Cyclo-cross career in question for Tim Johnson

Three-time champion hit by persistent back injury

While all of the other elite cyclo-cross racers were busy preparing for Sunday's USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships - going through the usual routine of training, napping, pre-riding, and eating only to face a postponed event come race day - three-time elite champion Tim Johnson's race had already been cancelled. Laid up with a back injury, Johnson spent the morning supporting his wife Lyne Bessette in a local running race in Austin on a day when, under ideal circumstances, he would have been contending for title number four.

The 2014-2015 'cross season is over for the 37-year-old Johnson, but he's not ready to quit his involvement in the sport. "The season is over. That's being realistic," Johnson said. "The decision to not race was not taken lightly. It's really tough. This whole season has been so up and down, it hasn't been a lot of fun. I still want to be around, the cyclo-cross community isn't just about racing and suffering with your friends. I'm not going to sit at home and feel like I'm a victim. That's ridiculous. People have a lot worse problems than I have."

Johnson came to Austin, even though he was not racing, to work with his sponsors, filming some spots for Volkswagen and doing colour commentary for the race's live stream. In addition, he spent his Sunday afternoon organising a dinner for more than 100 young riders and their families who were affected by the race's postponement. Even if he can't race, Johnson still wants to be a part of the action.

"I love to be a part of [cyclo-cross]. It's funny - we've been doing this for 20 years. I'm not going to get up and leave now."

Johnson won his first national title as a junior in his home state of Massachusetts in 1995, and has two U23 titles and a bronze medal from the UCI U23 Cyclo-cross World Championships in Slovakia, in addition to numerous UCI victories on home soil. His last stars-and-stripes jersey came in 2009 in Bend, Oregon. However, he's had continuing problems with his lower back, which came to a head this year, and is now threatening to end his career prematurely.

"It was usually an episode a year where I'd have full back spasms and I'd be off the bike for three or four days. I've always had therapy of various kinds to manage it. This year it's been out of hand, I couldn't really control it. At the beginning of the year it kept getting worse and worse. The only way to be able to race fast is if I was almost totally rested and the inflammation in my lower back under control."

Johnson said he tried to fake it for a while, but the inflammation eventually cuts off power to his right leg, making it impossible to race at the level to which he's accustomed to. "For the last few weeks it hasn't been very painful, but that's because I haven't really been riding. I can walk, I can do a lot of other things, but racing 'cross is basically the worst kind of exercise for a low back situation like this."

As late as last Sunday, Johnson thought he might be able to compete in the National Championships, and came a respectable 10th place in the Resolution Cross Cup in Garland, Texas.

"I wanted to give it a shot to see if I could squeeze something out. I was really suffering in that race, I didn't have very much power. I tried to have as much fun as I could. Luckily, the course was interesting and there was a good crowd. It still wasn't enough to really make this weekend possible."

The injury likely dates back from a severe road crash Johnson had at the Fitchburg-Longsjo stage race back in 2000, where he crashed on the descent when a rider's wheel failed in front of him, and he crashed into a street sign. He only remembers what he's been told of the incident.

"I had full amnesia, and I lost four days of my life. I woke up in a hospital and had no idea where I was. I didn't have a scratch on me because I had hit a street sign with my back. That's possibly part of it all. But I've always had back pain and trouble, and I just thought it was from 'cross and road racing, time trialling, and riding tempo on the front. You get aches and pains. It's really tough. This sport itself is so demanding on your low back, you're always full power, and doing it the same exact way every time. There's no real rest."

Whether or not he can continue his career with another summer of rest, physiotherapy and training remains to be seen. Johnson said, "I'd love to try, but I will think more about that later."

Right now, he will continue to distract himself by supporting the 'cross community, even if it's just by getting various sponsors and donors to pitch in and buy dinner for the riders affected by the postponement of the National Championships, and doing a little organisation on social media - it all helps take the sting out of not being able to race.

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