Tim Johnson just couldn’t get any respect.
The 20-year-old cyclist from Middleton was putting together the ride of his life midway through the cyclocross Under-23 World Championships at Middelfart, Denmark, last weekend, The countless hours of training were paying off tenfold as Johnson charged from the last row, passing more than 40 riders and crashing the party at the front of the pack, just behind the race leaders.
“In one lap, I passed 21 riders. I couldn’t doing anything wrong,” said the former United States junior champion. “I was on fire. At one point, I looked at a Czech rider next to me, and he was breathing hard. Then I look at an Italian rider, and a Belgium rider, and they were breathing hard. And I wasn’t breathing hard. So I just made my move and went for it.”
The perfect scenario, right? Unfortunately, it wasn’t apparent to everyone watching. So stunning was Johnson’s early effort that a Belgium television announcer, broadcasting the race live back home and in Holland, assumed that Johnson was actually down a lap whenever the American’s distinctive red, white and blue jersey was seen among the race leaders.
In the Dutch audience was Heath Leavitt, a former teammate of Johnson’s from the local CCB/Volkswagen team and the racer’s host for the two weeks leading up to the world championships.
“That’s when Heath started going crazy,” said Johnson, laughing. “The commentator kept referring to me as a lapped rider, and Heath is screaming at the TV, “I know he’s not a lapped rider.’”
The air of disbelief was palpable even after Johnson crossed the finish line in 10th place, edged out by Italian rider Fabrizio Dall’oste in a sprint. Still, the Belgium announcer’s confusion was understandable. In European cycling circles, especially in the unique discipline of cyclocross, Americans haven’t produced many riders of prominence. Johnson himself has finished 56th and 52nd in the last two espoirs (under 23) championships, which accounted for his starting position in the last row among 62 racers. He was hoping for, at best, a Top 30 result this time around.
Cyclocross is really a cycling hybrid, a whirlwind mix that’s part road bike race, part mountain bike, part foot race, part short-track derby. It rewards racers who can run as fast as they pedal.
“The biggest thing is the intensity,” said Johnson of cyclo-cross. “You’re going 110 percent the whole time, pushing every second. It definitely makes it the most exciting to race and to watch.”
The world championship course in Denmark was typical cyclocross fare -- a short, 3.5-kilometer loop with tight turns and fast straight-aways, plus a series of quick climbs and hurdles that forced riders to dismount, run and remount a number of times each lap. Traditionally, European cyclists have used this off-season sport to keep their skills, and fitness, sharp. But cyclocross is earning a reputation as a worthy cycling discipline in its own right. The New England Spin Arts cyclocross series held from September through December broke all attendance records this past fall.
Johnson, however, didn’t race in the New England series. As a freshman and scholarship racer at tiny Lesley Wilson College in Kentucky, he concentrated on the fall mountain bike season.
“We’re the Blue Raiders. It’s kind of a big joke; there’s no football team, so we’re the Big Men on Campus,” said the five-foot, eight-inch, 145-pound Johnson of his cycling team. “Yep, I’m nothing but a big, dumb jock.”
Johnson’s good humor, boyish handsome features and slightly goofy, “aw shucks” grin belie the grit of a world class-caliber athlete. Coming off a strong summer mountain biking campaign with CCB/Volkswagen, Johnson scored All-American honors at the Collegiate Championships at Devil’s Head, Wisconsin, in mid-November, and the Blue Raiders garnered Midwest regional and conference championships. But in the final cross country race at the collegiate championships, Johnson hit the proverbial wall.
“I was actually having a great race, third overall, and I just blew up on the last lap and fell back to 13th,” he said. “The last seven miles, I could barely keep my legs going. It was definitely my biggest disappointment of the year.”
Needing a rest, Johnson said he had no intention of competing in cyclocross. His personal coach, Bryce Root of California, had set him up with a “maintenance program” to help Johnson recover and retain his fitness levels. Still, early morning on Dec. 7, Johnson was on the starting line of the collegiate race of the United States National Cyclocross Championships just outside of Denver, Colo. Back on form, Johnson battled with 28-year-old Adam Myerson of UMass-Amherst before being relegated to second place in a sprint finish.
“It was really cool, having two Massachusetts guys going head-to-head, three minutes up on third place,” said Johnson. “And it was nice to beat all those University of Colorado guys -- they were the ones who beat me (the collegiate mountain biking finals).”
Later the same day, Johnson captured fourth place in the Under-23 race, securing All-American honors in cyclocross and a spot on the U.S. National team.
“And I never got a varsity letter in high school,” said Johnson, who attended Masconomet Regional. “It was quite a shock.”
Bound for Europe
Financed partly by his sponsors at CCB and “my loving family,” and with two bikes borrowed from friends on the Essex County Velo team, Johnson set off in early January for Leavitt’s home in Holland to prepare for the World Championships.
Just a week prior to the championships, Johnson and compatriot Marc Gullickson raised a few eyebrows by finishing 18th and 17th respectively in a World Cup cyclocross meet in Belgium. But the racing and the travel began to take it’s toll. Johnson said he arrived in Denmark feeling tired and jet-lagged. The morning of the championship race didn’t help alleviate any misgivings. After pedaling a few laps around the frozen course to familiarize himself with the terrain, Johnson headed back to his lodgings, only to get a flat tire 6 km away. Not a good omen.
Once the starting gun sounded, however, Johnson’s legs got up to speed quickly and “I just shot the holes,” picking off riders one by one. By the end of the first lap, Johnson found himself tucked in behind mountain bike champion Miguel Martinez of France. The next lap, he was riding among the leaders in seventh place.
And despite being caught by two Dutch riders and the Italian Dall’oste on the last lap, Johnson, in 10th, competed the race as a bona fide celebrity. The next American was Adam Krause, in 53rd.
When I got across the finish line, I was dumbfounded,” Johnson recalled. “Everyone’s snapping pictures. I kept hearing “American, American.’ and “Who the hell is this guy?’”
No longer an unknown, Johnson spent the next 24 hours fielding offers to race in Switzerland, Italy an Japan.
“It was a little overwhelming, but that’s not a bad thing,” he said. “I hope this was my breakthrough race. This is what I was looking for. I was definitely questioning what I was doing (racing bicycles), but this has given me some direction.
“I’ve just got to work on my sprint,” he added, laughing.
After a sleepless night in Denmark, Johnson flew home, managed to get separated from his luggage and his bikes, met with a few friends here on the North Shore and then set off for Lesley Wilson to prepare for the upcoming road racing season. He’s set two goals for the rest of the year. The first is the collegiate road championships in South Carolina this May. The second, and most intriguing, is the mountain bike World Championships in September at Mont Sainte Anne in Quebec.
Johnson said he welcomes the chance to again rub elbows and wheels with the Europeans. He’ll undoubtedly be gunning for a spot on the podium, perhaps a medal, against the world’s best. He already has their respect.