Brendan “Trekky” Johnston is one of Australia’s most versatile riders. He’s a multiple-time MTB Marathon national champion, he’s won Gravel Nationals, he’s been on the podium at Road Nationals, and he’s won the National Road Series (Australia’s highest level of domestic road racing). Most recently, Johnston wrapped up his first season racing the Life Time Grand Prix in the US, a series of seven gravel and MTB events including some of the biggest off-road events in the country (including Unbound and Leadville).
For Johnston – an electrician by trade who has long balanced full-time work with training and racing – throwing himself into the Life Time Grand Prix was a big deal. It meant months away from family and friends, it came at a significant financial cost, and there were some very low moments along the way.
But by the end of the season, Johnston proved himself among the best in the series, with a podium at The Rad in Trinidad, Colorado, before finishing the series with a win at Big Sugar in Arkansas. He finished seventh in the overall standings.
Earlier this week, Johnston spoke to Escape from his home town of Canberra, where he’s now back working and spending time with his family. As you’ll read below, Johnston spoke candidly about the challenges he faced this year, and what it meant to be able to end his US campaign on such a positive note.
Matt de Neef: Where did the idea of your US season come from?
Brendan Johnston: I was a partner in this business for 10 years, and then I was kind of getting to the point where I had enough of doing it and wanted a change. So I quit, in essence, and I decided to go full tilt for our Road Nats last year. So I finished work in like August , and then just trained the rest of the year.
And then in the time that was happening, the applications for the Grand Prix came out, which I actually applied for in the year prior, but not really with any sort of plans of getting in – I just thought I’d put my name in there and see how I went. In that time that I didn’t have a job I just managed to get in. If I hadn’t gotten in, I would have just trained for Nationals and then done something else. Like got a different job and keep going with that.
But as it happened, the timing just kind of worked out. I didn’t have a job that I’d have to leave to go and do it. So it was a matter of just working out the logistics and getting over there and having a crack.
How did you make that work financially? I know you’ve got sponsors – did they cover the costs?
I had good support, a couple of good financial sponsors as well. But what I found was the expense of that was … it was a lot more than what I expected. Just the Australian dollar in itself is a pretty big issue. I obviously had a share in the business and stuff and had a lot of assets, let’s say – cars and all this sort of stuff. So I sold a lot of that before I went and just kind of used that to fund it a bit. I was kind of all in.
Essentially, I put a fair bit of strain on family life to do it so my plea was that I kind of knew what I was capable of and I wasn’t going just to have a go. I was sort of like, “I think I could probably make something of it if I’m going and potentially, you know, earn some money eventually and have that kind of cool lifestyle.”
I mean, I was working a lot up until this point. Our daughter was born in 2020. Even just working and training and having a business and stuff, I wasn’t really seeing much of her, so it was kind of time to change something. And even that period where I was training full time, it was really nice because I’d train during the day and then have time to spend with her in the afternoon. I was seeing her way more than I ever had.
Your wife and daughter joined you in the States for part of your season, right?
Yeah, so I did a trip early to California for Sea Otter, the first round [of the Life Time Grand Prix], and then another BWR [Belgian Waffle Ride] in California. It was only two and a half weeks and then I came back and trained here for Unbound.
My wife’s from Laos. That period I was back [in Australia] was three weeks and they were in Laos for two [of those] weeks. It ended up being pretty difficult how it played out. I think they got home on like a Sunday and I think I flew out on the Monday or Tuesday. It was pretty full-on. And then I was there [in the US] for two months and then they came for the last three months.
And you based yourselves in Colorado Springs, but with a whole lot of travelling around obviously?
Yeah, heaps of driving. And I flew to some races when I was there by myself. Once they got there we were roadtripping, which was actually pretty cool. And, I mean, she’s only three, but she handled it seemingly really well.
How did you find the level of competition in the US compared to what you were expecting?
Sea Otter was our first race. I raced the week before in California, in San Diego, on the gravel. I wasn’t sure to be honest, when I went there. And that was like, pretty early in my season so I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, but I was keen to see where I would fit and how I would go.
The first race I was a bit surprised with how well I went, and even Sea Otter as well, it was sort of like, “You know, I can probably build from here. I’m pretty happy.” I think I was sixth in the Grand Prix at Sea Otter, which is good. I was happy with that.
I had a big mechanical at Unbound which was really shit. My season in the middle went kind of a bit shit because I did the huge Unbound training block and then the race didn’t go to plan. The day after we went straight to Colorado Springs – this is at like 2,000 metres altitude – and I just got straight to work and did the next three weeks full gas and just cooked it.
I mean, if you train for Unbound, you probably need to rest from that training, even if you don’t do the race. I think I did 90 hours in three weeks or something, loading up for it. Which is what you’ve got to do, but I learned a lot from that. And then hitting altitude as well.
So my form was in quite a bit of a hole and then obviously at altitude, those guys … in answer to the question, the level at altitude is really good. In fact, it blows my mind, and I think a lot of other people’s minds how well particularly Keegan [Swenson] goes at high altitude. So it’s definitely a high level, and if you’re on a shitter, then you’re likely going to be a fair way down the standings.
You wrote on Instagram that there were times where you felt like you weren’t cut out for racing over there, and that you felt like coming home. Can you talk a bit about that?
For background, I changed my coach at the start of the year, when I knew I was going [to the US] because I felt like I could compete in this series but I knew to race with Keegan and the likes I needed to go to another level. I think we trained really well for Unbound, but like I say, we just didn’t rest enough after that. And then I was put into a hole I have never been in before.
I’ve raced for 15 years and I’ve never had that problem, which I think comes from being full time for the first time in my whole career pretty much. It’s always been limited from being at work and obviously I’d still do decent weeks but nothing like what I was doing, and given the full time I was just all in. And then with that frustration of Unbound I wanted to really make amends and it just backfired and went against me.
So those middle couple of races … there’s one in Utah, Crusher in the Tushar, I was just terrible. I’ve never had that kind of form slump or whatever you want to call it before, so it was tough to deal with. I was just in the Springs by myself. I had really good accommodation – I had a friend’s, friend’s big house, right on the edge of the hills. So it was really good and it was perfect for training. The problem was the training wasn’t going perfect, which was tough to deal with.
And then my daughter’s birthday happened while I was away, which is the kind of stuff you can kind of live with if the purpose you’re there for is going well. But for me, it was just like, “I’ve sacrificed a lot to be here and it’s really just not happening for me.” Which was hard to move through.
I ended up taking two weeks off in the middle of the season because it was kind of like panic stations. I started training again with the same coach, but even a couple of weeks into it, he was still flogging me. One day, I think I did like a seven-hour day or something and the next day he prescribed some intervals and he was thinking, “You had that time off, you should be good to go today.” But I was like “Hang on, I just did seven hours at altitude the day before. I’m tired.” Basically, we started heading down the same path.
That afternoon, I was just like “You know what, I think we’re done. I think I need to listen to my body and I need to listen to myself.” I’ve been doing it a while and I know what gets me going. I do struggle with resting and knowing when to rest but at this point, I was just like, “I’m pretty sure I need to rest” and just knock it back a bit to salvage what I could.
My buddy Sean Lewis is living in Colorado Springs as well. He’s from Australia and he used to race and he was really good in saying “It’s not over.” We’d only done three or four races by then and he was like “There’s still time to climb up the standings.” But at this point, like the Crusher race, I think I finished 28th or maybe even worse and I just felt terrible. And all my intervals were going terrible so I just could not picture that I was gonna be able to salvage anything from the season. I was adamant that these feelings I had were just going to continue and it was just going to be a disaster.
But yeah, incredibly it did a full 180.
[The image above shows Johnston winning the Belgian Waffle Ride in Utah. It’s one of the various events Trekky rode in the US this year that isn’t part of the Life Time Grand Prix.]
Yeah, you finished off the series so strongly. What changed? Was it that change of approach to your training?
Like I say, I just had to listen to my body. I went back to my old coach, Ben Hill, who’s another Canberra guy – I’ve raced with him forever. He was coaching me before this and then I just called him up and said, “Look, do you reckon you could take over and see what we can salvage?” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah.”
I mean, I had a really good base and I had obviously been training really hard. So it was just a matter of managing that and just tuning out for the races and making sure I was feeling good and fresh.
It took a lot for me to just trust my own instinct. And even with that old coach … typically I would just go and do the session and just try and get it done. But it took a fair bit of courage within myself to just listen to my body and how I was feeling and really just go “This is not working”, and make that change. I honestly can’t believe the fruit that those decisions bore in the later part of the year.
Reading your Instagram post after your third place in Trinidad it’s clear how relieved you were. Can you talk a bit about that?
It was honestly unbelievable. During the race I was racing with no confidence because it was the first time I started feeling good. I felt like it was probably going to fall in a heap any moment. So I didn’t wait for the sprint, which I probably should have, just because I had no confidence in myself. Which is a bit disappointing to look back on, but also I’m so pleased that I’d actually got to that point and got to race at the front.
That’s the type of performance I kind of envisaged when I applied and when I decided I was gonna go and do it. That’s what I trained for. And that’s what I told my wife and sponsors and all these people that I could do.
And then you went and won the final round, Big Sugar. Did you come into that race with more confidence?
I did. The day before the race, I knew I was gonna be racing at the front. And that changes the game, because you’re just so much more calm. You’re not thinking about the first 20 minutes of the race or hour of the race; you’re thinking about the final and what you can do. So your energy is put towards that.
And even in that race I punctured twice. Sometimes I don’t have the mindset to get it fixed and get going again but this day, I was just possessed. I think I was two or three minutes back at one point, when the group was still 30 or 40 riders. So still moving quite quick. I just stopped, put a plug in it, and just got on with it. And I was just like, “I’m just gonna ride back, and I’ll be back in the race.”
The second time it happened I think we were down to five or six of us. And yeah, I was alarmed at first but pretty soon after, I was just like, “This is fine. I’ve got the legs. I’ll just ride back.” I think I closed like 45 seconds in six minutes or something. So I was just on one of those days. When I got back to the group the second time when it was quite small, the cameras and the motorbike and everything was like surrounding this bunch, and they didn’t know I was coming. I was like, “I’m just gonna go straight past and go on with it.” It worked out really well.
[Johnston was second in the event overall, but first among the Grand Prix field – ed.]
Given how strongly you finished the series, is there part of you that wishes it was longer?
Yeah, for sure. It was good to finish like that. And even at that point, that was enough for me to get to that point, to finish ahead of Keegan. Which, in the middle of the year was like, “I’m racing a different bloody league to him.” Which everyone is at altitude as well. But it was not something that I thought I was going to do, or come close to in the middle of the year.
Seventh overall gets you an invite back to the Life Time Grand Prix next year. Do you think you’ll be back?
Yeah. After that Trinidad race I pretty much thought I’d be back. I mean, I’ve had to organise all this already. The difficulty with it last year was that short turnaround. I think they didn’t tell us till January or something. And I actually had a conversation with the people that run it, about this. I was told they took on my advice, and they were thankful that I raised it – that the timeline is really hard to work with.
If I’m trying to find $100,000 to race there and I can’t start until December – people’s budgets are done in October. How do you do that?
What do you reckon you’ll do differently next time, either in terms of the racing preparation, or even just managing family stuff?
Yeah, I think I’m gonna come back and forward a bit more. I was just there for too long and it didn’t mean I was going any better like I thought I would be. If I was staying at altitude I figured that was the perfect preparation, being in this house, just solely being able to focus on myself. But in hindsight, it didn’t really work out that way.
I think I just don’t need to put so much emphasis on the altitude training. I think my general level of shape that I can get into without even considering the altitude would be a lot better than what I was in the high-altitude races this year anyway.
I’m just not a rider that really excels at high altitude so I think I need to just really consider that and not try and be flying for those events, because I know that it’s not my strong point. I’ll just do them with whatever shape I have at that point in the year and then look to capitalise at Unbound early, and then the Trinidad race and Big Sugar at the end.
And just finally, what’s the plan for the next little while? Are we gonna see you at Road Nationals in January?
Yeah. I’m doing the Dirty Warrny on the weekend. I’ve just had a couple weeks off, but I like to keep present. I think that’s why a lot of my partners are on board, because I’m generally going to be at most of the big events in OK shape most of the time.
So I feel like it’s part of my brand to be at Nationals and do that each year. At least for the last few years anyways it’s sort of been a bit of a staple of my season and people kind of expect me to be doing it. And I obviously love doing it.
We’ve got a couple of mortgages, which has been a stress because of the interest rates, obviously. I definitely wasn’t looking after those too well while I was off racing in the US, spending two times the Aussie dollar, pretty much. So I’ll just work a bit over the summer and then get going – I think we kick off in April over there.
So I need to really get knuckled down and plan out my trips, because there’s races I want to do here [in Australia], and then obviously, there’s some other ones I want to do over there [in the US] outside of the series as well. So it’s a matter of hitting what I can while managing the family, which is challenging, there’s no doubt about that.
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