After five years in the WorldTour peloton, Emma Norsgaard’s 2022 season put the young Danish champion among the best in the world. She finished sixth at Omloop Het Niewusblad in her first race of the year, second at Omloop van het Hageland, and then won Le Samyn des Dames. She then finished sixth and fifth at the WT one-days Brugge-De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem.
For a 22-year-old it was a very successful spring campaign that held a lot of promise for seasons to come.
So when the 2023 Spring Classics began, Norsgaard understandably had high hopes. But things didn’t go according to plan. The young Dane crashed at Strade Bianche, breaking her collarbone – her second such injury in two years – and the Movistar rider found herself on the bench for the rest of the Classics.
Now that Norsgaard is back racing, her 2023 season looks quite a bit different to previous years.
“Normally my biggest goal of the year is the Classics and this year I missed out,” Norsgaard told Escape Collective. “So I tried to focus on other stuff. I really tried to be in a nice shape for helping Annemiek [van Vleuten] and come really well prepared to the stage races.”
It takes months of preparation for a rider to be ready for their target races, and to miss out due to injury is never ideal. But for Norsgaard, having two months away from racing – from early March to early May – meant a shift in her goals and a new perspective on the season ahead.
She went into last week’s La Vuelta Femenina a new rider.
“Mentally I am in another place this year than I have been the last two years,” Norsgaard said. “The Classics are super hard for me mentally and of course also physically. But yeah, I tend to be super disappointed when I don’t reach my goals.
“I feel like a different rider this year. I don’t feel like a Classics rider. Now I am trying something new and I’m trying to be a little bit better on the climbs and maybe I can be in super shape in August now instead of the Classics.”
Norsgaard is now focusing on the Tour de France Femmes in July, and the Tour of Scandinavia and the Glasgow Road World Championships in August. Norsgaard crashed at the inaugural Tour last year and wasn’t able to race the first Tour of Scandinavia. As she watched the peloton compete in her home country she decided it would have to be on her calendar this year.
“I was watching it from home and I remember I just called my DS and said, ‘I need to do this race next year,'” Norsgaard recalled. “So I’m on it this year and actually the stages in Denmark are super close to my family so I hope my friends and family will come in and cheer for me.”
Denmark is a cycling hotspot, home to the 2022 Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard and the 2019 men’s road world champion Mads Pedersen. It’s also the home of 2016 women’s road world champion Amalie Dideriksen, and Tour de France Femmes stage winner Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, but women’s cycling hasn’t quite hit mainstream fandom in Denmark yet.
When she’s out walking with her brother Mathias Norsgaard and husband Mikkel Bjerg, Emma Norsgaard doesn’t get recognized. At least not yet.
“With Cecilie being super outgoing in the media, it’s super, super good for the women cycling in Denmark because maybe they don’t know cycling super well, but they know her,” Norsgaard said. “It’s still not the same as the men for sure.”
With the Danish men enjoying such success at the highest level, that has a positive knock-on effect to other riders.
“It motivates them all like seeing Mads Petersen winning in every stage race he’s doing and Vingegaard winning the Tour,” Norsgaard said. “They have been racing all of their lives together ever since they were kids. And now they see that they can win the Tour de France.”
Coming from such a small nation, all the Danish men and women currently racing at the top of the sport know each other. That means that, compared to other nations, the Danish national team has something special. So when Norsgaard looks ahead to the Glasgow Worlds in August, part of the appeal is about racing alongside friends who race for different trade teams.
“I think especially with Julie [Leth] and Amalie [Dideriksen], when we show up at the Europeans or at Worlds, Julie is one of my best friends, so I can really feel like it’s no problem for her riding for me. They give themselves 100% and if one day, I would have to go for Julie or for Amalie, I would 100% also go with them.
“It’s just super nice having this trust in each other. I would give my life for them and really trust that they would do everything they could for the victory for us. When I see some of the other nationalities I sometimes think ‘Oh, you could have won this race easily, but because you cannot ride together, then it makes it pretty hard.’
“What we have in the Danish national team, is that we are not the strongest team at all. But with this we could still be a contender for the Worlds. On paper, we are not the strongest. But in this way, I think we are mentally one of the strongest.”
Norsgaard’s new schedule hopefully means she will come into Glasgow in good form. She’s happy Worlds is in August this year – “normally in September I’m pretty tired” – and the course is good for the Danish rider, who for the last year has been adapting her riding style away from being a “pure sprinter” into something more versatile.
“I hope it’s going to be a day where I have really good legs because I think the course is looking really nice and not flat,” Norsgaard said. “It’s hilly all the time. If I could come out of the Tour in a nice shape, then hopefully it could be a nice day.”
Norsgaard realised last year that being a pure sprinter “is not super motivating” for her any more. Hence trying to broaden her skillset.
“It’s difficult when you see girls like Charlotte Kool and Lorena Wiebes and they’re just unbelievably fast and you’re like, ‘how can I ever contend with this? How can I ever beat these girls?'” Norsgaard said. “I really want to become a rider more like Lotte Kopecky instead of a pure sprinter.
“I tried to work on it last year and I think it’s coming slowly, but I see that in the climbs it’s different now than it was maybe two years ago. I’m really pleased with where I’m heading and hopefully one day I can be as good as Kopecky or [Marianne] Vos. Of course, it would be a dream come true going to the same level as these girls; it’s unbelievable.”
Norsgaard’s first race back after Strade Bianche was last week’s La Vuelta Femenina, where she came second to Vos on stage 4. Kool, the top sprinter in attendance, didn’t finish the stage. But for Norsgaard the result was validating. It wasn’t in the plan to race La Vuelta, and her coach had thought it might be too soon, but the race proved to be a success if only for that result.
Not only was her race a success, but the whole week turned out to be a good one for her Movistar team after Annemiek van Vleuten walked away on Sunday with the overall victory.
“The whole race was just a super, super nice race to be back to,” Norsgaard said. “I got into the race and it was really a feeling of teamwork we had going. It felt different this year and we were all fully committed to our job. With my second place, for me, it felt like a personal win because I was just super happy being back.
“It was my second sprint, so I was also a little bit like, ‘whoa, OK, crazy.'”
Van Vleuten’s overall victory was something the team had to work hard for, given the strength of SD Worx leading into the race. Van Vleuten was always a favourite to win, but her chief rival Demi Vollering was climbing better. The Spanish team had to be crafty to take the race lead, and they targeted stage 6 as their moment to outsmart the Dutch team.
After Vollering lost the red jersey to Van Vleuten on stage 6 Movistar was the target of online attention, after people learned Movistar had split the peloton while Vollering – the race leader – was stopped on the side of the road.
“We always use VeloViewer before the race to have the plan and map out, OK, where’s the wind coming from and where is this opportunity,” Norgaard explained. “And we knew to beat SD Worx we had to be really smart and clever so the only opportunity on stage 6 was in the crosswind section and it was only for a really small section before the climbs.
“The plan was pretty clear and we started lining up. When we started the echelon, we heard that they stopped for a break, but we already started the echelon. And I mean, if you stop for a pee break when it’s the only crosswind section, it’s also maybe not the best move. We literally had no idea that they would stop at that point and we had already started.”
The stage ended in dramatic fashion with Trek-Segafredo’s Gaia Realini taking the stage and Van Vleuten taking the GC lead, but the victory was soured by the online commentary from viewers, so much so the team’s manager chimed in.
“We were in the grupetto and some of the SD Worx riders came to us and they were not really pleased with our plan,” Norsgaard said. “And I totally get it and see it from their side if they were thinking we would do it just because they stopped, but we would never do a move like this.
“Annemiek is a really good rider and she would never take a win like this. They can wait for the Netflix episode because everything is documented.”
All spring SD Worx has been the team to beat. Normally, going into a race like La Vuelta, Van Vleuten would be head and shoulders above the rest. Even after getting a stomach infection in last year’s Tour de France the Dutch rider still rode away at the first sign of mountains to take the win.
This season, Van Vleuten hasn’t been as dominant. We haven’t seen her throw down long-range attacks in races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège and ride solo to the finish to win. According to Norsgaard it’s not because the world champion is already in a retired mindset, it’s the peloton that is finally catching up.
“I hadn’t seen her this whole spring, and I was talking with her just before the Vuelta and I was saying, ‘how are you? Was it good?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, actually, I’m really, really good right now. But it’s just the rest of the girls that are incredible, you know?’
“So it’s not her being too old or it’s her last year. I see some people are thinking that she’s already going on retirement but it’s really not like this. She is really dedicated, super focused, and is the same Annemiek she’s always been. I think just everyone else stepped up.”
Since Van Vleuten isn’t as dominant as she has been in years past, her teammates are even more important now than ever. But the seasoned professional doesn’t put pressure on her teammates; in fact, Norsgaard said they try to keep the mood light to keep Van Vleuten from becoming overly serious.
“It’s always a pleasure working for Annemiek but she can get super stressed,” Norsgaard said. “So I think our job is to try to calm her down and really make her trust in us. I see more and more for every race we just cannot show her that we are also stressed. We just show up, laugh, and have fun and then she will relax. She will show up super well-prepared.”
Learning from someone like Van Vleuten and being teammates with her has given Norsgaard new belief in herself.
“Actually Annemiek is always the first person to text me like, ‘Hey, I really see you, you are working hard on this’ and she is really giving me so much credit for my hard work,” she said. “When you get texts from a rider like Annemiek, it’s really motivating. And she’s been teammates with Vos so when she says ‘I see a lot of the same qualities in you and her’, I get super happy. I’m like, ‘Whoa, wow! Really? Say it again!’
“See, I’m saving the text on my phone and reading it.”
A major part of Norsgaard’s development has also been her team. Perhaps there’s something about the Dane that fits seamlessly with Spanish culture, but Norsgaard doesn’t see herself leaving Movistar any time soon.
“I feel like this is my home and I really feel pleased with the team,” Norsgaard explained. “And I feel it’s also that they are happy with me. For me as a rider, I really like this Spanish mentality where it’s chilled and the pressure is not too much. I can really put a lot of pressure on myself, so I don’t need so much from the outside.
“I think maybe this is actually the best team for me. Like this is where I fit in the best. I really like my teammates, I like my coach, I like the bike. So why change something that is good, you know? So for now, I’m pretty pleased with where I am.”
After her unplanned two-month break, Norsgaard will go into the rest of the season fresh. Unlike a lot of the women she’s racing against, she hasn’t been travelling all over Europe racing every weekend. An increased frequency and volume of travel is something relatively new for the women’s peloton as the WorldTour calendar continues to grow.
“Maybe some of the riders might be beginning to feel fatigued,” Norsgaard said of the loaded spring calendar. “I also felt it maybe a little bit with some of the riders of our team that have been racing a lot. At the end of La Vuelta they were like, ‘We just need to go on a break.’
“It’s a lot of racing right now but as a Spanish team we really want to be good in these races. It’s also hard to be on top level all year but I think then we go down a little bit after the Spanish races.”
After a quick turnaround post-Vuelta, Norsgaard will line up at Itzulia Women on Friday before taking some time at altitude before Danish Nationals and the Tour. But, with her current form and the trust of her team leader, don’t discount the Dane showing up for a certain Italian 10-day event in June.
“The original plan is for me not to go to the Giro,” Norsgaard said. “Annemiek is going, of course, but it’s changing a little bit all the time. Annemiek has a lot of say in who is going or not and let’s see – if there’s a TTT, I might be going. Otherwise, I will focus on preparing for the Tour.”