Tim Johnson grits it out to become the highest US finisher at the 2010 Cyclocross World Championships in Tabor, Czech Republic. © Joe Sales
Here, Tim Johnson grits it out to become the highest US finisher at the 2010 Cyclocross World Championships in Tabor, Czech Republic. © Joe Sales

by Molly Hurford

Tim Johnson has been a seriously busy guy lately, and we don’t just mean racing. He’s been popping up everywhere, from Rapha’s video previews of the Amgen Tour of California to Red Bull’s Crossroads videos to … a Frazz comic strip? Cyclocross Magazine caught up with Johnson on Sunday, while he took a break from playing with his new four-month-old puppies, though not without pausing mid-interview to chase them down after they took off rabbit hunting in his backyard. I did learn that he is an extremely good whistler, after listening to several attempts to call the lab pups back without stopping our interview!

As always, Johnson was the epitome of charm and good humor, chatting candidly about his newest project with Red Bull, among other things.

The video project, entitled Crossroads, features Johnson and freeride mountain biker Aaron Chase teaching each other the skills of their disciplines.

Watch Johnson’s Red Bull Crossover video with mountain biker Aaron Chase:

Cyclocross Magazine: What’s going on with the Crossroads videos on Red Bull?

Tim Johnson: I’ve known Aaron [Chase] for a while and since we’ve done a few Red Bull events together, we kind of got to talking and we were talking last summer at the Cannondale sales meeting in Utah, which is a couple days of road and mountain riding, and we thought the Crossroads project would be a cool idea. Through the fall, we talked about it a little more, and now they’re going to do it with different athletes in a slightly different way.

CXM: So Crossroads was kind of your brainchild?

TJ: Yeah, exactly. If anyone knows me, they know my brain gets ripping on bike rides. I call myself and leave messages with my ideas sometimes.

CXM: So how do you like freeride mountain biking?

TJ: I had so much fun. When I decided to spend more time doing ’cross and less time racing a full road schedule, I kind of envisioned doing something like that. I was sitting on top of the drop in at the park, a 20-something foot jump with five feet of vertical drop in … it’s much harder than it looks. I’m standing over this thing, I’ve got jeans on, my helmet and gloves and pads, and I was like – this is March whatever it is – every other March I’ve been in California doing some preseason race and this March I’m on top of a drop in going, “This is what I’m doing.” But I did scare the s*** out of myself a couple times.

CXM: Are you and Aaron done with the project now?

TJ: For right now it’s done, but we’re gonna do another session – we’re working on what it’ll be but we’re into it again. The cool thing was that for him, he jumped on his ’cross bike and I think any one of us who spends time on two wheels has a lot of crossover, but he got on this thing, it was like he had been riding cyclocross forever. He definitely wasn’t scared; he was going full speed. He wasn’t really worried about the “step through, not step through” thing. He had a blast; he was definitely wide-eyed the whole time.

CXM: You shot the video at a park in New Jersey, how was the East Coast terrain for you?

TJ: Being in New Jersey, it was like classic East Coast rocky single track – the way that he [Chase] does it isn’t following a trail. It’s following a trail until you see a jump, climbing up it, then going off the drop. That’s his type of riding up there, as opposed to cross-country. We’ll do five minutes of riding, then jump 20 feet into a pile of rocks.

Johnson is becoming quite a video celebrity lately, and was also featured in the Rapha pre-ride videos for the Tour of California.

[vimeo 23170803 580 405]

CXM: Tell me about the experience of doing the Rapha Tour of California pre-ride video.

TJ: That was so much fun! It’s kind of hard to describe how it felt – it was like the best combination of what you think a training ride should be plus kind of a “getting lost” ride, where you go out your door and just go, and also new roads. I’d done some of the roads in the race before, it was just the people that we were with, they’re not pros, they don’t ride seven days a week. It’s just a completely different way of looking at it, and in the meantime it was just really hard riding but it was so much good stuff, it’s hard to describe.

CXM: Was it way different from racing in the Tour?

TJ: It’s so different blasting down a downhill with 120 riders; you don’t feel the same as if you’re pushing the wind by yourself. And even going slow it’s nowhere near the same. If you do a four-hour ride by yourself, it’s an ass-kicker compared to five hours in a peloton.

CXM: So did you miss racing in the Tour?

TJ: I definitely did, no question. But in a good way. Bike racing is really a job that is the best job, but its also so taxing. It’s something you look forward to doing even though it’s so hard. I was afraid I wouldn’t miss it, I was afraid I’d get used to not racing, so missing it made me happy. I’m definitely not done.

CXM: You watched and tweeted a lot about it, how was the experience of being a spectator?

TJ: I was watching as much as I could, then when I got out there, it’s even harder to watch. Being able to watch was pretty killer. I knew how tough it [the mountain] was, and talking to guys beforehand, they didn’t know what to expect. I was happy to sit on the sidelines and watch that stage [seven].

CXM: Did you follow our coverage of the Cyclocross-style Tour of California?

TJ: Yes! We’ve been holding those informal cyclocross contest for five years now, and it’s nice to have an actual third party involved. It was me and Jesse [Anthony] and Jeremy [Powers] and Jamey [Driscoll] and all these guys, and I could be on the front for 100 kilometers riding tempo and Jesse would squeak by and I’d be like “WTF.” It was nice to read about it like that.

CXM: any specific thoughts on the Tour of California and the cyclocrossers in it? In particular, you tweeted “where’s the love” when Jeremy Powers was the one who bridged up to Jamey Driscoll’s group that was in the breakaway.

TJ: Jeremy was pulling and Jamey was just about to get caught in the bridge, and that was our team split. I think it was cool because someone like Jamey is so quiet, especially in this early season because he didn’t race that much. I’d been talking to him … he had two great breakaways … Jeremy had a couple good rides and I think he wasn’t too bad, he was in the big main field, and it was definitely not an easy day.

Johnson’s media frenzy lately hasn’t been limited to just video: he was also featured in the Frazz comic strip by Jef Mallet.

CXM: How did you feel about being in Frazz?

TJ: That was pretty awesome. It was a gift for my mom. She reads it every single morning, I grew up reading it too. I got to meet Jef Mallet at the Boston Marathon, he had come up to run: he was injured but he came up anyways. We had a beer at mile 23 and hung out and talked about bike racing and cross and riding and running in the winter. When I got home I sent him a note and he said, “by the way, be sure to check the newspaper in May.” My mom sent me an email at six in the morning to say “OMG you’re in the comics.”

CXM: Other than popping up in videos and comics, what have you been doing in off-season?

TJ: I’ve been doing a lot of training off the bike and have started to ride more and more in the last month or so. So I’m on pace for what my plan was and after doing the same thing for so many years, my plan is unorthodox compared to that, but it’s not anything super crazy. I think I’ll be rested at the beginning of the season and come on at the end of it.

CXM: What are your thoughts on nationals being moved to January in Madison, Wisconsin?

TJ: It definitely does [impact training], aside from there being a run on balaclavas in December. It’ll be kind of great next year, just because nationals will mean probably staying in the US until Worlds. This year, it’ll be a little transition. I think the most important thing is that everyone in the other categories gets to race and experience cross the way we have. The people who’ve come in [to the sport] the last couple years, I really want them to come race at Madison but not think that all nationals races will be nine degrees and windy. I think we’re going to be at a point where it’ll be in brutal weather but with more and more people. But I think cross is going to be able to handle it.

CXM: What about the climate change in 2013, from freezing in Wisconsin to racing in Louisville soon after for Worlds?

TJ: Louisville can be ten degrees and an ice storm, or 65 and sunny. I went to school down there and it was so variable. There were plenty of 55 and sunny days and suddenly there would be a tiny bit of ice and they’d shut the place down. Who knows what we’re going to face? I’m just happy to say we’ll have home court advantage.

CXM: Any goals for cyclocross season?

TJ: Yeah definitely – it’s a different ball game this year. Not coming off road season, I’ll have to do a different schedule. I’m going to try to win Nationals and the UCI title – those are the two goals I have for this year. I’d also like to get top five at a World Cup event. I think they’re all achievable, I just need to buckle down and work for it.

CXM: Do you have any major plans for the rest of the summer?

TJ: I’m going to train for a little longer and start racing at the end of June. I’ll get in 20-something race days before the first cyclocross race. I’ll do road and mountain, do Leadville, and then I’m thinking about a mountain stage race too just to get a little more endurance going.

CXM: Do you have any summer training suggestions for new riders?

TJ: I would say that no matter what you do in the summer, that first race is going to hurt like hell and it’s going to teach you more than any other race after combined. The one thing that will help you out the most is riding hard enough to hurt yourself because when you race and you hurt that bad you don’t want to be freaked out by it. Being in the box when your racing is definitely a jump and puts people out of their comfort zone. So if you can jump into road or mountain bike, it won’t be the same, but you’ll have a taste of bike-inflicted suffering.