Will back pain force Tim Johnson to walk away?

At 37, American Tim Johnson has raced a lot of cyclocross. He's now battling back spasms that threaten to end his professional career

Photo: Dan Seaton

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All those bumps, lumps, dismounts, and run-ups were bound to take their toll.

Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), something like American cyclocross royalty now, has been dousing the pyrotechnics of back spasms since 2007. But this year, the fiery pain has been more consistent, and kept him from his best form. And, flatly, if the injury doesn’t get any better, he may have to hang it up.

“I’ve been in a situation for the past two months where I’ve been dealing with this back problem,” Johnson said earlier this week. “Every year I’d have an episode where my back would spasm like crazy … Can’t move, can’t stand up, can’t walk.”

Through the years, Johnson has been able to manage the issues, caused by two herniated discs and contact between vertebrae. But this season, he hasn’t been able to stay out front of the pain. “It’s gotten worse,” Johnson said, noting that on a Saturday — podiums in Boulder, Madison, and Providence — he’ll have a good ride, then fade away come Sunday on a double-race weekend.

“It’s like someone drew a line horizontally across my lower back. And from there down I always feel that line. … All of the sudden your lower back turns into one solid thing. You lose all the power and mobility,” Johnson said. “It really sucks because sometimes it is the most debilitating thing. Because on the outside you still walk, you still talk … but man, when you’re trying to race and you’re going full gas outta every corner and you don’t have your back … I don’t even have a word for it.”

He’s been to doctors and tried assorted therapies for his kinked back. At this point, Johnson, 37, has just dialed down the level. “What’s going on right now is that I had planned on racing more than I had been. I planned on going to UK for the World Cup this weekend. But since I’m really not in any kind of form to represent the U.S. at the first World Cup off the Euro continent, I had to cancel,” he said.

Instead, Johnson will race in Japan, at the Nobeyama Cyclocross Race in Japan. He will then look to the USA Cycling cyclocross national championships in Austin as a benchmark. “I’m going to try and train for the next week and a half, two weeks, and then do another test. And if I haven’t really improved then I’ll know that things aren’t salvageable much,” he said of the season and, perhaps, beyond. In a month or so, Johnson will make the larger call on his future; will he keep riding, or retire?

If he did walk away, it wouldn’t be so bad, would it? Johnson took third in 1999 at the under-23 race at the UCI world cyclocross championships, and he’s a three-time national champion in the elites. He’s as well-known as any cyclocross rider is stateside.

“Growing up, you have no idea what anything is. Ten years ago, at 27, if I had thought about how long I wanted to ride as a pro, then I would have been totally content getting to this point,” he said. “As much as I’ve learned the ins and outs of the actual sport itself there’s so many other things to learn about life. And hopefully some of these things will apply, you know?”

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