Sixteen months ago, Swedish champion Emma Johansson shared her plans to retire from professional road racing at some point in the months following the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Her retirement comments were part of a broader press release in which she revealed she had inked a two-year deal with Wiggle-High5 Pro Cycling.
On Thursday, the British-registered squad announced a 15-rider line-up for the 2017 season. Johansson was included on this roster.
"When I signed the two-year contract last year, I knew [team owner] Rochelle [Gilmore] wanted to keep working with me in one way or another," Johansson told CyclingNews. "That was the only very clear thing I knew about Rochelle's objectives. For my part, I knew I wanted to do other things, other types of races – cyclocross races and mountain bike races and other things you can't do when you're going for the big goals."
During Johansson's final season racing full-time on the road, she finished second to Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) at Ronde van Vlaanderen and took her second silver medal at the Olympics Games. She won two stages and the overall at Euskal Emakumeen Bira and added two more Swedish national titles to her arsenal for a career total of 15 elite Swedish titles over 12 years.
The 33-year-old also learned the value of all she has to offer beyond personal performances and results.
"I've worked more with my younger teammates this year than I ever have in the past, and I realised how much I enjoy that experience," said Johansson. "Some of the younger girls have come to me for advice, and I like the feeling of giving my experience away."
"I also came to understand that there are so many other things going on around a cycling team that don't have to do with winning big races," Johansson added. "Some of those things, especially working with sponsors, are interesting to me and I'm more aware of what I can offer them than I was in the past."
For the last eight years, Johansson has split her time at home between Norway and Belgium, but she also did a stint in Basque Country at the start of her career. She's fluent in five languages and can give quotes in a handful more. Her connection to so many diverse places and cultures has widened her appeal and resulted in a loyal, passionate and varied fan base – a fan base that was undoubtedly encouraged by Thursday's press release that indicated Johansson had delayed her retirement.
"I can say for sure that I'm retired from the top level," said Johansson. "I'm not going to train 1,000 hours next year. I'm going to do maybe half that. I'm going to mountain bike. I'll still be on team camps. I can't see myself pinning on a number at a road race, but you never know, right? It's not something I anticipate. It's not something in my plans, but I can't completely rule it out."
"Even if I don't race on the road, I will be on the bike," Johansson added. "I'm doing cyclocross right now. I want to do some marathon races. Maybe I'll do a kermesse or two in Belgium. It's clear that no matter what discipline, as soon as I'm on the bike, Rochelle wants me racing for Wiggle, and I want that, too. We know that and we agree to that. The rest – we haven't made the rest of the decisions."
Not only uncomfortable with the unknown, Johansson is embracing it.
"The only thing I know that I really, really want for the future is having kids," she said. "Part of the need for flexibility is because of that. I think living the life that I've been living for such a long time will help me be relaxed and not too stressed for whatever is happening next."
"I like the freedom that the team has given me," she added. "They're not forcing me to do anything specific or meet any requirements. It all depends on what feels right for everybody."
The immediate future
While Johansson insists that she may never pin on a number in a road race again, she will pin on a number Saturday for the Swedish National Cyclocross Championships in Eksjö, Sweden, and when she does, she'll face off against another Rio Olympic medallist in Jenny Rissveds. The 22-year-old won cross-country mountain biking gold two weeks after Johansson earned her silver medal on the road.
"Jenny beat me at [cyclocross nationals] last year when I come out from my operation," said Johansson, referencing the operation she had in September 2015 to remove screws that had held her broken collarbone together. "I wasn't in good form last year. She's taking it pretty seriously this year, and I really want to beat her. Last chance."
On Monday, Johansson will leave behind snowy Sweden for sunny Fuerteventura. She's no stranger to winters spent logging base miles in the Canary Islands, but this this isn't a training trip.
"It only came out officially today, so I can share it now – I'm in a TV program in Sweden called Superstars," she explained. "It's together with all the other top athletes from Sweden, and I'm really excited about that – to do other things and see other people and exchange experiences with athletes from other sports."
"I can't compare it to an American or British version because I don't know if there is one," she added. "You put top athletes together, and they compete together and against each other. We have another show where they do stupid competitions like holding weights straight out. That's not this. We're doing proper sports, but sports that none of us have done."
Johansson will film through the end of November. When she returns, she has a few speaking engagements booked in December and January. Between these commitments, she's excited to indulge in holiday celebrations with her family.
"I'm most excited about being able to be with people in an unselfish way," she said. "As a top athlete, I have always had to put myself first, even in my relationship with [my husband] Martin. For both of us, the most important thing has been that I've been healthy, that I've been sharp, that I've been in form. Finally, I can put myself to the side and be there for others."
A glance back
While Johansson retires with enviable palmares and more than 40 UCI wins to her name, it's the races that she didn't win that most people remember.
She has finished on the podium at the World Championships three times but never on the top step. She was four times third and once second at Ronde van Vlaanderen, but first remained elusive. She's a two-time Olympic silver medalist, who missed out on gold in the Rio road race last August by a tire width due to what she calls a miscalculation in the three-up sprint.
"They called me 'Silver Emma' in Sweden," Johansson said. "And it's 'Miss Consistency' in the peloton, isn't it? I've won so many races that no one talks about. The conversations about me are mostly about all these second places."
"First of all, I'm proud of my two silver medals at the Olympics," said Johansson. "It's two silver medals that are eight years apart, and it's a part of the thing that I'm most proud of, which is not the wins or the second places, but the balance I've had in my career."
"I can probably count the days of sickness where I couldn't train on one hand during these 10 years," she continued. "I haven't been injured from over-training. I have never had an eating disorder. I have never pushed myself to that point – and maybe that's the reason I've never gotten that big win and the reason I've been able to be so consistent."
It's abundantly clear that Johansson has come to peace with her career – with her nicknames and her near misses, with her wins and her losses, with her strengths and her weaknesses.
"I've learned during these years not to race and compete and compare myself against the others," Johansson said. "By the end, it was the competition to be the best me. The girl who fell in love with riding her bike in the forest, she turned into the World's Best Emma. And that was exactly how good I could be."
"It comes along with age as well, right? When you're younger, you're only racing to win, and you're racing against others, but suddenly you reach a level where you're only competing with yourself,” she continued. “That's brought a calm to my performances as well. I can stand on the start line, and I can be nervous, but I know that I can't be any better than the best I can be. If that's good enough to win, great. If not…."
"I'll take that with me wherever I go and in everything I do," she added. "It's about being responsible for yourself and your choices and knowing that if you want to make it all the way, only you can make it happen."