Tim Johnson sheds the old school in Boulder with Skratch Labs

The affable and savagely competitive veteran of U.S. cyclocross is discovering new ways to train and eat — and it's working

Photo: Wil Matthews

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BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — In cycling, there is a perennial battle between tradition and innovation, the old ways and the new ways, training by feel and geeking out over power data, obsessing about dieting and focusing on balanced, wholesome nutrition. Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) is working hard in 2012 to find his way from the old to the new — and it’s working.

It’s fair to say that Johnson was old school. And there’s no arguing with the American’s string of results. He’s a three-time elite national champion in cyclocross and was the first American to stand on the podium at the cyclocross world championships, as a U23 in 1999. He’s won nearly every big-time ’cross race there is to win in the United States and has taken the overall titles in the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross, Verge New England Cyclo-cross Series and North American Cyclocross Trophy series.

“The way I grew up through the road system was a mixture of old-school stuff and really kind of basic knowledge,” Johnson told VeloNews. “So, I was afraid of food. I was afraid of eating too much, of not eating enough. I was afraid of eating at the wrong time. I mean there’s all these weird issues you get being a pro rider.”

After a disappointing 2011 campaign that saw him ride inconsistently after contesting a handful of mountain bike and road events in lieu of a full road season, Johnson wanted more than he had. So he went to Allen Lim and his Skratch Labs in Boulder, Colorado, and, over miles and miles of two-lane Rocky Mountain roads, rebuilt himself. He began to eat under the Skratch Labs doctrine of pure, simple food. And he fought it out with Olympian Taylor Phinney day-in and day-out. It turns out the younger American is a fierce adversary.

So far during this young cyclocross season, Johnson’s been Mr. Consistent. He’s finished second to a flying Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) on two occasions (once at CrossVegas and again in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, over the weekend at the Planet Bike Cup). He hasn’t cracked a win yet, but Johnson has been close — closer than ever in Las Vegas. Last season, in the slowest start he’d ever seen to the ’cross season, Johnson had nowhere near this form this early. It’s no coincidence this is happening now.

“I learned how to eat, I learned how to drink. I learned how to rest better. I learned how to train harder,” Johnson told VeloNews. “I love to ride. I’m a social rider. I want ride with my friends. But that doesn’t always make for the most specific training. Being there in the summer, I was riding with my friends, and we were riding as hard as we could. So, really, a best-case scenario.”

Over the summer of 2012, even more so than usual, Boulder was a professional cycling hotbed. Anyone with a Strava account could see the local times set ablaze by Johnson and Phinney (BMC Racing). Day after day for about seven weeks, Lim worked with a who’s who of American cycling. Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie (Garmin-Sharp) were here, as were Flèche Wallonne Féminine winner Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-lululemon) and U.S. road champion Timmy Duggan (Liquigas-Cannondale).

It was a difficult camp, but one after which its participants have excelled. Vande Velde won the USA Pro Challenge, and Phinney and Stevens both earned silver medals at the recent UCI Road World Championships in the individual time trial. Phinney earned two fourth-place finishes in London, in the road race and the individual time trial.

For Johnson, the Skratch Labs doctrine marked a departure from the training he’d known. For the better, it seems.

“I am an old man, but you can’t be too old to learn. You can’t be afraid to change things for the better,” Johnson said. “And I have been able to do that. I was really lucky to be able to train with those guys in the summer. I mean, hopefully this will be a good few months,” he said of the young ‘cross season.

Johnson, 35, is remarkably likeable. Lim jokes that he’s the “sponsor’s dream.” But he’s also remarkably talented — so much so that, even at his age, there’s plenty of room to improve.

“What I’ve noticed about Tim is that he’s probably one of the most talented athletes that I’ve ever worked with,” Lim said. “And I didn’t know that until he started showing up at the camps and we started working with him and putting the pressure on. I think that he not only surprised me and the other riders that we train with, but I hope that he also inspired himself.”

Count Phinney among those impressed by Johnson. One day, the two were doing circuits on a high mountain road above Boulder with Lim motorpacing. “And every single time, Tim came around and just cranked it, with Taylor chasing him,” said Lim. “And every single time, Tim got Taylor on this particular day. And the last time he did it, as Tim was riding away from Taylor, I hear Taylor yell at him, ‘Tim Johnson, you bleeping waste of talent.’”

It may sound harsh. But that’s not what Phinney meant. “It was Taylor saying, ‘holy shit, you are so freaking incredible. Use this, win races,’” Lim said.

Johnson may be the weathered veteran of the U.S. cyclocross scene today, but he has a road pedigree that saw him serve as the road captain at the domestic Health Net-Ouch-UnitedHealthcare squad for half a decade and includes a single season stint — albeit one that did not work out — with Saunier Duval-Prodir in Europe. After abandoning a full-time road schedule in 2011 to go all-in for cyclocross and the Louisville world championships, which take place in just over fourth months, Johnson’s road exploits seem a lifetime ago. He is the veteran face of American cyclocross racing today.

And today, like always, Johnson is working hard. But he’s also having more fun — a golden combination for a rider that’s decorated but is still striving for wins.

“I’m having more fun now than I’ve had in a long time. It is fun to ride. It’s a blast when you can ride as hard as you can, and do it over and over again. And look up when you’re going hard,” Johnson said. “Last year I think I stared like two feet in front of my wheel the whole year. And this year, I can pick my head up and see who’s racing.”

And though he’s seen Powers’ wheel when he looks up thus far, there are many more behind him than in front.

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