the rise of Guy Johnston
words and images by Cam Mackenzie
At the end of a long drive, down a quiet, gravel road a fair way from anywhere, sits the Johnston farmstead. It’s a modest family home, on a quintessential Waikato farm, where dairy cows outnumber the Johnston clan 500 to one. On the doorstep sits a mismatched array of jandals and gumboots, with the occasional motocross boot for good measure. At first glance, there’s no sign of a mountain biker living here: there isn’t even a lonely SPD shoe sitting out of place.
This is a story about dedication, hard work, modesty, staying grounded, and how a farm boy came to be one of our next big hopefuls. In order to make sense of the present, we need to first understand the past.
For Guy Johnston, the journey started some 10-plus years ago. Growing up on the Hauraki Plains never allowed him to plant the same cycling roots as those who grow up near mountains. Instead, before any BMX or mountain biking came into the picture, it started on the farm. Some may turn their noses up at the thought of bashing around a paddock on a moto, but those early years of Guy chasing cows and dodging paddies ingrained many basic fundamentals that laid the foundations for the racing to come.
The backyard motos only lasted so long before his parents, Kim and Aaron, decided it was time to get him into BMX. One day they took Guy, then six, down to the local track to try his hand, and it was all on from then. He says he started racing properly when he was seven, but is hazy on the details thereafter. There are only so many gates, rhythm sections and four corners you can do before you get sick of it, he jokes.
Eventually Kim and Aaron realised Guy had the talent to take his racing to the next level. He began coaching lessons in Cambridge three times a week, with Kim making the two-and-a-half-hour round trip every other day. There was a myriad of podiums, trophies, medals and wins that went along with the relentless and tiresome training, but Guy’s main focus was the 2013 UCI BMX World Champs in Auckland.
That same year, he threw a leg over his first trail bike. A family trip to Rotorua saw Guy taking his bike up Skyline to ride, the likely catalyst of the start of something great. In 2014, at age of 11, he turned up to race the inaugural 440 MTB Park Enduro, followed by a smattering of downhill races aboard that same trail bike, as he couldn’t quite muscle a full-size DH bike yet. When Crankworx came to town in 2015, his folks took him down to Rotorua to watch the action, further cementing Guy’s desire to race.
All good things take time, though, and come 2016, with a freshly minted Transition TR450 underfoot, he raced the full NZ DH series, followed by the NZDHCo National series in early 2017. It wasn’t long before the results followed, with Guy taking out several podiums and his first Under-15 National Championship title at only 13.
By this point his trusty old BMX bike had been hung up for good and his full focus was on mountain biking. Things never really slowed down after that first season, and nor did the results. Each year thereafter, as Guy grew, he climbed through the categories and proved to be somewhat unstoppable. As he stepped up into the Under-17 and then Under-19 ranks, the pressure began to mount, with many of his competitors also stepping up the pace. But weekend in and weekend out, Guy consistently mixed it up at the pointy end of things.
While his weekends were dedicated to racing and riding, weekdays consisted of high school, driving tractors loaded with feed around the farm, and the occasional dawn call to help out in the milk shed. From a young age, he was taught to earn his keep; nothing was ever just given to him. While many of his friends were skipping school to take off overseas and race iXS Downhill Cups, Guy was grafting it out at home, pulling teats and riding twice a week if he was lucky. With 440 MTB Park only 30 minutes up the road, and Rotorua 90 minutes in the other direction, he was able to pack a lot of good riding into those small windows. He attributes much of his growth to 440, with the park opening and running parallel to his riding.
His upbringing and situation contributed to his grounded and humble nature that’s seen him succeed. He’s so laid back that he’s horizontal, but that placidness almost saw him miss the biggest opportunity to cross his path.
Kim would agree; trusty old Mum saw YT’s talent call on social media early in 2019. Guy laughs that he didn’t really understand what it was all about, but with mum’s help, applied to attend the first team camp at Justin Leov’s Jentree property, near Blenheim (see Spoke issue 80 for more on Jentree).
The YT talent call is a program launched by The YT Mob factory downhill team looking for a talented young rider to travel the world, stopping to race in eight locations along the way. Their camps let potential candidates ride with current members of the team and showcase their talents in a bid for one of two factory rides in 2020.
Guy flew down after the last race of the National Series in 2019 and attended the first of eight camps. On arrival, he was surprised to meet team director Martin Whiteley, team rider Angel Suarez, and Justin Leov, whom Guy would spend the next few days riding alongside and learning from. The aim of each camp was to identify the best young rider and offer them an invitation to a final trial at the team’s headquarters in Spain later in the year.
Guy says the first camp felt much like a shuttle day in the forest with your mates, or hanging out at a local race. The vibe was casual and the riding was fantastic, because he had two great riders coaching and mentoring him, which took his mind off of the fact he was there to prove himself.
He says he went into the camp not expecting much, hoping to have fun with the opportunity and enjoy his time spent around the other riders. Obviously Martin saw something in Guy: before they’d even arrived at the airport to fly home, Kim’s phone rang asking if Guy could come to Spain in September to attend that final camp.
“Shit got real!” Guy says. “I’d always humoured the idea of racing World Cups, but it seemed like such an intangible goal.”
Having just turned 17, 2020 is the first year Guy is eligible to race World Cups. I had a conversation with Kim in the pits after Guy had just won the 2018 Oceania Downhill Mountainbike Championship in Dunedin. I asked if they planned to head overseas to race that year, but Kim said they’d hold off until 2019 when Guy could earn points and the trip would have more worth.
Come 2019 and this YT opportunity had now presented itself to Guy. Rather than rush overseas, the Johnston’s approach was a little more calculated, only leaving NZ once to race Oceanias in Bright, Australia. They put all their eggs into one basket and focused on that final camp later in the year.
Months later, Kim and Guy found themselves sitting on the deck of the YT Mob HQ, overlooking Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
“It felt like a world away from home. I’d only raced out of New Zealand once, let alone in Europe,” Guy says.
Guy knew what needed to be done to capitalise on the opportunity that had thrown itself on his lap. He says he just took it all in his stride, made sure to strike up lots of conversations, and tried to ride smart.
Upon returning home, the waiting game began. As the usual, local pre-summer races kicked into gear, they were left wondering what was to be. But then the phone rang. It was Martin, asking if Guy would like to join the team for the next two years. While the celebrations started, they still needed to keep a lid on the news for at least two months while things got finalised.
As the weekends rolled by and local races came and went, so too did the pressure from others wondering how Guy had got on in Spain and asking if there was any news. The Johnston’s needed to proceed like there was no news, and that as soon as they knew, they would tell everyone.
“It was so hard telling white lies, but once we could shout about it, the support was incredible.
” It’s not often that a Kiwi junior gets a first-year factory ride. Hell, it’s not often any kiwi gets a ride, junior or not!
Tuhoto Ariki-Pene’s win at Val di Sole last year broke the seven-year Kiwi World Cup win drought, and Guy’s recent World Cup signing marks the start of a new chapter in our rich racing history.
Nowadays, Guy’s schedule looks a little different from when I caught up with him at his home over summer. Having now finished school, Guy spends his days training and riding; if he’s not in the gym, you can either find him on the trails or out road-riding his trail bike around the Hauraki Plains. He laughs that mum and dad no longer have to run him to the gym or the bike park, as he proudly waves around his freshly-minted driver license.
Getting his start so young will no doubt help foster a long and prosperous career for “Farmer Brown”. Where others struggle to fund their overseas exploits, or get lost down the rabbit-hole of parties and girls, Guy will have all the support he needs to succeed … and besides, he isn’t old enough to get into parties! But once he gets a taste of success on the world stage, there’ll be no going back. This is a Guy who wants it, and has had to work hard to earn it.