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Emma Norsgaard: The psychological demands of elite success and the need for U23 women's category at Worlds

Emma Norsgaard (Denmark)
Emma Norsgaard (Denmark) (Image credit: Getty Images)

After the most successful season of her career, Emma Norsgaard, just 22, heads into the elite women's road race as one of the favourites to win the rainbow jersey at the UCI Road World Championships on September 25 in Flanders, Belgium. 

In an interview with Cyclingnews, Norsgaard said rising to the top of the sport has felt rewarding, but it was also mentally demanding, particularly this year (and in hindsight), after she has achieved victories at some of the biggest races in the world.

She said she's ready to do her best while representing Denmark in the individual time trial, mixed team relay and elite women's road race in Flanders. However, she spoke of the importance of the sport's governing body creating an under-23 women's category at the Road World Championships in the future to give young riders a better development pathway to the elites. 

"This season has been so crazy and mind-blowing, and slowly I've realised what's happened this year. I feel that it has taken a lot from me, mentally, and I didn't realise it in the beginning, but I came from being a nobody to being the favourite at the World Championships," Norsgaard told Cyclingnews.

"This season has been so amazing, and I hope I can finish it off well. I can feel that mentally it has been super hard for me to handle everything, to be new in the game, but also live up to the expectations of everyone, especially my own expectations. It's been my best season so far, and it will be hard to top in next season, but I will try."

Norsgaard will compete in the individual time trial on September 20, the team time trial mixed relay on September 22 and the elite women's road race on September 25. She will be part of a team for the road race that includes Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, former World Champion Amalie Dideriksen, Julie Leth, and two newer riders Rebecca Koerner and Marita Jensen.

"The strength is that we know each other very well, especially myself, Julie, Cecilie and Amalie, because we have been racing in the peloton for many years and we have a nice group. Cecilie and Amalie can do well on this course, Julie is always good, and if I have good legs, I hope I can be there as well," Norsgaard said. "I haven't raced with the other two riders, but it will be exciting to see how they do. It's a big race, but we will not put any pressure on them."

Norsgaard is still relatively new to the top-tier of cycling and only just began racing with the now-folded Bigla programme in 2018, where she spent three seasons. She joined the Women's WorldTeam Movistar this year and extended her contract through 2024. 

It's been a successful season for Norsgaard with Movistar, with achievements including the overall win at Festival Elsy Jacobs and victories at Thüringen Ladies Tour and Giro d'Italia Donne. She participated in her first Olympic Games in Tokyo where she crashed in the road race and finished 17th in the time trial - results she was disappointed with. 

She's a powerful sprinter, well suited to the Spring Classics and punchy stage races, but also a strong time triallist, which says a lot about her versatility.

Belgian favourite Lotte Kopecky picked Norsgaard as the rider-to-watch in the elite women's road race at the Worlds, and the Dane said the feeling was mutual.

"Lotte Kopecky is my pick for the favourite," Norsgaard said. "She's always the one that I'm looking at in the peloton because I know she's always strong. I'm surprised that she mentioned me, but that makes me happy. You can compare us in many areas, but she is better than me in some ways, like climbing. We are not 100 per cent the same rider, and I need to train a little bit before I am on her level."

The elite women will race 157 kilometres between Antwerp and Leuven, with the course including 20 short climbs and a total elevation gain of 1,047 metres. The race starts at the Grote Markt in Antwerp and travels south for 55km to two distinct finishing circuits; the Leuven circuit includes four climbs, and the Flandrien circuit consists of six climbs.

"I like the route. I haven't ridden it yet, but I've looked at it online. It seems like a nice World Championships course, it's not the same as the Tour of Flanders, but this circuit suits me better. I hope I can be there in the end and do a nice result," Norsgaard said.

Norsgaard will compete in the individual time trial followed by the team time trial mixed relay with her brother, Mathias, and her fiancé, Mikkel Bjerg, and the balance of the squad with Magnus Cort, Leth and Dideriksen.

"The time trial is always really special for me because I love it. Last year, I surprised myself a little bit by placing seventh in Imola Worlds. This year, I had a lot of expectations for myself, and I can be disappointed when it comes to time trials, because you can only blame yourself. I try to go in without too many expectations but do my own best race," Norsgaard said. 

"With the team relay, I want to have fun. I'm racing with my fiancé and my brother, which is cool, and with Amalie and Julie, who are good friends. We want to have fun - that's the main goal."

'I would have chosen under-23'

When she was 19 years old, Norsgaard competed in her first World Championships in the elite women's road race at Innsbruck in 2018. She told Cyclingnews that while she is now comfortable competing in the elite women's peloton, she would have preferred to compete in an under-23 women's category upon exiting the junior ranks, if the category had existed. 

"At Innsbruck, it was a hard route, and I was in a breakaway with my teammate, and we were trying to get ahead of the hills, but when we got to the circuit, we were both done, and we were drinking beer after the race, watching the other girls finish," Norsgaard said.

The sport's governing body, UCI, offers 11 world titles across the time trials and road races, with junior and elite categories for the women and men, a mixed relay, plus an under-23 men's category at the World Championships. However, it does not offer an under-23 women's category or an under-23 women's Nations Cup calendar. Upon exiting the junior ranks at 18, female cyclists compete with the elite women's peloton without a stepping stone or an opportunity to develop and progress to the highest level.

"I would have definitely chosen to race U23s [at Worlds] because I was not ready to do the hard races with the elite women at that time," Norsgaard told Cyclingnews.

"I was already on the pro team Bigla back then, and I did races with the elites, but I would have chosen to go with U23 at Worlds because I did not realise what was going on in my first elite Worlds. It was such a hard race, and I ended up not finishing. For me, it would have been super nice to have that category."

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IMOLA ITALY SEPTEMBER 24 Emma Norsgaard Jorgensen of Denmark during the 93rd UCI Road World Championships 2020 Women Elite Individual Time Trial a 317km stage from Imola to Imola ITT ImolaEr2020 Imola2020 on September 24 2020 in Imola Italy Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

At the age of 21, Emma Norsgaard finished seventh in the elite women's time trial at the 2020 World Championships (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Women aged 19-22 make the largest cohort of riders in the current UCI World Ranking, but they are the lowest point scorers, with only 9.11 per cent capable of scoring more than 100 points on the international calendar of events.

Norsgaard is the highest point scorer of the riders in the 19-22 age group with a total of 1,682 points, and she is ranked 11th in the standings behind overall leader Annemiek van Vleuten, 39, who has 5,209 points.

The European Championships offers an under-23 women's category that averaged 80 riders for the last five editions, where Norsgaard won the bronze medal last year. However, she decided to compete with the elite field this year because she felt developed enough to do so.

"I could have chosen to do the European Championships with the U23 women, but I made it pretty clear that I wanted to go with the elites, and that was my decision because I felt like I belonged in the elite category. Still, I felt like it was nice to have the choice," Norsgaard said.

"We have the under-23 women's race at the European Championships and I really don't understand why it's not possible to have the same under-23 women's category at the Worlds."

Performance data revealed that most athletes exiting the juniors need at least five years to develop enough to be competitive in the elite ranks. Providing an option to spend three or four more years racing among the same peer group would give athletes a more gradual development pathway to elites and limit riders leaving the sport.

"I always wondered how it would have been to have a [U23 women's] race for us [at Worlds]. It would be a nice step before the biggest-ever elite Worlds. I'm a huge supporter of having this category at the Worlds because it's a nice step coming from juniors and not directly into the elite category. It's a big step, and it can be super hard. It's a shame that we don't have the under-23 category in women's cycling and that it's only for men. I hope that will change," Norsgaard said.

Norsgaard pointed out that her brother, Mathias, who also races for Movistar, and her fiancé Mikkel Bjerg, who races for UAE Team Emirates, both had opportunities to compete at the under-23 level. They competed in that category at the World Championships, Nations Cup, along with other under-23 stage races before moving up to the elite men's competition.

"I've spoken a lot with Mathias about it, and he told me once that if there had not been an under-23 category for him, he would never have gone pro because it's such a big step coming from juniors," said Norsgaard.

"We have also spoken about there needing to be more races for under-23 women, same as the men have because this is where you can show yourself and where teams can notice you. It's early to sign with a pro team straight out of juniors. Even if you are the best junior in the world, coming to the elite races and doing Tour of Flanders with Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen, it's going to be mind-blowing hard," Norsgaard said.

"You can save a lot of riders by having a U23 category, because we would get to grow as cyclists and get our time before we have to be professional - to enjoy the sport. You can't always enjoy the sport as a professional, especially if you are not ready for it.

"I really hope that we are going in a direction where we give space for under-23 women at races and World Championships."

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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in bike racing from the grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all cycling disciplines, edits news and writes features. Currently the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten coordinates global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.