Gradual retirements seem increasingly fashionable in cycling. Bradley Wiggins, for instance, has already had more farewell gigs than Frank Sinatra, Cadel Evans enjoyed a lingering goodbye on home roads, and rumours abound that Alberto Contador will wind his career down next year with a stint riding for his own development team.
Emma Johansson, as one of the most consistently successful female riders of the past decade, has surely earned the right to call time on her career on her own terms, and so while 2016 will be the Swede’s final season at the very highest level, she will continue to race in Wiggle-High5 colours into 2017.
Quite what her programme next year will entail remains a closely guarded secret for the time being. “I have a contract for 2017, as everybody knows, but that’s going to be a year where I do a bit of other things,” Johansson told Cyclingnews at the Ladies Tour of Qatar.
“I don’t know want to say anything else, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just know that I want to focus 100 percent on now. I’m just having 2017 as a year where I can do different things, and more or less figure out what the future is going to look like. That makes me more relaxed. I can focus 100 percent on now and not answer so many questions about the future.”
Johansson’s here and now is all about settling into life on a new team after arriving from Orica-AIS during the off-season – “I think every team has their things, but it seems to be a good group” – a hectic Classics campaign “like always” and, of course, a tilt at that elusive gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Her final approach to Rio will include the Tour of California and the Thüringen Rundfahrt, where Johansson is chasing a third overall victory.
A silver medallist in Beijing in 2008 after being edged out by Nicole Cooke in the rain-soaked, three-up sprint, Johansson admits to having some unfinished business with the Olympics. “Yes, definitely, otherwise I would have stopped! If I didn’t have unfinished business in the peloton, then I would have gone, I wouldn’t be here. That’s why I’m still around.”
Johansson’s sense of mission is surely only compounded by the fact that the rainbow jersey has proved equally elusive. Only Marianne Vos at her peak could deny Johansson in Florence in 2013, while the Swede also claimed bronze medals in Geelong in 2010 and Ponferrada in 2014. Even so, the flame of Olympic ambition burns brightest.
“Of course the world champion’s stripes are very special but with the Olympic Games, you only get one chance every four years,” she said. “And then cycling is such a small sport in Sweden, so the Olympics makes a difference in a country where cycling isn’t that big.”
The dramatic change of Johansson’s public profile in her home nation on the back of her Beijing medal only reiterates the point. “They didn’t know who I was before that, even though I had performed before as well,” she said.
A decade of change
For women’s cycling as a whole, in fact, the Olympics seem of inherently greater importance than for their male counterparts – not least because, traditionally, levels of sponsorship and exposure for the women’s peloton have tended to ebb and flow in tandem with the four-year Olympic cycle.
Based on past examples, the (very) relative feast of backers in 2016 might well be followed by something of a famine in 2017 and 2018, though Johansson is hopeful that the cycle could be broken this time out.
“At the moment it’s not as big a sport as male cycling, so I think that’s the difference [in the relative importance of the Olympics to each sector of the sport – ed.] But maybe it will be different in four years’ time because women’s cycling in general is growing a lot,” Johansson said. “It might be different and the Olympics mightn’t be such a big matter.”
Certainly, the 32-year-old Johansson is adamant that the current women’s professional peloton is in far ruder health than the one she entered in the colours of Bizkaia-Panda in 2005. “Before in the peloton you had maybe four riders who could win a hard race, whereas now it’s difficult to tell because there are so many good riders out there. The teams are stronger and more professional now, and team tactics are a bigger factor than when I first started,” she said.
Off the road, too, the sense of change has been palpable. 2016 sees the introduction of the UCI Women’s WorldTour – “It’s going to be interesting to see whether it’s going to make that much of a difference, but I’m sure it will,” Johansson said – while the introduction of events such as La Course by Le Tour de France mark a small but nonetheless important step towards the reintroduction of a race of the stature of the old Tour Cycliste Féminin.
The success of events such as La Course, the Tour of Flanders and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad has led some to suggest that holding female and male events side by side, in the manner of tennis or athletics, is the way forward for women’s cycling, but there are encouraging signs, too, emanating from standalone events. The two strands, Johansson said, are not mutually exclusive.
“The Aviva Women’s Tour has definitely shown that you don’t need to be alongside a men’s race on the same day just to be a big race and to get good exposure, and in fact maybe it can be a positive thing not to be,” Johansson said. “But I think you can do both. We need to try to find our own way but also learn from the guys, and get that into our races.
“But I don’t think we need them. The women’s races are interesting anyway, and as long as we can show that, people are going to want more.”