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Sweden’s Emma Johansson is only 31 years old, but the former world number one women’s road cyclist (2013) says that while gold at the UCI Road Worlds and the Olympic Games still elude her, she intends to step down as a full-time pro in 2017.
“I do have a year in my head,” Johansson shared with Ella Cycling Tips from her home in Norway regarding potential partial retirement. “I firmly believe 2016 is going to be my last year where I am working as hard as I am at the moment and then step it down for 2017.
“I really want a family and that’s one of my biggest dreams after I wind down my career.”
For Johansson, her career has been a tale of seconds – both in time and place. The cross-country skier-turned-cyclist has won and lost bike races all over the world, often by a millisecond in time with many of her most memorable performances ending as second-place finishes in classification – including a silver at both the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2013 UCI Road World Championships in Tuscany.
Johansson is also a four-time UCI World Cup runner up (2010-11, 2013-14), who finished second to Dutch cyclist Marianne Vos (Rabo-Liv) in the women’s UCI points classification by 48 points last year.
Now entering her 10th year as a pro, Johansson is both mentally and physically refreshed after a relaxing off-season spent in the Scandinavian snow with friends and family over the holidays. Following the off-season reset, she’s eager to return to racing with an Orica-AIS squad that has undergone a facelift of sorts that could prove beneficial to Johansson’s success in 2015.
“I always enjoy coming home for winter and being relaxed and not needing to pack the bags,” said Johansson, who prefers outings on the mountain bike for her off-season training program. “I rarely touch the road bike due to snow and when I do I use it indoors on rollers.
“I tried before to spend a whole winter in Belgium so I could ride my road bike the whole year, but there is something about letting the bike stand a bit, so I can just have that feeling of wanting to get back on it again.”
While talent abounds at Orica-AIS, which took silver in the team time trial at the UCI Road Worlds in Ponferrada, Spain last September, the wins have become fewer each year and spread over a narrowing list of riders. In 2012, the team won 21 races with seven different riders, while in 2013 the team totalled 18 wins with five riders and in 2014 won 13 races between four riders with Johansson capturing 10 individual race wins for the second year in a row.
Overall the team that topped the overall teams classification in 2013 after finishing third in their debut season a year earlier, dropped to fourth in 2014.
With veterans Shara Gillow (Rabo-Liv), Carlee Taylor (Lotto-Belisol), Annette Edmondson (Wiggle-Honda), Grace Sulzberger and Jessie MacLean no longer with the team, Orica-AIS will need to quickly assimilate Lizzie Williams, Chloe McConville, 2014 Australian criterium champion Sarah Roy, and recently crowned junior world champions Macey Stewart and Alexandra Manly, if they want to turn the tide and begin the team’s ascent back to the top of the UCI rankings ladder.
One solution to reversing the downward trend is an influx of talent to help bolster the roster and take pressure off Johansson, said Orica-AIS sports director Martin Barras.
“I think if we broaden the range of bike riders that give us wins and results, it will make us a more well-rounded team for sure,” said Barras at the team launch in December. “At the moment we are very reliant on Emma to give us those results.”
Johansson agrees with Barras and welcomes the fresh faces.
“I think it’s good to get some hungry riders coming in,” Johansson told Ella before heading to the Tour of Qatar for her first race of the season. “I have yet to meet some of them but am looking forward to joining them in Qatar.
“I like the way they were racing at the Tour Down Under and I really wish I could have been a part of the team’s success.”
After missing out on a fourth national road race title in a row, Orica-AIS rallied in its first UCI race of the season capturing three of four stages at the inaugural Santos Women’s Tour in Adelaide with Johansson’s 24-year-old protégé Valentina Scandolara (ITA) claiming the first stage and general classification. Melissa Hoskins added to win the tally, sprinting to victory in both the People’s Choice Criterium and stages 2 and 4.
“I roomed with Valentina a lot while on the road racing last year,” said Johansson of Scandolara, who finished second behind 2012 Road Worlds silver medallist Rachel Neylan at the inaugural Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race on Saturday in Geelong, Victoria, to claim the Subaru National Road Series leaders jersey after her win in South Australia last week.
“She has really been growing as a rider last year and I am very proud of her success.”
Johansson believes that the off-the-bike relationship with Scandolara and her other teammates makes a huge difference in creating a positive team dynamic for the riders.
“Putting me together with Vale in a room makes it easier because you become a little bit closer to each other and you get to talk about other things you don’t talk about when you meet each other a breakfast, dinner or on a training ride,” said Johansson. “It might have been a tactical thing from the coaches to put us together.”
With Scandolara and Hoskins’ recent success, and Elvin projected to be featuring more this year, Johansson is excited about her own prospects this season.
“I want to see the girls step up and see them grow as riders,” said Johansson. “That’s a little bit why I’m here as well to sort of help them inch closer to that top step. Just to have some girls in the final is something that I’ve really missed and I’m very confident that the girls are ready to do it.”
“I’ve ridden so many finals last year where I was alone,” said the former Hitec rider (2011-12). “Rabobank has maybe four riders in the final stretch and Boels has three or four as well – it’s a lottery really. It’s about time we have the same numbers as well.”
But while Johansson has been forced to shoulder the majority of the load, she insists she welcomes the responsibility and does not feel any extra pressure to perform.
“I get asked a lot about beating Marianne,” continued Johansson regarding her rivalry with the three-time world champion Vos. “I tell them I don’t ride to beat Marianne or anyone else, I just focus on myself and try to be as good as I can be. If that’s better than Marianne on that day or not it’s really out of my control. I can’t really do anything about her form or the way she is going to race or anyone else for that matter. I just need to focus on myself and I think that is one of my strengths.”
In fact, the three-time Trophée d’Or Féminin winner and two-time Thüringen Rundfahrt Der Frauen champion credits mental strength as the most important ingredient to her success.
“It’s more important for me to have a good head than good legs,” admitted Johansson. “If you don’t have the head, then it’s a waste of good legs.”
With her mindset fully focused on her first race of the season in Qatar, Johansson told Ella that while her long-term goals remain the world championships in Richmond in September and the Rio Olympics in 2016, she would not allow herself to look too far ahead.
“I know Richmond is coming up and the circuit is going to suit me a bit, but my focus at the moment is just what’s coming up next,” concluded Johansson. “First there is Qatar and that’s sort of a warm-up thing for me as I have not been racing yet.
“Then it’s Nieuwsblad and off to Strade Bianche, and that’s the one that’s going to be the most exciting to me in early start of the season. From there, I will worry about the rest of the season.”
Aaron S. Lee is the former editor of Cyclist Magazine and 220 Triathlon, and is currently a cycling columnist for Eurosport Australia and guest contributor to Cycling Tips and Ella. For more from Aaron, check out his feature article about Tiffany Cromwell which was published in December.