Elisa Longo Borghini: writing her own history

Elisa Longo Borghini
Elisa Longo Borghini (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Elisa Longo Borghini enjoyed one of her best seasons yet, winning her first Giro Rosa stage and being instrumental in some of Trek-Segafredo team’s biggest victories. As the 2020 season wound down, Procycling magazine caught up with one of the most consistent riders of the year.

This article was taken from Procycling magazine issue 276, Review of the Year 2020.

When Elisa Longo Borghini was a child, she kept a little notebook that she’d record the names of winners while watching the Giro d’Italia and Giro Rosa. She’d write down the results of that day’s stage, who was in the maglia rosa, what the time differences were. By her own admission, she was a cycling nerd. 

Longo Borghini was a sporty child from a sporty family. Her mother, Guidina Dal Sasso, was a cross-country skier who represented Italy at three Winter Olympics. Her brother, Paolo, is 11 years older and became a professional cyclist in 2004 with teams such as Liquigas. The young Elisa looked up to him and the path he tread, and was his biggest cheerleader. “I was a real fan of his. I loved watching races and I loved watching my brother,” she says.

Longo Borghini’s parents knew she was destined to follow in some way. She was always active; climbing trees, she was good at running and good at cross-country skiing. When the inevitable happened and she started cycling aged nine it didn’t take long before she realised she had a talent for that, too. On weekends her parents would split up, dividing and conquering with their children, taking one sibling each to their races.

There was usually ice cream on offer at the finish line, which was Longo Borghini’s motivation to do well. During the spring and summer, when the Giro and Giro Rosa came near Ornavasso, the town in the country’s far north Piedmont region where the family still live, Longo Borghini persuaded her father to take her along to watch. 

“I was passionate about women’s cycling when I was a child, always asking my dad to take me to watch some stages of the Giro d’Italia Femminile,” she tells Procycling. “There were not many people there, but I was there with my dad. I just like cycling, I wanted to become a cyclist and I wanted to know about the teams and the girls that were riding and it was really nice. I enjoyed it.”

It feels full circle to think that if Longo Borghini still kept that same notebook, she’d be writing her own name in it after this September’s race, when, on her ninth start in the Giro Rosa and after 12 top five finishes, the Italian finally won a stage at her home race and one of the most prestigious in the sport. 

The victory on stage 8, in a two-rider uphill sprint with pink jersey winner Anna van der Breggen, capped what has been one of the best-ever seasons for the 28-year-old. As well as the Giro, Longo Borghini won the Italian National time trial title, for the fourth time, and followed it with the road race title, meaning she will wear the tricalore throughout 2021. But it was Longo Borghini’s consistency that was most remarkable.

From her first race on July 23, to her last on November 8, Longo Borghini finished in the top 10, 20 times, with 13 of those results in the top five. At the European Championships, Longo Borghini was the only rider able to follow Annemiek van Vleuten’s acceleration, and narrowly lost out to the Dutchwoman in the sprint to take silver; at the World Championships road race she finished third; she was fifth at Strade Bianche, fifth in Flèche Wallonne, eighth at the Tour of Flanders, seventh at Driedaagse De Panne, and second at the Vuelta Challenge.

“I said I would be very happy if I went into the off-season with a victory, and I did,” Longo Borghini says. “For the moment everything has been very nice, even within the team and from all the team performances we’ve had, so I’m pretty glad about it. I can just be happy.”

For a rider that has 20 professional victories to their name, at races of the calibre of Strade Bianche and the Tour of Flanders, Longo Borghini is modest about her achievements so far. “I never win,” she repeats, with a laugh. 

“For me, just to win is special because I never win, I’m always there, I never win. It was very special. That day [at the Giro] went very well, I knew Van der Breggen was looking for the GC and I was close but not that close and I was not a threat for her. I knew that I could play my cards. That victory is a bit special; first of all it is a victory and as I said, I never win. But then I was in my own country and it’s always special to win in my own country.”

Perhaps Longo Borghini’s belief that she doesn’t win often is more of an indication as to how much she’s back to her best in 2020. Maybe better than she’s ever been before. Having been a pro since 2011, when Longo Borghini joined Trek-Segafredo last year she was in the midst of a two-year dry spell, and had not won since the Nationals road race in June 2017. Then Longo Borghini won a stage and the overall at Emakumeen Bira last May and things have clicked into place. 

“The atmosphere in the team is really good, everyone in the team is riding very well. We are very united and go very well along together, both staff and riders, which is like our secret weapon,” Longo Borghini says.

“I also really like to race, because, you know, I really love cycling and am passionate about my sport and when you can’t race for so long and are in lockdown, you realise how much you miss racing, and how much you miss being in the peloton, in the atmosphere and feeling the thrills that it gives you. You miss all the routines that you have before the race. I am just enjoying cycling, I love cycling.” 

Trek-Segafredo’s Elisa Longo Borghini on the attack during the 2020 Giro Rosa

Trek-Segafredo’s Elisa Longo Borghini on the attack during the 2020 Giro Rosa (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

There was a huge amount of fanfare when Trek-Segafredo launched its women’s team in July 2018, at a press conference during the Tour de France and with a star rider signed in Deignan. Here was a men’s WorldTour team with a big budget investing heavily in the women’s sport, and making a statement about the way they wanted to do things. Riders would be paid salaries to live and race full-time and be given an equal level of equipment and resources as their male counterparts. Rather than being run as two separate entities, the men’s and women’s squads operate under the same umbrella, with resources and expertise shared - in a similar way that squads such as Mitchelton-Scott and Sunweb are run.  

It’s something that Longo Borghini has revelled in, mixing with a major men’s team and constantly learning. She credits an altitude training camp in the Italian Dolomites in July, for instance, with the men’s Giro d’Italia squad, for kicking her into gear for the resumption of racing this summer. “It’s just really nice to be all together and treated the same as the men. You can also learn from the men a lot, and ask for suggestions. 

“But they can also look at us and ask for suggestions. It’s a give and take relationship. I’ve been in the training camp with [Vincenzo] Nibali and I could see how he is really looking at his bike or looking at details, and I should look much more into details - stuff like that - I found him inspirational, and we had good talks at the dinner table. It was fun. And also it breaks up the routine, mixing up is always good in my opinion,” she says.

That ethos of togetherness in the team is something Longo Borghini has repeatedly talked about, and constantly refers back to while we speak. Often, this can sound like rehearsed PR, but you get the sense talking to Longo Borghini, and watching the team race, that it’s genuine. 

Constantly throughout her career Longo Borghini has been a team player, and none more so was that evident this year. She was integral to Deignan’s victory at GP Plouay, where she single-handedly disrupted the chase group after the Briton escaped with Lizzy Banks, to ensure her team-mate wouldn’t be reeled back in and could contest the win. Then at La Course, she drove the winning six-rider breakaway clear before leading out the sprint early, to draw Marianne Vos out and hand the advantage to Deignan, who won again. It’s fitting, then, that Longo Borghini’s Giro win came thanks to similar team-work, with Deignan setting a fierce pace to the bottom of the finishing climb to set up her attack. 

“Everyone has a chance in this team and we love to work for each other. That’s also what makes a big difference. We are very well united and we all know that we have a role and then it’s easy…” Longo Borghini says. 

“That day [at the Giro] I had the role of captain and I had to win the race and Lizzie was straight to the point that she was working for me. For me, it’s really overwhelming because I have a champion working for me. Honestly, I had five champions working for me - all my team-mates, for me, are champions. I respect the work that all the riders do so much, and I respect all the helpers so much, what they are doing all day long.

“When I see them struggling I get pumped up because now I need to reward them with a victory. That’s what makes me go deeper a little bit more.” 

Longo Borghini’s partnership with Deignan has been pivotal for the team - so much so both were handed contract extensions until the end of 2022 in November. The two knew little of each other before becoming team-mates last January, but have gelled into friends. 

“I just discovered a nice person and, for me, the person is worth more than the rider,” Longo Borghini says. “It’s just nice to race for somebody that you also like... you put your passion into cycling and if you have somebody you like to work for… I do my work but if I have to work for somebody, a friend, I do even more.”

Still, in a heartbeat Longo Borghini switches tact, turning the spotlight away from her and Deignan and heaping praise back onto the team. “In every race it was team performance. Every single race where we won, every single race where we performed it was a team performance. It was not about one or two riders who worked very well, it was all riders.”

She feels similarly in awe of her directeur sportifs, Ina Yoko-Teutenberg and Giorgia Bronzini, two former riders who Longo Borghini looked up to, whose careers she followed as a child and whose names she used to write in her notebook. “I am just a rider. I am more looking at Ina and Giorgia and thinking I was watching you when I was younger and now you are directing me,” she says.

Getty Images

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Longo Borghini describes herself as “versatile”. The mountains and hills near Orvanasso have honed her climbing skills and she can time trial well. But her power output is her biggest strength - something she credits racing in Belgium when she first turned pro. It’s no coincidence that some of her biggest victories - Flanders in particular - have come thanks to long solo attacks. Even at the final race of the season, stage 3 of La Vuelta Challenge on a completely flat circuit in Madrid designated for sprinters, Longo Borghini rode solo off the front for 33km, in a bid to alter hers and her team-mate Ellen Van Dijk’s second and third places on GC. “I really like aggressive racing and I really like attacking, power, my style of racing is I like attacking, I don’t like to suffer in the race I like to be the one that attacks. Then I suffer anyway, but at least I’ve attacked.” 

Even after 10 seasons, Longo Borghini feels that she hasn’t reached her peak yet. She’s aiming to improve on the bronze medal she won in the 2016 Olympics, at next year’s Games in Tokyo, and wants to keep racing for at least another three years after, to the 2024 event. “I think you always learn, every single year. Physically, I think I can be better. I don’t feel like I am at my very, very top physically. Maybe I still have one year to grow, and then I need to go with the experience but I am surrounded by so many experienced riders,” she concludes. 

“I can also look at the men’s peloton, the men’s squad and try to look at what they do, how they behave and how they do stuff and learn. I think I still have quite a little spot for improvement.” 

Plenty of time for Longo Borghini to keep writing her own cycling history. 

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