By Anthony Tan
The saying 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' appears to hold true for Tim Johnson, who, after two years away from the cyclo-cross scene, has begun riding as if he never left. After a solid end to the road season with Jittery Joe's-Kalahari, which has seen him land a two-year contract with Health Net/Maxxis commencing in 2006, consistently finishing at the top of the leaderboard in the early season 'cross races certainly wasn't expected - but that's exactly what he's been doing.
"I guess the only specific 'cross training I did was to get out on the 'cross bike as much as possible in the woods, or doing 'cross practice with all the 'cross guys in town," said Johnson to Cyclingnews, driving home from last weekend's double-header that forms part of the Verge Mid-Atlantic Cyclocross series, where he finished in second place in Saturday's Wooden Wheels Cyclocross and fourth on Sunday at the Wissahickon Cross in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
"But this whole fall's been kinda wacky; getting ready for San Francisco [Grand Prix], finalising my contract next year with Health Net, trying to figure out our bikes, clothing and our sponsorship for [wife] Lyne [Bessette] and I with Cyclocrossworld-Louis Garneau. So it wasn't so much a specific plan, but I wanted to take my break and be able to get on my 'cross bike without going into the next road season cooked - but it kind of worked out in an odd, wacky way."
Odd and wacky is one way to describe the past few years for this 28 year-old from Middleton, Massachusetts. This time two years ago, Johnson had taken his biggest ever career win, triumphing at the 2003 Herald Sun Tour held in Victoria, Australia. Two months later, he signed a contract with Saunier Duval-Prodir, embarking on a troubled journey across the Atlantic that saw him back in the States after less than satisfying season and question his being in the sport.
The move to Jittery Joe's, an American Continental team comprised of just 11 riders, seemed awfully strange for a rider that less than 12 months ago appeared to have the world at his feet. However says Johnson, a mild-mannered, well-spoken and intelligent individual, it has turned out to be a blessing in disguise, allowing himself the time to rediscover his passion for cycling.
"It's hard for me to describe the situation I was in and the reasons behind the decision that I did [make]. It was actually a lot harder than most people think," said Johnson about his decision to leave his current road team at the end of the season. "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.
"The Health Net thing is awesome. They called me and they wanted a guy like me who's been around the block and has some experience and is not afraid to show it. 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 [Chris] Horner and Nathan [O'Neill] and [Tom] Danielson was huge, because it showed me what I could do and helped me grow as a rider."
Johnson describes the US market 'post-Lance' as "a really good time to be a bike racer in America", with good salaries on offer and new stage races such as the Tour of California scheduled for February next year. And in the vein of another successful US cycling team, Navigators Insurance, Health Net are also planning a short trip to Europe in 2006, along with the possibility of doing races such as the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under, Malaysia's Tour de Langkawi, and the Herald Sun Tour.
"So even though we lost a few guys, it's still in the game plan to grow and expand into Europe. But they're going to do it the right way; 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," Johnson said, perhaps alluding to his time spent in Europe with Saunier Duval. "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."
Look out for the full interview with Tim Johnson next week on Cyclingnews.