MINN OG: Tiana Johnson
MINN OG is a column dedicated to the Minnesota cyclists who've been around the block. Know an OG who fits the bill? Tell us about them here.
Tiana Johnson says she first fell in love with bikes — “hard” — when she was eight or nine years old. “My brothers and my uncle all got into BMX racing. I always wanted to do what my brothers were doing. I got addicted [and] I absolutely loved the anticipation of sitting at the gate, waiting for it to drop.”
Johnson’s burgeoning BMX career ended for two reasons: “The first was, I grew out of it and became a teenage turd, the second was my brother’s friend stole my race bike and pawned it. Done. I wouldn’t get into biking again until much later.”
Tiana’s story picked back up at age 16, when she was hanging out in (but not yet living in) Minneapolis.
“I got obsessed with the bike culture,” she says. “I couldn’t get over it. I wanted to move to the city so bad so I could bike everywhere easily.” In the meantime, she bought a Surly Steamroller and rode from her home in Lakeland, Minn., to the restaurant she worked at in Stillwater, “an hour each way on unlit rural roads.” She jumped on her first opportunity to move Minneapolis-ward, living with three girls in a studio apartment. Squeezed into a studio or not, Johnson had made her Twin Cities bike dreams a reality.
“When I was 21,” Johnson says, “I learned about a DIY bike collective named The Grease Pit and decided to get involved.” Wrenching with The Grease Pit, Johnson first developed her love for fixing bikes and picked up the skills she needed to become the bike mechanic she is today. (More on that later.)
“That got me more involved in the cycling community, but I was still on the outskirts. I’d heard about alleycat races” — unsanctioned bike races often organized by messengers — “but was really intimidated for a long time.”
Johnson’s first race was the Cirque Du So Gay, an annual alleycat organized by the Queer Bike Gang. “I jumped into a group with [Women Trans Femme] riders,” she says, “and I had a blast. I wasn’t even sure I did well, just had fun.” Though Minneapolis’ “extremely bro-centric scene” was an obstacle, she was inspired by fellow WTF riders, including locals like Kat McCarthy and Spanish Gonzales, and kept attending events and breaking past that barrier.
“Actual sanctioned racing would never have been on my radar without my lovely friend and co-worker Ben Erickson,” says Johnson. Ben introduced her to Anna Schwinn, president and captain of the all-WTF team Koochella Racing. “Koochella definitely changed my life’s trajectory,” says Johnson, “I met so many amazing WTFs I may never have met otherwise. We were all so different and this one thing brought us all together.”
In 2016, Johnson’s yen for racing took her to the Red Hook Criterium, a world-famous crit (founded in Brooklyn’s titular neighborhood in 2008) that welcomes athletes from around the world to a short technical circuit with thousands of spectators.
“Holy crap,” says Johnson. “Red Hook. Ugh.” At that point, she’d done only two track crits, but she was hooked. Red Hook became her “pie in the sky idea. I did it for me. I was not going to win, was not going to get mid pack. I just wanted to hang out with a bunch of amazing babes [and] in that respect, I won.”
She traveled to New York City alone, “no support, or so I thought,” where two women she’d met in Denver took her in with a WTF track team named Formula Femme. Though Tiana had never met Formula Femme’s riders before, “they all took such good care of me and were amazing.”
Red Hook, she says, “is crazy hard and crazy scary, with a double hairpin turn and riders from a variety of skill levels.” Johnson says she met women who’d never been on a track bike before doing the race, and “within the first seconds of the start, there were so many crashes. I just watched my competition take each other out. I just wanted to stay upright and hang.”
“We were closing in on the last lap when someone went down in front of me going into the second-to-last turn. I got around them easy enough only to see a much bigger, much worse pile directly in my path. I shifted my weight just enough to get around but still hit a downed person. My pedal caused them to scream and me to unclip. I clipped back in and pushed as much as I could. I thought I’d lost the peloton, had no idea where I was in the field, just wanted to finish for me.”
“When I finished, my friends came running up to me, screaming about all my near misses. I had no idea how bad everything was or how I’d placed. I was just proud of how I’d performed.” She ended up 14th overall out of 60 people, a finish that still shocks her.
“People think I’m crazy for doing these races,” she says, “but this first Red Hook was, seriously, one of the best moments of my life.”
“Depending on the race,” Johnson says, “I am usually pretty stoked but also pretty high strung.” After a few years of highly competitive races, she’s lately enjoyed participating in races that are less high-pressure, more fun. “I love our racing community so much,” she says. “When I get to race with some of the top athletes, it can be extremely intimidating, but luckily, everyone is so amazingly encouraging that it keeps you coming back.”
Currently, Johnson’s a full-time mechanic at Penn Cycle, a locally owned Minneapolis bike shop. “Let’s be honest,” she says, “being a non-cis male in a bike shop is not the easiest. It’s hard enough to get into the industry, let alone be taken seriously. Some people argue that sexism is dead — yes, I have heard this — but I can assure you, because I am a woman, I’ve had a handful of customers deny my service and question my opinion or ask my male co-workers for their opinion. I don’t take shit from these people, contrary to ‘the customer is always right’ status quo.”
“I really do love what I do. I feel like a bike doctor and love the problem solving. I love getting people rolling again. I love teaching others to be self-reliant. But the biggest thing that gets me super stoked is when my presence or insight inspires another WTF to pick up a wrench. I’m all about WTF world domination.”
Next up, Tiana’s heading a new Minnesota fat bike team, Cake Team Racing. In the summer, she volunteers with Little Bellas, an organization whose volunteers teach girls aged 7–14 to become more confident mountain bikers. And this year, she hopes to bring her love for track crits to Minneapolis by working with a local race coordinator.
“I’m excited to chill out a bit this season and do more domestic traveling,” she says. “Honestly, I wanna do more mountain biking, switch things up a bit.”