Elisa Longo Borghini holds every quality to be a cycling superstar. She can climb, she time trials well, she is almost always in the break and she’s only getting better.
The 25-year-old Italian has had good performances ever since her breakout season in 2012, which culminated in a bronze medal at the world championship road race behind Marianne Vos and Rachel Neylan. But since the middle of 2016, her podium consistency has been remarkable.
In building up to the Rio Summer Olympics, Longo Borghini added several Italian national championship medals as well as the Giro Rosa climber’s jersey to her collection of trophies. Then, in Rio, the first-time Olympian took home the bronze medal in the memorable Olympic road race and netted a top-five finish in the time trial as well. She finished the season as 5th in the UCI rankings and was crowned Italian Cyclist of the Year for a second consecutive year.
The 2017 season has been even more fruitful for the Wiggle-High5 rider. She was the first rider to wear the Women’s WorldTour leader’s jersey after winning the iconic Strade Bianche. Her successes at home in Italy continued when Longo Borghini, already a two-time Italian national time trial champion, prolonged her title once again but also finally took home the Italian national road race title – something she’d been chasing for years. Then, after consistently appearing on the podium at the 10-day Giro Rosa, Longo Borghini finished second in the GC and was the best Italian rider of the tour, therefore taking home “the best blue jersey in the world.”
Most recently, we saw her on the podium at the renewed La Course, where she was the third fastest up the Col d’Izoard, and backed up her performance in the pursuit-style second stage in Marseille two days later, where she again finished third behind Annemiek van Vleuten and Lizzie Deignan.
As we near the tail-end of the season, we can’t help but look to the 2017 UCI Road World Championships in Bergen, where the climbs, likely weather conditions and break-away potential suit the Italian well. We caught up with the potential race favourite as she was enjoying a much-needed rest week at home, and talked about everything from the season she’s having, her mother and maturing as an athlete.
“I had a very, very busy June and July,” Longo Borghini agreed.
Busy but successful. She was on the podium at the past five races, including women’s cycling’s only grand tour – the Giro Rosa. And, looking at the UCI season thus far, there were only two occasions where she did not finish in the top 10.
“That’s the problem. I’m always there but I almost never win,” Longo Borghini said with a laugh. “I have to drop everyone and win solo.”
“I console myself because when you do get to the finish line solo, you have more time to salute and enjoy your victory. You may only win once but you do it with style.”
She did just that at the Strade Bianche.
The WorldTour opener was rain-soaked this year, turning the already challenging white gravel roads into an even bigger obstacle. There were several crashes in the first part of the race, and Longo Borghini got tangled up in the midst of them. Luckily, teammate Audrey Cordon-Ragot was on hand to sacrifice her bike so Longo Borghini could continue the race. Longo Borghini then spent time in a five-person break-away that would surprisingly turn into a chase. Together with Kasia Niewiadoma, she bridged to the leading duo and took to the front. Then, in the highly treacherous and technical finish, she delivered a magnificent win in her home country.
“That is the best memory so far from this year,” Longo Borghini told Ella CyclingTips. Her sentiment palpable even now.
“To me, it’s my favourite race on the calendar. It’s different with the gravel roads and when you climb into Siena, you breathe in art and history and come into one of the most beautiful squares in all of Italy.”
Racing on home soil proved to be lucky for Longo Borghini this year. After winning the Italian national road racing and time trial titles, she lined up for the Giro Rosa – a 10-day tour across Italy – in the tricolore and made the home fans proud.
“Being on the podium for one of the best events on the calendar and in my country, is an honour. I am really proud of my podium spot also because my team worked really, really hard and really well,” Longo Borghini commented.
“The girls supported me 100 percent during the 10 days, and they did everything they could. Maybe on paper, we weren’t the dominant team with the big names, but we rode strong and I am super proud of what we did. Second place was a good satisfaction, and the blue jersey is the best blue jersey in the world.”
While Giro Rosa winner Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) opted for rest instead of racing the infamous Col d’Izoard as part of the renewed La Course, Longo Borghini was keen to take part.
“The Izoard … I like it. It’s nice. But if I could advise the organisers I would rather have a proper race instead of 70-kilometres. We are always doing 120 kilometres, so why do 70 kilometres and name it the most prestigious race on the calendar? The Izoard is really hard, OK, but we did a stage with 2,000 metres elevation gain and a 142 kilometres just weeks before. We are professional athletes and not amateurs,” Longo Borghini stated.
“Maybe they just wanted to see and check what we could do? I hope they are happy about our race and now, hopefully, there will be a stage race next year or in two years.”
While many riders expressed displeasure with the experimental second stage – which saw only 19 of the top finishers of the Izoard climb compete in a pursuit-style event –Longo Borghini said she really enjoyed it.
“It’s a format we should do. It was different and I really enjoyed it. But I think it should be open to more girls to make it more exciting. And the gaps should be smaller. If the gap to Annemiek was for example 20 seconds, we could have caught her,” she said.
“The new La Course is good, but they should work on the small details. But these are growing pains.”
Like Mother Like Daughter
When talking to Longo Borghini, she sounds very much like a veteran of the sport. One almost forgets that she’s still just 25 and is only getting better.
“I’m like the wine. The older I get, the better I become,” Longo Borghini joked.
Longo Borghini has matured a lot as an athlete in recent years, which also came with a greater understanding and respect of her mother, Guidina Dal Sasso, who’s a retired professional cross-country skier.
As children, Longo Borghini and her brother started off on skis, but when that conflicted too much with their mother’s career, they switched to summer sports.
“It was completely impossible to keep [skiing] because my mum was busy with her career. We had to choose a summer sport instead so our parents could take us to the races,” Longo Borghini explained.
After her brother, Paulo, started cycling, the then nine-year-old Longo Borghini followed suit. Paolo raced professionally for 11 years and ended his career with Liquigas-Cannondale. Longo Borghini made her professional debut in 2011 at the age of 18.
“Being the daughter of a sportswoman is amazing but I think I only understood it in the last three years,” Longo Borghini said.
“I think at first I wanted to do everything on my own. I didn’t want to listen to my mother but when I started to listen more to her and to understand that she had a lot to teach me, it made all the difference.”
As someone who’s been to the Winter Olympics three times and competed professionally for the better part of two decades, Longo Borghini eventually learned to lean on her mother when it comes to the pressure or insecurities she faces.
“She knows how to handle the stress that comes with being an athlete and what it is like to go to the Olympics. When I opened up to her, she gave me advice and things turned out exactly as what she had told me,” said Longo Borghini, admitting that it was a hard realisation.
“It takes quite a lot of time to understand it but in the end, when you understand it, you realise you were – I’m sorry to say — a big asshole to not listen before,” she said.
“I am so happy to have my mum and my dad, who used to be a trainer, on my side. My parents are simply amazing. Without them, I would not be the athlete I am.”
What could be better than a rainbow ribbon to wrap up her career-best season? And with Olympic bronze, several national titles, and a world championships medal already to her name, Longo Borghini is eyeing the world championships in Norway with more confidence than ever before.
“I think the Worlds courses suit me. But I think it will be a hard race,” Longo Borghini commented. “At first glance, the parcours doesn’t look too hard but in the end, looping it a few times in the expected challenging weather condition, actually will be very hard.
“The one thing that worries me is the last 10ks. They’re pretty fast and so if there’s a small group of say 10, it won’t be good for me because I’m not fast at all. The only way for me to win is to attack until I drop them and go solo.”
But before we get ahead of ourselves, there’s plenty of more racing to be had before the world champions. First up, Longo Borghini will be competing for Italy at the European Championships and then back with her Wiggle-High5 teammates at GP de Plouay. See what’s on this month in our monthly preview here.
Ella CyclingTips: How’s the team this year? Is it truly as fun as it looks in the WiggleHigh5 videos?
Elisa Longo Borghini: Yes. It really is how it looks in the videos. We work so well together. It’s a really nice bunch of women. The most important part is that we really enjoy racing and being together. The atmosphere is always good. And then there is Bronzini, the team clown, who keeps the morale up all the time.
Ella: If Bronzini is the clown, who are you?
LB: She laughs. Oh I don’t know! Bronzini is always joking with me because if she were the colour black, then I am white. She is very disorganized and I am very organised. I don’t joke so much. I guess I am a bit more serious, but it’s just my character. We are so different but we are always rooming together.
Ella: I hear you always give your bike nicknames. Will you share the names of your current bikes?
LB: It’s silly, I know, but I am always sharing a lot of time with my bike and in the end, somehow, we are friends.
My race bike is called MagC. C because we race on the Colnago C60. And ‘mag’ for ‘maggo’, which is Italian for wizard. It has no sense, but that is what it became.
Ella: And your TT bike?
LB: My TT bike has no name because I hate it. That bike, it’s always a struggle. It’s always to the mechanic. I tried to be nice with her but she is always making problems. So I told it, “no, you are not my friend. I am using you but just because I need you sometimes.”
Ella: What’s one thing you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started cycling?
LB: I wish I knew earlier how to ride in an echelon. I think the fatigue or struggle you experience when you’re the last person in the echelon and are about to drop is even worse than climbing the Izoard. That is the absolute worst feeling I have ever felt in cycling. I wish I knew earlier how to ride well in the echelon.