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‘I don’t tend to break frames so much as wheels’: Martin Johnson Q&A

Joe Robinson
24 Apr 2020

Martin Johnson is a rugby World Cup-winning captain with England. He is also the archetypal MAMIL

Martin Johnson is a rugby World Cup-winning captain with England, two-time European Cup winner with Leicester Tigers and a three-time British and Irish Lion.

He is recognised as not only one of the greatest second-row forwards and captains of all-time but one of the greatest players of the sport of rugby union and one of Britain's all-time sportsmen.

But what you may not know about Johnson is that he is a bonafide cycling fanatic, from gorging on the pro sport to ticking off the big sportives.

Cyclist caught up with Johnson recently to find out why he is so obsessed with the sport of cycling.

Cyclist: When did you realise you had a passion for road cycling?

Martin Johnson: When I was a kid I had a mate from a cycling family and so I was aware of the sport. I knew who Bernard Hinault was but I never really watched it, apart from the occasional time it appeared on World Of Sport.

When I started getting serious with rugby I kind of forgot about it. Then one day another mate popped over to my house for a cup of tea and turned up on a road bike, and I instantly felt like I wanted in. He said to start with a hybrid, which I did, and while I was still playing I’d go out most Sundays to do 15 miles as part of my recovery.

But I never felt right. I wanted a road bike so I bought one while I was still playing in the summer of 2004, and on my first ever ride I got five punctures. Obviously, something was wrong with the wheels but I didn’t have a clue and I ended up having to get a lift home.

It didn’t put me off, though, because then when I retired in 2005 I started to take my riding really seriously.

Cyc: And how serious is that?

MJ: Well, I’m a big fan of riding sportives and events abroad. I’ve ridden the Etape four times and I’ve done the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix sportives twice, too. I thought Roubaix would suit me, considering my size, but it didn’t. You cannot explain how hard that is to people who don’t know about the sport.

The first year I did Flanders, it was supposed to be light drizzle so I rocked up in bibshorts and a jersey only for it to pour down with rain all day. I was freezing as was everyone around me who’d dressed appropriately but it was proper Classics weather, wasn’t it?

I love the Classics. I always tell people to watch those races because they are incredible. Seeing guys, going out for a single day and smashing themselves to bits for seven hours. It’s so impressive to watch. It’s also so romantic and familiar to what we ride at home in the UK.

I rode the Maratona dles Dolomites and the Stelvio a few years ago and loved it so much that I was planning on heading back out with some mates to ride the Gavia Pass and Mortirolo this summer. 

Cyc: How much has your body shape changed since you replaced rugby with cycling?

MJ: I’ve lost a lot of bulk since retiring from rugby and moving into cycling, mainly in the neck and shoulders, although I was never a naturally massive man. I had to work to gain the bulk and muscle mass so when I stopped playing and started cycling my body shape actually felt quite normal. 

I’m still sitting here weighing over 18 and a half stone and, to be honest, I’m surprised the weight hasn’t dropped off more, but I think from being a rugby player all my life I must have developed incredibly dense bones from those constant collisions, which means I’ll never be too light.

In the summer I can get down to 18 stone and it does make a huge difference out riding, although among the lads I ride with the big guys are only 85kg and I’m over 110kg. It’s all well and good on the short climbs but I’m knackered on anything longer.

Cyc: Has your diet had to change drastically, too?

MJ: My diet has changed a lot simply in that I don’t eat as much. But the good thing is that when you’re riding a lot, especially when going abroad, you can basically eat what you want because you know you’ll burn it all off on the bike. 

For example, I’m king of the Chinese the night before a big cycling event. I did it one year before the Prudential RideLondon. A mate and I arrived in Stratford really late, about 10pm the night before, and we hadn’t eaten. The only place open was a Chinese on the high street. He wasn’t convinced that it was perfect pre-race fuel but I had a huge plate of sweet and sour pork and a big portion of chicken fried rice and ended up ordering another portion of the rice. The next day I was flying.

Cyc: Have you ever been one to get into the numbers side of cycling?

MJ: When I played rugby I never trained with any science or numbers. I much preferred doing stuff from feel and instinct, and it’s the same on the bike.

I didn’t really record my rides at first. I wasn’t on Strava for years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great tool for cycling and I have a little look every now and then, but I never really get dragged in. I have a power meter on my summer bike now, and I’ll have the occasional look at the numbers but I won’t become obsessed with it. Part of me would enjoy the feedback but I like to resist it.

Although I do know that I once hit 1,400W on a Wattbike.

Cyc: With your size, do you find yourself breaking frames regularly?

MJ: I don’t tend to break frames so much as wheels. It’s one of the first things I learned, that if I went for cheap wheels I’d break spokes. I tend to find carbon wheels good for me and I have them on my summer bike, which is a Specialized S-Works Tarmac Disc.

Even though I’m 118kg I also find that the stopping power of rim brakes is fine, although I do prefer using discs when I’m descending in the Alps or the Dolomites, especially on wet days. 

Cyc: Professional rugby players tend to be massive, so why do so many turn to cycling – a sport for lightweights?

MJ: I think rugby players take up cycling because their bodies are so pounded that they can’t do things like running any more, and cycling is relatively easy on the joints and bones.

It’s also a hugely social sport, just like rugby. One of the guys I used to play with, if we want to catch up we do it on the bike now. Blokes don’t tend to meet over a coffee so the bike tends to be a social place for us. Sometimes you can ride in silence, sometimes you offer the odd word, but then you stop for that coffee or that pint and you’ll talk.

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