US elite men's 'cross champion Tim Johnson is part of a powerhouse five-man line-up, comprised of Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld teammates Jeremy Powers and Jamey Driscoll, plus Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) and Adam Craig (Rabobank-Giant Offroad Team),
that is contesting the season opening World Cup on Sunday in Aigle, Switzerland and making a concerted effort to go toe-to-toe en masse with Europe's best much earlier on the calendar than ever before.
"We typically waited to go to Europe until after nationals - either go over for the Christmas series or wait and go over for the last couple [of World Cups] before the Worlds," Johnson told Cyclingnews, from his pre-World Cup base near Zurich.
"To be able to do this is because of the support of Cannondale," said Johnson. "We've been given a really great opportunity with the [cyclo-cross] Worlds coming to the US in 2013. There's going to be opportunities to really make cyclo-cross a global sport and to do that we need to take it as seriously as a World Cup mountain bike series or even the ProTour."
In recent years only the Belgian-based Jonathan Page has been a consistent American representative on the World Cup 'cross circuit.
"Cyclo-cross racing that we have in the States is great," said Johnson. "We have a lot of support and the races are getting bigger and better each year, but the athletes need to race with the best more often so by the time the Worlds do come we're ready for it, or as ready as we can be.
"The decision to come over at this point [in the season] is to try our best to be more competitive. It's more of a learning thing - maybe our training needs to change, or maybe we need to change our schedules a certain way."
Johnson flew to Switzerland on Tuesday, and has been training south of Zurich near the home of friend and multi-time Swiss 'cross champion Christian Heule, who's helped out the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld Americans with advice on hotels and where to ride. As of Friday evening Johnson had yet to see Sunday's World Cup venue on the grounds of the UCI headquarters in Aigle, but he had a good idea of what to expect.
"I think it's going to be pretty muddy," said Johnson. "We might get some rain, and they're even talking about getting some snow. I've done a lot of racing in Switzerland before and if it's going to be muddy, then this kind of mud is really thick, slippery and it should be pretty tough.
"From what I understand, this course is pretty technical as it is, so I'm imagining it is going to be a very, very difficult 'cross race. We're preparing ourselves for that and that's why you have to go in with the right frame of mind where it's going to hurt, it's going to be fast, the course is going to be really tricky, and you have to make it the full 75 minutes at 100 percent."
Over the past five years Johnson has only contested three 'cross World Cups, but now that he's made the decision to no longer race professionally on the road, the 33-year-old New Englander will be able to increase his commitment to European 'cross racing. This season Johnson will contest four World Cups, half of the eight-race series. After this Sunday's opener in Aigle, he's scheduled to start round three in Koksijde, Belgium on November 27, round seven in Pont-ChÃ¢teau, France on January 16, 2011 followed by the eighth and final round in Hoogerheide, The Netherlands on January 23, 2011.
"It's difficult to do a full road season and a full 'cross season at any level, never mind one of the best road teams in the US, and then racing a full US cyclo-cross season," said Johnson. "That's a lot of racing and a lot of travel. What the Europeans don't really understand is we come from a gigantic country, so if we're doing a domestic 'cross season that's just like they would be coming to the US each weekend.
"Going from the East coast to the West coast for a flight is a big deal as far as travel goes. Now that I'm not going to be spending an entire season racing the road I'll have more of a chance to try and make this work. I think it will pay off. It's going to be difficult, because as with anything, it's a bike race and everybody's out there trying to win. It's not like there's going to be any gifts anywhere."
And certainly no gifts will be on offer this Sunday, where Johnson expects to start on the third row. "I'm looking for top 20 finish, I'd be ok with that, but I'd really be happy with top 10. I spent the spring off the bike: I had a broken ankle, I had surgery, I had pins put in and then taken out. I've been really happy with the way things have gone [this 'cross season], but when you're racing a World Cup, it's the best being the best, and there's really no place to hide.
"When there's someone like [Zdenek] Stybar, [Sven] Nys or [Klaas] Vantornout, who are absolutely on fire, the goals within the race have to be our own. We have to race as best as we possibly can while someone like Stybar or Nys is fighting for the win.
"Jeremy [Powers] is absolutely flying at this time of year and I think he's up for a really good race. Jamey [Driscoll] just landed [on Friday], because he's still a full-time college student. For him to have a good race is to do the entire race with good power and speed."
Johnson rode one World Cup back in January as reigning US champion, and he's looking forward to another stint on the Continent in his stars-and-stripes skinsuit. "Well, I'll definitely do my best," said Johnson. "I came over last year after winning Nationals and I only was able to race at Hoogerheide and Worlds. I'm hopeful that I can do it justice, if not this trip then hopefully the trip again in November."