Tim Johnson's toughest European rivals will be his teammates in
Fitchburg this week, joining forces on a potential powerhouse of a team.
Johnson, a 22-year-old rising star from Middleton who rides on the Saugus-based amateur team CCB, found himself chasing Belgians Bart Wellens and Tom Vannoppen last winter in the World Cyclocross Championships in Slovakia. Johnson's third-place finish made him the first American to get on the winners' podium at the 'cross worlds, and his affable manner made him an instant hit with the European press and fans.
He also really hit it off with world champion Wellens and runner-up Vannoppen, and they jumped at the chance to ride with Johnson in America. All three will sport CCB jerseys in the four-day Fitchburg Longsjo Classic, beginning Friday.
It's not unusual for rivals in cycling to work together, especially if it offers the chance to go overseas. "For the most part, cyclists worldwide are kindred souls," said Richard Fries, publisher of The Ride magazine. "These kids just want to come to America."
The Belgians are spending a few weeks in the United States, and in addition to finding warmer, drier weather here, they have noted a difference in sprinting styles. "They said racers in Europe tend to be more physical in sprints, more ready to bump and grind," said CCB team manager Steve Pucci.
In the men's Category 4 race, amputee champion Paul Robert Martin of Colorado is likely to get the crowd's attention. Martin, 32, grew up in Gardner and was an all-star goalie for the Gardner High School hockey team. He lost his lower left leg in an auto accident seven years ago. Last summer, as a newcomer to bike racing, he won both the time trial and the road race in his category at the National Cycling Championships for the Disabled. The Longsjo will be his mother's first chance to see him race a bike.
The Longsjo prize list is $5,000 richer than last year, and as of last week, registration was running ahead of last year. Organizer Ray Wolejko said he expects about 700 riders in all, including about 165 in the pro-1-2 men's category and as many as 50 pro-1-2 women. Last year 690 people raced.
Top men's teams include Saturn, Mercury, Shaklee, Kissena, and Navigators. Last year's overall winner, Frank McCormack (Saturn) of Leicester, is sidelined with injuries from a crash last month in the Tour of Japan.
Wolejko doesn't like to predict a winner, but he has his own favorite. "With Frankie injured, I would like to see (his brother and teammate) Mark McCormack win this," he said. Saturn's Brian Walton "is also a strong contender, and I know Gord Fraser from Mercury is riding strong," he said.
Kissena has Canadian national champion Andrew Lavallee, along with Czeslaw Lukascewicz, winner of the Longsjo criterium last year. And don't count out Ed Gragus (Icon Lexus). "Often it's not who wins each stage. It goes by who has the lowest cumulative time for all four days, so it's who's in good form overall." There are time bonuses, or seconds shaved from the cumulative time, for top finishers in each stage.
Women's teams include Saturn, which has New Zealander Susy Pryde and Australian Anna Wilson; Timex, including Pam Schuster and Canadian Linda Jackson and 1997 Longsjo winner Giana Roberge; and Canada-based Elita. The 1995 winner, Kathryn Watt of Australia, is registered, and 1996 winner Lynette Nixon also may come from Australia, Wolejko said.
Wolejko knows the names don't mean much to many local spectators, but he's confident the action will appeal. Cracks in Mile Hill Road at the Princeton-Westminster line, where the racers will fly downhill around 50 mph on Sunday, have been patched, and the repaving of Fitchburg's Main Street this month can only mean a smoother, faster ride in Monday's criterium.
"The closest thing I can compare it to is the Boston Marathon. You know, who are those guys way out in front of the pack? They're all from Kenya; we don't know their names; we never see them around here the rest of the year," Wolejko said. "Then you have this whole spectacle going on behind them, and it's not just the runners but the whole crowd that makes that what it is, with color and rhythm and beauty and effort and fitness and volunteerism and community pride and really positive things."
The Longsjo, named fro 1956 Olympian Art Longsjo, is a fund-raiser for the American Red Cross, and last year the race brought in $12,000 for disaster relief programs.
Most Americans don't follow bike racing and will be hard-pressed to distinguish one national champion from the next or pick up on the team strategies at play in the Longsjo, Wolejko admitted. But the racing offers a free, family-oriented day of fresh air and colorful entertainment. Wolejko recommends bringing lawn chairs or a blanket and a picnic to Fitchburg's Pearl Street on Saturday, Princeton Common on Sunday, and Fitchburg's Upper Common on Monday.
One caution for spectators: Don't bring your dog. Dogs can get confused by all the wheels, and if they get hit they could be seriously injured or killed. Also, a dog could cause a serious accident for the riders.
Race results will be posted on the Web at users.cyberzone.net/longsjo, but Wolejko said that except for the pro categories, postings may not be immediate. Another nifty feature of the Web site is elevation profiles of the race courses.