The number of Americans who have stood on the podium at a cyclo-cross world championship can be counted on one hand, and one of those riders is Tim Johnson, who claimed the bronze medal at the Under 23 title race in Poprad, Slovakia in 1999. 14 years later, now in the twilight of his career, Johnson is taking part in a dream: a world championship event on American soil.
Although Johnson has abandoned his road career to focus solely on cyclo-cross for the past two seasons, the results have been mixed. To say he is a favourite for a podium in Louisville on Sunday might be a long shot, but Johnson himself isn't counting anything out.
Although the race has been a goal for all the US 'crossers since the venue was awarded the race, Johnson's preparation for Worlds was far from perfect in recent weeks. He fell ill with the flu after the national championships and had a few days "horizontal", but said he's hoping to pull things together for Sunday's elite men's race. Come race day, his task will be to manage his expectations and enjoy the moment - the only time he will race a world 'cross championship at home.
"[Jeremy Powers] and I were just talking about the difference between expectations and goals," Johnson told Cyclingnews from Louisville.
"You can have a hope for a great race or a good result, but expectations can be a double-edged sword - they can be powerful, but they can be damaging. I've always had that internal struggle. At this point, I want to enjoy everything that goes along with the race, and not just the race itself. I want to realize what's going on because it took a lot of work by a lot of people to get us here. I hope that someday the younger riders can have another Worlds in the US. But I know for me it will definitely be the only one."
There are more than a few things for the Americans to enjoy, and to some extent one of those things is a feeling of payback for all the years they've had to spend fighting jetlag, struggling to find decent housing and food while the Europeans roll out of bed, kiss their partners goodbye and cruise to the course in the luxury of their camper vans.
Johnson got a laugh out of the dining choices of the Belgian team - one that would be lost on anyone not familiar with the big-chain dining scene Stateside.
"For those of us who have traveled and are on the other side of the coin, we just chuckle about some of the things they've gone through.
"We're staying next to them, and there's a Hooters in the same building of their hotel. Let's just say every single day there were multiple Belgians there for lunch and dinner. That's awesome, because we've stayed in some questionable places at big races in Europe, and it's always tough. But they threw a lot of people and time and planning into this, so I'm sure they'll be just fine."
On a more serious note, Johnson was saddened and frustrated by some countries choosing not to send the full number of riders they were allotted by the UCI.
"This is where you see the tide turning - as team USA, we paid for ourselves to get to every single Worlds since I can remember. The juniors have always had a lot of help from the USA Cycling Development Foundation, but I've never had Worlds paid for unless I was national champion. I think that only worked out in my favor once."
Johnson pointed to the French Federation's decision to leave off Caroline Mani and Julie Krasniak as a particularly sad case. "They have two athletes who want to go, and who are in the US - even if they aren't racing they could be of help to the team. It's sad to not see them on the start line.
"We know how it is, but they don't have mechanisms to deal with that situation in other countries - where someone can go even if the federation is not paying for it. We've worked within those parameters for years."
Johnson said it is especially important for the junior or U23 riders to be sent to Worlds. "If a development rider qualifies, they should get to go no matter what if they're able to ride at that level."
Team USA will have the most riders of any country in the collective races - 22 in total: six in the elite men and women's events and five in the junior and U23s.
In addition, the team will have thousands of supporters at the race, which will be a big change for Johnson and the rest of the Americans. Every year the team has a group picture taken at the world championships, but the photo op this year will be special.
"It will be different, we'll be all together with a crowd of 50 people watching instead of having it taken in a deserted parking lot in a hotel off the highway in Belgium. It does create a feeling of being a part of something," Johnson said.
He plans to do something he normally would never dream of doing the day before a big race, and that is to go to the course and watch the other races just to take in the atmosphere and cheer on his teammates. "After watching the juniors and under 23s we're all going to be pumped. Hopefully that's all we'll need to push through to the next level."
Even with the home support, Johnson admits that getting an American on the podium will be a tall order. When asked who he thinks is the favourite, Johnson recounted giving his prediction to the Belgian media.
"I chose [Kevin] Pauwels, and I got this knowing head nod. That's an affirmation. I see Pauwels as the guy, and Niels [Albert] would be my other favourite. The way Pauwels rode in Rome and the way he rode on any hard course - he has the ability to shut everything down. Niels has been over here playing video games for two weeks, so who knows where he'll be," he said laughing.
Another name that has come up in many predictions is newcomer Lars van der Haar, who has the nickname 'van der holeshot' because of his sharp acceleration off the line.
"I think Van der Haar has a great shot. He is definitely a podium pick but I don't think he'll win his first time out."
When asked about former World Champion and the most dominant 'cross racer of the past decade Sven Nys, Johnson said "I think he can [win], but I don't think he will."
After watching Koksijde last year, fans could be tricked into thinking the Belgian team had a fix on who would win, but Johnson said that after his years of observation, he is confident that is not the case.
"They fight tooth and nail. A lot of people who are new to the sport might not have seen what it has been like in Belgium and Holland in years past, what the internal atmosphere is like... but they fight really hard to win. There are bonuses as a team, but the guy getting the jersey is definitely better off than the guy that gets second."
Reports have pegged some of the teams' incentives for a Belgian Elite men's world champion at 30,000 euro or more, which is ample motivation to race all out.
Come Sunday, even though the USA team is only man smaller than the Belgian squad, Johnson doesn't see team tactics as playing a major role in the race "I think the best we can possibly do is look out for each other - not take a line, or chop a teammate, but I don't think we're going to actually help each other. Even if there is going to be drafting, it will be for 30 seconds, you can only get so much draft for that time, especially if it's muddy."
The elite men may have the hardest time to get on the podium, but in the juniors, Logan Owen and Curtis White have a real shot at a medal, while Zach McDonald has performed well this year in the U23s. Katie Compton, as always, is the co-favourite with defending champion Marianne Vos.
"If we can ever think of the best possible Worlds weekend for getting on the podium in every category, it's this year. It will be a tall order for the elite men but we'll do everything we can to make it happen."
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