Interview: Cyclo-Cross Racer Tim Johnson Talks Bikes Belong, His Ride on Washington, and the Benefits of City Biking

Interview: Cyclo-Cross Racer Tim Johnson Talks Bikes Belong, His Ride on Washington, and the Benefits of City Biking

We're all familiar with mainstream biking events like the Tour De France and the X Games, but there's another cycling culture that's been quietly growing to new heights over the past 10 years. It's called cyclo-cross, an intense, timed race on urban tracks. At the forefront of the sport is Tim Johnson, a 34-year-old Massachusetts-born Cannondale and Red Bull athlete. He's a mountain biker at heart, but since he hit the cross track, he's done nothing but dominate. He has won three U.S. Cyclo-cross National Championships. He also won the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclo-cross overall title in 2008. 

These days, he's using his success to help better the cycling world. This weekend, Johnson is hosting the second annual "Ride on Washington", a 500-mile, five-day ride that goes through Hartford, NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore and ends in Washington D.C. The proceeds, which come from sponsors and donations, will go towards Bikes Belong, a foundation made to make bike riding an easier and more accessible option. Johnson spoke to Complex before he set off on his journey and talked about how he started the "Ride on Washington", his favorite spots to ride, and why city riding can be so beneficial. 

Interview by Tony Markovich (@T_Marko)

What is cyclo-cross all about?

Cross is a mix between road racing and mountain biking. It’s actually older than mountain biking. It’s really fast-paced, short, high-intensity racing. It takes place in it’s own kind of course that can be anything like grass, pavement, gravel, basically anything. The best way to think of a cross course is imagining there was one in Central Park or in Boston Commons. It’s just like an urban-based area. It’s a timed event, so it’s one hour. It’s just one our of full gas, balls to the wall.

Is it just timed or is it a certain amount of laps?

A lap is usually about 7-9 minutes depending on if it’s muddy or if it’s hard and dry. We usually end up doing as close to an hour as possible, that’s what the rules say. Sometimes we’ll do six laps, sometimes we’ll do eight. Sometimes we even do 10 if it’s a really fast course. You start as a group. We’ll have 100 guys on the starting line, and they set up in rows of eight. The best ranked guys start in the front, and when the gun goes off, it’s just absolutely as fast as you can possibly go.

How did you find your way into this sport?

Cross came to me, because I was a mountain biker growing up. The mountain bike season usually ends at the end of August and cyclo-cross is a fall and winter sport. Growing up in New England, I was lucky to be in one of the places in the country where cross was already taking place. I just jumped in and was riding a mountain bike and eventually started to do pretty well and moved up to a cross bike. From there, it just kind of took off.

What’s the difference between a mountain bike and a cross bike?

A cross bike almost looks exactly like a road bike: Same handle bars, same size wheels, same height. The tires usually have a few more knobs on them, and the brakes are different. Cross is kind of pushing the limits, because we are starting to use disc brakes. We’re taking something from mountain biking and putting it on cross bikes.

How does that change things for you as a cross rider?

I think it’s cool, because in order to go fa\st, you still need to brake. You push and push and push, and having brakes that are really precise gives you a chance to squeeze every second out of your bike.

What was your first bike?

I literally just pulled it out of my mom’s basement two weeks ago. Now I’d say it’s a total piece of shit, but I got it at Sears when I was a teenager. But my very, very, very first bike was a little 16” bike when I was four, and it was from Dukes of Hazard. And that thing was the bike of my dreams. That was the best bike ever. It had General Lee on it and an 01 number plate. It was badass [Laughs]. I have pictures of me jumpin’ when I was tiny. When I got into bike racing, I had no idea you could actually have a career as a bike racer. I was just a kid that went around all the time on my bike and my skateboard. Then, I had a paper route delivering papers and ended up being a pretty good mountain biker. I realized that I did love it and I actually got a scholarship mountain biking. It became a big part of my life and I’ve been lucky to be doing it for so long.

What have you learned from your years, and how have things changed since then?

Yeah, I’ve been biking professionally for about 12 years, since 2001. It’s gone from wanting to ride my mountain bike to the next town over to racing in Tokyo in my last ride. Being able to see the world, travel, race, meet different people, it’s just amazing. If you ever have a reason to expand your boundaries or horizons, bikes are definitely my reason.

How has the sport evolved?

It’s been changing the whole time. Going to a race when I was first starting out, you might have 150 people total, which means the different classes varied. You had the kids, the elites, the old guys, and the women. Now we have a race and there will be 1200 people total racing that day. Back then it used to be a few specific spots that had cross tracks. Now there are cross races in every single state. Any weekend from September through January there are 20 races across the country with 500 people at each. It’s really grown.

What’s been your favorite spot in the U.S.?

I’m a big fan of my home race. I’m lucky to be from here, but this race in Gloucester, Mass. is awesome. We’ve raced there since ‘98. It’s just great, because there are a couple thousand people racing, it’s right near my house, and I’ve been able to win it a bunch of times.

How is it for you winning at your home race compared to when you’re away?

As a pro I’m getting on a plane for almost every race these days, so to be able to just hop in a car and drive and have all my friends and family there is a huge piece of why I like it. I have a job that I absolutely love, and I never thought I’d be able to say that [Laughs].

This five-day, five-city ride for charity that you created. It’s now in it’s second year.

It’s a long way, it’s a tough ride. We’ve got five days. It started out just because I had gone [to the National Bike Summitt] in 2010 and I had my eyes opened. I was totally blown away what went on there. Last year on a train ride, I was planning my spring, and I was going to be going there again, and I was like, “Why don’t I just ride it? It can’t be that far. Only 500 miles.” So, I called a friend of mine that had brought me to the summit before, and I said, “Hey, why don’t we ride?” It started as the two of us and kind of blew up into a bunch of people coming down with us. Last year we had 150 join us on the ride at different places throughout the route. This year we have 25 going the whole distance, and I’m guessing 500 riders through the course of the five days.

What is the organization that you’ve partnered up with?

We are raising money for Bikes Belong, which is a group that helps facilitate making biking better and safer. There are projects all across the country in cities that want to put in bike paths or bike lanes. They’ll have a downtown area and want to have a way for people to get to it. Bikes Belong helps by giving grants to people for whatever data needs to be collected or any research and planning. It just helps the whole process and makes it easier for people to do it. Probably the biggest thing, maybe not for your reader, but they run a program called “Safe Routes to School.” I grew up with my bike and rode to and from school at anytime. As soon as I could, I was on it shreddin’ around. There wasn’t a care in the world. Now, all across the country, people are afraid to ride their bikes. Parents are afraid to let their kids ride bikes. A program like that makes it easier for kids to ride to school by getting crossing guards and routes that are established for that school. It’s a successful program, and funding for that is always on the chopping block. A lot of what we’re doing is to raise awareness about the fact that bikes are different for different people. But this isn’t just a place for cars. It’s good to get bikes involved and there are a lot of different ways that can make it work.

It’s completely different in big cities like New York as well. You’re going to be working with some kids from the Hugo Newman College Prep School on your stop here. How do you relate to those kids and help them out?

I think that’s part of the contradiction. I grew up in the suburbs, which made it easy for me to ride. These kids are growing up in the city, and there’s nothing more fun than riding int he city. Downtown Boston is a blast to ride. You can go anywhere you want so quickly, so easily, and there’s no parking. There are a million reasons why riding in the city is great. But these kids think  riding out in the country is better. Honestly, it’s harder to ride in the country. You have roads with no shoulders, drivers that don’t know what to do if there’s a biker on the road. The situation is so similar, but so different.

What are you going to be talking to those kids about?

I think these kids are the lucky ones. They’re getting involved and exposed to bikes in a city like New York. Just in the last four years, the city has embraced using something other than a car as a mode of transportation. It’s not just the subway, cabs and cars. The transformation is really a night and day difference. I think it’s an example for a lot of the different parts of the country.

I always forget to look for them when I’m crossing and have almost been hit a couple times.

Well, that’s an issue with educating the riders, too. It’s not just the cars that are a problem anymore. People getting on bikes that haven’t been on bikes their entire lives don’t know that there are the right ways and wrong ways to do things.

Your goal for this is to raise $100,000. How did you set your sights on such a high number?

Last year we hit $25,000 in just a few weeks, and we just kind of threw it together by getting support from people on the way. This year we’ve had some more planning and have a lot of interest in it. For a long time, advocacy and racing were two separate things, and as a racer, we train on roads and race on the roads. I don’t think a lot of racers realize there are people working to make that better all the time. When we made that connection, taking out $100,000 is not just arbitrary, but it’s a nice goal and something good to shoot for. I think we might actually get it.

You’re taking donations as well, correct?

Yeah, people that are on the ride the whole way are fundraising, and we’ve been able to secure sponsorship for all of our expenses for the whole ride. Any money that is raised now will go directly to Bikes Belong.

What bike will you be using?

I will be using a pretty badass bike. It’s called a Cannondale Evo. It’s got this new SRAM Red on it, which is a new model of componentry that just came out. It’s not on the market yet. They’ve been one of my sponsors and I’ve been testing their products for a while. So, I’ve got a super fast bike.

Out of the five cities, which is your favorite to cycle through?

New York City for sure. I love being able to ride in the city. We came in at night through Central Park and left the next morning on the northside highway bike path. It’s just such a cool place. The worst place was probably Philly, because we rode in the rain all day long and there was this crazy storm with about five inches of rain, so that was miserable. I’m hoping for better weather this year.

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Tags: tim-johnson, cyclo-cross, bikes-belong
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