Emma Johansson Wins Stage One of Inaugural Friends Life Women's Tour

Wed 7 May 2014

Emma Johansson scored her fourth win of the season, sprinting to victory on the opening stage of the inaugural Friends Life Women’s Tour. The Swedish all-rounder edged out World Champion Marianne Vos (Rabobank-Liv) in a hotly contested field sprint to pull on the yellow leader’s jersey in Northampton. Johansson will head into the second stage of the five day British tour with a 4” advantage over Vos.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” admitted Johansson. “I was on Marianne’s wheel, and when I could come around her, I thought: ‘Wow, I’m actually going to beat her in a sprint.’ Marianne has a really good sprint, so I was quite surprised. I can sprint obviously – especially when it’s been technical or hard or cold like it was today. Still, I can hardly believe it.”

“I love it here!,” Johansson added. “I made my good memory in England today. Hopefully this is just the first one.”

Massive crowds turned out to cheer on the women’s peloton as they set off to start the Friends Life Women’s Tour. Sidewalk space was at a premium in Oundle as locals jostled for a roadside spot. The scene was goosebump-inducing.

“We’re not used to crowds like this at women’s only events,” said Johansson. “It was really amazing at the start and the finish and all the towns on the course. It seemed like every school brought the kids out to the race. I loved it.”

“We were all extremely impressed,” Sport Director Martin Barras confirmed. “The response from the public was incredible. I commented quite a few times that I felt like we were the Beatles while I was driving in the race caravan. People, especially the school groups, were jumping and cheering and waving flags as we came by, and just by responding with a toot of the horn to show our appreciation, the noise level would increase noticeably.”

“It’s a fantastic feeling,” Barras added. “Everyone is talking about it – the riders, the staff, everyone associated with the race. We’ve all been craving this for many, many years, and it’s great to see this sort of endorsement from the local communities. We want to thank Sweet Spot and the race organisation for providing all of us with the opportunity to show that the interest in women’s cycling is real. Hopefully it paves the way for other races to follow the same mould.”

ORICA-AIS took a slightly conservative approach to the stage. Traditionally the protagonists, the Australian outfit elected to leave other teams to animate the action. Rather than throw down attacks, they would respond to any dangerous moves. 

“We all sat down before the race and discussed our tactics,” said Barras. “The idea was that we would let the teams that had the pressure to perform feel that pressure. We were keen to manage the situation to alleviate any responsibility or pressure that we felt in the interest of the opportunities this would create for us later.” 

“This plan worked out really well – almost too well – because Emma ended up winning the race,” said Barras. “No one is going to sit here and complain about winning a stage in a big tour like this one, but it certainly puts us in a position where we can no longer take advantage of the expectations on other teams and riders. Expectations now fall on us.”

The first hint of action on stage one came on the opening YodelDirect Sprint. Until that point, the peloton had been unusually quiet. The bonus seconds (3”-2”-1”) on offer at each of the two daily intermediate sprints incentivized the peloton into action. Ellen van Dijk (Boels-Dolmans) won the first sprint, taking three bonus seconds, ahead of Johansson and Vos.

“I felt really good in the first intermediate sprint,” said Johansson. “It was actually a bit weird. There was a sign for one kilometre and a sign for 500 metres, and I think we all thought there would be another sign before the finish. There wasn’t, so nobody actually really sprinted. The lead-out trains were still at the front, which is why Ellen took it. She was meant to lead-out Lizzie [Armitstead] (Boels-Dolmans).” 

Rossella Ratto (Estado de México-Faren Kuota) launched the first significant breakaway attempt between the initial intermediate sprint and the first Strava Queen of the Mountain. She stretched out her advantage to nearly a minute before the bunch closed the gap, overtaking her with 50 kilometres left to race.

“It was quite windy but a lot of the course was reasonably sheltered,” noted Barras. “It was also clear from the outset that most of the race would be done with a headwind, which greatly reduced the chances for breakaways and attacks. It certainly dictated the sort of tactics we saw today.”

The peloton stayed together until they hit Althrop Estate. The narrow roads and rough pavement put the peloton under pressure. The bunch split, and Elise Delzenne (Specialized-lululemon) went on the attack. She remained up the road for the second YodelDirect Sprint, scooping up the bonus seconds for first across the line. 

“Coming into the second sprint, Marianne attacked,” recalled Johansson. “She came in really early. I jumped to follow, but I lost my SRM, so I sort of lost focus for a minute, which meant that I didn’t get any seconds in that one. I actually had to dig deep just to stay with her and Lizzie. I was afraid they were going to try to ride away.” 

Neither Vos nor Armitstead made a move at that point in the race. Instead, they sent their teammates to the front to chase down Delzenne, who had 45” in hand over the second QOM. Rabobank-Liv and Boels-Dolmans collaborated at the front, reeling Delzenne back just past the two kilometre to go mark.

“Coming into the final, Nettie [Edmondson] found me,” Johansson explained. “She was looking after me until Loes [Gunnewijk] came up the side and shouted at me. I jumped to her wheel. When an Astana rider attacked, Loes went after her.”

“I tried to make myself as small as possible so I took only a little wind,” Johansson added. “After the one kilometre banner, it turns right and then left. Loes cut the corner, so we were the first two through. I knew Loes couldn’t go anymore at some point, and I needed to ready for whatever would come from behind me.”

“Ellen came up on the left side,” Johansson continued. “I told Loes to go left but Ellen was a bit faster, so it was Ellen and Lizzie and then Loes and me. I came off Loes’ wheel and onto Lizzie’s wheel at the 500 metre mark.” 

Armitstead was the first to open the sprint. The British National Champion jumped 450 metres from the line. Johansson stuck onto her wheel. 

“I was like: ‘Whoa! That’s really early.’ because the finish was uphill and into a headwind,” Johansson explained. “I think she must have been really excited. Marianne came up and past Lizzie, so I got onto her wheel. I actually had to sit down and then stand up again. I was fighting next to her all the way to the line. “

Johansson edged out Vos for the stage win. Briton Hannah Barnes (Unitedhealthcare) rounded out the podium. The trio occupy the same top three spots on the general classification with Vos at 4” and Barnes at 8”.

“It’s really nice to see so many strong riders out there,” said Johansson. “To win bike races these days is not easy. You have to fight really hard for every win. Teams are riding really tactically and have more than one card to play. I think the peloton as a whole is stronger than it’s ever been.”

“The whole team was really good today,” said Johansson. “Everyone was present. Everyone rode next to each and communicated really well. We didn’t attack, but that wasn’t the plan. We wanted to have a crack at the intermediate sprints, which was exactly what we did.”