Where are they now? Emma Johansson is ‘being the best me’
The Swedish star retired at her peak, but has few regrets about her life post-pro cycling.
The Swedish star retired at her peak, but has few regrets about her life post-pro cycling.
If you followed women’s cycling through the late 2000s and 2010s, you’ll remember Emma Johansson as one of the most successful riders of her generation. The Swedish rider had a glittering career, winning several World Cup races like Trofeo Binda and Ronde van Drenthe; she netted no less than 61 wins in her career and holds a staggering 14 national titles. Johansson excelled in week long, hard stage races like Giro Donne, the Women’s Tour, Thüringen Rundfahrt, Ladies Tour and Emakumeen Bira.
But it wasn’t just Johansson’s wins that made her a star: her many podium places are even more of a testament to her consistency and position in the women’s cycling peloton. Johansson holds two silver Olympic medals, one from the start of her career in 2008 and one from the end in 2016, the year she retired. She also podiumed at the World Championships three times.
Johansson retired at her peak, and currently lives in Norway with her Norwegian husband, former pro Martin Vestby. She is a mother to two children, son Morris and daughter My, with their third child due in June.
“When I retired in 2016 it wasn’t an option to go on pregnancy leave like it is now. Now you can have a child and leave the comeback open like, for example, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak announced. On the other hand, I really wanted to be a mum and then be there for them all the time. It’s a bloody hard job, though,” she says with a distinctive Australian accent, a souvenir from her years on Orica-AIS and Wiggle.
“I had a contract for 2017 with Rochelle Gilmore of the Wiggle team which was nice, because I still could be part of the sport and transition to a more normal life. It took us some time to conceive so having that financial security was nice,” Johansson continues. “I did some sponsorship duties that year and also started to do talks called ‘World’s Best Me’. It’s about my career and how I changed through it. I was going from always competing against everyone else to competing to be the best version of myself. It was good to switch off the competitive focus after so many years and be the best me in my new life.”
In 2017 Johansson was also asked to start as a commentator with the Swedish television for the Bergen World Championships.
“I drove to Bergen and did a recon of all the courses. I was feeling really shit because I was ten weeks pregnant, but it felt good to give back to cycling with the commentary, the talks and the sponsorship duties that first year off the bike.”
Johansson provided commentary from the studio in Stockholm. When she just had one child that was feasible with the travel, but when her daughter came along it was becoming harder. Her husband is the sports director for Jayco-BikeExchange women’s team and away often, so Johansson started to look for other options.
“I phoned the Norwegian TV2 which is the cycling channel here and told them I was interested in cycling commentary – if they needed me, they could call me – and they did in 2021. I got to do so much more than just the women’s race commentary. I also did part of the Tour de France as a studio expert doing race analysis. I don’t know enough of the men’s peloton to commentate it, I think. There are so many more riders,” she smiles.
Johansson loves the combination of doing women’s race commentary with former pro Thea Thorsen, alongside race analysis and on-camera presentation work for the men’s races.
“I think bringing me in on some of the men’s races elevates the profile of the women’s sport too. It draws in some of the fans of the men’s sport to the women’s sport,” Johansson says. “I hope to do it full-time in the future, but [with soon-to-be three kids] I don’t really have time to work full-time.”
Johansson works in her native language Swedish, in English on the Tour of Norway (now Tour of Scandinavia), and in Norwegian. It’s an incredible achievement she likes to humbly tone down.
“Norwegian and Swedish are like Flemish and Dutch though,” she explains. ”It’s really quite similar. I call my language Sworsk [Swedish and Norsk] and it works well,” she laughs. “In school the kids learn Norwegian, but they add some Swedish words. The pronunciation is the big difference between the two languages.”
One of the big races Johansson will commentate on for Norwegian television is the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.
“My third child will be a month old so I can’t be on-site in France, but I really want to make it work to do that job. I don’t want to miss this,” Johansson says. “The development of the sport is going so fast right now. It’s so amazing. You could feel the Tour de France Femmes coming. We had La Course and then Paris-Roubaix. If someone told me Tour de France Femmes would happen in 2017 I would have done another year, but no one could make me race longer than that extra year.”
When Johansson raced only a handful of riders could live off their sport. A rider like Ellen van Dijk, for example, started her career in 2006 with just €200 ($210 USD/AU$296) a month. Times have changed quickly – nowadays the women’s peloton has over 200 riders earning a sustainable living wage.
“The professionalization in the women’s sport moves fast. If you now hear what the women are making … I always raced with my heart but now riders can make choices based on a sustainable living and race one year more for the income.”
Working in sports broadcasting herself, Johansson sees what visibility of the sport does to its development. Creating even more visibility with live television is the key.
“The next step is even more high-quality broadcasting of all the races. That needs to become better,” Johansson explains. “Prize money is another thing, but more broadcast time will lead to more income and to more prize money. The quality of the peloton is becoming bigger, the teams are becoming more professional every year and we hopefully have a separate U23 category at the World Championships soon. I don’t think there is enough depth for many more separate U23 races yet, but it’s coming and it’s going fast.”
Men’s cycling had a real head start in development on the women’s sport but the two sports are also very different in character. Working in both men’s and women’s racing, Johansson sees the differences.
“On television we always start the broadcast in the final of the women’s race when all the race moves have been made. That is typical for the women’s races – they are shorter and more aggressive. They start to race from kilometer zero and as a commentator and viewer you try to make sense of it when the live broadcast starts,” she laughs. “That is a difference from men’s races. When I was still a pro rider I could use the start of the men’s race as recovery because the final starts so much later. You can have a nap.”
Johansson was one of the only stars from Scandinavia for a long period of time. With the addition of Uno-X Pro Cycling Team to the Women’s WorldTour this year, alongside the longstanding Continental-level Hitec team (currently Team Coop-Hitec Products, established 2009), the level of Scandinavian women’s cycling is rising.
“It’s so important to have Uno-X, especially for the Norwegian women. They have a men’s and a women’s pro team, and have full equality. The team offers a pathway to young Norwegian riders to make cycling their living and creates role models for the new generation too,” Johansson enthuses. “Scandinavian riders now have the option the Dutch have had for years: if you are good, there is now a safe and professional space to go to at the highest level.”
There were many second and third places in the career of Johansson but she looks back at her time in the pro peloton with contentment and doesn’t dwell on the many not-wins. That took some time, she says.
“I only have a few regrets now,” she says. “There were a few races I just could have really won, for example when I was third at the World Championships in Geelong in 2010. If I would have had the race experience I had later in my career I would never have sprinted on the outside of Vos, taking the risk of her closing the door towards the fence. That was my biggest chance to become world champion.
“In the 2016 Olympics I got a silver [her second after Beijing 2008] and I am super proud of it. The only thing that gets to me [is] that I didn’t dare to make a plan for the final,” Johansson explains. “The only plan I had was for the climb – that was the place I could lose the race. I didn’t want to focus on the finish and have a plan ready for that sprint because I didn’t know I would make it there. I black out in the sprint. That is one of those ‘what if I…’ or ‘maybe’ moments.”
Johansson is now 38 and reflects on her career with great maturity. The sport for which she left home when she was just 15 years old has given her a lot.
“I come from a country where I became a cyclist against the odds. This is a country where cross country skiing and winter sports are big,” Johansson says. “I am proud of my journey. I am proud of how I did my last three years, because I grew as a person. I started to appreciate all the small things. When you are younger you are hungry for more all the time and it’s difficult to enjoy when you are in it. I tried to enjoy the moment in those last seasons.”
As a mum, Johansson has a lot of life lessons she wants to teach her children. She is happy with her life as a pro cyclist, but admits she would prefer her son to focus on off-road disciplines if he ever decides on a cycling career because the streets are a dangerous place. “Sport has been a blessing to my life, and I would love Morris to experience the same thing,” Johansson says.
When it comes to her daughter My, Johansson just dreams of the day she can ride a bike.
“My was born with Down’s syndrome two years ago and although she won’t race the Olympics, I hope she can be the best version of herself and reach her goals in life,” Johansson says.
Johansson has carried her philosophical outlook about her racing into her retirement, and that’s continuing to help shape her family along with herself.
“As an athlete I was never scared of change. When I wasn’t happy or satisfied, I always tried to change to find the happiness. You know what you have and you don’t know what you get, but I never was afraid of that unknown,” she says. “You need to take responsibility for your own career and your own happiness. It’s all about putting energy in the things you can change, and leave the things you can’t change.”