According to the World Happiness Report, Danish people, year after year, are the happiest people in the world. And when Emma Norsgaard appears on my screen from a hotel lobby ahead of the Women’s UAE Tour, her smile is beaming and it doesn’t leave her face for the whole time we speak – proving once again that those from the Scandinavian country are happy. That, and the fact she is excited to get her 2024 racing season underway.
She has just finished a block of training in Spain’s Sierra Nevada, alongside her husband and UAE Team Emirates rider Mikkel Bjerg, whom she has been married to since 2021 – the same year she joined the Women’s WorldTour team Movistar. Not only does this mean she has a permanent training partner with her husband being a pro racer, too, she also has someone who fully understands the job at hand. “I get a lot of help from him,” Norsgaard said when asked about dealing with the pressure of the sport and vice versa on how she supports Bjerg. “We talk a lot about the mental struggles we have. He fully understands if I call and say I am stressed. He fully understands this.”
Norsgaard is also very open in stating that she works with a psychologist, who she has been working with every week for almost two years. She added: “Mental health is something I think you can never stop working on.” This is particularly true for high-performing athletes, who have been under immense pressure from a young age, something Norsgaard said was heightened when she went from junior to WorldTour racing.
At just the age of 16, Norsgaard won the Danish National Championships elite road race. A few years later in 2020, she secured the road title again, as well as a stage win at the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana. But it was in 2021 that the now 24-year-old rider really demonstrated her prowess with a total of six wins across the season, including two stages and the GC at the Ceratizit Festival Elsy Jacobs, the opening stage of the Lotto Thüringen Ladies Tour, and a stage at the Giro Donne.
The same year, she went into the World Championships in Flanders as one of the favourites, but although she had had a rewarding season so far, Norsgaard said that it took its toll mentally. In an interview with Cyclingnews back in 2021, she said: “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.”
The Movistar rider during the 2023 European Championships (Image by SWPix.com)
She did continue her string of good results with victory at Le Samyn des Dames and Kreiz Breizh Féminine. She started the inaugural Tour de France Femmes, but sadly crashed on stage five, leading to her abandoning the race. This unfortunate fate followed her into the 2023 season, with another crash during Strade Bianche which left her with a broken collarbone and a missed opportunity to secure her aim of winning one of the big Classics races, in particular the Tour of Flanders, her “dream race to win”. A refocus was needed.
As a rider in the women’s Movistar team, a big responsibility for all the squad was to ride for the team’s leading lady, Annemiek van Vleuten. Norsgaard focused instead on the season’s upcoming stage races, changing her style of training and moving away from being just a sprinter for the team, which secured her the nickname the 'Danish Rocket', aiming to develop into an all-rounder. It proved her preparation was going to plan at La Vuelta Femenina, taking second place on stage four, only beaten by Marianne Vos. But it was in the season’s biggest race that she achieved her biggest feat yet – a Tour de France Femmes stage win – holding off a charging peloton to clinch a narrow victory. “I’m lost for words, I did not expect this,” she told the press after the stage in Blagnac, clearly taken aback after a turbulent start to her season.
She celebrated with her team-mates after the stage with “a glass of champagne and a tiramisu” but missed her husband dearly. “I was supposed to go back to Denmark and see my family but after this [the Tour de France Femmes], I decided to rent a car and just go straight to him. We went to the beach and celebrated,” she said, reflecting on this happy time.
With a Tour de France win added to her palmarès, there is inevitably more confidence going into the 2024 season. Norsgaard proved that she is a much more versatile rider than the sprinter she was once categorised as, so the Classics are where she wants to place her focus. “Every year it is my dream to do well in these races, so this again will be a big focus for me, and that is the only thing I am thinking about. I can’t even think about anything after that at the moment,” she said.
Emma Norsgaard and her team-mate Floortje Mackaij celebrating her Tour de France Femmes stage win in 2023 (Image by ASO)
This, coupled with the fact that the team no longer features Van Vleuten, might just see Norsgaard achieve her dream. “We’re going to race in a way that suits me a little bit better,” she said. “I won’t have to be in position, always protecting, which has been an honour, but it’ll also be nice to try and be more aggressive and not so predictable.”
At the Tour, she demonstrated how unpredictable she could be and will highly likely go into the Classics this spring as a rider to watch. And there is one person who has said that he enjoys Norsgaard’s aggressive style of racing, and that is her brother Mathias Norsgaard, also a rider for the Spanish cycling team. Both riders started cycling from a young age, but Emma wanted to start racing after seeing her brother come home with flowers, a medal and a trophy – this is where her love for bike racing came about. Despite the classic sibling rivalry between the two of them, Emma holds fond memories of racing in Denmark at the same time as her brother.
“I remember, we had this club race in my local cycle club where Mathias had won. Ten minutes later, I also won. We have this picture together because it was my first ever win and I remember being so proud. I had this trophy that was almost bigger than myself,” she laughed. “The best part, however, was that Mathias was, of course, happy for his own victory, but he was more happy for mine. He never really showed me this when we were kids, like we were always fighting and stuff, so this is one of the best memories I have with him because it was the first time I saw him happy for me. I was seven and he was nine.”
Each of them through the ranks and have been with Movistar for the entirety of both of their careers. However, Emma will come to the end of her four-year contract at the culmination of the 2024 season, whereas Mathias is signed with the team until 2026, so movement could be on the cards for her. But while the future holds both uncertainty and possibility, she is not letting her thoughts distract her from her goals. “I am focusing on the races at the moment. When I get a little break after the Classics, hopefully everything will be sorted and I will know how my situation is, but I have been so happy. It’s like my Spanish family,” she said.
So as she embarks on her fourth year with the team, Norsgaard will be taking everything in her stride, continuing to ride with her heart and hoping to achieve her dreams – a dream which she could achieve this year if not plagued by injury for a third-year running. But with Emma Norsgaard, we should expect the unexpected.
*Cover image by Getty Images