From roadie to retired, part 3: On the sidelines with Emma Johansson
The active career of a professional cyclist is a relatively short one. While there certainly are some exceptions, many pros retire in their early 30s.
As an athlete, their whole life revolves around the next training session, the next race, the next goal and the next season. Their lives are filled with travel and their social circles tend to consists of other cyclists with the same lifestyle.
And so, being a professional cyclist is so much more than a job. For most, it’s an identity and a way of life. Losing that when retirement comes can be very difficult and each athlete copes with it differently.
In this “Roadie to Retired” mini-series, we spoke with various cyclists about their retirement and life after racing. While some have moved away from cycling, others are finding retirement quite difficult.
We previous talked to Phil Gaimon and his “Worst Retirement Ever” Strava-KOM hunt, and Will and Shoshauna Routley, a couple who retired together at the end of 2016 and became Kombucha brewers.
In this third installment, we talked to Swede Emma Johansson, who, while still on the official Wiggle-High5 roster, hasn’t actually raced since the 2016 World Championship road race.
Well-known for being one of the most consistent athletes in women’s cycling, Johansson made her professional debut in 2005 with Team Bizkaia-Panda Software-Durango and went on to ride for top women’s teams like Leontien van Moorsel’s AA CyclingTeam and Orica–AIS. Her lengthy palmares includes a dozen national championship titles, several World Cup wins, topping the UCI rankings, bronze and silver medals at the UCI Road World Championships and two Olympic silver medals – eight years apart.
Up until her very last race, Johansson was a consistent podium candidate, always at the pointy end of the race, battling it out with the best of them. She probably had a few more years in her, but Johansson told Ella CyclingTips that she got everything she’d wanted out of her career, and was keen to open up a new chapter in life and start a family.
But Johansson is doing so with the help of a transition year. By remaining on the WiggleHigh5 roster, Johansson was given the option to race should the urge resurface, while serving as a mentor to the less experienced riders on the team.
Since pinning on her last race numbers, Johansson has been on several Swedish TV shows, and could be heard as the race commentator for several events.
We caught up with Johansson earlier in the season to chat about her semi-retired life and the future ahead.
Ella CyclingTips: So how’s retired life?
Emma Johansson: Pretty good, but different. I’m still riding my bike and I’m still on contract with Wiggle-High5 and I have a lot to do with the team. And I’m still out a lot, on the road, so my life is still a bit the same as last year, but I’m not racing at the moment so it’s quite nice and relaxing.
Ella: Does having this extra transition year help you come to terms with things?
EJ: Yeah, I think it definitely is. For sure it was really good for me last year, just knowing I had another year to figure things out, and I didn’t need to be stressing about that while I was still focusing on performing. To have this year to just ride and still race if I want to and be in the environment, and just feel what the next chapter might be has been really good.
Ella: Do you have an idea what the next chapter is going to look like for you?
EJ: No. I don’t know. As the months are passing by, I am busy with things happening and I’m not stressed at all about next year, even though I have no idea what I’ll be doing.
Ella: What’s the biggest difference between this year and last year. Do you have a different way of living? Are you different?
EJ: I am definitely much more relaxed. I don’t have that stress you put on yourself from being, and wanting to be, fit all the time – you don’t realise it until you don’t need to do it just how much work it actually is. At the same time, that is probably what I miss the most as well; to be super fit and knowing that you can go hard whenever you want to.
But I like the fact that if it’s bad weather or I just don’t want to ride my bike, I don’t need to. I am very pleased that I decided to step off the highest level before I grew sick and tired of it.
I started racing because I love riding my bike and [that love] is why I am still riding now.
Ella: Was there a period after last season, knowing it had been you last, whem you fell into maybe a bit of a dip?
EJ: I haven’t really had much time to think like that yet. I did all these TV shows in Sweden that kept me busy through February. I did join the girls at team camps before Het Nieuwsblad and Vlaanderen and all that. I had perhaps a bit of a dip then, where I had that missing feeling. I don’t know how to explain it but that feeling when I’d be showing up to the races and not having that same focus as the riders, and nothing was expected of me.
Ella: Do you not get the urge to jump back in when you’re at these races?
EJ: No. I mean I still ride with the girls from time to time and I do wonder like, how far could I get in this race. But no, the base fitness is still there but the top…the top is far gone.
Ella: What was life like before cycling?
EJ: [laughs.] Life before cycling?! Then I was probably 10 years old! I have been training and racing my bike and doing cross-country skiing since I was a kid. I haven’t had a life before cycling. I mean, I have always had a life aside from cycling and I think that’s something that I’m just living more of now. Of course, cycling has always been a big part and still is a big part and I think it’s also going to be a big part in the future.
Ella: Your career is often written about as a career of seconds. Isn’t there a part of you that wanted to keep going until you get to gold?
EJ: No. I have won a lot of races as well. Maybe some people only see the silver medals but I also see the journey and the experience I gained. I loved every step I have taken and I have worked really hard for it. It’s easy to forget that I have won a lot of races because you only see the really big medals. But even then, taking two [Olympic] silver medals eight years apart, that doesn’t happen very often. That just shows how long I have done this and have raced at that level.
Ella: It also shows just how consistent you were. You were always on the podium and one of the race favourites going into races. And so when you announced your retirement, it seemed you could have kept going and continued to contest the win for quite a while longer.
EJ: Probably I could have. But it’s also so much hard work. It’s not something I just go out and do. It may have seemed like that because I had been doing it for so long, but it’s also a thousand hours a year of training and living as a professional 100 percent of the time. It was definitely time to do something else.
My first plan was to race up to London and [to start a family]. You know, I’m not getting younger, I am turning 34 this September and I think it was the right time after Rio. All good things come to an end and I couldn’t get any better either. I felt like I got everything I wanted out of my career and I have no regrets. I felt a sense of satisfaction like, ‘it’s enough. I am done’.
Ella: Do you have any tips for cyclists going into retirement or looking to retire? Any best practices?
EJ: I think you should try to retire when you want to, when you are ready for it and not because you feel like you have to or someone tells you to. It has to be your decision, I think that’s the most important thing. It’s going to be hard anyways and if it wasn’t your own decision that’s going to make it even harder.
It’s also important to have a ‘normal life’, besides riding a bike. I have always been professional but I haven’t fully surrounded myself by it. I always had a lot of normal friends as well, not everyone rides their bike and I believe that has been important to my career, to have a place to hide, to be able to go to work – if you can call training that – and come home or hang out with friends and not think about the bike.
Ella: In the future, are we going to see you take on a new role within the sport? As a manager or DS or anything like that?
EJ: No, not as DS. I mean I still love being around and being a mentor. I may do some camps for younger riders and stuff like that. I feel like I have so much experience that I would like to share with younger girls. Or do [more] race commentating. In some way or another, I will still be around.