Italian champion Elisa Longo Borghini had one of the best seasons of her career in 2020, taking the Italian road and time trial titles, coming in third in the Giro Rosa and at the World Championships, and finishing the season as the world's second-ranked rider behind World Champion Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans).
The 29-year-old spoke to Cyclingnews and other media remotely from the Trek-Segafredo camp to reveal the secrets to her success, her goals for 2021 and a cunning plan to beat the dominant Dutch riders Van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten.
Longo Borghini had not started the 2020 season when the COVID-19 pandemic came crashing down on Italy with a wave of cases that led to the first major lockdown in Europe, starting in the northern Lombardy region and quickly spreading to the rest of Italy, Spain and France. It meant the first races - Strade Bianche, Ronde van Drenthe and the Trofeo Alfredo Binda - were cancelled or postponed and the only competitions came in the virtual world.
"The first lockdown was really tough for everybody," Longo Borghini said. "Italy, France and Spain were the most locked down. Everything was shut and we couldn't leave home. On the other side, it made me stronger in my mind because I had to spend so much time on the rollers. You have to be all the time focussed on the rollers.
"Plus, I had to race the Giro Virtual and it was really hard on the rollers."
RCS Sport held the Virtual Giro d'Italia between April 18 and May 10 in 2020, with seven stages tackled by elite men and women who were given three-day windows to upload their data files for each stage of the race. It was a challenge aimed to distract riders from the fact they weren't allowed to train outside, and Longo Borghini said it gave her more mental fortitude.
"It's been quite tough but it made me stronger and I feel like sometimes you have to take the best you can from a bad situation. If I have to think positively about the lockdown and pandemic, I have to say I became much stronger.
"I remember, one time I was in Vuelta Navarra, one of the first races [in July] and I went solo. It was 60 kilometres from the finish line. I thought, hmm, solo for 60 kilometres is probably way too long, but I did the Giro Virtual, so I can do anything!"
Longo Borghini's success this year was also helped by Trek-Segafredo being in their second season as a unit, with Lizzie Deignan back to her best and Ellen van Dijk recovered from her terrible 2019 crash, and the team becoming a more cohesive unit.
"I have such a strong team, I feel so well backed up - I know my back is always covered by them. When I race with my teammates I know they're at such a high level, they cover breaks, they bring me at the right place in the right moment. I'm much more relaxed because I have them around and I feel safe and comfortable. I get really pumped up when I see them working for me, so when it's my time I feel even more motivated to go for a final result because I saw them towing for me."
Confidence is high in the whole team as they plan for the 2021 season, especially after the squad shattered the field in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, with Deignan taking the win, Van Dijk third and Van der Breggen and Van Vleuten relegated to a distant chasing group more than three minutes behind.
It showed that, while they are strong and have been dominant, the Dutch riders are beatable with smart team tactics.
"It's not always a one-on-one fight - sometimes a team strategy wins," Longo Borghini said, adding she doesn't automatically think they're racing for second place if Van Vleuten is on the line.
"Cycling is really nice because it's unpredictable. It's not because she's at the start line that she will win the race."
Longo Borghini will target the overall victory in the Giro Rosa again after her podium in 2020 and as preparation for the Olympic Games, pending her selection. "I'm also targeting the Giro because it's a nice race and it suits me, and it's really close to the Olympic Games, so if I'm in good shape at the Giro it also means I can perform at the Olympics."
The dynamic in the women's peloton will shift somewhat this season, with Van Vleuten moving to the arguably weaker Movistar Team and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio joining Van der Breggen at SD Worx.
"I know it's really hard to beat Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen but we have a very strong team and we can play with our team strategy. We have to go to the Giro to try to win it, if we start with the mindset that we will be second or third, it's not worth starting," Longo Borghini said.
"2020 showed how good we are as a team."
Supporting the Giro Rosa
The Giro Rosa was downgraded from the UCI Women's WorldTour after failing to meet the live broadcast requirements, but Longo Borghini is still supportive of the race and hoping the change will inspire them to improve some aspects of the organisation.
"It's the longest stage race on the women's calendar and it's always been the Grand Tour for the women - it has this [reputation]. I really hope the downgrade will make the Giro better because they will like to be WorldTour again so maybe they will improve some stuff that made them go down one step."
Longo Borghini will start the 2021 season with the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana - although again with uncertainty, as the coronavirus cases have spiked again around the world. She is keeping the prospect of a pre-Olympic quarantine out of her mind until it becomes an issue and remains focussed on the races ahead.
Trek-Segafredo had less turnover than most other teams, with three riders departing and Shirin van Anrooij, former World Champion Amalie Dideriksen and sprinter Chloe Hosking joining this year. Longo Borghini said they fill a gap in what was already a powerful roster.
"I think some sprinters to the team is a very good thing. It was something we missed last year. We were always in the final but sometimes we missed a pure sprinter to win the race. In my opinion, having Amalie and Chloe will open opportunities for the victory more than we have now, which are already pretty big. It will be exciting to have some sprinters."
The Italian also hopes she can improve her own sprint "because it's something I'm missing" with more belief in herself. With more responsibility as a team leader, Longo Borghini has learned to save her energy early in the race and let her teammates do the work.
"I feel like I have to make the result for them, therefore I have to spare energy at the beginning because otherwise, I can't do it for them."
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