Ryan Johnson graduated from Brookville Area High School in 2018 with a plan.
And four years later, so far so good.
After graduating this spring from Brevard College with a degree in exercise science and a minor in coaching, Johnson balances a job as a coach with a now professional career in cycling.
He got his first taste of the World Cup representing the U.S. Cycling Federation as one of its extra riders at the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup on July 31 at the Snowshoe Resort in Virginia. -Western.
Johnson finished 57th in the cross-country race which is an eight-lap affair on the 2.8-mile course that takes up to 90 minutes. It’s spectator friendly with fans lining the course which is not really suitable for cyclists. It was Johnson’s second trip to the Snowshoe and first since a national championship race in 2018.
“It was a lot more scary and technical and it was raining which made it even more difficult,” said Johnson, 23, who started his career as an Elite Pro. “It wasn’t the best result, but I wanted to finish in the top 60. It was my first World Cup, it definitely exceeded my expectations for myself.
Johnson qualified for the World Cup by finishing seventh in a race earlier this summer in Boone, North Carolina. He applied to the Federation for a place in the World Cup race and after arriving he received the email granting him an American shirt to wear in miserable conditions. He wasn’t so unhappy once the race started.
“I wore a USA kit because the Federation brought me in, people were chanting USA and the fans knew your name and signed autographs after the race, it was awesome,” Johnson said. “The course had downhills, jumps and uphills and it was wet. I’d say 99% of cyclists wouldn’t even try. I’m not afraid of many courses, but I was losing sleep over this one. Race morning I was looking at the radar and thinking I was going to break my arm or my collarbone or my leg or something. A college buddy broke his wrist on a previous run and it wasn’t even raining yet.
But, Johnson got through the initial jitters.
“But as soon as the gun went off you heard screaming and fans screaming my name and USA, it just slipped my mind,” he said. “I didn’t think about it anymore. I hit all the lines I needed perfectly. I have never had any experience before. It was awesome. You had a whole country cheering for you and that was cool.
“It was a life-changing experience.”
Next up for Johnson is a four-day road race at State College. He will train for the national marathon championships in October, a race in Las Vegas in December as well as the national cyclocross championships before heading south after the New Year to better train in the warm weather.
“It was a great experience,” Johnson summed up on Snowshoe. “I remember in my senior yearbook I said I wanted Brevard, get a degree in exercise science, I wanted to coach and then I wanted to go to World Cups. Thinking back to that four or five years ago and being able to achieve those goals, that was pretty cool. To be able to race at the highest level of the sport is also very cool, very rewarding as well.
Johnson still calls Brookville home because he is employed remotely by Wenzel Coaching, a cycling training organization based in Portland, Oregon, and co-owned by Kendra Wenzel, a former professional racer, Pan American gold medalist and collegiate champion, and Scott Saifer.
He’s doing what he went to Brevard to learn, coaching cyclists and helping them maximize their training.
“I mainly work with older men in their 30s and 40s, analyzing their heart rates as part of a program,” Johnson said. “It’s all remote so I talk to them on the phone, send them workouts and get notifications when they finish it and watch it and go over it with them and help them come up with tactics for races. The coaching is the only way to make a living and train enough to be a pro It’s a flexible schedule and you train 24/7 because that’s what it takes to race at a high level.
It’s what Johnson has always wanted to do, since his high school days and before.
“I remember in my senior yearbook I said I wanted to attend Brevard, get a degree in exercise science, I wanted to coach and then I wanted to go to World Cups,” Johnson said. “Reviewing that four or five years ago and being able to achieve those goals, that was pretty cool. To be able to race at the highest level of the sport is also very cool, very rewarding as well.
It was not easy. He had to grow up a bit and he credits his uncle Tom Hopkins as much as anyone else who helped him throughout his cycling career, especially making sure his nephew weathered his college move.
“From the first semester, I wasn’t used to not being home and not seeing my family and friends and I almost quit,” Johnson said. “But my Uncle Tom (Hopkins) saw the passion I had and the path I had to take and he told me I had to stay there, suck it up and I’d get used to it and make some friends. I’m so glad I listened to him because it worked out more than I thought it would, he took a step back and saw my whole career and told me I had to do this for myself.
There was still a ladder to climb and still is for Johnson as he works his way up a professional racing career. He said there might be an opportunity to sign with a team this fall which would boost his career even further.
But the training, even after college, has had to ramp up over the past year to get him to where he is right now. He spent time with retired pro Stephen Hyde, a former national champion who raced for 10 years before leaving the course for good in January.
“It was an eye-opening experience to see where I was in terms of wanting to make a career out of it or just racing local stuff,” Johnson said. “If you want to make a career out of it, you have to put a lot more work into the gym. I was in a sauna 24/7 and I was riding a lot more than ever and it was hard. And then I saw the results of that and realized that I could have done so much more. But I don’t think I was mature enough to do it, nor did I have the time. I had an internship last semester, so I had more time.
Johnson therefore went from three to five thousand miles a year to eight to ten thousand miles a year.
“It’s a lot,” Johnson said. “And it’s the time you spend in different heart rate zones and it’s super analytical and it’s hard to ride with other people because I have to follow a structured program. Once I’ve been fit enough to train like a pro, it just took off and it was like I finally got it.
“I have a team of coaches who are at the highest level and who can help me now. It is the springboard. I have been working with them since the beginning of the year. If you had asked me if I would hold this position last year, I would have said no, probably not. All the hard work we put in over the spring and summer, it drives me crazy to see what you can accomplish with the right help and the right amount of work.
The passion is there, the pride is there, and he can’t wait to keep going and be a great example of what someone can accomplish, even in a small town like Brookville.
“After all these years, all these times where you think you’re not good enough and then you get the call you made and you show up and practice and the photographers take pictures of you and the families come yours and you sign shirts and hats,” Johnson said of his World Cup debut. “I felt really humbled and excited to not only represent the United States but also a small town like Brookville and being able to show that people can do it from here. There’s no excuse. You have to believe in yourself.”