2016 will be a year of goodbyes for Emma Johansson. The Swede, one of the most successful riders in the women’s peloton during the past decade, will step down from top level racing at the end of the season.
Her latest goodbye was to La Flèche Wallonne, the last of the major Spring Classics in the women’s calendar. Johansson finished seventh, 43 seconds behind winner Anna van der Breggen, taking her eighth top ten finish in a row at the race, including three podium placings.
Three days before the 32-year-old was in a more celebratory mood, having won two stages and the overall at the Euskal Emakumeen Bira stage race in the Basque Country.
“The first win of the season is always special,” she says. “I didn’t even think I would be able to start though, so I didn’t expect to do so well.”
The problem? Vomiting and stomach pain just as Johansson was preparing to take the start in the opening time trial, held in Iurreta. She got over the illness though, taking control of the race the next day by beating Cervélo’s Carmen Small to the line in Eskoriatza.
Johansson led from the front the next day, taking another win on the famous climb of the Urkiola. It was the seventh time she had won a stage at the race, and ensured that the overall victory was hers for a second time (she won in 2013, and has finished on the final podium in 2011, 2012 and 2015).
The win marks has seen Johansson come full circle in her professional career, having turned pro with local team Bizkaia-Durango back in 2005. It’s clear that she has an affinity with the area.
“It was like a family for me there,” says Johansson. “I still have a lot of contact with my teammates from then. I loved it there.”
“The weather and the landscape there is a little bit like home, it’s something I’m used to.”
Johansson has also enjoyed herself at another local race, the Emakumeen Saria classic. Over the years she has finished on the podium six times, including a third place this season, and took the win in 2015.
With all this Basque success she must have a decent collection of Txapelas, the beret that is awarded to the winner of most pro races in the region, but Johansson keeps them out of the way: “They’re up in my attic, with the other trophies.”
Despite her great affection for the area, Johansson doesn’t live there – her move away from Bizkaia-Durango to Vlaanderen-Capri Sonne-T Interim after two years at the team saw her settle near Oudenaarde, the home of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. She still lives there today.
“It’s my favourite place to be when I’m not at home [in Sollefteå, Sweden],” she says. “It’s right in the middle of all the Spring Classics.”
De Ronde is her favourite race, but she hasn’t won having finished in the top five on six occasions. The closest was this year’s edition, when World Champion Lizzie Armitstead pipped her to the line in a two-woman sprint.
After the race Johansson was disappointed but pleased to have left everything on the road during her last time at De Ronde.
“When you’ve done everything you can, you’ve done everything right, and someone is just that bit better than you, of course you’re disappointed,” she said. “We took it in our own hands though, and I just loved the racing today. I enjoyed it from the first moment.”
Johansson’s adopted home of Zingem is part of the course, and every year the town is covered in Swedish flags to support her – a special moment, no doubt.
In addition to the results in Flanders and the Basque Country, Johansson has finished on the podium at Le Samyn and Strade Bianche so far this season – in her final season, the ability to consistently get results remains.
This consistency (Johansson has been runner-up in the Women’s World Cup in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014) has seen her fair share of near misses though, notably the 2008 Olympics Road Race. After three and half hours of racing through the rain, Johansson was beaten in the sprint by Great Britain’s Nicole Cooke, and making the step up from silver to gold is on the wish list for her final season.
“Rio is my big goal, of course,” she says. “I definitely have unfinished business there – that’s why I’m still around. I have been there and seen most of the course already.”
A gold medal would be a dream after that result eight years ago, but would be even more special after her multiple silver (Firenze 2013) and bronze medals (Geelong 2010, Ponferrada 2014) at the World Championships.
So far the preparation is going very well, and Johansson’s run-up to race will include May’s Tour of California (the second edition of that race) and July’s Thüringen Rundfahrt, which she has won three times in the past.
After Rio the future isn’t totally planned, but Johansson’s contract runs through 2017. The final year will be different though, with Johansson’s previous statements on the matter suggesting that hers will be a gradual retirement.
“This season I race to the end,” she says. “Then next year I don’t know yet, but there will be no big races – that’s for sure.”
For now though, all eyes are on gold. For a rider who has been at the top of the sport for a decade, it would certainly be a fitting way to go out.