Features Interviews Riders

Calum Johnston interview: the espoir years

The talented 22-year-old climber looks back on his under-23 years after his best season yet

Despite the interrupted season – and being stuck on Sicily’s Mount Etna for three months – Holdsworth-Zappi rider Calum Johnston can look back on his final year as an under-23 with a great deal of pride.

Each year I have seen myself progress and, with each race, my confidence has grown

The 22-year-old Scot made the most of his limited racing schedule, finishing 10th on GC in the epically-titled Bulgarian stage race ‘In the footsteps of the Romans’ (2.2), 19th overall at the Tour of Bulgaria (2.2) and 15th in the Trofeo Città di San Vendemiano (1.2U). Undoubtedly, though, his standout performance was the at the Baby Giro. Whilst the headlines belonged to the race winner Tom Pidcock, Calum put together some impressively consistent stage results, earning him a highly respectable 12th overall in the most prestigious under-23 race of the year.

Calum hails from East Kilbride, just outside Glasgow. He has spent the entirety of his under-23 career at Flavio Zappi’s Holdsworth-Zappi team, a set-up based in Cesena in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. As Calum alludes to in the interview, the team has an unusual model in that it charges riders an annual fee. In return, riders receive accommodation, training, equipment, clothing and one of the best development team race programmes around. It’s a model which Calum feels has served him well.

After his best season yet and with a new team on the horizon for 2021, we caught up with the talented Rayner Foundation-supported climber to look back on his years as an espoir…

Photo: photographer unknown (provided by Calum Johnston)

For readers unfamiliar with you, how would you describe yourself as a rider?

I’m a 55kg pure climber so I obviously really enjoy the hard climbing races but I also believe I have a good kick thanks to hours spent at the local track (Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome) in the winter! I’m usually a very conservative rider, making sure I save my legs for the final part of a race.

Can you remember the moment you were first ‘hooked’ on cycling?

It was Christmas 2007 when I was 9 years of age. At the time, I was football mad. I was playing for my local team every weekend and training two to three times a week. Like the majority of youngsters, my mind was set on being a professional footballer.

I woke up on Christmas morning to an old-school navy blue steel Bianchi with downtube shifters and tan wall tyres

But then I woke up on Christmas morning to an old-school navy blue steel Bianchi with downtube shifters and tan wall tyres. It was a pretty cool bike to ride at just nine years of age. I started riding around my street with football trainers and a tracksuit. I then made the next steps, first using clip-in pedals and then trying to get the hang of cleats, and just like that, I was on the start line of my first race, a local crit. I loved every moment of it and that’s what kicked it all off for me. I had the bug!

You’ve ridden for the Zappi team ever since you turned under-23. How did your move to the team come about?

It was in 2017. I saw that Flavio was looking for riders to come and guest with the team in Spain for a week to experience what it’s like. It was definitely an eye-opener. I spent the week training with the team and living like a pro. I managed to show some of my potential and I was asked back out to do a few races with them.

How would you describe your first year at the under-23 level? It seemed there were quite a few ‘DNFs’ out in Italy…

It was really hard! It was a big shock seeing the level of riders I was up against. It was really just a year of trying to gain as much experience as possible and getting the feel of the racing. Anyone who has raced in Italy at under-23 level knows just how crazy and uncontrolled it is. I’ve even heard some pros saying some of the races are harder than actual WorldTour races, which says it all. It wasn’t exactly a year for results but I’m glad it gave me an idea of the level I had to aspire to.

I always saw it as being my version of university

The Zappi team has quite an unusual set-up. How would you describe to someone who doesn’t know much about it?

It’s a great set up for young, up-and-coming cyclists. I would even say it’s the best in the UK because of the calendar and lifestyle. As everyone knows by now there is a cost to it all but hear me out … this cost includes everything: the bike, all clothing, travel, food, accommodation, pretty much everything you can think of. I always saw it as being my version of university. The calendar is second to none, you get to travel all over Europe, you learn how to become independent and responsible for yourself and your equipment, you get to learn about different cultures and maybe even pick another language. One of the great things is you come away with so many life lessons and experiences that you will never forget.

Photo: Julia Zwaan (provided by Calum Johnston)

What has it been like living, training and racing for them over the years?

As we like to say at Zappi’s, “It’s a long story”. It has been amazing getting to race the most prestigious and hardest under-23 races in the world. Each year I have become stronger and seen a lot of good progress which has given me more and more motivation. The training is also really good. Where we stay there is a lot of variety; long climbs in the mountains, short punchy Ardennes-style climbs, rolling roads and flatlands, so there is a bit of everything. The weather does help, you don’t really need to look at the weather apps because you are guaranteed sunshine and blue skies every day.

Flavio has also done a lot for me, he has never stopped believing in me and is always there to give advice

What’s kept you at the team so long?

Each year I have seen myself progress and, with each race, my confidence has grown. I realised that if I stick at it and be patient it will all fall into place. As I have said before, you can’t complain about the calendar and this is the main reason I have come back each year. I think being abroad, on the continent, is the best place to make it and to prove yourself. The UK scene seems to be dying out unfortunately which is worrying to see. Flavio has also done a lot for me, he has never stopped believing in me and is always there to give advice. He is very passionate about what he does which shows in all the live videos on Facebook and Instagram.

What difference has it made to have the support of the Rayner Foundation?

The Rayner Foundation has been such a great help. Without them, things would be a lot more difficult and stressful. Being supported by such a prestigious fund that has been running for 24 years is an honour. And what they do for young aspiring cyclists is an example of great passion and commitment to the sport. Without them we wouldn’t be seeing as many young British riders achieve their dreams.

Going into this season, was there a lot of pressure on you, with it being your final year as under-23?

Definitely. I finished 2019 strongly with some good, consistent results so I knew I would have the confidence this year to up my ante. The team had a great calendar planned but because of the pandemic, it was obviously affected. As you can imagine, I got fairly anxious especially it being my final year as an under-23. 

Photo: photographer unknown (provided by Calum Johnston)

How would say this year has gone for you, on and off the bike?

Considering the circumstances, it has gone a lot better than expected. I think in total I have had 25 race days which is pretty lucky given that many riders haven’t even made it onto the start line. I started strong in the Tour of Rhodes with a 9th on stage 1 against some top riders. Then it was straight into lockdown.

Not many people can say they lived on a volcano for three months

I spent my lockdown on top of Mount Etna, the famous volcano down in Sicily. Seven of us headed there for a three-week training camp; little did I know we’d be there for three months! It really was a great experience and surreal waking up to the odd volcanic eruption. It was mentally tough too though, not knowing what lies ahead and if I’ll even get to race again in 2020. Me and the boys kept chipping away and working hard for the restart in Italy.

When we started getting confirmation of races, we all became very motivated. I had a strong first race back at Imola round the famous ‘Tre Monte’ circuit, finishing on the F1 track, which was amazing. The team then headed to Bulgaria for two stage races, ‘In the footsteps of the Romans’ [where Calum finished 10th on GC] and the ‘Tour of Bulgaria’ [where Calum was 19th overall], which were great races to prepare me for the Giro. It was then full speed towards the Baby Giro where I got 12th on GC. As with so many under-23 riders, the Giro was my main goal of the season, so it was a relief to bag that result.

What were the highlights?

I will never forget my time on Mount Etna. Not many people can say they lived on a volcano for three months. I came away with great memories and also learned a lot about myself on and off the bike. Obviously getting 12th at the Baby Giro was the pinnacle. It reassured me and made me believe even more that I can make it. 

Photo: photographer unknown (provided by Calum Johnston)

And the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenges were mental. The Coronavirus outbreak has been the headline for 8 months now and has caused so much disruption and heartbreak. When I was in Etna, it was all starting to kick off around Europe and I honestly thought that was it, 2020 would go down the drain. It was hard to keep focused for races that were being called off, one after the other. I can’t thank Flavio Zappi and Callum Ferguson enough for providing great opportunities in such a tough time. The team managed to fit in a good number of races and gave everyone a chance to make something out of 2020.

If you could go back and give your 18-year-old self some advice as he began his under-23 journey, what would it be?

To not stress too much. If you work hard enough, live a good lifestyle and just be patient, it will all fall into place.

What are your plans for next year?

All will be revealed very soon!