By Jean-François Quénet
Australians invading European cycling is like a never ending story; the latest from Down Under to secure a pro contract is Ben Johnson, a 22 year-old from Queensland. Yesterday [Tuesday], Johnson signed with French Pro Continental Team Agritubel for two seasons, his debut with them commencing on May 1 at the Trophée des Grimpeurs.
"Turning pro is what I've always dreamt about," Johnson said shortly after signing his contract in Loudun, in the centre of France.
Johnson is a pure talent. In 2004, he was supposed to join Cofidis, but was dropped for some obscure reason despite being a fantastic helper for Cédric Vasseur at Paris-Corrèze in 2003, where he rode as a stagiaire. This year, Johnson rode for a third season in France as an amateur with Division 2 club Charvieu-Chavagneux, winning two races, and finishing second twice. "I became a marked man in the area," he said.
With the help of former Festina directeur sportif Michel Gros, he was introduced to new French squad Agritubel, a team that has already taken five pro races this year, despite its new beginnings. Their leaders are former ITT French champion Florent Brard and José Alberto Martinez from Spain, who beat Lance Armstrong three years ago at the Critérium International.
"We actually followed Ben's results last year already," said directeur sportif Denis Leproux. "We are delighted to welcome him on the team. He might ride the Four days of Dunkirk in May, but the big goal for him will be the Tour de l'Avenir in September." After that, Johnson will make himself available for the Australian national team at the World's in Madrid, either in the pro category or as an Under 23, since non-ProTour riders are now eligible in the latter event.
Johnson discovered the beauty of the Tour de France when he was only 14, where his mentor and former professional Marcel Wüst took him to the start in Rouen in 1997. For a young boy from Noosa to leave home and go to freezing Europe to race the Prix Mathias Nomblot - which he won - in February this year, cycling is clearly a passion for him, but Johnson showed his French team just how good he was. So far, no team manager has been disappointed with an Australian cyclist in France. And Johnson is also ready to give it his all for Agritubel.