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By Neal Rogers
While working on a story this week about Webcor Builders women’s team rider Christine Thorburn for our upcoming VeloNews issue No.7, I dialed up Quark’s Lyne Bessette to get a comment or two about Thorburn’s surprising third-place overall finish at Redlands.
And along with getting the quote material I was looking for from the recent Redlands winner —“I was impressed by her amount of fight,” Bessette said of Thorburn’s second-place finish on the Oak Glen climb. “I knew that she was a good climber, but I was surprised that she could hang on that long.” — what surprised me was the voice that answered the phone: Bessette’s fiancée Tim Johnson, now riding for the Spanish Saunier Duval squad.
Though I knew I was dialing Johnson’s phone (Bessette had mentioned to me a few weeks earlier that she could be reached at Johnson’s mobile number, as the two had swapped SIM cards on their mobile phones while in Europe and she’d ended up with this phone number), I certainly didn’t expect to be speaking with the man from Massachusetts himself.
After spending the past few months getting settled in Girona, Spain, among the rest of the all-star American transplants, Johnson explained he’s back on American soil for the next few weeks, up through the upcoming Tour de Georgia — a race he’ll participate in as part of a Euro composite Prodir-Saunier Duval-Saeco squad.
Part of the Saturn powerhouse last year, Johnson finished the race 26 minutes down while riding in support of overall winner Chris Horner, third-place finisher Nathan O’Neill and sixth-place finisher Tom Danielson.
“I can’t wait for Georgia,” Johnson said. “It will be so much fun. That’s going to be a race that’s a lot harder than people realize. Lance and Bobby Julich [CSC] are going to be there, plus I hear Floyd [Landis] and George Hincapie [both of U.S. Postal-Berry Floor] are going. Those guys are no joke.”
Johnson pointed to the stage 4 time trial, which will dish up 2012 feet of total climbing in just 32km — following a 77-mile stage that same morning — as the decisive day of racing.
“The time trial will be huge for GC,” Johnson said. “Just imagine someone like Horner going against Lance all week long.”
For Johnson, the race will be a chance to reunite with many of his old teammates and friends from the domestic circuit, as well as an opportunity to represent his team’s co-sponsor, Prodir pens, a Swiss company that produces high-end pens that are designed and manufactured in Switzerland but hold a good share of the market in the U.S.
“We’re flipping the team name when we go to the States to Prodir-Saunier Duval,” Johnson explained, adding that Saunier Duval, a leading European heating technology group, has no market here. Johnson will be joined in Georgia by teammate Rafael Casero and “four Saeco dudes” to be named later (meaning when Johnson finds out who they are.)
“Given our race program, we’re really lucky to be there,” Johnson said of the six-day stage race. He’ll head back to Spain following the Tour de Georgia, but his Prodir-Saunier Duval team will field a full squad for the Wachovia series in early June also known as “Philly Week.”
Johnson reported that his race program up until now has been new and exciting, but so far he’s felt up to the challenge. The challenge of the racing, that is. Facing a pair of European viruses has been a different story.
“It’s been pretty hard,” he said. “I had a good start to the year, but after [the five day Challenge] Mallorca I got sick with a flu and missed Ruta del Sol. That was kind of a hiccup. After that I raced in couple of one days, and I felt petty comfortable. They were hard for sure, but I could do it.”
In March Johnson competed at the Italian Tirreno Adriatico, his first hors categorie event. “It was so fast, oh my God,” Johnson laughed. “But I felt pretty good, at least for the first few days.”
After the first four days Johnson was stricken with a severe case of gastroenteritis and was forced to drop out, spending several recovery days home in bed. “Whatever I ate just came right out,” Johnson said. “I had the shivers and was sweating at night. All my energy was gone. I could barely walk up the stairs.”
With the pair of illnesses finally behind him, Johnson has returned to training in Girona with American Christian Vande Velde (Liberty Seguros), who is currently still unable to race due to problems with his work visa.
“It’s pretty wild in Girona,” Johnson said. “I go riding with Tyler [Hamilton, Phonak] and Levi [Leipheimer, Rabobank] pretty often. Since he’s not able to race yet, Christian and I spend a lot of time together, and I see Michael Barry [U.S. Postal-Berry Floor] a lot.”
Johnson also discussed the experience of living in Spain during the worst terrorist attack in that country’s history, the March 11 Madrid train bombings.
“I remember the first few weeks I was here a video was sent out, saying foreigners in Catalonia are not welcome. But that was nothing compared to the huge terrorist attack. It’s really shaping the world. The bombing happened while we were in Tirreno. The team wore black armbands the next day, and we started at the front. The support from all the other teams was huge.”
“I remember September 11th was two days after the San Francisco Grand Prix,” Johnson continued, “and the bombing at Madrid was while we were at Tirreno. In a way, [the racers] can all share that experience through bike racing.”
Johnson also briefly shared his thoughts on the recent allegations by former Kelme rider Jesus Manzano and the fallout in the Spanish media.
“It’s a lot bigger news in Europe than it is here, I can tell you that,” Johnson said. “That story was kicking five pages a day in the newspaper. I haven’t been to a race since that was out, but I can imagine it’s pretty eye-opening. He was given full use of the paper — he could say whatever he wants. I can’t read every word in Spanish, but I can read just enough to make it out.”
Johnson admits it’s been a bit of a turbulent time to move to Spain, but remains optimistic. “It’s a lot to absorb,” he said, “the racing is hard enough.”
Lastly, when asked about their apparently on-hold wedding plans, my phone’s earpiece quickly filled with laughter from the couple.
“We shut her down,” Johnson joked. “No, we’ve been talking about it. It’s in the works. It’s tough because we’re apart so much. I left California on January 13th, and then she came to Spain February 5th and left March 5th, and I got here [Monday] night [April 5]. The months have basically leapfrogged. It’s actually really cool in some ways. During Redlands I could either put her to bed or wake her up over the phone.”
“After this stretch we’ll have Philly weekend,” Johnson continued, adding that he hopes to stick around for Olympic Trials in mid-June. “And during the Tour I have a big break. There’s basically no racing in Europe during July. But Lyne’s got it all taken care of. She’s in control.”
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