PEZ Talk: Emma Johansson
From broken-boned tears of frustration to racing through her blue and yellow-painted Flemish home-from-home in just three weeks, Emma Johansson took part in her beloved Tour of Flanders once more in 2015. For one of the most stunningly consistent female riders of the last six years, recovering so quickly from a broken collarbone is just one of many victories.
But Emma’s season won’t be defined by those three weeks. As she prepared to take on the next phase of her season, we got the low-down on life at Orica-AIS, mentoring the next generation and touched on the strengthening depth of the professional women’s peloton.
March 15th. The Novilon EDR Cup ends in a sprint finish outside the Hotel Onder de Linden on the streets of Roden. Kirsten Wild for Hitec Products edges Wiggle-Honda’s Chloe Hosking to repeat her 2014 win. Behind them, however, riders have crashed. Someone came down in front of her and, unable to avoid the crash, Emma Johansson is crying on the tarmac.
“I was in tears, but not really from the pain. I knew straightaway that my collarbone was broken, but it wasn’t that sore actually. It was more the realisation at that moment that I was going to miss the Ronde van Vlaanderen. It was just such a massive upset.”
With a medical exam confirming the news, her husband, Martin Vestby, took her home and the only immediate concern was about the treatment rather than returning to racing.
“There was just no thought that I would come back for the Ronde, it wasn’t even an idea or a plan. We just arranged to go to the hospital and I got the operation to fix the bone on the Monday. I was home on Tuesday morning. The Ronde was gone.
“By the Thursday of that week, I was on the rollers again. Once the bone was pinned and plated, it was just about the most solid bit of my body. It was everything else around it that was sore, all the muscles and so on!
“A week after the operation I was on the road, but just doing my own thing. It wasn’t hurting but I didn’t have the power, I couldn’t yet stand on the pedals and accelerate. Just riding and avoiding the cobbles, trying not to do too much.
“It wasn’t until then, when I got back on the road, that I was starting to wonder. I said to Martin: ‘Do you think it’s possible …?’ So we started thinking about the Ronde.
“I was missing some great races. The Trofeo Alfredo Binda, which I was devastated to miss because I won it last year, was one of them.
The week before Flanders, I was on the cobbles for the first time since the crash. Then the middle of the week I had a big fitness test, and I got the all-clear to race from the doctor on the Friday before the race.”
Getting to the start line was one massive victory, but as Emma explained, the recovery process had its own drawbacks. “I hadn’t been able to go really deep before the Ronde, which I like to do. I’d had to hold myself back a bit. So the first 40 to 50 kilometers were easy enough, but for the full 145 kilometers of the race, it was different!”
She finished 13th which is a fantastic ride, given the circumstances. As seems to have been common in races over recent seasons though, Johansson was in a position where a lot of other riders were happy to look to her to work to close a gap as the Paterberg topped out, but by then any realistic winning chance was gone.
What was the thought process about your recovery? In 2012, you broke both of your collarbones in a training crash, but came back and rode a great season …
Definitely. I think that just because I was able to come back from that and I know how to train alone, I do know how to do it … but whether it was possible to come back and still ride a good race after just three weeks, that was my concern.
I’m not concerned about the rest of the season, and I never was even when it happened; everything was about the Ronde.
You base yourself in Zingem, not far from the start and finish of the Ronde, in Oudenaarde. What is it like riding through a town decked out in colors just for you?
I think it’s something everyone needs to do, to come here and experience the Ronde. If you’ve never been before, it’s difficult to explain what it’s all about. You just need to be here and I just wish that everyone could experience what I feel when I ride through Zingem.
[For me] it’s about being a foreigner and getting so much back from the locals. It gives me so much motivation, to be there at the start and to ride through there. I was very proud to be able to do that.
They don’t really believe me when I say that if I missed that race I wouldn’t have stayed there! I’m pretty sure that I was not ready to live there and watch the race from the sidelines, not yet … if I hadn’t been able to do the race, I would have been somewhere else, doing a long ride or something!
Why does the relationship between you and Flanders work?
I did learn the language pretty fast after coming here. That makes a big difference. That’s rule number one – when you decide to live in a country you need to make a big effort to learn their language and I did that. Once you learn the language you come so much closer to the people
The fact that I’m a foreigner … I don’t, or didn’t, have my family coming to the races, my grandparents or my boyfriend’s parents. I’ve always been very open for everyone who is there and who gives their support to me. In the beginning I was sort of alone. People that maybe started as supporters, they have become more like friends. Now they are almost like our Belgian family!
The Belgians [riders] themselves have so many people that they know from when they were kids standing at the roadside … I think that makes me a bit more available for the local people, if they choose to share the experience with me, of course!
Your career has an end in sight. How will you plan the next 18 months, or will you keep going into 2017 as the Worlds are in Norway, another place that is special to you?
2016 is definitely the last year when I’m going to be putting in as much time as I do now. I’m almost up to 1000 hours with training and racing (for 2015, at the time of the interview – Ed.). 2016 is going to be the last year that I make such a big effort.
For 2017, I don’t really know what I’m going to do yet. I just want to focus up until the Olympics and take it from there.
I’m on a shorter training period just now, getting some rides in and working on my base to be able to stand the season. It’s pretty busy up until the Marianne Vos Classic (early May) and then I go back home.
June is very busy. We do Holland Hills and Gooik at the end of May. Then in June I race both the Bira (in Spain) and the Women’s Tour in Britain, then the nationals. So June is very busy but I don’t do the Giro afterwards, so I get a bit of a rest and training in there. With no Giro it’s doable.
The way you spoke there, it sounds like missing the Giro is a decision you’ve been able to make without too many problems …
I’ve had years before when I haven’t done it. It might sound strange because everyone loves the Giro, but for me it’s not really one of my favorite races. It’s a bit of a difficult situation for me when I ride there because I don’t get the freedom.
They don’t really trust that I won’t be there in the GC. I’m not a GC contender, but I won’t get the freedom anyway to maybe ride for a stage or two.
Last year I did the Giro, but it was almost overlapping with Thuringen, and I love Thuringen, it’s a race that really suits me well. This year, the team and I have decided that I’ll do Thuringen and skip the Giro.
At 31 years old, you’ve won World Cups, been UCI number 1, but you still have targets.
I’m always a hard worker, and I don’t think anything is ever going to change that. I still have my targets. Now you see the level in the peloton is super-high as well which shows that if you don’t target races these days it’s almost impossible to be a part of the winning moves. I think you need to be focussed, you need to go all-in. If you don’t do that, you might as well just stay at home! That’s the approach you need to have and that’s the type of person I am … if I’m there and racing, I want to come well prepared.
You’re now into your third year with Orica-AIS, the longest you’ve stayed with one team …
It’s a really good group of girls, and I really enjoy working with the staff as well. I’ve had some really nice years here. I’m really enjoying myself here even though I’ve not been back to Australia since the first year.
I think the dynamic within the team is working pretty well. I think I’m there a little bit as the old role model! It’s good for them to see what I do, and how I behave, when I’m racing. I’m very professional with everything that I do, and I think it is good for them to see and work towards that. I hope they appreciate it as I’m making an effort to help. It’s important for me as well to be able to give of myself, too.
The difficult part for the Australian riders is that they need to be good in [our northern] winter as well. Especially when you look at the Spring Classics … if you need to do the [Bay] Crits and then the Nationals in January and the Tour Down Under, it makes it almost impossible for them to come here and be in super-good form in March and April.
Your sports director Gene Bates described you as ‘the ultimate professional’ …
It’s a very nice compliment! I am a hard worker. You need to be to achieve and move forwards. It’s a tough sport. It wouldn’t be fair to myself to not give everything when I choose to do this … because there are so many other things that you could do instead!
It’s a fair call to put an end to it after next season because it is mentally very hard to be so focussed and work so hard all year round.
Part of that focus and work is based on the fact that things are getting tougher, the competition is better.
You see a lot of young riders stepping up. The teams are getting stronger and stronger. Even the way they ride tactically, it’s pretty smart racing out there. It’s definitely improved a lot.
Over the last few years, it seems from outside the races that any time Boels-Dolmans or Rabo-Liv, for example, made a move, everything stalled as the whole field would just look at you and wait for you to do all the hard work to close things up.
Yeah. It is, and has been, a bit of a struggle. I saw one quote, I think it was Lizzie [Armitstead], who said after the Ronde that she felt like she felt all eyes in her neck…
I was like, ‘Well, that’s how it is!’ Once you start racing well and become one of the favorites, it’s something you need to deal with, it’s just normal. But it can be hard to handle before you actually realize that this is how it’s going to be from now on!
It’s been a long time since we last spoke, in fact you’d just won the 2010 Het Nieuwsblad, and a lot has changed in women’s racing since then.
In general, it’s how much stronger the whole peloton is. The fact that last year’s World Cup had a different winner in every single race, it just shows how much everything has grown. The professionalism within the teams, too, they are much stronger.
Even though we are not yet on television, you can interact through social media and get so much feedback from people. Even if you can’t see the races you can follow them on Twitter. It’s a massive hub for us. It’s definitely going in the right direction.
It’s a bit devastating for me because I think I’m going to miss out on the really big breakthrough which is going to come in the next two or three years.
I think the way the teams are being run at the moment doesn’t seem to be fading after any specific years [unlike the four-yearly post-Olympic cuts of old – Ed.]. It’s just growing all the time. It’ll be really interesting to see what will happen now if the World Tour comes in, if there will be live broadcasts, how it’s all going to be set-up, but I hope it is only going to grow positively.
Emma Johansson will be racing hard across Europe over the next few months, and her season culminates in the Worlds at Richmond, USA, in September. You can follow her on Twitter @emmaprocyclist and via www.emmajohansson.com