An interview with Steve Johnson, January 8, 2009
In part one of Cyclingnews' interview with Steve Johnson, USA Cycling's CEO outlined the growth in performance and membership of the national federation plus the organisational activities and challenges he has encountered during his tenure. In part two he evaluates the overall effectiveness of the various programs run by USA Cycling and the implications of this in the future.
Steve Johnson points to this past season as an indication that the overall performance of American cycling has been steadily increasing. "If you look back at the year and think about superlatives, there are a lot of them - the most medals won by this country in cycling in a non-boycotted Olympics," he begins. "We had four world titles: Amber [Neben] in the time trial, Jennie [Reed] in the Keirin, Melissa Buhl in the four-cross and Taylor Phinney in the individual pursuit - the first American athlete to win a junior medal in both road and track.
"The women's program continues to set records in terms of performances, and we have a lot of young women in the program. It was also great to see Zabriskie back on top; he had a tough year, but finished it out nicely with the bronze at worlds. And Peter Stetina was the first American to wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de l'Avenir since Floyd [Landis] did it."
Johnson says that progression plans include revising these programs to ensure continued success. "That's all good stuff and we are here for the long haul. We are rewriting our high-performance plan for the next quad, looking at what worked and what didn't."
On the road
While Johnson notes some of the top accomplishments by American cyclists, including Amber Neben's TT world title in Varese, some criticism of the lack of experienced veterans available for the men's road race at the same championships did surface. Critics said that an entire squad of young riders with little expectation to medal should not have been the plan.
Johnson responds by explaining the decision to take a youthful team was made for a number of reasons, including the need to give younger, emerging riders experience on the world stage, plus a reality that is unique to countries outside of Europe.
"I don't think you can judge a program's effectiveness by the number of world championship medals, because there are so many variables and moving parts in that," he says. "But we did come away with nine world championship medals, and you look back 10 years ago and one or two [medals] in gravity mountain bike sports was all we could expect. If you do judge by worlds medals, we are doing fine and have never done better!
"We obviously extended the opportunity and they [the veterans] declined, but that is their prerogative," continues Johnson. "You have to realise the main difference between Americans and Europeans racing the worlds is that Americans have to live in Europe all year long and they want to come home. For Europeans to race they just hop in the car and drive from Belgium to Italy, race and then drive home. So there's another level of commitment required to get fired up for the world championship at the end of September for an American who has spent an entire season away from home.
"I totally respect the perspective of our top-level riders. And there is the whole physiology aspect to it - they know they are tired and they know they wouldn't be able to perform at their best. We do have a podium bonus program for world championships and continental championships. That is part of it, and there is a cash bonus too! But these guys get paid to ride their bike already," he adds.
The US performed admirably in the time trial discipline at the worlds and Olympics this year - and Johnson says that this isn't by accident. "I think for us the time trial has always been a more realistic and reliable opportunity, so we have focused on that, frankly, in our selection. It is by design we are kicking butt in the time trial. We will continue to focus on time trial ability; it's important in stage racing and important for medal opportunities."
The glass was half-full for Johnson after this year's road worlds. "With the road race results, we didn't have any world championship or Olympic medals; but what is most profound for me is that we were in the hunt until the very end. It's not like 10 years ago where the top American finisher was 10 minutes back - they are 30 seconds or a minute back.
"This was best reflected in Steven Cozza's ride at worlds, where he was in the next group back after 260km. He had never raced that far in his life! And Peter Stetina's sixth place in the U23 time trial... a top ten is a hell of a result.
Johnson goes further, explaining that, "We have a lot of younger athletes participating on a lot of fronts in Europe, so the depth of American cycling has never been greater. Look at the U23s and young elite riders at worlds and it was exceptional performances across the board. It probably would have been the same level of finishes if we had taken top-level pros because most of them were tired and didn't want to go. The goal of our programs is to get people into the range to take that next step onto the podium."
The aim of this approach was, "To expose them to high level racing, but in a way that didn't overwhelm them," says Johnson. "The last thing we want to do is send somebody out to a situation where it would be a feeling of helplessness; but these kids came back all charged up! Same thing with the women; we won an [Olympic] gold medal and a world championship in the time trial, with two different women! It wasn't one motor overpowering the world, it was the depth of the program. Same thing for the men - Levi in the Olympics and Zabriskie at worlds."
Johnson recognises that cyclo-cross is the fastest growing segment of the sport in the US, with a lot of potential. "Cyclo-cross has a lot of intrinsic momentum. It is exciting and remarkable to see the growth in this country." USA Cycling has extrapolated this so that, "Our athletic programming is looking to develop some more international competition opportunities for young 'cross racers and elite racers. We are the second, if not the top country, in total events in the world. So it is time for us to start having a presence in international competitions like the world cups," says Johnson.
"We have had a few of our top level athletes doing that for a couple of years but we would like to use our Belgian-based U23 facility in the fall and winter for cyclo-cross. That is a perfect opportunity and it won't cost much for transportation to most of the events."
Despite his enthusiasm for this branch of cycling, however, it doesn't receive the same level of support that Olympic disciplines get. Some riders, like national champion Ryan Trebon, have voiced their displeasure over the lack of support, particularly the monetary kind - despite pulling in medals at the world championships.
In response to this, Johnson was up-front about the choice to focus on the Olympic disciplines because they simply get more recognition. Despite his claims that judging performance based on medal counts is flawed, Johnson concedes it's the reality. "It is a limited resource pie, so we have focused on Olympic competitions as our primary opportunities. We have focused our funding and development resources there, and will continue to do so. Given that there is never enough time, money or people to go around, we have to be careful as we expand our programs.
"With that said, we have had a smaller group of funded athletes per capita that we send to cyclo-cross worlds than we send to road or track worlds. But for an organisation like ours that is graded on medals we have to be cognisant of our expectations when deciding funding for programs.
"Another challenge for us is that our [US] season winds down around Christmas whereas the world championship is later, in the next year. So that will mean we will try to do more programming in western Europe in January. We are looking at lot of different capstone opportunities for our elite athletes but it is a challenge for us to upgrade our support for international cyclo-cross to the level of the other disciplines."
Johnson also turned the question back around, pointing out that top-level riders are sponsored individually, and that some funding can, and should come, from that avenue. "Cyclo-cross has a top level of the sport, like other sports, it is a professional environment. The athletes have relationships with their own personal sponsors, and so to create a traditional national team model doesn't work. We can't force our riders to ride our sponsor's bike, to use equipment - nor do we want them to have to. But that limits our opportunities to go out and secure sponsors and not have a guarantee."
"We try to look for alternative sponsorships and leverage existing sponsorships to fill-in as needed," adds Johnson. "But it is mostly about providing logistical support like housing and food for our athletes to get to international competition."
While riders like Trebon might not get much help, Johnson says that younger riders, who don't have the sponsorship relationships yet, are definitely a focus. "We want to expand our support for our athletes at the world championship level in particular, and on the development side getting more young athletes to Europe so that they are used to that level of competition when the world championship comes around."
Climbing the mountain
The biggest changes to mountain biking have been on the event level, with a new model of calendar rolled out during Johnson's tenure. This has shifted the paradigm of running mountain bike events to align in a similar fashion to how the road side operates and organises the National Racing Calendar events.
"We looked for a different model, one that is based on great events rather than a national championship series model," says Johnson. "It is clear to us that the national championship model was not particularly viable; given the state of the sport and available resources you could not just move it from venue to venue. We needed to rely on local sponsors, local resources and the passion of local promoters.
"There are a lot of great mountain bike events around the country and in the national championship series model you are not guaranteed to get them all in your calendar. With a national calendar model, you can do that. It is a big paradigm shift for everyone, so this is going to be a good opportunity to sit down with all of the teams and the event promoters to talk about it."
After two-and-a-half years Johnson is looking forward to extending his tenure with USA Cycling and continuing to see the various programs it offers maintaining momentum through to completion. There's still room for improvement however, particularly in terms of racing. "I think our national championships can be run better... be more accessible to more people. And improve the general racing experience for all our members," he says.
"We will look to do what we can to support the calendar, but it is already robust and there is not a lot to do other than keeping the road clear and anticipate issues in the future."
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