An interview with Tim Johnson, November 12, 2005
In his five years on the pro circuit, Tim Johnson's been faced with a lot of tough choices. Tough choices inevitably call for tougher decisions, but as he enters a new year and a new team, he tells Anthony Tan there's no regrets.
12 months ago, Tim Johnson had a lot of reasons to say to hell with the bike. A less than satisfactory season over in Europe with Saunier Duval-Prodir was hard to take. Facing his peers back home was possibly even harder. Then that vocal, often brash though extremely gifted countryman of his, Chris Horner, went back across the Atlantic and did exactly what he wanted to do - and in the same team, goddamnit!
"I have a lot of respect for Chris, and he has done what every American dreams of," Johnson admits, "but there are absolutely no regrets. For me to go back to Europe, it's either going to be on a 'cross bike or a month-long trip with Health Net, and that's something we're planning on doing."
"It was a really hard adjustment to come back. You know why? Because there were a lot of things that made me think that I didn't want to ride anymore." - Speaking about his first few months in the States after a less than satisfactory season with Saunier Duval
When the now 28 year-old signed for Jittery Joe's-Kalahari before the start of the year, a small, unassuming eleven man outfit based out of Athens, Georgia, many thought Johnson's cycling career had gone off the rails. However, his experience with this team directed by Micah Rice and principally sponsored by a company that makes coffee beans turned out to be the perfect shot of espresso.
"It's hard for me to describe the situation I was in and the reasons behind the decision that I did [make]. I had a great time at Jittery Joe's-Kalahari; the boys on my team were cool, the racing was a lot of fun, we won a few times - Jeff Hopkins, our Aussie sprinter, was awesome and gave us a lot of reasons to be psyched."
Johnson describes the mentoring aspect of being a team leader as "a natural responsibility". "I think that if you've done a lot of the races before and you've got a lot of young guys on the team, then it's a natural responsibility to look after them. And that's something that I like and it's something pretty common with bike racing, with the way the teams are set up," he says.
In a way, such a role diverted attention away from him and to the rest of the team, which is the way he seems to like it and when he rides best. In his days with Saturn, where he spent his first three years as a pro, Johnson was one of their strongest, most reliable domestiques, leading riders such as Horner, Nathan O'Neill and Tom Danielson to countless victories. It was regarded as a superteam, and dominated local racing much like Health Net/Maxxis did this year.
"You know, a lot of the enjoyment I had at Saturn in 2003 was working for the other guys; it was as hard as hell, but working for Horner and Nathan and Danielson was huge, because it showed me what I could do and helped me grow as a rider." And when Johnson got the chance to ride for himself at that year's Herald Sun Tour in Australia, he proved he could be a leader too, snatching an eleventh-hour overall victory that lead him on the path to Europe.
One could place some blame on his Sun Tour victory as the reason for his year of hardship with Spanish team Saunier Duval, which may have given rise to false expectations. But Johnson isn't bitter; fond memories still abound.
"I can't wait to go back there someday; I was really bummed out not to have the chance [to defend my title]. That's such a cool part of the world - I want to go back!" he says, sounding like a little kid who's been told it's his last ride on the rollercoaster before home-time. "Oh yeah, I was looking at the results all the time and Dom [Perras] was my team-mate on that Active for Life team that year, so for him to get second, I was just pulling for him so bad in that TT... it was like, 'C'mon Dom, you can go uphill, damn it, get up there!'"
Going back to that Sun Tour in 2003, one witnessed an aggressiveness rarely - maybe never - seen before in Johnson, which made me think he's got 'it'. That same it which makes a rider like Lance Armstrong think 'kill' when riding side-by-side Jan Ullrich each year they've competed together in the Tour de France. I think he's still got it - he just doesn't like to show it. It seems to go against the grain of his personality.
Johnson invariably places others before himself. When he met his current wife Lyne Bessette, it didn't phase him that she was better known and more popular than him. She still is. Bessette was also a contributing factor behind his decision not to pursue a full-time cycling career in Europe. For this latchkey kid from Middleton, Massachusetts, strong, healthy relationships are far more important than simply riding with the best in Europe, riding in the hope that one day, you might beat them.
"It was a really hard adjustment to come back," he says, speaking about his return to racing this year.
"You know why? Because there were a lot of things that made me think that I didn't want to ride anymore. The spring was kind of slow, then it picked up and I had some good results in the summer, and as the season went on, I got better and better and I had a good ride in San Francisco [he finished 14th behind winner Fabian Wegmann]."
He didn't need to ride as well as he did in San Fran. Health Net, that seemingly unbeatable team, knew they were going to lose a few guys at the end of the season. In 2006, USPRO Champ Chris Wherry will ride for Frankie Andreu's new domestic squad, 21 year-old young gun Tyler Farrar is off to Cofidis, and ever-reliable workhorse John Lieswyn has officially retired. "They called me and they wanted a guy like me who's been around the block, has some experience and is not afraid to show it."
It took a little over a month to seal the deal, although Johnson says the decision to leave Jittery Joe's was a lot tougher than most people think. "The team was really cool to me and Micah [Rice] really took care of me. But here came this really good opportunity for two years with the best team in the States... it's really hard to pass that up."
"It's a really good time to be a bike racer in America," he says. "I don't know how many UCI trade teams we have - 13 or 14 or something, a really high number - but that's another reason why I don't regret so much not being in Europe, because there's a lot to be proud of here in the States. Salaries are good, the racing we have with Tour of Georgia, California coming up, the old Philly and San Fran, there's a lot of good racing here and whether you're in Europe or not, it doesn't matter so long as you're having fun on your bike. That's definitely my program!"
The 'fun on your bike' program is certainly working for Johnson. A far less stressful road season and a two-year contract with the country's strongest domestic team have seen him rediscover his passion for racing, so much that he's taken up cyclo-cross again after a two-year absence, and riding like he never left.
But, he tells me, despite the success and his love of 'cross, riding the world championships is not part of Health Net's plans and he's okay with that. He'll just let his wife keep bringin' home them trophies, which is what Bessette's been doing of late.
Johnson's also okay (well, a fair bit more than okay) with Health Net's plans to head to Europe as early as next spring. The Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under, Tour de Langkawi and a few weeks in Europe are all on the cards, following in the vein of Navigators Insurance, who have made the trip across the Atlantic the past three seasons and benefited from the experience.
"It will just be a few weeks and it's not going to be a four-month slog where the riders we wishing they were at home. A fresh, US guy in good form is really, really strong in Europe; I mean, we signed Kirk O'Bee and he's had a lot of good results when he's been to Europe.
"For me, it's less of like, 'Oh, I haven't been to Europe and I've got to go there' - because that's the way I went into the road thing before. The experience that I gained and that I went through, it's really valuable for me and the other guys; if it's me helping a team-mate who's just popped into the leader's jersey in a race over there, then if I can help it, I think it's really important."
Mindful that it will be a massive feat to match the success his new team enjoyed this year, he, along with the rest of the team, seem intent on trying. Gord Fraser, Mike Sayers, Mike Jones and Doug Ollerenshaw are some of the original crew who will be back in 2006, and combined with the new blood, Bad Timmy says they'll be in there for the kill. "For me to help them out first is going to be my job, and as the year goes on and there's more races that we can win, it doesn't matter who's winning - as long as we win."
Johnson then pauses for a moment - you know he's got something he really wants to say.
"I think some people miss out on noticing how fun this sport really is. If you want to make it fun, it's totally possible; but if you want to bang your head against the wall, then that's possible too. It's your choice, and I really have no regrets with the decisions I've made so far."