Former cyclo-cross pro Tim Johnson on the advocacy trail

Mar 1, 2021, 09:08 AM

Car is King.


According to former cyclo-cross pro Tim Johnson, that is the belief of a great majority of United States citizens. 


The American is part of an ever-growing movement to dispel that belief, and thanks to the concerted efforts of individuals and groups nationwide, he can see gradual progess being made: “In the US, we’re slowly moving on from accepting tragic loss each time someone on a bike is hit and killed by a motor vehicle, to discussing policies that might avoid that in the future.”


Johnson is one of the most decorated American cyclo-cross riders of all time.  Six times national champion, he represented the USA at 13 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, winning bronze in the Under 23 race in 1999. Also accomplished on the road (pro from 2000-2010), he raced twice at the UCI Road World Championships (2002 and 2003) and won the Herald Sun Tour in Australia in 2003. 


Since retiring as a cyclo-cross racer in 2015, Johnson has remained prominent in cycling as a brand ambassador, broadcast analyst and….  champion of advocacy initiatives.  He has raised funds and awareness for advocacy groups PeopleforBikes and MassBike, and is founder of advocacy fundraiser Ride on Washington. 



Enforcement and Education


Two of his hobbyhorses are Enforcement and Education.


The first of these two, he describes as an exercise in frustration, given that existing laws are not systematically enforced in the USA: “It’s infuriating that you can have a rider hit and killed and the driver is not cited or fined, and the ‘accident’ is not investigated.


“The consensus is that a bike rider is taking their life into their own hands simply by being out there on the road. So whatever happens, happens. That attitude is so hard to change.”


Johnson recognises that educating bike riders, as well as drivers, is very important to encourage a shift in the mentalities of those behind the wheel: “We need to arm casual, fitness and commuting cyclists with the knowledge of how to ride safely alongside drivers.”


These are issuesJohnson has become increasingly aware of since first venturing into the world of advocacy when he was still racing.


“Advocacy entered my life in 2010 when I attended the National Bike Summit in Washington DC. My good friend Richard Fries, who at that time was working with Bikes Belong (now PeopleforBikes) thought it would be good for me to see how things worked – or didn’t work – when it came to bikes and making sure we were being considered at Federal and local level.


“It was an eye-opener.”


The pro cyclist became aware of the importance of the bike in the lives of a great many people who cycle to get to work, to go to the shops, to get fit or simply to get a breath of fresh air.


“As pro cyclists we are in a bubble, and it’s hard for many of us to understand the rest of the cycling community, especially in the United States where we don’t have a biking culture like Denmark and the Netherlands.”


Ride on Washington fundraiser


After that initial trip to DC, Johnson joined his state advocacy organisation MassBike, became much more aware of local issues, and began working with people and groups to change policy.


His fundraiser Ride on Washington started one year after Johnson’s first participation in the National Bike Summit. In a discussion with Richard Fries on how to get to the 2011 Summit, the two egged each other on to ride there together from Boston: a 535-mile (861km) journey through one of the most congested urban corridors in the USA.  The pair was joined by a few friends for the five-day adventure. That first group of eight riders grew over the years, and tackled different routes such as St. Louis and Kansas City to Chicago and Asheville to Atlanta. At the same time, they have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, highlighted the importance of bike pathways and opened discussions with the public.


Over the years, bike industry experts, cycling enthusiasts and Elite athletes have come together to participate in these rides.


“Each of the rides drew a group of sponsors that bridged the racing and advocacy worlds,” explains Johnson, who welcomes the fact that more and more high-level athletes are now campaigning for safer every-day cycling.



“It is becoming more commonplace for athletes to represent more than just the sum of their results. For decades, living like a monk in pursuit of your sport was glorified and expected, but with each passing year I see higher profile athletes tossing their hat in the ring and being active in the community. It’s fantastic,” he says, citing Chris Boardman as a “great example” of a former pro raising awareness for safe and accessible bike networks in his own country, Great Britain.


Not only advocacy


Tim Johnson has not stepped away completely from the world of competitive cycling. As Development Director of USA Cycling’s fundraising arm, the USA Cycling Foundation, he builds support for all the National Federation’s programmes.


“Unlike many other countries, we don’t receive government funding,” he explains. “The majority of our budget comes from generous gifts from private individuals and other charitable organisations. For us to succeed on the international stage, we need to fund riders in all disciplines from development levels through to the UCI World Championships and Olympics.”


He also does television commentary for some cyclo-cross races such as the US National Championships and some UCI World Cups.


“With the cyclo-cross UCI Worlds, I competed in so many that I can watch from afar and place myself in the mind of the riders. I love having the opportunity to share my insights while feeling the anxiousness bubble up in me as to whether or not Wout (Van Aert) can come back from a flat or Lucinda (Brand) can capture the inside line just a few metres before the finish line.


I will always be a fan!”