“You’re the world champion, you need to talk,” Trek-Segafredo’s Elisa Longo Borghini says to her teammate, Elisa Balsamo. The younger rider responds with an embarrassed smile, almost as if she’s used to being playfully rebuked by her more experienced colleagues. Balsamo is the world champion but she doesn’t behave as if she thinks she is the best cyclist in the world.
At the Tour of Flanders this weekend she enters as a hot favourite following her recent three consecutive women’s WorldTour wins: Trofeo Binda, Classic Brugge-De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem. Yet watching her shy smile as she answers questions about her chances, it’s almost as if she doesn't quite believe it herself.
It’s no surprise, really, that Balsamo is still coming to terms with her newfound fame. Last year, she rode for the small UCI Continental team Valcar Travel and Service. Before her win at the World Championships in Flanders, Balsamo had taken one victory so far in 2021 in a UCI 1.2 registered race, GP Oetingen. At the Worlds, few expected the 24-year-old Italian to outsprint Marianne Vos on the run-in to Leuven. Balsamo herself was shocked, too. “I never thought I’d win it,” she told Rouleur in an interview after the race.
Seven months later, Balsamo is back racing in the country where she dramatically changed the trajectory of her career. The location might be the same, Balsamo appears a completely different rider now than she did last season. With her new team, Trek Segafredo, the Italian has been almost unbeatable so far this year.
“You know that if you drop her off with 170 metres to go, she wins the race,” says Elisa Longo Borghini. Balsamo has been unmatched in sprint finishes, but can also perform in races with tough parcours.
It’s thanks to these performances that Balsamo is becoming a household name among fans. She features heavily in pre-race speculation about who may take victory in De Ronde this year. Rival teams are frantically trying to work out how to beat her, how to make the race hard enough so that the world champion will get dropped on the steep climbs earlier in the race. But Balsamo displays a modesty which indicates that she doesn’t fully understand the gravity of who she has become in the women’s peloton.
“It's just an honour that such super big champions like Elisa or Ellen [van Dijk] are working so hard for me,” she says. “My teammates do the hardest and most important parts of the race and then I just try to sprint.”
On Sunday, however, the Italian’s biggest obstacle will be making it to the finish line in a group which is still in contention for the victory. Balsamo will have to follow the likes of Annemiek van Vleuten and Demi Vollering over the steep cobbled climbs. With the inclusion of the Koppenberg for the first time in the women’s race, there’s even more elevation for the 24-year-old sprinter to contend with.
“I think that a lot of teams really want to make the race full gas because they don't want a sprint. I'm going to fight and try to survive on the last hills,” she says.
When a rider takes as many victories as Balsamo has recently, it can sometimes lead to a general hope that the winning streak will come to an end, that we’ll see a different rider raise their arms over the finish line in Oudenaarde. But Balsamo’s modesty and relatability, as she still appears to be unaware of her stature in the peloton, means that many will continue to root for the young Italian on Sunday.
She explains that her parents have come to Belgium to watch her, and her eyes light up as she mentions this: “My parents are here and they were here last weekend, it's amazing winning with them here. When I was a child, they gave me the love for the bike and so they love cycling. It's always beautiful, winning with my parents and with those you love watching, they supported me every day since I was a child.”
It’s clear that while Balsamo has the competitive nature and dedication required of an elite athlete, she simply is soaking up the experience of being a world champion. Win or lose in Flanders on Sunday, this is a rider that is incredibly proud to race in the rainbow bands. “I really want to enjoy this jersey from the first day to the last day I wear it,” she smiles. “In the race, I’ll just try my best.”
Cover image: Flanders Classics