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Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle Honda) was the talk of the (women’s cycling) town last Sunday. The young Italian won the Tour of Flanders with panache, class and heart. Thirty hilly, cobbled kilometres from the finish, Longo Borghini attacked the peloton and soloed to the finish line. Her teammate Jolien d’Hoore won the chase group sprint for second. Their reunion following the finish and a phone call to teammate Audrey Cordon, who was unable to race to due to illness, captures the sentiment and significance of the accomplishment.
Ella CyclingTips reached out to Longo Borghini one week following her biggest win to date. In every post race interview last weekend, Longo Borghini stated she couldn’t believe what she had done. We wanted to know: one week later, has she had a chance to take it all in?
“I understand now what I have achieved,” said Longo Borghini. “I really like the way I won. I’m proud for that. This is not the finish line for me. It is only the beginning.”
Her main target of the spring is next week. The 23-year-old had her sight sets on Flèche Wallonne. The fourth World Cup on the calendar, Flèche Wallonne has always been decided on the final ascent of the leg-breaking Mur de Huy.
“I actually targeted Flèche more than Flanders,” Longo Borghini explained. “The final suits me better than the final of Flanders. It’s more possible that you get a four or five person group fighting for the win at Flanders. Instead in Flèche, it’s all decided on the Mur. Since I’m not the fastest, I thought I could be better at Flèche.”
Wiggle Honda team owner Rochelle Gilmore told Ella CyclingTips that she knew Longo Borghini had the strength and smarts to win in Oudennarde following the team’s pre-race dress rehearsal. Gilmore pointed to the way in which Longo Borghini attacked the cobbled climbs during the pre-ride and the power numbers Longo Borghini was able to sustain.
“When you have a recon and a dress rehearsal that close to the event, there’s not that much that will change between the recon and the event itself,” explained Gilmore. “We knew, and Elisa herself knew, that she had the legs to do it.”
Whilst Longo Borghini expressed a deep appreciation for Gilmore’s belief and backing, the confidence Gilmore expressed before the race eclipsed Longo Borghini’s self-confidence.
“I knew I was good, but I didn’t believe I could win,” Longo Borghini said. “I didn’t expect to win or to win the way I won.”
Yet her attack tells a different story. Launching the race-winning move so far from the finish suggests far more confidence than Longo Borghini seems willing to admit she had. If didn’t think she could win, why did she attack when she did?
“Instinct,” she said. “I saw that there were more riders of Boels and Rabobank in the peloton than the other teams, and those two, they are not really friends. They never cooperate to catch a break together. I saw the moment, and I thought to myself: ‘Now is the time. Now I will attack.’ I went on the attack and I came to the finish line.”
She makes it sound easy, but she had the strongest riders in the world in her wake. Riders that had named the race as their main objective for the spring. Riders that called this race a hometown race and trained on these roads daily. Former Flanders winners, the World Cup series leader and the rainbow jersey chased the lone leader. What was she thinking as she powered away – alone, at the front of one of the biggest races in the world?
“I was thinking: ‘Win the race. Win the race. Win the race.’ That’s all I was thinking,” she said.
And she did.
“Crossing the line was an amazing feeling,” said Longo Borghini. “I know it can sound a bit silly, but you know – I’m actually a rider who never wins, so when I do win, I get a bit emotional.”
“I didn’t really realise I had won when I crossed the finish,” she added. “The first person I saw was our soigneur. I remember telling him how strange it felt to win. I couldn’t really accept it because I didn’t expect it.”
She described a range of emotions in the immediate aftermath as she was swept up into the whirlwind that is post-race interviews, anti-doping control and podium.
“It was all very busy, and I didn’t have much time to think,” she said. “I received a lot of messages and a lot of phone calls, and I couldn’t sleep during the night.”
Longo Borghini’s days have remained quite hectic, but she’s not complaining. In fact, she’s embraced every opportunity for an interview that has come her way. She sincerely believes it is her responsibility to help grow the sport and that the sport grows by exposure.
“I have had a lot of interviews this week,” said Longo Borghini. “It has been very busy. I’m happy this is how it is because it’s important for women’s cycling. I have given the sport attention for the Italian media and also the world media. If it’s good for my sport, I am always ready to show up and be present wherever I am needed.”
Longo Borghini’s statement is the perfect segue into a sensitive subject. It’s one that the Tour of Flanders champion is perfectly poised to answer; yet, it’s somewhat difficult to broach.
There were a few unexpected comments on the Tour of Flanders race report from individuals questioning her accomplishment. What is her reaction to these comments, to this sentiment?
The first comment on the report, titled “Elisa Longo Borghini Wins Tour of Flanders With Stunning Solo Move”, is from a male reader. He wrote: “Even though Cancellara and Boonen were absent from the race, it is still an historical accomplishment. I would never have thought a women could win the Ronde.”
Thinking the individual had made a poor attempt at a joke, we called him out on it, telling him that we found the comment a bit disappointing. “Don’t you think the women deserve more respect than that?” we wrote in response.
“No, not really,” he replied. “Men, often great champions, doing battle in Flanders for over a hundred years, have made The Tour of Flanders a great sporting event. Women have been invited to race at the Tour of Flanders for what, ten years, with fields that are never even close to world class. Often, half the women are already out of the race and destined for a DNF before the racing really starts. Yet, they’re to be treated on a par with men, given equal prize money and free TV coverage, and the respect of the title of Tour of Flanders champion? Why? Just because they’re women, apparently. You earn it, we’ll take it. From each according to his ability, to each according to her want.”
We typically resist the urge to engage in this sort of battles in the comment section, but keeping quiet didn’t seem appropriate this time. We say Longo Borghini took home one-tenth of the prize money that Alexander Kristoff earned for his win in the men’s race. We explain that Longo Borghini enjoyed a mere 30 seconds (30 seconds!) of television time – and none in real time. The live broadcast only showed Longo Borghini crossing the line following the finale of the men’s race, nearly three hours after her brilliant win. We talk about attrition rate (nearly comparable) and great champions and the lack of parity. We know we won’t change his misinformed and misguided opinion, but we want to set the facts straight for our readers who may read this comment and be unaware of the blatant falsehoods.
Longo Borghini listens to the comments. She needs no time at all to gather her response to the question: “What does she have to say to anyone who dares question the worth of her win?”
She is full of fire as she speaks. Her anger cannot be contained. She has plenty to say to the naysayers.
“We women are athletes,” she said. “We train and we race and we eat and we sleep and we live as professional athletes. We do nothing less than the men.”
“I don’t know why people can’t understand that just because women can’t achieve the exact same thing as men or against men that we are still achieving something very hard and very great,” she added. “We still do everything we can to be the best.”
“Maybe this is a surprise to some, but we don’t want to be men,” she continued. “We are happy to be women. It doesn’t matter to us that we might be less strong or less fast because our bodies are built differently.”
“I want to have children one day,” she added. “I don’t want to ride 250 kilometres every weekend. My body can’t afford this. My body is built differently from a man. Why is that because my body is built differently that I can’t have the same reward or the same pride or the same respect? Why? Please explain this to me.”
“I feel so angry to know about these things,” she continued. “Tour of Flanders is such an important race for the whole peloton – for the men and for the women. The same skills the men have for going on the Koppenberg, the women have to go over the Kwaremont. Why is it important that we might be a little bit slower? What is the problem with this? Why can’t we compete against each other only? Because we can’t compete against men, we can’t compete at all?”
The conversation turns back to her team and her teammates – to the people that build her up instead of the ones that tear her down. The fire goes out of her voice. Warmth takes its place.
“Having such a strong team makes me feel stronger,” she said. “I know everything I do, my shoulder is covered by strong girls and girls that know how to race and what to do and when to do it. I think this is something really special when you can trust your teammates like this and when you can believe in your team leader this way.”
Longo Borghini ends the interview the way she has ended every single interview she has every given Ella – with words of thanks for her team. And this time, she makes it very clear that when she says “team” she means more than her teammates.
“I need to thank my team one more time for my win – all the girls and all the staff,” she said. “I especially want to say one more time thank you to the staff because they are never in the light. The riders do their work in the light. We have all the attention. The staff do their work in the darkness. They work before the race and after the race and during the race for us. They are never the ones to come in the newspaper. They are never the ones whose names people know. I want to say thank you to them for what they do for us. Their work makes our work easier.”