What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Interviews: Swedish Star Emma Johansson!

The Swedish star has taken a big step up in terms of recognition since her brilliant road race silver at the Beijing Olympics, and PEZ was lucky to get some time to find out about her 2009 season, training in the snow for 2010, survival skills in the Swedish countryside and dance floor dreams! Smart, ambitious, entertaining and talented, Emma is the sort of personality who gives her sponsors a big return on their investment. Here’s the story…

Talk about making a statement of ambition … it’s a rainy, cold November evening when we get Red Sun’s Emma Johansson on the line, and she’s standing in the town square in Oudenaarde, Belgium. Emotionally in the middle of the Flemish cycling heartland, the town hosts the start of the Women’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, the race of Emma’s dreams.

PEZ: Hi, Emma. How are you?
Emma: I’m fine, thank you and you? Is everything good?

PEZ: It’s all great…apart from the Scottish rain!
Emma: At the moment, I’m in Belgium and it’s just as bad here!

PEZ: But that’s normal for Belgium…
Emma: Yeah! It’s normal everywhere now! But I don’t mind the rain. You get wet, then you don’t get any wetter. It’s OK! I’m in Oudenaarde just now, and I’m going to have a drink with some friends a little bit later. Just relaxing.

Emma on the top step of the podium at the World Cup in Drenthe wearing the World Cup leader’s jersey. Does it get much better than that?

PEZ: That’s the nice thing about this time of year … you can go out.
Emma: Yeah, that’s true. I try to find time to see everyone. Like if I go home to Sweden, or here in Belgium, I train during the day, but in the evenings I try to spend time with the people I don’t see normally.

PEZ: You’ve just moved from Belgium to Norway…so is that home for you now?
Emma: I’m like ‘Wherever my suitcase is, that’s home’! At the moment, my official address is in Norway. I live most of the time in Norway now, but I’m going to spend a lot of time in Belgium as well. I’ve already set down three months from February to May when I’ll be in Belgium. I’m half the time in Norway, and half the time here.

PEZ: Belgium seems to be really good to you…
Emma: Yeah, although the first year was really tough, I didn’t know the language and I didn’t have that many friends.

The last two years have just been amazing since the Olympics. We got to know the whole street where we used to live. They held a party for me, and since then we’ve got to know all the neighbours.

I have so many friends there that I have a better social life in Belgium than anywhere else. If I come to Zingem in Belgium where we lived, if I walk into a shop … there’s always people that I know. That doesn’t happen in Sweden or Norway because my friends don’t live in the one place.

Emma Johansson’s silver medal in Beijing was a huge result.

PEZ: You grew up in the north of Sweden?
Emma: If you have a map, it’s in the middle but everyone always says it’s in the far north! I live five hours, or 550kms, north of Stockholm, but it’s still maybe ten hours driving from there to the top because Sweden is such a long country.

PEZ: So how was that for getting started in sports?
Emma: I started mountain biking when I was twelve, and I was always doing cross-country skiing, which is really big in Sweden. That was the thing at home, as well as ping-pong, you know? Table tennis. Me and my brothers did both because we couldn’t do much else.

Then we moved to a bigger town and my big brother started with mountain biking and I thought: ‘Why not?’ It’s good training for the skiing. I came to a cycling school when I was 16, then I moved to a place called Skara … it’s about 1000 kms south of where I came from. That was where I came across road racing.

PEZ: And now as a pro road racer, do people tell you that you shouldn’t ski because it’s dangerous?
Emma: No, I never actually had anyone telling me that I shouldn’t. When I was younger I used to go snowboarding … now, I wouldn’t go snowboarding for a day because that would be such a big risk as I haven’t done it for years.
Going cross-country skiing or doing things that I know I would normally do is not dangerous, it’s good training.

PEZ: You’ve had a real outdoors upbringing, and you go camping with your boyfriend (and trainer, Martin Vestby)…
Emma: Yeah, I love nature. Well, Sweden and Norway are such huge countries. We have towns, of course, but it’s mostly countryside with forests and mountains, lots of places to go hiking. Here in Belgium, it’s not possible to do those things because there’s streets and houses everywhere.

PEZ: So, if you had to survive out in the wilds you could do it … catch fish, build shelters?
Emma: (Laughing) Yeah, if I really had to I probably could … but I wouldn’t like it! I hope I would survive … for a couple of days! I hope it’s never going to happen to me.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

PEZ: Tell us about 2009 … was there more pressure because you were on a new team, you’d had that great result in Beijing, people were talking about you?
Emma: In one way, maybe I’ve had more pressure, but I always put so much pressure on myself that I don’t feel it from around me. I’m already so busy with my own pressure that I don’t have time to think about anyone else’s!

If I don’t get a good result when I was aiming for it, of course I’m going to be disappointed. Maybe that’s the moment where you find it hard, the pressure around you, because of all the people writing about you in the paper or whatever.

PEZ: This year you had some great results…which race stood out?
Emma: Ah, the big highlight was the World Cup victory in the Ronde van Drenthe in Holland, that was a really, really nice one. I don’t think anyone expected me to win that race because it’s flat and it was probably going to be a sprint. It turned out to be a totally different race to the one everyone expected.

It was important for me, but also for my team, Red Sun (a Dutch team in a Dutch race), they were very happy. The sponsors were there, too, and they were very satisfied.

Emma taking the sprint at the Ronde van Drenthe.

PEZ: You made third at Flanders and second at Fleche Wallonne, so maybe first and first next year?
Emma: Of course, it’s always hard to be second or third ….

Oh my God! It’s raining so hard! (Laughing) …

You always want to win. But out of all the World Cup races I got seven podiums out of ten. If I could change those seven podiums into two or three victories, I’d do it. It’s very difficult to win, but I hope I can grow a bit more as a rider for next year.

This week I’m training on the track, to see if I can improve my sprint or something. Hopefully, for next year I’ll be ready to win more. You need to have the perfect day, have everything on your side, to win.

PEZ: This is your first time on the track?
Emma: Yeah, that’s right. Martin and I had been talking about it before and I’d been a little bit … not skeptical, but scared, maybe. I’d never done it before with the bikes, the walls. It looked scary.

Martin is here working for the Norwegian Federation, so it was a good option for me to come along and join them to get a week’s training. We’ve rented the whole track so we have it to ourselves. It’s been really good, today was the third day and I’m starting to feel that it’s really giving me something.

PEZ: Looking at the Red Sun team for 2010 you’ve got Marie Lindberg coming to join you…
Emma: It’s very exciting, I’m really happy about that. Marie’s a really good girl, she’s been on the Nьrnberger team for three years so she has the experience. She’s ready to give everything, I like the way she is and the way she races. I think she’ll fit into the team really well.

Plus, I’m looking forward to racing with another Swedish girl, I’ve always been on my own on my teams, so it’s going to be nice.

PEZ: You’re keeping hold of the strong riders … Paulina Brzezna and Ludovine Henrion are going to stay, so you look strong for the Classics.
Emma: Yes, and there are other riders, too. We had two Dutch girls who were first-year professionals in 2009 – Petra Dijkman and Mascha Pijnenborg – they can make big progress next year and take more responsibility.

It looks like a lot stronger team for next year. It’s a nice group and I get along well with the girls. Almost everyone who was there last year is staying, we’ve got three coming and three leaving.

The names, Marianne Vos and Nicole Cooke, don’t keep Emma up at night.

PEZ: Your rivals are probably going to be the same names as this year. How do you think about racing Marianne Vos, Nicole Cooke, Kirsten Wild …?
Emma: I don’t really think that much about them, I just busy with myself. Of course, I try to find their strengths and weaknesses, a way that I can beat them. But, I’m not really thinking about that. I’m just focusing on my training. I don’t sit there thinking: “I wonder what the others did today … three hours? Then I’ll do four.”

What I’ve been doing the last couple of years has been working for me. I’ve made some little changes to the programme, putting in a few more hours, but otherwise it’s the same and that gives me confidence. I can train without being worried.

PEZ: So, if you can pick one race for 2010, which would it be?
Emma: (Instant answer) The Ronde van Vlaanderen. I love that race. It’s home for me. It starts in Oudenaarde, I’m actually standing in the square where it starts right now.

I love that race. I always have a lot of fans there. All the people that I know live along the course. There’s so many fans watching, I love the cobbles, it’s such a tough race … so I’d choose that one.

The Ronde van Vlaanderen is top on Emma’s list of races to win.

PEZ: How about the Worlds?
Emma: Yeah, of course. It’s an important race, mostly because of the jersey, but it comes so late in the year. I always first think about the Ronde. I try not to think that far ahead yet.

PEZ: The Swedish women have a very strong team of riders…
Emma: This year at the Worlds, we had a really great team, and the way the girls sacrificed themselves for me when I had bike problems … it was really nice for me to feel that they were backing me up.

We could have me, Susanne Ljungskog, Marie Lindberg, Monica Holler, Emilia Fahlin … it could be really strong.

PEZ: How can women’s racing get more coverage, because it tends to be exciting racing from the gun?
Emma: It’s a problem for us. Because coverage is limited, we don’t get any money. The prize money and the salaries are really low. Women’s cycling would take a big step if we could get it on TV more.

I think we need someone to go for it and pay for the whole World Cup to be on Eurosport or something. As soon as we can sell it to our sponsors, saying “OK, we have a rider going for the overall World Cup, we’ll have your name on the TV ten times a year for three or four hours,” things would be different. Once we get it on TV, then more sponsors will come.

In Sweden, this year was the first time since 1994 that we had the Worlds on TV live. At least cycling is coming on there, but it’s a long way behind cross-country skiing which is on TV here every week through the winter.

PEZ: Away from the racing, you’ve been working with friends from a clothing company doing corporate speeches and sales. Is this preparing for life after racing?
Emma: A little bit. Right now, even although it’s winter I don’t have a lot of time so when the weekend came up, I thought: “OK, this will be a nice thing to do some work on, do a speech about racing.”

I’m also working on getting my own clothing brand with some pieces of casual clothing, it’s a different and fun thing to do as long as it doesn’t take focus my away from my cycling.

I’m not earning money as a cyclist. It’s nothing I can put in a bank account and live off for the rest of my life! The day I stop cycling, I’m going to have to go to work. Doing little bits of work means maybe I can put something by so I can go on vacation for a month when I stop cycling! It’s really tough for female cyclists.

PEZ: We’re talking about the end of a career … are you already thinking about that?
Emma: Right now, I can see as far as London (the 2012 Olympics). I have a lovely boyfriend and we’re getting married next year. I really want kids, and a normal life. I want to be able to go home more often and see my family and friends in Sweden and Norway.

It’s hard to be away so much. I love it, but when I know it’s going to end in four years time, I can love it even more now. It’s nice knowing that it’ll end and I’m not going to be racing until I’m 45. I can see London, and then maybe another year, but at the moment I can’t see further than that.

PEZ: Tell us a little about your sponsors Red Sun … are they good people to work for?
Emma: Yeah, they’re really nice. It’s Red Sun and Van Doorn. Those two companies work a lot together. Jan, who is the head manager, together with his Dad Wim, just loves the sport. It’s like a big hobby for them. They are really relaxed, nice people and it’s fun for them to do this.

They don’t put that much pressure on … I think I’m the one that puts the pressure on! (Laughing)

PEZ: There’s a new Swedish women’s trade team which Catrine Josefsson has joined. Will this be a boost for cycle sport in Sweden?
Emma: Of course, it’s a big thing for Swedish cycling. It’s nice they have the licence, but it’s only the first step. A lot depends on their programme and I hope they will do the World Cup in Sweden, for sure, and then … take it step by step, make progress every year.

At the moment, there are a lot of good Swedish riders but maybe it would be easier to get a Scandinavian team. I would love to have that, to build up a Scandinavian women’s team. It’s one thing Martin and I have been working on … to make the sport bigger in the region.

PEZ: So maybe you might have a women’s version of Saxobank, where you ride for it then take it on when you retire?
Emma: It would be lovely to build up a team until London and do a couple more years after that to work with the young riders coming up, and then stop and just lead it.
In other ways though, once you would stop cycling, maybe it would be hard to work with it when you’re not riding yourself. It’s difficult to know. I have so many ideas, every third day I’m like “Maybe this would work?” or “This could be a good job!”

I went to work one day with someone and I just thought: “No way! I’m going to try to ride my bike as long as I can. I couldn’t do this everyday … it’d kill me!” Martin always says: “Whatever you do, keep riding your bike as long as you can because you’re never going to get a better life than that.”

PEZ: Training in Norway is a bit of a challenge?
Emma: Actually, it’s not been a problem, although I did have one terrible day last Saturday. It had snowed during the night … 10 cm of wet, freezing cold snow on the ground and sleet, really bad weather. I did two hours outside then I had to finish the training on the rollers.

I prefer Norway though when it’s cold and dry, it’s better than being somewhere rainy all the time and windy. I’m used to bad weather, so I don’t let it get to me. Then I can come home, take a shower, lie on the sofa and think … “That was so good today!”

PEZ: Another of your hobbies, we hear, is dancing … do you hit the dance floor much?
Emma: I hardly go dancing at all … but I love dancing. I would love to learn to be a really good dancer, I always watch the dancing programmes on TV. If I hadn’t been a cyclist, I’d have loved to have taken dance lessons.

PEZ: Maybe we’ll see you on ‘Dancing With The Stars?’ one day?
Emma: Maybe … I’d probably be eliminated in the first programme! When I stop and if they ask me, I’d say: “Yes!”

Many thanks to Emma for her time, and to Martin Vestby for helping to set up the interview, and best wishes to her for the 2010 season.

You can find out what’s Emma’s up to at: EmmaJohansson.com

You can check out news on her team at: Red-SunCycling.nl

For many more great shots of Emma, check out Tom Tveitan’s site.

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