• Brendan Johnston (left, CCS Canberra) and Liam White (right, Oliver's Real Food Racing) in battle on the course during Day 5 of the National Road Series (Jamie Finch-Penninger)Source: Jamie Finch-Penninger
Brendan Johnston (CCS Canberra) resisted the pressure of bigger teams, better climbers and better sprinters to haul himself to an individual National Road Series victory over the nine days of competition in and around the Tweed Valley.
SBS Cycling Central

6 Dec 2020 - 4:41 PM 

The electrician from Canberra is an elite marathon and cross-country mountain biker, who's medalled at national championships, taken out numerous series and big race wins, and at times dominated the cross-country endurance scene. 

His forays across to the road are irregular, he tends to set himself for one-off races and once he's completed that challenge it's time for a new one. His landmark victory at Melbourne to Warrnambool had a local reporter ask him, in a way that was clearly hoping for an emphatic yes, whether he'd be back racing the 'Warrny' again next year. 'Probably not, I've won it now' was the response. Building on that success, Johnston managed to defy a very hard course and teams racing very aggressively to keep a hold on the NRS leaders jersey throughout the eight days of hard competition in the Tweed Valley.

“That was one race I’d focused on and to win was special," said Johnston of his Melbourne to Warrnambool win. "I’d had that more than the series overall in mind. I had a big series of mountain bike events planned and a big schedule there so I probably wasn’t going to be able to get to all the NRS events.

"When this event popped up, we had the jersey and the team were keen to come up and give it a track. It’s paid off that we’ve put that target there and achieved it.”

White-hot as Trekky ignites scorcher at NRS
Liam White (Oliver's Real Food Racing) produced a flat-out sprint off an attritional day of racing to win on Day 5 of the National Road Series, 146 kilometres in the sweltering heat of northern NSW.

Day 4 was the most crucial day for Johnston's overall win. A very strong break of nine had escaped up the road, containing Johnston's two closest competitors for the overall win, Jay Vine (NERO Continental) and Cameron Scott (ARA-Sunshine Coast). The chase was on for a while, but after Bridgelane decided that they weren't keen to chase things down by themselves, the peloton stopped for a natural break and the gap balooned out. Johnston came to the fore, leading the chase himself with a blistering tempo, driving the pace through feed zones while his teammates collected drinks for him. 

"I thought 'bugger this, I'm not out here to roll around'," said Johnston after that stage. "I kept on hitting it, hitting it, hitting it."

A more reflective Johnston, after the final day's racing was cancelled, nominated that as the key moment in securing his overall win.

"I was trying to motivate the teams to chase, pulling all the stories out, but they weren’t having a bar of it," said Johnston. "I had to make something of the race. Our goal everyday was to be in the hunt for that top 5 position and if you’re in the second bunch, you’re nowhere.

"It was a little crazy  to even think I could get back into it and I just persisted with the attacks and I’m really proud of that ride."

Trekky's CCS Canberra domestiques are an unlikely bunch. Just a group of four, against squads of up to ten riders that swapped in and out of seven rider teams, the quartet held their own when it counted, though they were down to three most of the time after Mackenzie Edwardson suffered an injury during a crash during the Day 2 criterium.

Dylan Hopkins is a talented youngster, supposed to be riding in Slovenia this year with Continental squad Ljulbjana Gusto Santic -pandemic restrictions put paid to that - who came to the fore with a very strong race on Day 7 of competition. Hopkins was the last teammate for Johnston in a peloton that was reduced by attacking racing and steep climbs to less than a quarter of the riders that started the day.

The final rider, Reece Tucknott, is another elite mountain biker and also Johnston's apprentice electrician, so Johnston is very much 'the boss'!

“Reece and I have known each other for a long time and works for me as an apprentice electrician," said Johnston. "We train together a lot and for him to come away and sacrifice everything for me, Dylan and Macca as well - it’s been all for me this week – it’s really humbling. It is an individual title, but it’s been a massive team effort from a small group of guys. It’s a bit cliché, but I can’t thank them enough.”

The NRS men's scene has a mix of riders, students who mix study and cycling mostly, others mix in part or full-time work and quite a few are full-time riders looking to go professional. 'Trekky' doesn't fit that mold, he's an electrician that runs his own business, has a young family and competes at an elite level both on and off-road.

“I’m pretty good at balancing my time," said Johnston. "Certainly with a 4-month old it’s a little busier. Reece and I were on the bike just after 4 am each day, just trying to get some shape in before this race. But it’s worth it, what we’ve done this week is incredible.

"It used to be hard mentally - no animosity at all - just that I felt that I hadn’t put in enough work on the bike when I came up against these full-timers. That’s a few years back now, I know what training I need to do to be going well and I can still do it at the moment."

The natural question for a rider who's won the NRS is of the next step and the potential rise to a professional contract on the WorldTour. It's a more nuanced situation with Johnston, a rider who certainly was on track for that peak as an international level rider, but had his career progression halted by his battle against testicular cancer while a young rider in 2009. Now 29, and just over 11 years on from that, Johnston talked about the cancer battle and its effect on his position within the sport. 

“I don’t know, it halted my progress and changed my ambitions," said Johnston. "I guess something like that changes you forever. I managed to float back to a good position in the sport and have had a good contract for 5-6 years with Giant and Trek before that.

"I’m really comfortable with what I’ve got to put into the year in terms of events with travel and training. It’s been a sensible level for me and I can do other things around it. I’ve just started a family and I’m in a good spot.

"I don’t know that I’m of the age that a WorldTour selector is looking for at the moment. To come away with a team of four guys and have success like this - at any level of racing - that’s a good thing to do.”