Interview: Emma Johansson on the Trofeo Binda, Ronde van Vlaanderen and much more

It's a huge week for women's cycling, with two Road World Cups in seven days - the Trofeo Alfredo Binda in Italy on 30th March, and the Ronde van Vlaanderen on 7th April. One rider who's bound to be making the races hard is ORICA-AIS' star rider, Emma Johansson. We asked her to tell us about the races, living in Flanders, how she made her way in cycling and a lot more. And if you want to follow Binda, check out the guide at the bottom of the post.

There are two ways to access this interview - by reading it below, or by listening to it as a podcast - take your pick for the one that suits you best!

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PdC: On Sunday we have the second round of the Road World Cup, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and this is a race you know very well, and have done very well in in the past, so I was wondering if you could tell us what this race is going to be like?

Emma: It's always difficult to know, last year it was horrific weather, but what it looks like now is that it's going to be sunshine, so that's going to be a big difference compared to the other years.

The course is quite hard, first we do a big loop with two climbs in it, and then we enter this smaller lap that we do four times that has a long climb, but the climb is sort of in three sections, and normally it gets decided on that shorter lap.  In the last years it's been hard because of the weather conditions in combination with the hard course, so I'm pretty sure it's going to be a hard race on Sunday.

PdC: And they've changed the course, haven't they?

Emma: They've changed it a bit, but it's just on that bit lap, but the climbs we've had on the other years are going to be in it, so it's not that much of a change.

PdC: The descent on the lap seems to take out a couple of riders every year.  We see on the tv they have the corners with mattresses tied to them - does that descent bother you, or is it more a case of worrying about being around other riders who can't descend?

Emma: I never really worry about things like that - I think if it's dodgy weather and a bit slippery, it's a lot better if you ride in the front.  That's where I like to race, I prefer racing in the front of the peloton, that's also the easiest way to stay out of trouble.  I try to race that way and hopefully don't get stuck behind small issues that can easily happen when it's a World Cup, because everybody will want to be in the front, so it's never easy to stay there, but I prefer to spend some extra energy on it and stay out of trouble.

PdC: Every rider says it's positioning, you've got to stay in the front, you've got to watch out for breaks, but if you've got 200 riders all wanting to be there, what are your secrets to staying in front?

Emma: Just want it a little bit more than the rest!  I don't know, of course you do need to be able to be strong to sit there as well, and to stay there, but it's all about wanting to be there and be strong enough to, and I think maybe it's just something you have deep in you, otherwise you can grow into it as well.  Obviously when I was younger it wasn't easy, I've been dropped before we'd left Oudenaarde in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, so it doesn't happen overnight!

PdC: It's interesting, because I look at those races, and half the field doesn't even finish - and last year it was such horrific weather, and you won the sprint for second?

Emma: It wasn't a bunch sprint - Elisa [Longo Borghini] was up the road, and then I had Spratty from the team also up the road, and Ellen [van Dijk] jumped and I was sitting on in Ellen's wheel - she jumped the last time over that climb, and we caught Spratty back and were sprinting for second place, the three of us

PdC: I never expected Elisa to stay away, when she jumped on the second lap, I just assumed she would be caught, it was such an amazing race to watch.  And last year obviously the conditions were terrible, and the whole spring was terrible - how did you manage to be so good in such awful weather?

Emma: I don't know, maybe it has something to do with the fact that I am Scandinavian, and I'm used to cold conditions.  My whole winter training is sort of like it is in those races, so it's not that I enjoy the cold weather, but maybe I have a bigger tolerance against it mentally? I think my body's reacting just like the others, it doesn't really enjoy it, I get cold hands and feet, but I think mentally I'm maybe stronger when it's bad conditions, I don't know.

PdC: If it's sunny on Sunday as well, that changes everything too.  How do you prepare for that, do you have different plans in advance, or do you have to make your plans on the day?

Emma: It doesn't really matter if it's cold, or sunny, or rainy, you can't do anything about that.  I think you should just concentrate on the race, and how you can create a situation you would like, and that depends on the day, and it depends on your form, and it depends a bit about the people around you - who's there and who's not there, and I think it's all about going a bit with the flow, with the feeling and what you feel like on that day.

Of course beforehand, I have an idea in my head of how I'd like it to unfold, but I think it's important not to get too locked up with things as well, because so many things can happen along the way, and you just need to focus for that specific moment, where you are at that moment.

PdC: It's an interesting time of year, because you have Binda on Sunday, and then a week later you've got Flanders…  how much are you looking at that, and at the World Cup in total?

Emma: The World Cup in total is not anything I think about - I just really enjoy every single World Cup race as just a one-day race, and they're all beautiful races in their own way.  I don't think about any GC, I often get that question about the overall in the World Cup, and that doesn't mean anything to me.

PdC: I guess because they are such beautiful races, and such amazing races, if you could have the choice of winning the World Cup or a couple of races, would you pick the races every time?

Emma: EVERY time, I would pick the races, yeah!

PdC: That's really interesting, because as a fan I get caught up in the World Cup, but to me, who won Flanders or Binda or the Ronde van Drenthe are the things I remember every year.    So who do you think we should look out for at Binda, apart from you?

Emma: I don't know, I haven't thought about that yet.  Elisa has been going very strong, and Ellen as well.  Probably Annemiek [van Vleuten], she's been going up and down, I don't know how her climbing form is at the moment.  It depends on the conditions, and how it gets raced, I think.  Elisa, for sure, Ashleigh Moolman, she's been strong, and who else?  Maybe Rosella Ratto, I haven't seen her so far this year, but maybe she'll come back, she's Italian, and it's an Italian race, so she might be strong, you never know.

Tiffany [Cromwell] is going strong, and I don't know if Evelyn Stevens is coming, I haven't heard if she's in Europe, so maybe she's not racing, maybe she's getting in this week, Trixi [Worrack]'s riding strong at the moment, so I'm sure they will have someone up there as well.

PdC: Do you think about the other riders when you're getting ready, or do you just focus on yourself, and how it happens on the day?

Emma: I definitely focus on myself, I can't do anything about the others, they need to look after themselves, it's more about me, and how I can get the most out of myself on that specific day.  I can't do anything about the rest of them, so I concentrate on myself.

PdC: We go from Binda straight to Flanders - and you're an adopted Belgian - half Belgian, half Norwegian and half Swedish!

Emma: A bit Spanish as well, a bit Basquian, a little bit of everything!

PdC: A bit of Australian these days?

Emma: They haven't really adopted me, I'm really enjoying being in the team, but I haven't been in Australia enough to feel like I'm Australian.

PdC: In Belgium, do you live in Oudenaarde?

Emma: I live in Zingem, it's 5k out of Oudenaarde,

PdC: And will the race be passing through there again?

Emma:
Yeah, taking it through my street again!

PdC: I always love it when they take the race down Emma Johansson Street, and it's full of Swedish flags, that's a special little moment for me.

Emma: Yeah, it's beautiful, I love it - it's so nice to see the whole of Zingem getting together and just standing there cheering us on, it's cool, it's nice

PdC: And you were the Swedish ambassador for Flanders this year - I love that video!

Emma: It's nice, I love Flanders, I love the area. I think most people are not really enthusiastic when they hear "Belgium", and I have to admit, I didn't know what I was going to, the first time I went to Belgium, but I've learned to love it, and they have so much more than you can imagine, so much more that's amazing.  To be there as a cyclist is like living your dream, and I know everybody loves Italy and Spain, where they can go to the climbs and it's nice and warm, but I think Belgium has something more, it has more soul.  For me it's very special.

PdC: I think what I liked about that Visit Flanders video was that you were serious about it, but you were also very funny about it too, that was a nice touch.

Emma: It's gotten such a positive response - and I didn't think it was going to be that big a deal when we did it.  But it's been good for me, and for Flanders as well - I hope it makes more people want to travel there and actually see it.

PdC: That's what a lot of people were saying to me about it - that they'd thought about going to Flanders for the races, but they hadn't really thought about going there for a holiday - do a sportive, see a race, go back home again.

Emma: Exactly!

PdC: It was nice to see some different things - and also to get to see a bit of your personality.  Did you get to give them ideas about what you wanted to show?

Emma: Yeah, obviously I do have my favourite parts of Belgium and my favourite things, so we had some ideas, me and Martin, and they had some, and we got it together, and Martin was the one setting up the route more or less, where we wanted to ride, and what we wanted to show, so it was a bit of a mix.  I think how they wanted to twist it made me feel really comfortable, because that's almost exactly how I am every day, so it just felt really comfortable doing it.  We spent some hours on it, but it wasn't much, half a day filming and then a bit recording my voice, talking, and they made such a nice thing out of it, so it was cool to see.

PdC: I loved it, it was so much fun - especially the bar stool at the end!

Emma: Yeah, everyone was talking about that!  And they were like "Are you really drinking coke in the pub", and I was like "errrrr…..  yeah?"!

PdC: So the Ronde van Vlaanderen is obviously one of the biggest races, and it's one of your favourite races, isn't it?

Emma: Yeah, I think if you would ask the peloton, probably half would say they love the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

PdC: So what's so good about riding it?  What makes it so special?

Emma: It is special, because it's so many people around, people standing everywhere.  And it's a hard race, and you need to be there all the time, so it doesn't really happen that you "just happen" to win the race - it's hard work, and you need to be super-fit to win it, and you also need to have a team around you, because doing it alone is almost impossible, so that makes it spectacular.  And doing all the cobbled sections, and the fact that we do Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, where the guys are going through only a couple of hours after us, so we have the same public and everything, so for us, it just brings so much more to a World Cup, I think it's just everything.

PdC: It must be different, to have all of that cheering, to ride a race like Flanders, or the London Olympics - what kind of difference does that make to you as a rider?

Emma: It doesn't change anything in the way we want to race or anything - it's just more….  I don't know how I can explain it, but it just gives a bit more meaning to what we're doing.  We're not going to race harder, or faster, or anything, we're just doing what we do every single race.  It's just the fact that people are actually there watching you and cheering you on, it just helps you a little bit, maybe, along the way, and for us it's also about being seen, because we don't get seen as much as the men, so for us it gives a little bit of extra credit for all the work we're putting in.

PdC: Are you going to be riding La Course, the Tour de France race, this summer?

Emma: Yeah, I think so,

PdC: I think that's going to be fantastic for spectators, as well, because you guys are always going to put on a really good show on a course like that, you race those courses all the time through Holland and Belgium, and for people who are waiting, it's going to be amazing to be able to see two races.   But as a rider, what does it feel like to know you'll be on the Champs Elysées?

Emma: I have no idea.  I don't really care too much about that actually - what I do care about is that will hopefully make us grow even bigger, and that everyone can open their eyes and see that we do deserve more attention, and hopefully that will bring us to more bigger events, and we can get some more sponsors in, and more tv coverage, because  with tv coverage women's cycling can grow so much more.  We're putting in the same effort as the guys.  I don't really care if we're riding the Champs Elysées or not, it's just the fact that it's going to be tv coverage, and the public is going to be there, and it's a big thing, and hopefully that will make things wake up a bit more, and the future will be bigger for us - that's what I hope.

PdC: For me, women's riding is much more suited for tv.  Because it's a much shorter race, it's easier to follow, you don't have to give up a whole afternoon to watch a women's race.

Emma: Exactly, it's more like watching the final from a men's race, watching the women's races.  I just hope we can put up a good show on that day, it's going to be very important.

PdC: What are the other big goals for the year for you?  Or what are the races you're looking forward to most?

Emma: I just loving racing in general.  Emakumeen Bira, in Spain, it's a nice area, and I have a lot of friends down there

PdC: And it's one of your many home countries!

Emma: Yeah, since I was there for two years in the team, and still have a lot of contact with the girls that were racing back then, so it's a really nice one.  Obviously the Vårgårda World Cup in Sweden is a beautiful race, and with the Team Time Trial.

And then I'm quite excited about all these new races coming in, with the Tour of Britain, and as well this Norwegian Tour in Halden, I'm also doing that.  I'm getting a bit older, and I've done so many races over and over again, and I know exactly where I'm going to when I do them, so I'm quite excited about doing all these new races, and seeing something new that I haven't done before, and that will be nice.  Of course, the World Championships later on in Spain - that will be a nice finish of the year.

PdC: As a British person, I'm super-excited about the Tour of Britain, because we get to see all of you guys racing in real life, and it's going to be on tv, and for me it's very symbolic, because it's the first time we've had a women's UCI race since 2006 or something, so it's going to be a massive great big show - and apparently not as flat as everyone thinks it's going to be!

Emma: That's my only issue - I was like, "oh well, it's not a time trial" and I just heard it's only going to be flat - and it's like, ok, I hope there's going to be some wind at least, but if it's a bit rolling, or a bit of wind, that makes it more exciting.

PdC: So what makes a beautiful race for you - what makes a really good race?

Emma: Just a super-hard race, up and down all the time, horrible weather, and wind, and when you don't get to recover at all - those type of races I love.  We don't have many races like that - although last year the whole spring was like that, it was just cold and horrible and wet.  I do prefer sun, but I don't mind racing in the rain.

PdC: Is it different not having Marianne Vos around, this early season?

Emma: Not yet.  Obviously for Drenthe, but normally she doesn't do Het Nieuwsblad, and she doesn't do all the races I do.  It was strange not having her there at the World Cup in Drenthe, and it's probably going to be a bit strange in Binda now as well, but I don't think about that too much, she'll be back soon, and she'll be strong, too!

PdC: And you won Cholet Pays de Loire, with the Swedish national team, for the second year in a row..

Emma: Yeah, that was nice, it's always nice to get together - we don't get that many chances to ride with the national team, and that's the second time we've done that with the national team, and we try to set up a good team for the Worlds and for the Olympics further on, to have a bit better preparation when we come in - because we don't do that many races together, it's a bit difficult.

PdC: It must be interesting for you, looking at the young riders coming through, because you famously funded yourself into cycling, didn't you?  When you started you were working part-time, and went to Spain… Can you tell us a little bit about how that happened?

Emma: I don't know, I just wanted to see if I could do it - I wanted to go professional, but I didn't really know how to do it - I obviously I needed to leave Sweden, that's the only thing I knew for sure, so I left!  I was working in the winter, and I saved up some money and I went to Spain, and I stayed in Alicante, and I still don't know why I went there - probably because we sort of had a contact, we could find a place to stay at, but where we stayed there were no female cyclists at all, there were no races, and it wasn't really ideal to become a pro female rider.  So that year on the way home we went through Holland, and we stopped with a Dutch family in Hoogeveen, because we had some contacts from Sweden, and I did a criterium, and they were like, Maybe you want to come back next year as a nanny, because they had three small boys, and I thought maybe I'll do that, Holland didn't seem that nice, but I thought let's see.

So I came back there, and worked for the winter to save up some money again, and I tried to train as hard as I could, but making sure I made enough money to survive for the summer, and I went to Holland, and that's where I came into contact with Bizkaia!

PdC: It must be strange,  you're still really young, but cycling's changed so much in the time you've been pro…  Did you start at 18?

Emma: I started road racing when I was 18.  I'd been mountain biking since I was 12, I've been mountain biking and I never wanted to do road racing, but then I was doing the national championships and then I got the chance to ride with the national team, and suddenly I realised that it was more than just cycling, and I was really excited about that - the fact that it was sitting on a team, and racing together, and it was so much more than just an individual sport, so when I got the chance to ride for Bizkaia, I was really pleased, and I really enjoyed the girls, and the team that was there, and I was very happy with it.

PdC: So in your nine years as a pro, how's women's cycling changed?

Emma: I think for me, obviously it's changed a lot, I've been taking really good, big steps every year since then, and in general as well, you can notice that it's more professional, that the teams are more equal as well.  Back then it was maybe three, four or five riders that could win races, and these days, depending on the course, it can be between 20 and 25 girls that can actually win, and I think we are racing more professionally, we're racing more as a team, which makes it very interesting.

PdC: So there are some riders over the years who were very, very strong individual riders, but weren't so good once the cycling became team-based.  How've you managed to evolve, and change with it as the sports changing?

Emma: It is still a bit difficult, though, I think, because I do agree with the discussions about the Olympics, or the big medals, how there's a big team standing behind it, but it's only just one person who is allowed to go on the podium, and it's only one who is allowed to wear the World Champion's jersey, and I think obviously that is sort of an issue, and because it's less money in the women's cycling, it's a bit more difficult to get teams that are riding 100% for each other.  I think if there would be bigger bonuses, or a bit more money involved, maybe that would make it easier.

The last couple of years with ORICA have been different as well, because I've always been on smaller teams, where I haven't really had that many riders up there that can ride in the front of the peloton, for example, to bring back a breakaway - I've never had that until last year, but it's quite amazing, and it's all about giving and taking.  I think it's important that you give something back if you want something in return.

PdC: And with ORICA, it's a big team, its' got really good publicity behind it, it's really well resourced - how has that helped you?

Emma: I think for me personally, as a rider, I'm not stronger or weaker or anything like that, it's just the fact I have a team that can back me up in a different way.  I think as well, for the last year before this I didn't really know what I wanted and I didn't really enjoy it that much, and I knew I needed changes.  So when I was looking for a new team, I said I want to go to a team where I can have some fun again, and when I looked around, I was certain that ORICA would be the best option for me, and I never regretted going there last year, and I was really pleased to get another contract this year.  I've been a much happier rider these couple of years, and for me, that's really crucial, because I couldn't go on and not enjoy it, I'm too old for that.  I think it's important to perform, but I think it's important to have fun, otherwise I might as well do something else.

PdC: And it showed in your results - you were number one rider in the world at the end of the season - that was fantastic!  Doe that sort of thing mean anything to you as a rider, or is that just a statistic?

Emma: I don't really care about things like that, it's like with the World Cup.  I've gotten that question a lot, about being number one, and I say it's just something that happens because you're there all the time, and it's not something I'm aiming for, I'm not counting points or anything.

PdC: That makes it sound so much more interesting, taking every race at a time.

Emma: You can't do anything else.  It's important to be where you are at the moment, and to just enjoy it fully - and if that means that you perform today, and the next week, and the week after, and you end up topping the ranking, well then that's just a consequence of being there, and being focused, I think.

PdC: You're riding the Giro this year, and you didn't ride it last year

Emma: No, normally I always have a break after the Swedish Championships

PdC: But this year you're riding - are you looking forward to that?  Is that one of your goals?

Emma: Yeah, it's a race that comes along later on, and first I have other races to go to.  I don't target the Giro or anything, I just know it's coming later on.  It's always a beautiful race, but I wouldn't say it's my favourite race, it's definitely not my favourite stage race, but it's a nice race.

PdC: One last question….  If there are fans standing by the side of the road, and they're shouting "Go on Emma!", can you hear it, when you're riding?

Emma: Depends on who it is.  If it's someone I know, most of the time I hear them, I never see them, but I can hear them

PdC: You do have a big following, you've got a lot of people out there cheering for you - does that put pressure on you, or is it just nice?

Emma: What's nice, what I really enjoy is my true fanclub, they are always there, they are even there after the finish if I haven't performed, and that's what I love, and that's also probably why they keep on following me, because I will always give them a piece of me, no matter what.  You know who your true fans are, because they're always standing there, and then you have some that are only there when you are performing.  I know who they are, and they know who they are!

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To follow Emma through the season, please do check out her website, and follow her on twitter – and you can follow her facebook fanpage too.

Emma’s team, ORICA-AIS give regular updates on her progress – follow their news section, and keep an eye on their twitter.

The 2014 Trofeo Alfredo Binda is on Sunday 30th March, and while it's not being streamed live, here's my guide to following the race as it happens and watching video afterwards.  We'll have a live-thread on the Café too, so come back on Sunday, let's talk about the race!

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