Interview: Tim Johnson, the unlikely bicycle advocate

By Matt Pacocha, US editor, in Boulder, USA | Saturday, April 2, 2011 8.00am

According to one of America’s best-known cyclists, cyclo-crosser Tim Johnson, bicycle advocacy is about as far away from ‘cool’ as one can get. It’s a world full of recumbents, Day-Glo yellow, helmet mirrors, wool and tweed; the stereotypes that make self-important racers and hardcore enthusiasts cringe.

“Bike advocacy isn't cool. It’s inherently not and I think that’s a roadblock for a lot of people,” says Johnson. “What’s cool is seeing an attack in the final pave sector of Paris Roubaix. There are a million doping stories, but no stories about the stuff that advocates have been doing because it’s just not flashy — it’s not cool.”

Despite it not being cool, over the past year Johnson has immersed himself in the culture of bicycle advocacy and now humbly appreciates the work that the stereotypical wool and neon clad bike advocate has done — mostly thanklessly — to better his, and every other cyclist's, riding experience. Now he’s ready to do his part.

Tim Johnson’s Ride on Washington

After this self-sought advocacy education, Johnson is ready be a part of the ‘movement’. His first real effort came in the lead-up to this year’s US National Bike Summit, in the form of a hardcore charity ride. “I was on a training ride in Santa Barbara in January getting ready for World’s and I had the idea of riding to DC,” says Johnson. “I got home and I started to think about it. I looked at a map and called up Richard [Fries, Bikes Belong development advisor who helped put the ride together] and was like, ‘Dude, why don’t we ride to DC?’. He said, ‘wow, that sounds like a great idea'.”

Johnson and a core group of seven rode from the city of Boston in his home state of Massachusetts to the National Bike Summit, which was held almost 500 miles away in the American capital. Over the course of the five-day ride, numbers ballooned to well over 100. The group followed a rough route of bike paths that other advocates worked hard to build in the two decades leading up to event.

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CycloWhat blogger Chandler Delinks captured video for his coverage of Tim Johnson's Ride On Washington; in the clip above they end a nine-hour day in the saddle

At points the group found peaceful corridors through rough and ragged neighborhoods, while in other areas there was an appalling lack of bike access. “In Maryland, on our way into Baltimore, we followed this road that pops out on the Susquehanna River — it’s half a mile wide or more, it’s huge — and there’s no way to get across it,” says Johnson. “The sign says, 'pedestrians, bicycles prohibited'. The story gets even better. We’re sitting there for, like, 20 minutes looking at this sign that says ‘no bikes’ and we’re just about to start hitchhiking when a cop car pulls up.

He throws the lights on and asks us what’s going on. We got through the 'hey, get the heck out of here thing', I kind of explained what we were doing and he said, ‘how fast can you go on those things?’ I said 25- to 30mph, and he said, ‘if any of you drop below 30, I’m going to give you a ticket’. This thing was two lanes, jersey barriers on both sides, not one inch of extra room, and we blasted across this thing with him giving us a police escort from behind… It was a lot of fun. He hooked us up.”

Rarely do riders have police escorts to get across auto-only bridges, though. “You look at the map… and that’s the only thing within 15 miles," says Johnson. "To find a bridge to ride across would have taken 25 miles. It was impossible. Whether it’s a bridge or a four-lane-wide road in front of a mall, the barriers [to bikes] are there.”

Every night after riding hundreds of kilometers through sapping Eastern Seaboard winter weather, Johnson and whoever from the core group could muster the strength would gather at a bar, bike shop or restaurant to talk to cyclists. The draw to bring in people was Johnson and his fame garnered through racing; the prospect of his autograph, a photo or a conversation.

According to fries, johnson signed every autograph, took every photo and shook every hand during his ride on washington:

According to Fries, Johnson signed every autograph, took every photo and shook every hand during his Ride On Washington

“When we got into Philadelphia [on the third day, after riding 100 miles through 36-degree rain] they gave us our room keys and a pizza,” says Richard Fries. “The thing that impressed me about Tim was that, when we got into elevator with the guys, soaking wet with core temperatures of, like, 92 degrees, nobody was talking — you’ve been on those rides — and we had to be at the reception in 25 minutes, Tim just said, ‘you guys stay here, come when you can, Richard and I will go'. It was hard. You’ve got to take a shower and get dressed and go right to this party because there are 100 people waiting for him and Tim never, never, ever delayed it. ”

Once there, however, a race fan would have to work to keep Johnson on the topic of racing and himself. “We were picking dirt out of our ears on the way in there,” says Fries. “And as we were walking in, Tim was like, ‘don’t let me stay here too long, I’m really exhausted'. I couldn’t get him out of the place; he wanted to talk to every person… and he didn’t want to tell them who Tim Johnson was, he wanted to hear who they were and what they did.”

“Next year, we’re going to make it different,” says Johnson. “It’s going to be easier to be a part of. The money that we raised was just people who stumbled onto it, but I want to do it again and I’d like to make it so that more people can come. The final day is Baltimore to DC, about 45 miles, and if we could get a couple hundred people on that day riding into DC for the Bike Summit then I think that would be a success.”

Still, advocacy isn’t cool

Despite the fact that Johnson pines for advocacy to be at least accepted by a greater group of cyclists, at times he’s protective of what he says about it. He fears deaf ears and is seemingly oblivious to his own ability to make it more appealing and ‘cool’. “I’m sensitive to the fact of whether or not people want to hear this,” says Johnson “And if they do, that they’re hearing the right thing.

"If I looked at Cyclingnews and I saw an article about bicycle advocacy, I wouldn’t have read it a couple years ago. How do you deliver that message? I know what I thought, so I know that other people are thinking the same thing. I hope that some people can think the way that I think [now], but I know that a lot of people aren’t ready to hear this.”

Right now, Johnson is delivering a simple message — “we’re trying to make it easier for people to ride bikes” — through conversation with those he feels will best listen. “I want to let people who follow racing, who follow my racing, know that there is such a thing as the National Bike Summit and a thing called Bikes Belong,” he says. “Whether or not that gets them involved or even just starts a conversation about what cycling means to them and how they can make it safer and easier for other people to ride, then that’s it.”

2011 marked Johnson’s second year at the National Summit and he made rounds. His meetings included conversations with pro-bike Massachusetts senator John Kerry and the Republican senator Scott Brown, who's a triathlete. Despite his party’s fiscally frugal directive, Johnson says Brown was very receptive to the beneficial impact — in terms of transport, energy and healthcare — that federally funded bike programs can have.

“Tea Party is saying cut spending, cut spending, cut spending," says Johnson. "Well, cyclists as a group can turn and say we’re good for the environment, we’re good for health, we're an activity that’s fun and simple and nice. But we’re also an economic driver and can say that the people involved with cycling are good citizens, they pay taxes like everyone else and they’re a large part of the market." Johnson believes Brown listened to that message.

Congressman earl blumenauer (d-or), and the president of bikes belong, tim blumenthal: congressman earl blumenauer (d-or), and the president of bikes belong, tim blumenthal

Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and the president of Bikes Belong, Tim Blumenthal

Again, at Capitol Hill, Johnson was the draw. It was a deliberate tactic: hook senators with the athlete, and then hit them with the advocacy message. “At this point the question was, 'where am I most effective, as a bike racer?',” says Johnson. “When I’ve been in [the meetings], the actual congressman or senator will come in, otherwise it’s just an aide.

"And you’re right, they’re like, ‘oh, cool, you’re an athlete — hey, look at the wall of pictures I have with athletes’, but I’m talking about why we’re there. We’re talking to them about cycling as an activity, not as a sport. We’re talking about cycling as transportation. People pay attention to what we [athletes] do and if I can help show what someone else does that I think is actually a lot more important and a lot more effective because they’re [the advocates] the ones in the trenches doing a thankless job, then that makes me feel like I've done something useful.”

The League of American Bicyclists, the group responsible for the National Bike Summit, saw the efforts Johnson made and hopes they will continue. “We were very excited about his ride to the Summit,” says Meghan Cahill, the League's director of communications. “It does bring this interest to the Summit for someone who likes bicycling and is active in it but isn’t necessarily an ‘advocate’. It brings a new type of bicyclist; someone who's a competitive rider from a younger demographic. Plus he was raising money for a great cause — Bikes Belong.”

The accidental advocate

“Tim was my intern,” says Fries, who was also the publisher of the now defunct New England-based Ride Magazine, reminiscing about Johnson as a teenager. “Largely because he knew he could get free stuff: gas money, entry fees… I'd say, of 30 people that came through that magazine and you picked the one that was going to make the biggest difference in advocacy, he'd have been number 30.”

“I worked at the Ride Magazine when I was a young punk and I barely did anything,” admits Johnson. “I always wanted to go out training and always wanted to go to a race. And [at the time] he [Fries] was telling me about MassBike and being involved in advocacy, and it really wasn’t interesting to me. I wasn’t ready to listen. I wasn’t ready to be thinking about it. He calls me a work in progress and I guess, to a degree it’s true. The biggest thing was being able to come here [US National Bike Summit] last year and see with my own eyes and be a part of it for the first time.”

Fries was the one to bring Johnson to the Summit as well, but it wasn’t for the purpose of turning him into an advocate. Rather, he admits to using Johnson — who then rode for the United Healthcare Team — to get United’s CEO David Anderson to the event, Johnson was just the go-between. “I was being selfish,” says Fries. “I work for Bikes Belong and I was looking for the right person and he worked with David Anderson. I told him, ‘if you’re going to ride for this team you need to get this guy and bring him here’. I wanted access to United Healthcare. The guys came and it was funny. I was really trying to open up the CEO’s eyes and he got it… but I didn’t realize that Tim was having this transformation. It was almost an accident.”

Richard fries fostered johnson's path to bike advocacy: richard fries fostered johnson's path to bike advocacy

Richard Fries fostered Johnson's path to bike advocacy

“Being exposed to what the political process is — it just seems so far removed from where you can actually make an impact,” says Johnson. “After being here [in Washington DC] and seeing it once, as a beginner, you realize that it does work. To me that’s the core of advocacy: realizing that you do actually have an interest in something and being able to be a part of that process.”

Johnson followed up after the 2010 summit. He went back to DC in May [2010] and met Senator Kerry. He wanted to do more and asked for the senator’s opinion. “His advice was, ‘Tim, you’ve just got to be a part of the movement. Because of who you are, if you can get more people involved in the movement then it'll be more effective. However you do that, it’s fine'." The conversation had an impact on Johnson and he’s been heeding the advice ever since.

Bike racers the perfect advocates?

“Tim as an athlete and as part of the Cannondale team was amazing,” said Bruno Maier, the vice president of Bikes Belong and former executive vice president of marketing at Cannondale Bicycle. “He performed, he had the right attitude, he was and is articulate, and he would and does go out of his way to talk to fans and take care of sponsors.  You can't ask for more from an athlete.  

“His interest in Bikes Belong and advocacy is not so much a change in him as is that fact that he became aware of the advocacy movement,” he continued. “Tim was able to attend the National Bike Summit in 2010 for the first time, and that provided us the opportunity to engage him in our mission.  Since that first experience Tim has been an amazing champion of our cause, because he realizes that advocacy is more than just building bike lanes. The safer and more accessible that bicycling becomes the more people we can bring to the sport.  He understands that more bicyclists will improve safety, reduce traffic congestion, help fight obesity, and more importantly make the industry stronger.”

“Some of the most powerful advocates could be bike racers and also the [amateur] guy whose [hobby] is to be a bike racer, because he loves the sport so much, but we aren’t involved,” says Johnson. “We need to be more involved. The racing crowd is a very detached and disconnected group that should be even more attached because the industry and the racing side of it is solely supported by whether or not cycling is a popular activity. Racing is a tiny, tiny part of this gigantic thing called cycling, but to a racer it seems like the biggest.”

“Advocacy has a major marketing problem,” says Fries. “And the racing community is the answer to a lot of that. They’re right there getting stuff thrown at them on the side of the road, being called names... [they have reason to be a part of it].” Johnson says there are people in advocacy who get racing but they’ve never had racing give anything back to them, and that’s something he wants to change. Last year his cyclo-cross team wore the People for Bikes logo on their uniforms. It was a small step, but one in the right direction.

“I don’t want to make it a negative thing,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to see a bit of the light, but I don’t want to make it sound like someone else should. I like to talk about what got me thinking about this, but it’s not a negative thing for anyone else to not be doing it. We [racers] have a lot more in common with these people [advocates] than the typical hardcore head-on-the-handlebar racer would ever consider.”

“Every cyclist is a work in progress,” says Fries in regards to their involvement in advocacy. “The Latino dishwasher going the wrong way at night without lights, he’s ours. I believe there’s no such thing as a correct cyclist; we’re all cyclists.”

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