Red Hook Crit Interview: Tiana Johnson
Words by Kelly Neuner
Photo by Miki Marcinkiewicz
Fixed gear racing for women is exploding across the country, and Red Hook Crit tests the speed, skill, and endurance of the top racers in the world. While the men’s feature race is now filled primarily with riders from corporate teams, the women’s race showcases a true range of experience and backgrounds that embodies the spirit of Red Hook Crit’s beginnings.
While more attention is paid to the women’s field, coverage is often limited to the front runners. We’re taking a deeper look into the women’s field to highlight the experiences of different racers - including up-and-coming and first-time racers - through a series of interviews.
Tiana Johnson is a Cat 2 track racer from Minneapolis, Minn. She started racing track as an original member of the all-women's team Koochella. I first met her when she reached out to our team after signing up for Brooklyn Red Hook Crit in 2016. We showed her around and cheered her on through her first Red Hook, and since then she’s won Minnesota State Track Championships and crushed the North American Cycle Courier Championship (NACCC) Track Day in October.
She’s come back even stronger this year and set her sights on racing every race in the Red Hook series in 2017. I sat down with her to learn more about her journey to Red Hook, the challenges - both internal and external - of taking your racing to the next level, and how local racing can inspire riders across all experience levels.
How long have you been racing?
This will be my fourth year of sanctioned racing. I’ve done many, many alleycats before that and I grew up BMX racing, so it’s kind of in my blood. I started racing when I was eight and then my bike got stolen when I was 10, so that ended abruptly. I didn’t start racing alleycats until I was 22, 23.
Sanctioned racing is a whole different world. I don’t know if Red Hook counts as sanctioned obviously - it’s between an alleycat and sanctioned. It’s still a shit show, but it’s like an authorized shit show.
This is your second year racing Red Hook Crit. What inspired you to sign up in the first place?
I heard about it before I started track racing, and it just looked like this beautiful world I didn’t understand. It intimidated the hell out of me. Then I did my first track crit during All-City Weekend [in 2014], and I won. I was like, “Holy shit, I want this so much more now.” I did Red Hook last year because I was on a personal rampage, like “I want to reclaim what it is I want in life.” So I signed up and then immediately thought, “Oh god, what have I done.”
It turned out to be really, really worth it. It was dangerous, it was stupid. And that’s why I like it. After the first race, my friend watched me narrowly miss one crash scooting over messenger-style, and a second one where I clipped a person and ended up finishing 14th. I had so much fun avoiding those crashes.
Even after narrowly missing that big crash last year, you still signed up this year.
I left last year feeling like, “This is what I want to do. This is what I feel good in.” I’ve done crits, I’ve done track, I’ve done ‘cross - this is what I enjoy. This is really what I love doing. And it’s not a thing in the Midwest.
What were your biggest challenges coming into the race, last year and this year?
My head. It’s totally a mental thing. It’s your head telling you that you can’t do this, you’re not strong enough for this, this isn’t where you’re meant to be. The days & months leading up to it, I couldn’t even talk about Red Hook this year because it’s stressful. I did really well last year - does that make me a strong rider, do I actually deserve to be there? [My coach] was making me repeat over and over, “I am a good bike racer and I deserve to be here.” The first time I said it, I was like, “I am a pretty okay bike racer, I can be here” and he’s like, “That’s not what I said.”
That’s definitely one of hardest things - the mental aspect as well as the physical. I’m sure it’s incredibly mentally challenging.
Jo [Celso] just wrote something about this, like “People get upset with me when I’m nervous before races.” But I still get nervous because you don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know who these people are, I don’t know their strengths. It’s not like a local race where you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to get my ass kicked by that person.” It’s totally just a mental state.
It’s different when you’re more anxiety-ridden about your own performance and you have your own inner critic. That’s one of the hardest things to overcome as a racer.
Exactly. I did really well at Red Hook last year so I felt like I had this extra pressure, and no one is intentionally putting that on me. Everyone is really proud of me, everyone is really supportive, but I still feel like I have to do well, I have to do better to show I’m worthy of the support. It’s a continual fight.
And that’s definitely something that's tough as a racer - joining or starting a team, especially as a woman, and proving you deserve the support.
Especially since I’ve started my own team [Podium Punx] basically around this because I love it so much. I see all these sponsored riders like “Wow, you have things paid for and you have people totally supporting you who believe in you” and I’m placing above or with them even though I don’t have that backing me. It’s a weird feeling.
What’s been hardest about racing at this level, starting your own team around this?
Still kind of being a nobody. I’m just a girl from the Midwest - no one knew who I was last year, and I finished strong and people still don’t know who I am. And that’s fine. They recognize my kit, they recognize my bike, and people are starting to get to know who I am. All I’m trying to do is be a really strong ambassador and being really nice, which I think I am.
I want everyone to do really well around me. Ana [Puga] and I were working together halfway through the race and every time she’d start creeping around me I’d be like, “Come on, get up there!” This type of racing is growing, and I want it to get better, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to build a team around it.
I have a small contingency growing around me like Peacock Groove, a local frame builder that is sponsoring me with a bike; HED Wheels; companies I’ve worked for like Fabulous Catering; and even other local companies who are just stoked on cycling, like Bauhaus Brew Labs. I wanted to keep it as Midwest as possible to support my homegrown roots. I’m thick and not stereotypically a bike racer, but companies who believe in me have sponsored me.
Right, that’s another challenge - looking at what’s represented in marketing and what’s represented in race photos, and you only see one thing.
And it’s not me. That’s it’s own mental struggle, feeling like I’m not going to get anywhere because I’m not one of these girls, I don’t look this way, I’m not going to get this publicity, and maybe I’m not going to do well because I don’t have the fitness. But I do, I’m just a thick ball of muscle, like a football player.
It’s what you need for this type of racing. So, what surprised you about the race, whether that’s the race itself, the community?
Honestly, and this probably isn’t what you were looking for, but the support I got from you guys locally that I wasn’t expecting. I came into this not really knowing anybody, I just threw myself into something I knew nothing about. I had so much backing that I’m still overwhelmed even to this day, to see people are just so stoked that women are getting into this and underdogs are getting into this.
I know this is contradictory to what I just said, but I know other women can see themselves in me as kind of a no-name, regular-looking girl coming into something like this. That gets me a lot of support in and of itself because of what I represent. And that still surprises me.
As the race has gotten bigger, the women’s field has so much more variety in the types of riders who are racing the final race.
Right, it’s like with most bike racing - as it keeps growing, [women’s racing] is getting much more visibility.
I was part of the core group of Koochella for three years, and I still wear the kit to stick with my roots (it also fits me the best, and it matches my bike). I couldn’t believe how many people came up and talked to me about Koochella (obviously not knowing I’m no longer on the team) like, “Your team is really inspirational, I love what you’re doing for women in cycling, this is a huge thing.” And that’s why I wanted to put you guys [Formula Femme], SWAT, and Fuerza, and other teams on my kit for my little track team that’s just me, because these teams supported me by their existence.
I still can’t believe I am where I am. Five years ago, I was still going to punk shows in basements. Now I’m like, “I can’t go out, I have training to do.”
What else do you have coming up this year besides track season in Minneapolis? Where will we see you next?
I will try my damnedest to attend all of the Red Hooks. That’s part of the reason I’ve been trying to attain sponsorships, to get some of the funding. I’m doing a benefit back home, which feels weird because there’s much better causes you can give your money besides racing, but I’m accepting it.
I’m trying to go to LA for one of their crits. I’m just trying to travel and race and at some point, maybe take an actual vacation where I don’t race, but I’m not going to bank on that.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I would encourage more people, more WTFs to do this. If they have any sort of inkling, if they’re interested at all, just do it. I think that everyone should give it a shot and I want this to keep growing. I want to see the WTFs just take it over.
If you’ll be in the Minneapolis area on May 30th, check out the Podium Punx fundraiser to support Tiana’s Red Hook season.