prefer to be defined that way, as opposed to “Tim Johnson, racer.” Johnson spends as much time pedaling long rides as he seems to train. He stops on rides to rescue turtles, and — gasp — he even takes the stairs sometimes, or walks places. Of course, anything extra is anathema to a pro. But not to Johnson, who perhaps wishes his life tilted more toward the movie “Rad” — the classic BMX flick with the ludicrous “Send me an Angel” dance/BMX sequence — than it does. VeloNews caught up with Johnson recently.
VeloNews: How are you?
Tim Johnson: I’m killing it right now. I just got a massage.
VN: Every time I check your Strava or Instagram, you’re always doing something cool. Like your Ride On Washington, for example. Is it hard to keep the training up as well?
TJ: You know, I guess I made an unconscious decision — I have massage face and massage head, so don’t hold me too tight to what I say right now — I made the conscious, or unconscious, decision to not worry about being super, uh, I don’t know, crazy about being perfect. I guess I really embrace the idea of being a cyclist, being happy, having range. I’ve been around people who I think are way too type A and literally melt under the pressure that they built for themselves … and then I’ve been around people who don’t do shit either way, that don’t do enough with their careers. But I think I’ve been able to look at enough people who do it right, and enough people who do it wrong, to create a little niche myself.
VN: You’re aiming for that sweet spot.
TJ: Exactly. I’m not quite a soul surfer, soul rider, but I like to be once in a while. I’m not like the super nerdy, super watt guy, but I kind of like to think I am once in a while. I like to ride with people who aren’t pros, which a lot of pros don’t get.
VN: They think you’re crazy for that.
TJ: I’ve actually had a conversation with riders where I’m like, “Wait, really? Do you understand what you’re saying right now?” I like to be around people who are psyched to be doing what they’re doing, whether they’re doing it for fun or for a job. I can use every finger and every toe to count pros who aren’t psyched to be doing what they’re doing. So why bother riding with them? And whatever. Ride with people who are excited, happy.
VN: If you had to define yourself, would you be Tim Johnson, cyclocross racer, or Tim Johnson, cyclist?
TJ: Cyclist. And I’d be wanting to be that.
VN: What do you think you get from your approach to riding?
TJ: I like to meet new people. I like to be exposed to the ideas and motivations of people that are different, or who I’ve known so far. … If I’ve had rides that have gotten me to a place where I think I’m having what I think are great thoughts at the time, you only have those once in a while. But if you ride with people that are interesting, you can have those kinds of things pop up way more often. But you have to present yourself with that opportunity.
VN: At some point — well, that would be now — you’re going to have to throw down and race. How are you feeling about it?
TJ: I feel great about it. … Having started the year off this way, I realize I probably put too much pressure on myself [last year] for our big, American worlds. I really wanted to dial up the Tim Johnson racer and dial down the Tim Johnson cyclist. And I think I probably don’t do as well with that ratio. It’s a learning process.
VN: ’Cross racing is pretty close. You know all the guys, been racing them for years, closely. Is there any sort of rivalry or bad blood?
TJ: You don’t want to lose to a guy you know so well. You want to fight him. You want to push. You want to lay it all out there, to not lay down, to cry uncle. You want to fight and fight and fight. I think it brings out the best.
VN: What of the upcoming schedule? You’ll skip the usual early trip to Europe?
TJ: I really want to have a great nationals in Boulder [Colorado]. I feel like I’m getting luckier and luckier to have my career come at a time where we can have worlds in our home area and have nationals in Boulder. … That’s going to be a fucking awesome weekend. It’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be nuts.
VN: You racers are going to make yourselves stay inside and not see anyone.
TJ: Oh my god. No way.
VN: You can’t be hanging out with people like us.
TJ: Dude, it’s going to be happy hour at the West End on Thursday. Roll it into Friday. And then Saturday it’s going to be this crazy party, and then Sunday I’m going to race. What’s the big deal with that?
VN: Maybe all this hanging out, riding long, has conditioned you for such things.
TJ: Actually, I will tell you, the fear of standing up is ingrained. Can’t stand up. Can’t meet people because you might get sick. I think it’s some of those unfair lessons taught to young riders that doesn’t make sense. It’s like, “C’mon now.” Otherwise you get to the end of your career and you’ve never met anyone. And you’ll never get a girlfriend because you can’t walk five feet.
VN: Wait, wait. So you’re telling me that if you had a dog you’d walk it?
TJ: I have two dogs, and definitely will walk my dogs. And I even run in the offseason. I’ll stand up a cocktail party. Go figure.
VN: And you’ll take the stairs?
TJ: I do take the stairs. Go figure.
VN: Do you think there’s a movement to just ride longer as opposed to race? It seems like a lot of people just want to be out for long, crazy rides and maybe aren’t racing as much, on the whole.
TJ: I think overall there’s a realization that, especially people who have dedicated to racing, they’re finally realizing that all the time they put into training and racing makes stuff like that more fun. … If you’ve been riding your bike … any kind of riding that isn’t your normal training loop is just so much more fun, because you’re fit. … My racing is a very important part of what I do, but not the only thing I do. And it’s been a process to figure that out and eventually become comfortable with that. Because there’s this thing — you miss a day of training, you suddenly become less good. And that’s not really what training is all about. Training allows you to repeat an effort more often, spending less …. but it doesn’t necessarily make you good or bad. It only makes you able to be as fit as you are more often. I think that there’s — this is going to kill the whole article — during the Lance years, being fit became the No. 1 thing. Totally the only thing. It’s a big part of what we do, but fitness is not the only thing. There’s skills, there’s tactics … there’s all kinds of stuff. But there’s also a feeling in being confident in what you’re doing and that’s something for me that came from a lot of years of riding and racing and learning from my mistakes … but I think that’s also a lesson that other people are learning, too. And that’s great.