Emma Johansson is one of the hard-women of cycling, a rider who thrives on the cobbles and crosswinds of Northern Europe. The Ronde van Vlaanderen is her favorite race. She achieved her best finish at the Flemish classic last season when she finished third. She dreams of winning.
Sweden is not one of the traditional cycling countries, a reality that has complicated Emma Johansson’s path to the top level of the sport. Nonetheless, she has steadily climbed the ranks. In 2009, she finished second behind Dutch talent Marianne Vos in the season-long World Cup series, and in 2008, she won a silver medal in the Olympic road race in Beijing. She now races as a favorite to win at the major one-day races on the women’s calender and will rank among the top contenders at the upcoming World Championships in Melbourne.
Last week, I had the chance to chat with Johansson. Animated and friendly, she shared stories from her career, talked about her ambitions for the season, and offered her perspective on the current state of women’s racing. Pull up a chair, pour a fresh cup of coffee, and get to know Emma Johansson.
Emma Johansson grew up in a small town in Northern Sweden. As her first sport, she chose cross-country skiing. The alternative was table tennis. Her parents did not do sports, and in her small town with its large snowbanks, cross-country skiing offered an obvious outlet. In time, the family moved to a larger town and Johansson’s older brother took up mountain biking. Johansson liked the idea of trying something new and soon followed her brother to the bike. She took to it immediately. "I liked the speed and the freedom," Johansson said. Mountain biking offered more variety than cross-country skiing. "With skiing, it’s just snow everywhere. It’s always the same," she explained. "You just see so many things when you ride." There were forests to explore, rocks to hop, streams to cross, and adventures to chase. Mountain biking offered an escape and a chance to see new things.
When the time came to enter high school, Johansson applied to a sports school. In the Swedish system, students choose a career track at the high school level, and by then, Johansson knew she wanted to be an athlete. She received acceptances for both cross-country skiing and cycling. She chose the bike. Her new school brought her first experience with riding a road bike. "I’m never going to road racing," she remembered thinking. "Mountain biking was my sport." It was okay to train on the road bike, but she expected to stick to mountain bike racing.
Then, Johansson won a road race. That victory caught the eye of the Swedish national team. Before, Johansson had always competed as an individual either in mountain biking or skiing. Being part of a team offered a new and rewarding experience for her. She also had to learn how to play the road racing game. "I need to think," she discovered, and tactics proved the hardest aspect of road racing to master. "It didn’t matter how hard you pull, they’ll still win," she learned. Road racing meant racing not only with the body, but also with the mind. After finishing school, Johansson traveled to Spain in the hope of advancing her career, but women’s races proved few and far between, and she raced against junior men more often than women. She found more luck in the Netherlands where women’s cycling has more depth and more support. Johansson worked as an au pair for a Dutch family while she worked to build her racing career.
Fast forward to the present, and Emma Johansson says she is "still learning." Like last season, Johansson will ride this year for RedSun, one of the smaller teams on the women’s circuit. "I’m getting quite smart," she confided. But she explained that it is difficult to race against the big teams like Cervélo TestTeam and HTC-Columbia, who will very often have more than one rider in the winning move. And while "you can always get better at sprinting and climbing," Johansson said tactics remained an area where she especially wants to improve.
As a rider, Johansson excels in the hilly one-day races. She likes the short, punchy climbs, "up to 4 kilometers." The longer climbs in the 10 kilometer range are "not for her," she admitted. She got her start with international racing in the Netherlands. "If I had gone to Italy, I might never have made it," she said, laughing. "Too much climbing!" The short, steep climbs that punctuate the Dutch and Belgian races suited her to perfection and matched the terrain she had ridden in Sweden. Johansson considers courses with lots of up and down and technical roads to suit her best. Little wonder that she finished second behind Nicole Cooke in the wet, hilly Olympic road race with its tricky off-camber corners. She followed the result in Beijing with a fourth place finish at the 2008 World Championship road race in Varese.
Johansson’s most important victory so far came at the 2009 Ronde van Drenthe in the Netherlands, one of the races in the women’s World Cup series. Her exhilaration at being in the mix with "the bigs" of women’s racing sounded in her voice, and as she recounted the story, hints of her competitive nature emerged. "To win against Marianne Vos in her home country" felt like an especially huge accomplishment to Johansson. On a personal note, she had also just become engaged and was wearing her engagement ring around her neck on race day. "I am superstitious," she confided. What if the race didn’t go well? "Maybe I couldn’t wear it again," she said of her engagement ring. Fortunately, the day ended in victory.
At the end of the 2009 season, Johansson finished second behind Marianne Vos in the World Cup series. The two riders frequently go head-to-head, because they share many of the same characteristics. Both women ride well in the short climbs and hard terrain of the northern classics, and both riders can finish fast from a small group. "She is an amazing rider," Johansson said of Vos. The admiration for her competitor came through clearly in Johansson’s voice. "I see a little of myself in her," the Swedish talent continued. Not only do they share similar characteristics as riders, but also they ride for smaller teams, which shapes their tactics and approach to racing. They frequently have to fend for themselves in the final kilometers of the big races, which requires tactical savvy and strong legs.
Every rider has a race of dreams. For Emma Johansson, it’s the Ronde van Vlaanderen. "I love the Ronde van Vlaanderen," she said. Her passion for the race rang clear. During the racing season, she lives in Belgium between Gent and Oudenaarde, not much more than 5 kilometers from the start of the Ronde. Living in Belgium means she has "lots of supporters" out in force for the Ronde which only adds to the magic of the day. Johansson also trains on the key sections of the race frequently to prepare. Her best result came in 2009 when she finished third behind Ina-Yoko Teutenberg of HTC-Columbia and Kirsten Wild of Cervélo TestTeam. In 2008, she has finished third in the Omloop het Volk. Plainly, the cobbles suit her.
In preparation for the coming season, Johansson spent November and December alternating between the gym, intervals on the indoor bike, and cross-country skiing. In early January, she traveled to Gran Canaria for a ten day training camp where she piled on the volume. In ten days, she did 51 hours of training. She also took two recovery days. It was "train, eat, sleep," she said. In a more typical week of training during the season, she spends 20 hours on the bike. Currently, she is in Norway, where she will do interval work indoors in preparation for another training camp in Majorca, where she will again pour on the volume.
Between training sessions, Johansson traveled to Belgium to meet her RedSun team. Three new riders come to the team this season: Emma Silversides of Great Britain, Marie Lindberg of Sweden, and Hannah Verhaeghe of Belgium. Ludivine Henrion, the current Belgian National Champion, continues with the team, and Johansson noted that the team is registered in Belgium this year, which makes the Belgian riders an especially important element of RedSun. She characterized RedSun as "stronger than last year," and described the riders as "a group that likes to work together." At the big races, "there’s no question about who the team is going to ride for," she explained. A women’s sports team is a fragile organism. It can all go wrong so easily. One thing happens, and "no one ever forgets," she said with a rueful laugh. Johansson emphasized that the team is "easy" and "relaxed," and it’s clear that the no-drama atmosphere at RedSun is important to her.
Women’s cycling is a difficult business. Certainly, no one is getting rich at it. Johansson was forthright. "I could make more money getting a job here in Norway," she said. Even a big win doesn’t bring much prize money. According to Johansson, the winner of a women’s World Cup race receives €1300.00, which she shares with her team-mates. "€1300.00, split six ways," Johansson said with a resigned note in her voice, as if to say, this is nothing. She said repeatedly that the sport of cycling needs to be more "equal" between the men and women. She would like to see more support from the UCI and race organizers for the idea of putting women’s racing on a more equal financial footing with the men's circuit.
Women’s cycling suffers especially from its near-invisibility on television and in the media. Johansson said without media coverage it was "difficult to give back to the sponsor" and difficult to make a case for why a sponsor should support a women’s team. For some time, she has wanted to build a Scandinavian team, but securing sponsorship has proven insurmountable. For the men’s teams, "it’s different, they’re on EuroSport, they have races like the Tour and the Vuelta," she explained. It’s notably easier for them to draw sponsor interest. Indeed, most of Johansson’s current sponsors are people she knows or people who are passionate about cycling. They aren’t necessarily looking to receive a return on their sponsorship commitment, but instead to support a sport they love. Johansson also said she would like to see more women’s races run concurrently with the men’s races. The crowds come out for the men’s race, they’re drinking their beers, and "look, there’s the women." The media is there, the crowds are there. She called it a special experience for the women to race in front of the big crowds on the famous courses.
Why watch women’s racing? Johansson compared a women’s race to "the last two hours of a men’s race." The races are shorter, which makes for "lots of attacking." She described the big women’s races as very "animated." Certainly, that has been true of the women’s World Championship road races over the past few seasons, where the attacks have come thick and fast.
Watch the women’s World Cup races this season and you are almost certain to see Emma Johansson at the front. She will seek to improve on last year’s second place finish in the World Cup series, and she will need a big season to overcome last year’s winner Marianne Vos. She also has the Rainbow Jersey in her mind. But most of all, she will be dreaming of cobbles, dreaming of the great Flandrian celebration of cycling and of victory on a Sunday in April.
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Story by Jen See. Thanks to Jens Hagström for his assistance in setting up this interview and for providing background information. Grazie Jens!
Photo, Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images Sport.