On the morning of the sixth stage of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift Emma Norsgaard needed three cups of coffee before the day got started.
It had been a bad night’s sleep the night before, with the air-con broken in her hotel room, after a few hard days of racing. And Norsgaard is no fan of the heat.
“I tell you, I woke up this morning like, ‘Oh no, another day I have to work, another day I have to suffer,'” Norsgaard joked after the stage. “I was such in a bad mood I needed three cups of coffee before anyone could speak to me.”
“Then my DS came up with this plan that I need to go in the breakaway and I was really like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I love him now [but] before I was like, ‘Come on, man.'”
Twelve months ago Emma Norsgaard didn’t make it to the sixth stage of the Tour de France Femmes.
At last year’s race, Norsgaard broke her collarbone in a crash on stage 5, the longest stage of the race. Another setback of many for the former Danish national champion.
In 2021 Norgaard was having the best season of her career. She started strong, finishing runner-up at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Le Samyn, Scheldeprijs, and Brugge-De Panne. She finally broke through to the top step at Ceratizit Festival Elsy Jacobs where she won both road stages and the overall. From there she won the first stage of the LOTTO Thüringen Ladies Tour, the Danish ITT national championships, and a stage of the Giro Donne.
Going into last year’s Tour de France Femmes, Norsgaard was on top of the world.
The crash happened with 40 km to go, on a straight road on what was then the longest day of racing ever for women in a WorldTour event. The peloton wasn’t going very fast, but those are the worst kinds of crashes.
It wasn’t a good start to the 2023 season for Norsgaard either. A crash in Strade Bianche took her out of the early season, her favourite time of year when the races suit her most. She wasn’t able to return to the peloton until La Vuelta Femenina in May, two months after the incident.
At La Vuelta she had a few good finishes, the best being second behind Marianne Vos on the fourth stage. She kept her Danish national champion jersey in the time trial in June, and was firmly among the top three sprinters in the peloton at the Baloise Ladies Tour, finishing on the podium of four stages, but never taking a win.
“It’s been a really difficult start of the year,” Norsgaard said after the stage. “So I’m lost for words. I want to thank everyone around me.”
After getting sick in Belgium, Norsgaard didn’t think she was even going to be selected for Movistar’s Tour de France Femmes team.
“I got a fever the last stage [of Baloise Ladies Tour],” Norsgaard explained. “I was so scared I wouldn’t be selected for the race because we have so many strong riders on our team so they could take another, so I was pretty nervous.”
In the end, the team did select their Danish rouleur, and in hindsight, clearly, the form was coming.
She had to ride into the first few stages. Norgaard hates the heat, and after the Grand Depart in Clermont-Ferrand, she wasn’t feeling her best.
“The first couple of days I really had to ride into it; when it’s hot it’s not really my thing and I was super disappointed. Also [Stage 5] not making [it] over the climbs, so actually not the best feeling coming into the race,” Norsgaard said.
Her role was to support defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten, the team’s GC leader and a favourite for the overall. At the Giro Donne, Movistar didn’t let anyone else on the team go for stage wins, they focused on Van Vleuten, even when Liane Lippert looked strong enough to take a stage.
Their approach to the Tour de France Femmes has been different. Already in the second stage, they gave Lippert free rein, and it paid off. Norsgaard was so happy she cried at the finish for her German teammate. It was a great start to the race for the team, even if Norsgaard wasn’t loving the temperatures.
In the third stage finish, Norsgaard didn’t enjoy the speeds coming to the line. “I did not like today,” she said after Tuesday’s stage. “I was suffering like hell the first two hours, then that crazy sprint. It’s not my day today, really not my day.”
Maybe, in previous seasons, she could have been put into the box of a sprinter, but over the past two seasons, Norsgaard has pivoted to more of a Classics rider, focusing on her own results in the early season and being the best rider for her team in the stage races.
“I tried to change a little bit into more of a Classics kind of rider,” Norsgaard explained. “I need to realize I am not as fast as Charlotte Kool or Lorena Wiebes anymore so I need to seek the success otherwise and I’m pretty pleased with the way I’m going.”
“I think I’m not a sprinter anymore. I have realized I cannot keep up with the real sprinters. I took a chance today and reached out, [and] here we are.”
Sitting in a hot gymnasium just outside of Toulouse, why wouldn’t Norsgaard be pleased with where her progress has taken her? On the heels of the biggest win in her career, after a tumultuous 12 months, a Tour de France Femmes stage win is exactly what the Dane needed.
“It’s not every day I say, ‘Ya, today I want to win,’ and then it happens so it’s kind of amazing when the plan is a success,” Norsgaard said of the day.
“My family, husband, the team, for still believing in me after being out the whole spring,” Norsgaard said, on the verge of tears. “Yeah, I’m super emotional, I’m sorry – this is the biggest victory ever – I’m so, so happy.”
It was a gamble, going on the attack. But this Tour has been far from predictable. With Wiebes out of the race and everyone sporting tired legs, there was always a chance the break would make it to the line. Even so, for Norsgaard to be there seemed a bit insane. Even though she’s changed as a rider, people still see her as a sprinter, someone who should wait for a bunch kick, not get up the road early in the day.
As the race approached the line, Norsgaard had no concept of the chase behind; she didn’t hear about a crash in the peloton that disrupted the chase. She was focused on her own efforts alone.
“I think I didn’t listen to anything in the radio other than ‘Vamos’ so, I tried not to look back and really just focused on the finish line,” Norsgaard said.
“The last five km I maybe started believing in it, but otherwise I was just pulling like there was no tomorrow.”
So, one year after a heartbreaking end to the inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, Norsgaard now has a WorldTour victory at the top race in the world.
This morning she struggled to wake up, but this wasn’t a dream: Emma Norsgaard is a Tour de France stage winner.
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