Elisa Longo Borghini’s secret to winning the Tour of Flanders was escaping her head.
“Sometimes I lose the moment because I'm thinking too much,” she says. “I'm introspective in general and I think 'maybe I have to do this, because the others will do that.’ Then they go, and I'm left there thinking, like an idiot.”
On the eve of the race, her Wiggle-Honda team-mate Giorgia Bronzini told her to stay calm and follow her instinct. She hit out early on the Kanarieberg, with 35 kilometres still to race, but the bunch didn’t come close to catching her.
It was the latest victory in Longo Borghini’s fledgling career. The 23-year-old is made for steep hills and punchy races like Flanders, the Flèche Wallonne and the Trofeo Binda, which she won in 2013. She is the kind of nuisance who will take a mile if she’s given a few metres.
“Sometimes certain tactics from the other teams just drive me crazy. I would like to smash everyone out on the road, start attacking without any sense,” she says. “I just want to race hard.”
The Tour of Flanders victory signified her return to the top of the sport. “It has a different taste because this year is like a revenge with myself. After my crash in 2013, I wasn't able to be the same as before. Winning Flanders (below) was awesome: I found myself again.”
It has been a two-year battle back to the top of the sport for Longo Borghini after a serious crash at the Italian national championships in June 2013.
“It was the same conditions as today, more or less,” she says, looking at the rain falling outside an Elstree hotel as we talk after a Women’s Tour stage. “I took a corner going downhill, but there were some leaves on the road. I slipped and went under a guard-rail.”
Longo broke her pelvis, gained a 20-centimetre long scar on her stomach and had 100 stitches, the majority internal. Weeks later, when the Giro d’Italia passed through her hometown of Ornavasso, she watched from a wheelchair. Was she frightened for her career?
“No, I said ‘I will recover and do Firenze 2013 at any cost.’ It was a World Championships in my home country. I’d have cut off a leg from somebody: that’s how much I wanted to go there.”
This is Longo Borghini, tough and no-nonsense. Four months after the crash, she duly raced there, finishing eighth in the road race.
“Physically, maybe I was okay, but building up again after my crash and going into those world championships was a real mental stress,” she says. “I think I paid everything back in 2014 because I never recovered or switched off. Even during October and November , I always wanted to ride my bike. And I weighed more than I should have.
“In the end, I was just not good enough,” she adds in her plain-speaking manner. It’s all subjective: last season, Longo finished third at the Flèche Wallonne, fourth in the Tour of Flanders, fifth at the Giro and won six races. Not good enough? Most of the bunch would kill for results like that.
She was one of the first Italian riders to break out of the insular Italian system, signing for Norwegian squad Hitec Products as a 20-year-old in 2012. “I wanted to join them because Emma Johansson was there and she’s a great rider for whom I have a lot of respect. It was also for cultural reasons because I really wanted to practise my English.”
Longo Borghini likes to stretch her horizons. An avid reader of National Geographic, she also speaks Italian, Flemish and a bit of Japanese and Chinese. As a teenager, the polylingual puncheur toyed with the idea of becoming a translator.
“I went to university open day, but decided it was too hard to combine both cycling and education. If I weren’t a cyclist, I would definitely study Japanese or Chinese. Their cultures and countries are quite closed to me and I would really like to understand them more.”
How has the women’s scene developed since she turned professional? “Back then, teams like Orica or Liv didn’t exist. I saw some men’s teams running women’s ones, Cipollini for example. This is a winning combination; I’d like to see more WorldTour teams with them.
“It’s like losing one of their ten fingernails: it costs them nothing… There is no point in a men’s team not having a women’s team. They are just not willing.”
A women’s WorldTour is pencilled in for 2016, but Longo is unsure on the timing. “A series is really good, but on the other hand, maybe some teams could not afford it. This is why the men’s team have to have women’s teams.”
The Italian’s career has overlapped with Marianne Vos’s reign as the dominant force in the sport. However, the Dutchwoman has barely raced this season, sidelined with injury. The upshot from her misfortune has been greater tactical creativity on show.
“Races were maybe more aggressive because the girls were not waiting for Marianne’s move. Just look at the Tour of Flanders: I went solo and made it to the finish. Maybe the other years, people were just focusing on her and what Marianne would have done.”
Off the bike, Longo Borghini admits to being scatter-brained. “I could leave 500 Euros on that table and walk away without it. In normal life, I’m a bit up in the clouds,” she says.
But she is deadly serious in her profession, following instructions from her long-time coach Paolo Slongo to the letter. “If I have to do three hours of training, I do three hours and zero or three hours and ten, never two 59.”
Slongo, who also trains Vincenzo Nibali, has had a big impact on her. “He gave me training that gradually brought me to this level. In 2011, I never had five-hour rides. He introduced that in 2012. And then some more specific work came just this year, because I’m still young, growing and developing.”
What would Longo Borgini love to win in the future? She has her eye on the Flèche Wallonne and the 2016 Olympic road race in Rio, which appears to suit her. If it comes down to following her instincts again, her rivals should be worried.