From her very first answer, it’s clear that Elisa Balsamo is not just an exceptional world champion, but an extraordinary professional cyclist.
“I’m studying modern and contemporary literature, with history, history of art, linguistics and philology alongside that too,” she says. “I often find myself doing my work in the team car or on the plane.”
Only four exams away from getting her degree at the University of Turin, this avid reader of historical novels had her books with her at the recent Women’s Tour: “It’s a bit difficult studying during stage races, I don’t manage to do much, only a bit of reading every now and then.”
A diploma in the offing and a rainbow jersey in the suitcase; it’s been quite a month for the 23-year-old. In late September, she outsprinted Marianne Vos in the Belgian city of Leuven to win the World Championships. How has life changed since? “I’ve done a lot of interviews and a lot of people have taken an interest in me,” she says. However, I haven’t changed — I’m still the same, humble person. Though I recognise that everyone wants photographs or cheers me when the bunch goes by, and that makes me happy.”
The Worlds was “personal revenge” for Balsamo, the biggest victory of her career coming six weeks after its most difficult moment. She emerged from the Tokyo Olympic Games devastated. Having spent most of the season preparing, crashes in the omnium scratch race and the Madison destroyed her medal ambitions.
The tears dried and her focus quickly turned to the World Championships in Belgium. “I went there hoping to bring a medal home. But I never thought I’d win it. That was a surprise for me too,” Balsamo says.
The well-drilled squadra azzurra was the key to their victory. Elisa Longo Borghini and Marta Bastianelli could mark attacks, while Balsamo herself stayed focused near the front, waiting for a truncated bunch sprint: “Every team-mate worked for me all race long, the lead-out was spot-on, they were amazing. Without them, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
Her powerful sprint to victory appreciates even more in quality when you see that she pipped Marianne Vos to the line. “She was an idol of mine when I was younger and she still is now. She’s an example to me because she’s won everything and she’s so strong. To beat her makes the jersey even more special,” Balsamo says.
Following her win, Balsamo’s phone blew up with hundreds of messages of congratulations. In the days afterwards, she responded – to every single one. That’s the mark of a champion off the bike too.
Born in February 1998, Balsamo grew up in the north-western Italian city of Cuneo, at the foot of the Alps. Before focusing fully on two wheels, this Renaissance woman spent her adolescence both on the nearby ski slopes and as a dedicated pianist. “Chopin is my favourite composer. When I stop racing, I’d like to go back to playing the piano because I really love it,” she says.
Balsamo insists she couldn’t play it if asked now because she’s out of habit. “Maybe something easy, but nothing more than that as the piano needs a lot of practice time. It’s a bit like cycling – three or four hours a day at least.”
Balsamo at Paris-Roubaix (Photo credit: CorVos/SWpix.com)
As talented as she was tinkling the ivories after eight years at piano academy, Balsamo is even better on a bike. Throughout her career, she has combined a rapid sprint with an ability to hang with the contenders in the punchy hills. That make-up means she is a regular top-10 finisher in WorldTour events, though rarely on the top step of the podium. Before her rainbow jersey in Leuven, she had only won one event this season, the small GP Oetingen race in March.
Since turning pro in 2017, she has raced for the purple-clad Valcar team, sponsored by a local metal milling and turning company. The squad has been like a second family to her, with manager Davide Arzeni ensuring she didn’t skip steps in her development. You only had to see the reaction from team-mates to Balsamo’s valedictory victory at the Women’s Tour to sense their togetherness. Whenever this small-budget squad triumphs, it’s against the odds.
Striving for perfection
On and off the bike, Balsamo describes herself as a perfectionist, almost never happy with her performance. That attitude will drive her towards her future ambitions: “That Worlds in Belgium was a Classic effectively, so I realised that I can do well in the spring races. It’s a dream to win a Classic.”
She moves to Trek-Segafredo for the 2022 season, joining the likes of Lizzie Deignan, fellow world champion Ellen van Dijk and Elisa Longo Borghini. “I like the team a lot, they’re very organised and they care for a rider’s every need,” she says. “And I’m only 23, so there’s a lot to learn from these champions who have so much experience, I know they can teach me a lot.”
That makes it sound as if there’s still margin for improvement. “I hope so. I’m sure of it,” she says. A scary thought for rivals, perhaps.
Photo: Peter Stuart/ Rouleur
My last question sees the pleasant and polite Balsamo at her most effusive. What one thing would she change in women’s cycling? “It’s hard to just pick one. I think in recent years, there have been many positive changes and I hope things keep going in the right direction. Squads are a lot more structured now and organisers are putting on many men’s and women’s races, like Paris-Roubaix. I hope that all the calendar’s big events have women’s races.”
“And I hope that journalists and the media give us more coverage. Because unfortunately, if it’s not live on TV, the fans can’t see women’s cycling. But our sport is so beautiful. Or when it comes to newspapers and magazines, many had a photo of [Filippo] Ganna on the cover [recently], not me. So I hope these things change, I think it’s important.”
The women’s sport is facing a changing of the guard as Dutch dominators like Anna van der Breggen, Marianne Vos and Annemiek van Vleuten either retire or enter the twilight of their careers. We should get very used to seeing extraordinary Elisa leading the way in the coming seasons. There are a lot more chapters to be written in this book lover’s story.