Five times on the Emakumeen Saria podium, Emma Johansson finally climbs to the top step in Durango
Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS) has five times finished on the lesser steps of the podium in Durango at the one-day Emakumeen Saria, but on Tuesday, the Swedish national road champion finally climbed to the top step of the Emakumeen Saria podium, winning a two-up sprint from Rabo-Liv’s Kasia Niewiadoma. Elena Cecchini (Lotto Soudal Ladies) led home a two-rider chase group and rounded out the top three.
“I’m so happy,” said Johansson in an exclusive interview with Ella CyclingTips. “It’s been a long year, and I finally got to celebrate. We got everything right today. Everyone was contributing. All six in the team actually made an important difference in the race today, so that made it extra special.”
It is the first win of the season for Johansson who had an unusually dry spring. A broken collarbone in mid-March disrupted her Classics season, and even before she was sidelined with injury, the team leader often found herself alone in race-winning moves, outnumbered by the likes of Boels-Dolmans, Wiggle Honda and Rabo-Liv.
A team training camp in Tuscany in late May seems to have united the Australian registered squad, which has taken its first three European wins of the year in the last 11 days with Lizzie Williams soloing to victory at SwissEverGP and Gracie Elvin winning a three-up sprint at Gooik-Geraardsbergen-Gooik. The win in Durango is especially poignant for Johansson because she began her professional career in the Basque Country.
“I signed my first professional contract almost exactly ten years ago today,” said Johansson. “It was with Bizkaia. The Basque team has their base in Durango. Literally, everything started for me here.”
“It means I know a lot of people in the area,” Johansson explained. “All the riders that I used to race with have retired but they still come to support me. To see them along the road and at the finish, it means a lot.”
Emakumeen Saria serves as an appetizer of sorts to the five-day stage race that begins in the Basque region on Wednesday.
During the one-day Basque race, the early action took place over four loops, each of which included a long but gentle climb. Following the completion of the four laps, the peloton returned to Durango via the undulating foothills. Two sharp, steep climbs preceded a descent to the finish.
A handful of riders attempted to escape from the peloton in the first of the four laps, but their efforts proved ineffective. Asja Paladin (Top Girls Fasso Bortolo) was the first to gain a true advantage on lap two. Her gap over the peloton quickly ballooned out beyond the two minute mark before she was quickly reeled in before the first GPM (Gran Premio della Montagna a.k.a Queen of the Mountain) on the roads back into Durango.
“The start was really fast on the first lap with all the attacks,” noted Johansson. “When the one rider went away, it was then very slow. Rachel [Neylan], Spratty [Amanda Spratty], Vale [Scandolara] and Lizzie had more responsibility on the first four laps. Rachel looked afer us going into the hill. She put us in a really good position, which saved us a lot of energy. At that part of the race, everyone is still there, still fresh and still thinking they can be on the front.”
Johansson showed her cards early, claiming points on the first GPM. Shortly after the first major ascent, a group of nine riders went clear. The front group included Johansson and Niewiadoma alongside Shara Gillow (Rabo Liv), Ellan van Dijk and Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans), Valentina Scandolara and Amanda Spratt (Orica-AIS), Jessie Daams (Lotto Soudal Ladies) and Tetyana Riabchenko (Ina Sottoli Giusfredi) They immediately established an advantage over the peloton, at which point a chase group assembled, hoping to bridge across.
“When we came to the first GPM, that’s when we started racing aggressively,” Johansson explained. “Spratty attacked and got away with Niewiadoma and Guarnier. It wasn’t really ideal, but it was okay. Then someone else jumped across, and someone else went after, so at that point, I had to go. This is how the nine-rider group eventually formed.”
“When we caught Spratty, I wasn’t exactly sure who was part of the group,” Johansson said. “Spratty drifted to the back of the group and then suddenly came up to me and said: ‘Whoa, this is a really good break.’ I looked back and saw she was exactly right. We were actually away, and we had numbers. It was awesome. I shouted for Vale that we needed to work. She and Spratty did some turns, and I saved myself as much as possible for the last climb.”
Johansson’s teammates continued to race aggressively on the descent that separated the two GPM climbs. Scandolara led the group down the hill, and she got a gap. This forced Ellen van Dijk (Boels-Dolmans) to chase, and Johansson enjoyed a free ride on van Dijk’s wheel.
“Vale did a really good effort,” said Johansson. “Making Ellen work and racing aggressively like that, it just put us in a really good position.”
A chase group caught the nine leaders within the first kilometre up the second GPM.
“The climb is hard at the beginning, and it’s hard at the end,” Johansson explained. “I know the last part suits me really, really well, so I was looking to make my move there. It suits me much better than the flattish section in the middle of the climb.”
Johansson’s teammates continued to attack up the ascent, but their efforts were neutralised. True to her intentions, Johansson accelerated near the summit of the climb.
“When we entered the steepest section, I knew it was now or never,” Johansson said. “I went, and I didn’t look back.”
Niewiadoma was the only rider that proved able to respond to Johansson’s change in pace. The young Polish rider latched onto Johansson’s wheel.
“I didn’t know who was with me at first,” admitted Johansson. “I could see it was a Rabo rider, but I didn’t know which Rabo rider until the first corner of the descent when I could look behind me. She didn’t want to take or turn or she wasn’t allowed – I think she probably wasn’t allowed – so I decided I would do the whole descent on the front.”
Without race radios or a gap large enough to allow her team car to come forward, Johansson was forced to rely on the motorbike for information. She learned that she and Niewiadoma had a 20 second gap over her chasers, but she was unable to confirm exactly who was in the group behind.
“It’s difficult when you don’t have the communication,” Johansson noted. “I knew we had the numbers, but I also knew Spratty and Vale had been working really hard. I had strong teammates but tired teammates. They had already done their jobs. I thought Boels must be chasing, so at least they were getting a free ride.”
“Even though Niewiadoma wouldn’t ride with me, I kept riding because I felt pretty strong,” Johansson added. “But when you pull someone to the finish like that, you never know. Most of the time, you shouldn’t be able to win from a sprint when someone has been sitting on, but I decided it was a risk I needed to take.”
Four kilometres from the finish, Johansson caught sight of two chasers. She could see a Boels-Dolmans rider, that she identified as Ellen van Dijk (but turned out to be Evelyn Stevens), and Cecchini in the wheel.
“I told Niewadoma that it didn’t look good for us,” Johansson said. “I told her that it didn’t look good for her. More or less I was suggesting to her that she start riding with me, and finally, she did.”
Although Niewadoma’s turns were not as long or as fast as Johansosn’s, her work enabled Johansson to get some rest in the run-in to the finish.
“Let’s just say I wasn’t completely killing myself at that point,” said Johansson. “We never had more than six, seven or eight seconds. I was worried that they would catch us.”
Five hundred metres from the finish, Niewadoma took her final turn. Johansson opened her sprint from the front, kicking into higher gear 200 metres from the finish line.
“I knew I might have needed to do a long sprint,” said Johansson. “I was ready to go at 300 metres, and I could have gone at 400 metres if I really, really needed to, but there was enough of a gap that I could wait.”
“It was brilliant,” said Johansson. “As soon as I started my sprint, I knew. It was a very nice victory. To pull it off when you know everyone has put a big effort into it, it’s always special like that.”
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