Features Interviews

Calum Johnston interview: ascending

James McKay catches up the talented Scottish climber on Covid, Brexit and his currenta purple patch in Spain

The last time we spoke to Calum Johnston he was moving out of the under-23 ranks after three formative years on the Holdsworth-Zappi team, based in Italy.  This year he has a new team in Spain, Caja Rural-Seguros RGA amateur, a development team for Caja Rural’s professional squad.

For the past three seasons, the 22-year-old Scot has been supported by the Rayner Foundation, the organisation which aims to help young British riders racing abroad graduate to the professional ranks. Our podcast diarist Lewis Askey is the Foundation’s latest success story having recently signed a contract with Groupama–FDJ’s WorldTour for next season. With the form Johnston has been in this year, a move to the pro ranks could well be on the cards for him too in the not-too-distant future.

After having such a mentally challenging first part of the year, it was all coming together

A gifted climber, Calum has gone from strength to strength, bouncing back from Covid-19 to hit a purple patch which saw him take four victories and two further podiums on the tough Spanish elite circuit.

James McKay caught up with Calum last month just a run of fine victories in Spain.

Photo: Oskar Matxin Edesa

You made the move to Caja Rural-Seguros RGA amateur this season. How did that move come about?

It was after the U32 Giro last year. I did a decent ride [Calum finished 12th on GC] and after that, I had a couple of options. I started talking to Miguel who is the DS of this team and from there the relationship just built and I managed to come here for my first year outside the U23 ranks. Although this team primarily focuses on U23s, they’re also open to elites as well. 

Being a feeder team to the pro team, it gives you that direct pathway, assuming you get results and show your potential. So it was a no-brainer really. 

How was your winter training?

It was good. I had a few weeks off-season. Then it was a case of slowly building back up again. Getting in the gym, getting in the pool. Just trying different things. A lot of walking, running… not only just cycling, trying to make it a bit more interesting.

After the New Year, it got harder, more intense efforts. But overall it went pretty well. I was happy with the training. In March I was going the best I’ve ever gone in terms of numbers. 

The team wanted me out for the start of the season but I kept having to get back to them with “I can’t, sorry”. It was impossible

So when did you arrive in Spain?

It was actually really difficult to get to Spain at that point. It was at that time that the British variant of Covid came into play. That meant the rest of Europe basically shut off the UK. So it was panic stations! 

The team wanted me out for the start of the season but I kept having to get back to them with “I can’t, sorry”. It was impossible. 

But for some other countries, rules started to ease slightly. So I managed to find a loophole. I was in touch with a few other riders trying to figure out ways of getting over.

It sounds like something out of The Great Escape…

Exactly. Spain were only allowing in Spanish nationals or people who had visas. However, Belgium were allowing in elite athletes. I think once you got to [mainland] Europe it was easier to move around, but getting to Europe was the difficult part. So I thought if I fly to Heathrow, and then fly to Brussels, hopefully that’s me in the EU.  That’s what I did. It was quite funny how many documents I actually needed to do this. I had about four or five poly pockets… from the team, from the Government, just as much backup as I had really.

It must have been a nervous journey

It was a bit sketchy. Getting from Heathrow to Brussels I had to keep calm and control the nerves. In the end, it actually worked out pretty smoothly. Once I landed in Spain there were no checks. Straight through, I didn’t even have to show my passport. 

So that was the end of February. I got to the team house, got all the equipment and got settled in.

How was that? Tell us more about the setup there.

The team has two houses here in Pamplona. There is the pro team house right next door, and the feeder team house which is where I am currently. It’s four foreign riders who are [living] here, but it is also a place that the team meets up at before races. One of my teammates who is in Madrid will come up for a few days to the house before a race. 

The team has been amazing. Everyone is so friendly and so welcoming. I felt like I’d known my teammates and staff for years. 

So do you speak some Spanish then??

I have improved. But to start with I needed to remind myself to say ‘Hola’ instead of ‘Ciao!’ But living with the Columbians, and being around Spanish teammates and staff, you do pick it up a lot quicker. I’m the only English speaker on the team. It’s all Spaniards apart from two Colombians and a guy from Ecuador. The Colombians don’t speak a word of English. But a few of the Spanish guys speak some so we are able to communicate well.

We understand the start to your season didn’t go according to plan…

It was the first race weekend for me. The race was fine. I did alright, front group. A few of the boys were saying they weren’t feeling right. The next day I was in Bilbao seeing a lawyer so I didn’t know they were getting tested. I came back that evening. I went up to tap on my teammates’ door. All I heard was “no no no Calum, Covid, Covid!”. But I knew that if they’d got it, I’d got it. 

I went to get tested the next day and sure enough, it was positive. In the end, five of us tested positive. The first day, I had a pounding headache in bed. The day after that all my muscles were sore, I was shivery and then a fever came along. I had symptoms for five days. After that it was just fatigue, feeling lethargic. In total, I had ten days off the bike. 

Coming back was difficult, having to take it super slow

Coming back was difficult, having to take it super slow. I’d heard stories about people who’d had Covid and thought they were completely better. They have come back to training, doing hard efforts and that’s started it all off again for them. And it’s got even worse after that. 

I thought, ‘I’m not in any rush’. I’ll take my time and make sure I’m being careful with it. In the end, it worked out pretty well.

Yes, that patience has certainly paid off in this second half of the season. Did you come back to the UK after Covid then?

I thought there’s no point being out here when I’m so unfit. I basically needed to start from scratch again because I’d lost everything in terms of fitness. I took the opportunity to go home, recover, get fit and also go through my visa application (because of Brexit). It worked out quite well because I was able to do that. But I couldn’t wait to get back out here.

You came back in July?

The middle of July. Straight into racing really, it was a pretty packed few weeks.

How would you say the racing differs to Italy?

Italy is a lot more frantic, a lot more hectic. In Italy, it is literally full gas from the gun. I don’t think anything comes close to Italy, to be honest. In Spain, it is raced differently. It is more controlled, it is raced a lot more like races in the UK. A lot of attacks, groups going away, groups coming back. So in that way, it is also more stressful, because you don’t know what group to follow. A group of 10 could clip away and you won’t see them again. Or a group of 20 could clip away and they’ll get caught. Spain’s a lot like that. 

The pelotons here are massive. In the Basque country anyway, there are 200, 220+ riders in the bunch. Whilst Italy is only usually 170, 180. In terms of the courses, the parcours, they are pretty similar. Very lumpy, a lot of mountains which is obviously pretty good for me. A lot of climbing.

How would you describe your riding style? 

I would call myself a climber, but I do have quite a good kick. I can do well in the Dolomites and the Alps, and I can do well in the Ardennes. I think it is important to be good at everything. 

When people look at me they think I’m just a pure climber but actually, I’ve got a kick and can get over two-to-three minute climbs and have a good sprint in me. I’ve got the track in Glasgow to thank for that. 

What is the ideal race for you?

Anything with climbs in to be honest, and just a hard race. Especially stage races. They’re my forte. I find when I do stage races I get stronger every day. So they are my favorite type of race, and what I’m best at. 

Zamora was like an oven. Mid-30s every day. Coming from Scotland into that was a bit of a shock to the system

Can we talk about the incredible run of results you had? You started off with the Vuelta a Zamora

It was the first stage race of the year. I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. I’d only been in Spain for two weeks before the start of the race. The DS said to me “find your feet, don’t put too much pressure on yourself, just get used to racing in the bunch again”. I did want to do well to show the team that I am here to win, so I put a bit of pressure on myself. Zamora was like an oven. Mid-30s every day. Coming from Scotland into that was a bit of a shock to the system…

You bounced back pretty well from that, winning the Trofeo San José just two days later…

You had the stage race which was four days. And then two one-day races which were put on by the same organisation. It was the last day, the last race that I won. So that proved to me if it was a six-day stage race, I could win on the last day. 

Winning the Trofeo San Jose. Photo: Eritz Fraile

So when you won you already had five days racing in the legs?

Yes, and it was the same teams and same riders throughout the six days. I finished Zamora with 10th overall which I was pretty happy with. Then finishing off that week with a win was a good boost for me.

And then Trofeo Robert Innova the next week, you must have had confidence after your win?

I knew I had good legs and also I knew the stage race would have been really good for my legs as well. Carry some form and try to keep the momentum going. 

Again it was hot, like an oven. With 70 kilometres to go, I thought I’d attack and see what happens. I got away with some other guy and we caught the solo man breakaway. I heard through the radio that we’ve actually got a pretty good gap. So I pushed harder and got rid of everyone. 

I was on my own for around 30 kilometres, until a guy managed to jump across to me on the final steep climb. I knew he was fresher because he had spent more time in the bunch. So I let him do most of the work. I went through a couple of times but with one kilometre remaining I thought I’ll sit behind you, I ain’t going through. In the end, I managed to outsprint him. It was a bit of a shock to be honest, I was not expecting that, winning that way, attacking with such a long way to go.

After that race, it was a good feeling. All that work was paying off. After having such a mentally challenging first half of the year, it was all coming together.

You’ve gone on to win more races since too. Is there a pattern to how you’re getting these results, in terms of how the race is being ridden?

Not really. One of the podiums I got, I got second in a Basque race a few weeks ago, it was a full gas race. The whole day was bloody brutal, super hard. It finished on a 600-metre berg, 11, 12 %. It was a 40-man group with one guy away. He had 50 seconds with one kilometre to go. He actually stayed away and won but by the top, it was seven seconds. If that finishing berg had been 100 metre more I would have had it.

But all of them are fairly similar. All of them have decent climbs in them, and I’m going to take full advantage of that, race them the way I want to.

You must now be looking forward to the rest of the season. Do you know when you will be racing until?

The last race is in the second week of October, so there’s still quite a bit of time left. We’ve got a few stage races coming up which I’m excited for: Vuelta a Cantabria, Vuelta a Valencia, Vuelta Galicia and I think one more. The racing is jam-packed for the next couple of months which I’m pretty stoked about.

I’m just looking for more wins, just trying to build on what I’ve got already.

I think if you’re consistent then you’re reliable. Teams need reliable riders who will be there in every circumstance

Looking more long-term in the future, is there anything you’re going to focus on? What do you think can take you to the next level? Or is it just a case of building consistent results like these?

I think you said it, consistency. Consistency is super important. Especially to move on in cycling. I think if you’re consistent then you’re reliable. Teams need reliable riders who will be there in every circumstance. You don’t necessarily need to win but as long as you’re always in that front group you can help your teammate, you can work for the team. So I think personally, I just need results as well as consistency to move on. You don’t want to win three races and then do absolutely nothing after that. 

Do you know what your plans are next year?

No. I’ve been speaking to my coach and we’re just really focusing on enjoying the racing and enjoying winning. What will come, will come. For now, I’m just training every day, keeping to my routine, racing, and just enjoying it.

Since this article was published, the Caja Rural pro team has announced it has signed Calum for 2022.

Featured photo: Oskar Matxin Edesa