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Chasing the Perfect Race: An Interview with Emma Johansson

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Interview by Jen See.

Emma Johansson training in the Canary Islands, 2011. Photo: Martin Vestby/Hitec Products UCK Team.

Last year, Emma Johansson won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in what she described to me as a near-perfect race. "You know how you prepare for a race, and you knew exactly when to do it, and where do to it, and the other girls on the team know what to do," that is how it went for Johansson last year at the Belgian opener. "We had seen the course so many times, and I knew it, like, every piece of it," she recounted. It is a success she would no doubt love to repeat this weekend, though the Ronde van Vlaanderen remains her dream race. "It is just a beautiful race. It’s just on the top of the list. It’s always going to be there," she said of the Flemish monument.

The early victory in Belgium last year provided a nice start to Johansson’s successful season. She races a full calendar and places consistently throughout the year. Her season highlights included third at Flèche Wallonne, third at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, fourth at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, third at GP Ouest France, overall victory at the Trophée d’Or Féminin, and third at the World Championship road race in Geelong. Did I mention that she is consistent?

Here is your chance to learn more about last year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad champion. Johansson tells us about her new team Hitec Products UCK and her plans for the season, the chaotic finishing sprint in Geelong and her feelings about Dutch talent Marianne Vos, the radio ban in women’s racing and why Johansson thinks radios should stay, and the financial troubles in women's racing and the need for more television coverage. She also allows us briefly to imagine riding the cobbles of Flanders in a bikini.

Emma Johansson, 2010 World Championship road race, Geelong. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty. When we last saw her, Emma Johansson was mixing it up with Giorgia Bronzini and Marianne Vos in the final sprint in the World Championship road race. Johansson attributed a combination of the course and tactical uncertainty to the race’s slow start. The course was relatively easy, except the hill which came right at the start. "The hill was hard, I think everyone had a hard time on that hill," she recalled of the course in Geelong. At the same time, "it was so easy to come back all the time," so no one really tried too hard to get away. Many teams came with multiple leaders and wanted to keep their sprinters in the game. That ruled out the kind of attacks that the hilly course in Mendrisio provoked. "Mendrisio, for example, was a much harder hill and it was obvious who was the race leader for each country," Johansson explained. Most teams set out to make the race hard for their climbers, while in Geelong, they raced less aggressively with the aim of protecting their sprinters. In Geelong, "we didn’t really know is it going to be a hard race or not."

In the final sprint, Johansson put herself in perfect position. "I had a perfect lead-out from Marianne, I had a really good ride up there," she said of the final kilometer. Then, the wheels came off. Johansson picked up the story: "Just at the moment when I passed her, and she was cutting, just a little too much to the right. And I got stuck between here and the fence." Johansson did not have to brake, but she slowed. Riding as she was so close to the barricades, a spectator’s camera hit her helmet. "I got into the middle of Marianne’s bike, and I realized, I can’t pass her here. ... And I got a smack, and it just pushed me out," she recounted. "It was weird. Everything happened so fast, and it hit my helmet really hard. I didn’t crash luckily." Not only did Johansson keep the bike upright, she went on to finish third behind Bronzini and Vos.

Confident in her abilities, Johansson believes she had the legs to beat Marianne Vos in Geelong. She is "not unbeatable, you just have to find your own way," said Johansson of the talented Dutch woman. "I’m pretty sure I would have passed her on the Worlds if she hadn’t closed my door," she added. Of course, she still would have needed to get around the speedy Italian Bronzini. Johansson does not focus overly on beating Vos, though certainly, it would be easy to do so. "I’m racing against everyone," she explained. "Of course, when she’s there, you have to look out for her, because she’s going to be there in the finish." But Johansson tries not to focus on any one rider. "You can pick out some, but you can’t really say, I’ll follow her today, and for sure, I’m going to be on the podium." Johansson prefers to make her own tactics and her own choices. Hitec Products UCK 2011. Photo: Martin Vestby/Hitec Products UCK team."If I’m following someone else, it also means I’m going to be behind them if I keep following them." Eventually, you have to put your face in the wind if you want to win.

For the new season, Johansson has signed on with Hitec Products UCK. The team has raced for two seasons, but not at the top level. "The program is going to be much harder for them," Johnansson said of the teams existing riders. Johansson is following a familiar pattern here in signing with a relatively small team. "If I compare it to RedSun, it’s like the first year we did there, then, like a lot of girls were only in club teams before that year." In women’s cycling, there are few intermediate steps between the club level and the elite races. "You are at home or you’re racing abroad. And racing abroad, you’re racing the World Cup," confirmed Johansson. The experiment at RedSun worked out well. The riders, "they took like massive steps right away. They grow up a lot faster being in the team, and getting a lot of bigger races," said Johansson of her RedSun team. She expects Hitec Products UCK will follow a similar pattern.

Though she considered seeking a spot on one of the bigger teams like HTC-Highroad or Garmin-Cervélo, the flexibility of a smaller team suits Johansson’s style. She races consistently throughout the year and likes to call her own shots. "Here I can have more my free role and the way I like to race. It’s a smaller team, but I have a more free position," she explained. Riding for a small team sometimes does mean more pressure. "The way I have it now, I feel like, I have to perform," while on a bigger team, "you could be more relaxed in some races." At the same time, Johansson prefers a free hand. "In a team, they will say, well, you have to choose... And here, you have to win this race, and here, you have to help someone else. It would be strange for me," Johansson concluded. Because she races at a consistently high level throughout the year, choosing ahead of time which races to ride as leader would be difficult. Riding for a smaller team suits her characteristics, which allow her to ride for results a wide variety of races and chase overall victory in the World Cup series.

Hitec Products UCK recently held a training camp in the Canary Islands, and now they head to Belgium to begin their season. Johansson believes in her young team’s potential. "There are a couple girls there who have a lot of big talent," she said. In particular, she named Norwegian champion Lise Nøstvold as a rider to watch. "She’s really really good. She’s a good climber, she’s just so strong," said Johansson of her new team-mate. Johansson compared the young climber to herself. "She’s a little like me, but maybe a little worse. When I came to road racing, I didn’t know anything," Johansson explained. "I could use my motor, but I didn’t know how or when to use it," she said of her transition from mountain bike racing to the road. But a strong rider can always learn tactics. "I’m really sure she’s going to be someone to look out for there," said Johansson of Nøstvold.

Johansson also highlighted 22-year-old Lisa Brennauer. Brennauer will delay her road season to compete at track World Championships, but has a speedy kick for the bunch finishes. "She has a good finish," said Johansson of the young German. "If you bring her to the finish, you don’t know where she’s going to end up," but it could well be the top step of the podium. Johansson also viewed the team’s youth as an advantage, because riders like Brennauer have a lower profile than some of their big-name rivals. Emma Johansson and her Hitec Products UCK team on the road in the Canary Islands. Photo: Martin Vestby/Hitec Products UCK team. "A lot of them are going to be unknown to the other riders and that’s going to help them come into the finish and get a big result," she explained. Johansson plainly expects big things of her young team: "I think being with the right team director and the right team leader and everything, they can take a massive step."

Johansson will divide her season into three blocks. She starts with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, heads to Italy for Trofeo Alfredo Binda, then returns to Belgium for the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. Because Tour de l’Aude is off the calendar for this season, Johansson will add the World Cup race in China for the first time this year. In July, she will race the Giro Donne. "That’s going to be new. I haven’t done it in five year’s time," she said of the Italian stage race. Of course, the World Cup race in Sweden is important for Johansson and her team.

With the World Championship in Denmark this year, Johansson will also hope to ride well, though the mostly flat course may not entirely suit her hard race talent. "It’s going to be flat," she said, though she has not yet seen the course. Despite the sprinter-friendly course, Johansson does not count herself out. "I think it’s going to be hard. No race is easy," she asserted. At the moment, too much snow buries the course in Denmark, but Johansson will likely visit later in the season for a pre-ride. "Normally, I never go to see a course before, except for Flanders which has a really difficult course," Johansson explained. Because Denmark is close by, she will check this year’s course ahead of time.

The women’s teams reshuffled their rosters significantly during the past off-season. It has not been easy to keep track of the changes. "What team is Nicole Cooke riding for? I don’t even know about it," Johansson admitted. She does see opportunity in the way the big talents in women’s cycling have spread out among several teams. "I think it’s good that everyone is more spread out," she said. She expects the racing to become more unpredictable. "It’s not going to be as controlled like we had last year with Cervélo. They had so many good girls," predicted Johansson.

Less big team control should suit smaller teams like Hitec Products UCK. "I hope it’s going to be more active racing, with more groups being able to attack and ride away," she said. The more dispersed talent also offers more opportunities for riders who are not always given team leadership. If the teams are smaller, "the helpers get their chance and more riders are going to get their chance to race." More open racing means that sometimes the doomed breakaway will survive and an unknown rider will have her chance to shine.

Johansson also expects the radio restrictions to play a role in the racing, and she has mixed feelings about the new rules. For women’s racing, only the World Cup races will allow radios. The ban may mean more open tactics and more opportunities for smaller teams. "Many times, I can wish I had someone sitting on my shoulder telling me what to do. But I think being on a small team, it’s more equal where you don’t have communication," explained Johansson. Emma Johansson and Hitec Products UCK team 2011.She suggested that the bigger teams with multiple captains may need more communication and pointed to last year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as an example. Cervélo, racing for Kirsten Wild, had two riders in the leading group. "They were racing for Kirsten, but then she gets dropped on the hill, but then, what could they do? They couldn’t ask anyone. So I think it’s more difficult."

At the same time, Johansson would prefer that the radio ban only applied to lower level races. "In the category 2 and the kermesses, you shouldn’t be allowed. But I think it’s a little much taking away the radios in the category 1 races," she said. With radios only allowed in the World Cup races, the women will use them for eight races this season. "I’m going to have Martin in the car, and it was one of things I was looking forward to," she said of husband and team director Martin Vestby. "Just to be able to have him there, near the finish, during the race" would offer her some added confidence.

Like many riders in favor of keeping radios, Johansson also worries about the safety aspect of racing without communication between riders and team cars. The women’s races tend to have less security than the big men’s races, which adds to her concerns. "The security, in the pro races, it’s always like higher, three or four times as many cars at the front, makes it maybe more secure for the men to race," she explained. Without radios, it becomes more difficult for sports directors to warn their riders of upcoming hazards. "What can they do? They’re sitting like 100 meters behind us. Watch out for the parked car!" Johansson sketched a picture of sports directors yelling out their car windows, unheard by the riders up front. She also credits radios with allowing her to return to the race after mechanicals: "The year before, when my bike crashed so much, I would never have made it back without a radio." While Johansson is plainly ready to race without them, on balance, she sees plenty of compelling reasons to keep the communication lines between riders and team cars open.

For women’s racing, the search for sponsors and for media coverage remains the most significant challenge for the sport. "I think everything starts with television coverage," Johansson said bluntly. Television coverage means a tangible return for sponsors. "If you can get on tv, it’s easier to get sponsors, because you can actually sell something," she explained. Television coverage also influences how the races unfold. In men’s racing, we can all name the breakaway specialists, the riders who go with the early break and only occasionally make a result from their efforts. It is possible in men’s pro racing to make a pretty good living going with the early breaks, especially in France where the races receive extensive television coverage. For the women, this kind of opportunity simply does not exist. The early break, "it’s a chance for the riders, to be seen," said Johansson. Without television coverage, many of these riders remain anonymous. "You only see the ones on the podium, those are the only ones who get their name out" the way women’s racing is covered now. Emma Johansson Hitec Products UCK

Race organizers also feel the squeeze. For the big men’s races, television rights offer a significant source of revenue. Smaller budgets mean less prize money and fewer races. Johansson understands the race organizers perspective: "We have to choose. Either we make a race and okay, the prize money is going to be shit, but at least you have a race to go to." But if they have to offer more prize money, then the organizers can not make the race happen. For Johansson, "the most important thing is for us to race, because we love to race, that’s why we’re doing it."

Still, she does not understand why women’s racing can not draw more media attention. "It’s not that far away from men’s racing. Or, I can see with women’s tennis and men’s tennis, it’s the same." Television coverage is the starting point for Johansson. Without it, she does not see much possibility of drawing bigger sponsors into the sport. "Maybe it will help to race in the bikini, the men might like it," she joked. That is probably a bit too much to ask even for the hard women of the classics. "It wouldn’t be that comfortable," still laughing. More seriously, she suggested that cycling does not easily lend itself to the traditional glamor sell. "We are sportswomen, maybe we don’t care that much all the time about what we look like," said Johansson. Or maybe we just need a different definition of glamor, a definition that celebrates the strong, mud-splattered women who have the heart and the legs to thrive in the hellingen of Flanders.

This weekend, Emma Johansson and her new Hitec Products UCK team will make their racing début on the cobbled roads of Belgium. There, they begin their trip around the cycling calendar, racing the full circuit until they reach the World Championship road race in October. Along the way, they will no doubt celebrate their share of successes and endure their share of suffering. For this is cycling where suffering and success travel inseparably together. And Emma Johansson will be looking for another perfect day like last year's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, that day when everything comes together and she finishes on the top step.

Want more? Visit Emma Johansson's blog. There are some lovely photos there. Roll over to the Hitec Products UCK team website. Or, check out their Flickr. All photos in this story are by Martin Vestby, Hitec Products UCK team, except the photo from the 2010 Worlds podium.